Art in the Hellstrip

Ceramic Rock Cairn with Sun Hat


 The Set-up: I live and maintain my studio in an impossibly old (1933) cottage facing what has, over the decades, become a main artery street in the charming beach village of Capitola, CA. I see lots of dogwalkers, strollers, bicyclists, joggers, skateboarders. Middleschool kids. Motorcycle groups.  Lots of semi-lost out-of-townies. (How do you give directions to a lovely German-only-speaking gentleman and explain there are two separate Grace Streets and he’s on the other side of the creek from both of them? Give him a highlighted AAA map. Remember those?)

We endure a panoply of perennial foot and wheeled traffic clogs related to: school/church/concerts/festivals/races/Junior Guards/Surfing Santas/car shows/construction and nearby freeway tangles. Our place, built in a time of modest one-story homes on larger chunks of land, sits way back on a deep and angled lot, buffered by a front wildlands of Redwoods, Sword Ferns, Nasturtiums and Japanese Maples. And also by my growing ceramic sculpture garden! It’s cozy and generally feels far from the madding crowd. Yet the border between us and them is a porous one. Cue the ominous music.

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Thursday’s Tile: Public Art Out in Public

As we wind down to this last intended Thursday’s Tile post, we will get to enjoy some shots of the Five Senses Bench in use in the setting of the still-new Art Complex quad area of Cabrillo College.

It is safe to say that very few of the students presently attending know the history of this artwork, because it took eight semesters to be completed and five before it was installed. Instead, they are free to enjoy it for exactly what it presents itself as: a groovy, arty stopping place, especially on a sunny spring day. They are now writing the continuing history of the Bench.

The young man above, for example, was lost in his music and gazing at what’s called The Art Glen, a wild bowl of cypress trees and large bushes, likely dating from the days of the Sesnon family’s summer home.

I wish I had photos of the environmental dance troupe which used the bench as a prop at last October’s Cabrillo College 50th Anniversary Open House. They posed and leaped and shimmied all over it. Not likely to happen again soon, at least in such a trained way.

Another missed photo op was when the nearby preschool took a field trip to the Bench. Those tykes were crawling, exclaiming and pointing to everything they recognized, and being directed to new imagery by their teachers. (Wonder if they did see the pile of poo at preschooler eye-level in the Smell area?)

All this is what should happen to public art. It is looked at, used, commented on, photographed, adapted and experienced. It can also be graffiti-ed, “harvested” or in other ways defiled, although artworks are generally left alone, and ceramic tile is pretty bulletproof. (My dad said the life-sized statue of a Confederate soldier that stands in the town square of his tiny southern Alabama hamlet usually had a cigarette inserted in his mouth. When I was mentioning this to my mom, she said the statue of The Thinker at her Wisconsin high school did too. This bench has its own cigarette already, though…Whew.)

Instead of mooning over unique lost shots, here’s another more familiar sight: an elegantly perched reader, carried away by her book.

Plenty of times, too, the bench is a meeting place. It is sited in a crossroads location, yet off the traffic pathways, making it easy to locate and yet still have a relatively un-jostled private conversation, like I found these two friends below having. It just might be a defensible space. You can see how much room is around it.

It feels safe enough to stretch out and nap on, as in this completely impromptu shot below. With two distinct sides, sharing a common back and one connecting end, who knew it is also a horizontal love seat? And it’s up off that damp grass. (Although watch out if has rained recently, the back of each curvy seat does not drain!)

The loungers were not even disturbed when I asked a student I had not seen in many a day, LM, to point to the red onions and head of garlic tile he made for the Taste area. This thing will outlast us all, and every semester we told potential tile-makers they could bring their great-grandchildren to see it. LM must have really listened because he’s back sooner than that.

There’s no telling how many tiles are attached to this baby elephant. Thousands upon thousands, is my guess. But I can tell you accurately the twenty-six posts of Thursday’s Tile stack up like this: Hearing: 2, Sight: 2, Smell: 3, Touch: 5, Taste: 7, and General: 7, including this one.

And I can count one tile maker who stands out among the many hundreds, just because she worked long and hard all over this behemoth. From the “upholstery” pattern bottom edge, to the title tiles in each area, to design advice, to grouting the thing, she was there. You know her as the enthusiastic, opinionated, unsung “DP.” And there she is “standing out” right below.

When I was with DP last week taking this photo of her, she casually but earnestly said something like, “This bench needs some more things around it. It’s too bare over here.” The original plan did call for three pieces, two flatter table or hassock shapes beside the bench, but the bench proved enormously enough. At least until now.

DP drew in the dirt next to the Bench with her foot, outlining a shape, and her hands described an approximate silhouette. She talked of its construction and of it having both larger and planned-out tiles. She said she and her art partner would build the frame. She said it could be finished in place, right there in situ. She said there also needed to be a “carpet” of horizontal stepping stones around it all. She said.

I listened. I got kinda excited. I said OK!

We have plans…and as soon as they begin to actualize, I will be back, blogging about that whole process. In the meantime, I have a tiny vacation lined out. Thanks for reading Thursday’s Tile and the rest of Soul Ceramics.

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Thursday’s Tile: A Matter of Taste

Here at soon-to-end Thursday’s Tile, we’re exploring the world of sensation tile by tile as depicted on the Five Senses Bench. You can see the whole bench in person installed in the new Visual and Performing Arts complex at Cabrillo College in Aptos, CA. Please do if you’re in the area!

Today we have a tasty photo essay of tiles from the Taste Area.

