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: Taste on Hooves

It’s Thanksgiving Day with lots of family and food to enjoy, so here’s a short and sweet post about one of the most unusual tiles on the Five Senses Bench at Cabrillo College. Its source is an old drawing of a Native American horseback rider just about to shoot a wide-eyed and galloping buffalo with a fully drawn bow and arrow.

AB was a young man of tentative speech and Deep Thoughts and he went ‘way outside the box for a tile which is down low on the Taste area.

I have more questions about this tile than answers, but I am still glad it is there, evoking a separate reality in a sea of candy corn, pizza and gummi fish.

Did he mean to suggest a taste for blood?
Was he referencing food for pure survival instead of entertainment?
Did he want us to think of a more direct way to hunt and gather our sustenance?
Is he offering any chastisement of modern food gathering, especially of our meat?
Is this a nostalgic historical scenario?
Is there any political/cultural commentary here?
Did he just want a narrative verb-like tile instead of a static noun-like one?

I don’t know! I never got an opportunity to ask him because after he made the tile he dropped out – but not before he sweetly asked me to promise to finish the tile’s glazing and attaching.

Even though he still comes and goes on campus, I would never be so bold as to put him on the spot with all my unanswered questions. I would have to be very oblique and casual, and since so many years have gone by, he may not even remember what he intended.

Do you have other questions? Do you have some answers? I personally love the mysteriousness here and the fact that I don’t get it is just fine. Back to family and feast!

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Thursday’s Tile: Help, There’s an Octopus on My Knee!

The octopus is a highly intelligent eight-armed bag, capable of taking just about any shape it needs to. What a great choice it was for the rounded corner of the Five Senses Bench in the Touch area. I call these four places the “knees” of the bench and if you go to the FSB link you will be able to see this octo-tile on the closest corner in the whole-bench shot. Oh, and you can read the backstory too, if this is your first time encounter with it.

The woman who made this tile, NB, was quite a meticulous artist who was also studying for her single subject teaching credential in Art. (Which she later accomplished.) Of the time she spent at Cabrillo Ceramics, she made wonderful pieces, very realistic in both form and decoration. Lots of animals: cougars and giraffes, dogs and deer, all expertly executed.

She originally modeled this octo-tile in one curving piece, but clay has an interesting memory for how it has been handled, and when it necessarily shrinks – first in the initial drying and then later in the heat of the kiln – it can very easily curve more or crack apart, or both. Her damp one-piece tile fit so artfully in place, and, even allowing for shrinkage, it was nearly a certain-sure thing that it would NOT fit after a 2000+ degree firing. Too big, too oddly shaped, too site-specific.

What to do? The obvious: cut it apart thoughtfully and intentionally into true mosaic pieces which would give it the ease to round that knee curve. Let them warp and crack! We would still be able to make adjustments in how we attached the pieces in order to make it all fit in the area mapped out for it.

NB balked some because her vision was to have that tile be mind-blowingly whole. How much was she willing to risk the outcome in order to show off that skill? Did she have the time or resolve to re-make it if she failed? Or did she want the greater assurance of a successfully finished piece the first go?

There was some hand-wringing involved, such was her personal creative process, but you can see her choice, fitting like an orange suction cup around that knee, right next to the TOUCH label. This octopus is loud and proud, not hiding in the least bit, still showing off.

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Thursday’s Tile: A Small But Symbolic Effort

This week’s tile remains a permanent testament to the era of its making. It’s located on the vertical back right of the Taste area of the Five Senses Bench, next to the long tongue licking the fire, which is another interesting story to be told another time.

Do you remember “Freedom Fries” from early 2003? When our ally France refused to support US intentions to invade Iraq, the elected legislators in charge of the US House of Representatives restaurants, cafeterias and snack bars, following the lead of some uber-patriotic restaurant owners, renamed French Fries and French Toast on all the House menus, removing the word French and substituting Freedom.

Oh la la, that must have stung those recalcitrant Frenchies and made them reconsider! Nothing like petty playground bickering to foster important international alliances and aid in war-mongering. Those were the times, though, lest we forget.

I remember some TV and online news squawkings about it, and on SNL’s Weekend Update Tina Fey reported, “In a related story, in France, American Cheese is now referred to as “Idiot Cheese.” Indeed.

You can read all you never knew about Freedom Fries in this fascinating Wikipedia entry. I especially enjoyed learning that the renaming was (quietly) reversed in 2006. Oh, and the Historical Parallels are enlightening: Apparently, if we human tribes refuse to name something, then it doesn’t exist, or at least we give it no additional energy, just like in Harry Potter.

But, let’s get back to this super-sized clutch of turmeric-colored beauties in their tricolor container. The Bench had its guardians, folks who took a special interest in its progress, and GN was one of them. He was in on many spontaneous brainstorming sessions, proudly explained all about it to passersby, yet never seemed too keen on actually decorating a tile of his own. I goaded him! When he finally came up with this personal French twist, he was chuckling and whistling the whole time he worked.

There are other versions of fries on the Bench, but these were the first and they reflect the artist in an oddly subtle yet garish way. He declared freedom from Freedom, made the fries and their container French again, and his “small but symbolic effort” (which is the exact phrase those menu legislators used) provides an everlasting foil to the follies of governments and their battles.

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