Let’s start with that graphic tile up above about things gone wrong: as in, taste so bad the spoon is refused, reversed and sticking out of the down-turned mouth by the handle. How odd.

Our tongue has taste buds that sense sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory (or umami.) And apparently they have just discovered another — my favorite — fat! But whether we enjoy these flavors or not has to do more with smell. (And I do tip my hat to the fact that actual eating enjoyment might include texture and temperature, etc.)

We’ve talked about a few possibly reviling Tastes in past posts: the grubs, raw meat and blood lust of the hunt come to mind. The following two tiles enjoy a wide range of gustatory opinion: Sardines and Okra.

I personally enjoy these two sometimes. Fresh sardines are wonderful, and stir-fried, heat-seared okra is not slimy. It might be a matter of preparation and the fine micro-flavors that professional tasters of every kind are sensitive to. I know those nuances exist because ground coffee smells like tuna to me. Same esters or something.

Now fried eggs have a gag-me factor –it’s that runny yoke more than the flavor — but the two in this tile are SO beautifully done and are a perfect example of one artist influencing another. The eggs were already completed and attached when, a semester or two later, along comes the next artist who felt some bacon was needed. She even fashioned the bacon to fit a very tight and specific triangular space. When one tile is purposely placed next to another to create narrative articulation, the whole truly becomes greater than its parts.

Here are the label tiles for Taste, made by the thoroughly into it all and unsung, DP.

Notice the surround of beet, watermelon, avocado, candy corn and snickerdoodle cookie on the bottom right!

The Taste Area is nearly as big a Hearing, Smell and Touch put together, but it was the hands-down easiest to make tiles for. I would merely have to say to all those classes made primarily of young adults, “What are you hungry for? Make that!” and it happened. One semester all four classes worked on Taste tiles only, that side of the bench was SO expansive.

Here’s another melange of melt-in-your-mouth goodies, a complex passage found on the left front curve.

Find these: gummi fish, chocolate kisses, olives, black-eyed peas, more candy corn, pink marshmallow peeps, mushrooms, wrapped candies, a tea bag and Cheetos. Oh, and what about that asparagus and cantaloupe and french bread?

Contrarians abound, and one of them thought a Don’t Eat sign on a bench full of food was funny. And it is.

So quit dripping your snack on your keyboard and come along now as we move to our last Taste tile. It references both a comestible and artistic taste: the Campbell’s Soup Can(s) made more famous as art than food by the infamous Andy Warhol.

We have an example of (biased) Bad Taste…at least as greeted in 1962. It is truly from an era that ushered in a new sensibility and many were just not ready for it. But Warhol persisted (and how) and here we have one absolute icon of Pop Art, which might seem derivative and even a bit pedestrian today. Tastes change! But we knew that.

So this is a wrap on the photo essays for each sense area of the bench. If you started with this one, but are curious about the other four, click on Hearing, Smell, Touch or Sight.

Next week, to conclude Thursday’s Tile: what happens to public art in use, an up close examination and summation.

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Thursday’s Tile: A Grotesque of the Sensorial

Here’s an odd little blue guy–seems more like a guy than a gal, right, even though he is Ken-doll smooth? You can locate him on the fourth corner/knee area of the Five Senses Bench, between Hearing and Smell.

Some of you may recognize the odd little blue guy as a sensorimotor homunculus, a representation of how our cerebral cortex perceives information from our physical body, only partially based on the number of nerve endings and capillaries that are present.

The science around this is fascinating because it delves into the nature of consciousness. If you take a thoughtful moment to gaze at even this simple of a representation, it is a tiny leap to realize just how literally Hand-to-Mouth our existence is! Are we really very much different from lobsters?

There are other alchemical, philosophical and even psychological versions of homunculi (the plural!) and they seem to hold the idea of the person within the person, the man in a lab beaker, the boy in the bubble. What wholeness lies within? I’ll let you explore those threads on your own. For now, let’s just keep it to this particular physical representation and its place on a Five Senses Bench public art project.

We haven’t really talked about the public art part of this project, but even in the beginning the idea was to place this bench somewhere on Cabrillo’s campus, and it was understood that it would be visually acceptable to nearly all viewers. You know: no gratuitous violence, gang symbols, pornography. That was playfully easy.

When the bench was still under construction, I had a teacher from a nearby school, who was scouting a field trip for her Kindergarteners, ask me to cover up a few tiles: the knife, the small pile of poo, the mermaid’s boobies, etc.  I obliged her by taping over them for their visit, but I felt compromised and lousy about it and vowed never to do that again. The bench was not being installed on a kiddie playground, but a college campus!  Let’s keep it acceptable to adults in a semi-public place and never, never, never censor it again!

If you want the most up-to-date, scientifically accurate representation of a sensational homunculus, though, it must include the genitals, thusly:

Oh, my! That changes things! Attention teachers at nearby elementary schools: be glad we did not have this as a model for the odd little blue guy! But really, that bench image, along with all the others, is meant for entertainment and pleasant discussion, not a neurological lesson, and it does that just fine without scientific replication, as do most other depictions of a sensorimotor homunculus out there.

Curiously, though, the homunculus is always male. Would a female be differently proportioned or would the differences just be in the genitals? What would a dog’s version look like? An eagle’s? A lobster’s? Someday we might know this.

As it turns out, the odd little blue guy is a fantastic conversation starter about our physical abilities to perceive the world around us, including what we can touch and see, smell, hear and taste sitting on a mosaic bench while we eat our lunch in the sun and light seabreeze.

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