Back in 2008, I spent nine months hand sewing, word-for-word, on 2 X 2 inch white cotton squares, a short story I’d written a few years before. The words/squares were disconnected; I imagined that someone might come along, take up the loose pile I’d created, mix it all around, and end up with a different story. It was exciting and unnerving to think about. What would this other person come up with? Would there be any echoes and associations from my original thoughts?
Artist Joe Brubaker, who is also a long-time arts educator, does the same thing with stuff. Lots of it. Mind boggling piles of everything including metal wheel frames, wooden fence posts, industrial-sized springs, possum skeletons, radios broken and hollowed out, pulleys, pipe fittings, a yellow toy bus, antlers bleached white, ivory keys yanked out of an upright piano, a brass cow ornament from a weather vane, saws, a wok, a blue wrench, industrial light sconces, chains as thick as your wrist, and long, tangled ponytails of sea debris that harbor even more stuff.
Brubaker’s newest pile of stuff, his “Exquisite Garden” installation, is up at The Museum of Craft and Design in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. He’s been setting up these spontaneous outgrowths of imagination since 2009 (http://exquisitegardenproject.com). That’s when he relinquished part of the gallery space he had for his more traditional work so he and a group of fellow artists could create something “transformative” from everyday and found objects. Brubaker’s assistants are now what he calls “Exquisite Gardeners,” a mostly core group of 17 artists/pickers/craftspeople/laborers. Some of those folks spent six days before the MCD opening moving piles of stuff here and there, trying to see what might emerge from all their collective effort. Holden Crane, a sculptor on Brubaker’s crew, told me that he felt freer during these installations then he sometimes felt in his own studio, where his expectations for an outcome can be high. “But here, we know it’s all impermanent and that allows us to release into the space—it’s just about the doing.” Brubaker, as the ring-master of the space, says that the work for him is both joyful and terrifying, “a nerve-wracking high wire act. After all, what if it doesn’t work?”
For me, the installation does work. Especially one of the wooden trees. Instead of roots, the tree has an overflowing heap of springs and wires and pulleys at its base—a nice metaphor for all the things that both weigh us down and keep us grounded. The hodge-podge doesn’t suggest any real visual pattern or cohesion, but even in the chaos, it all feels as though it belongs right where it is. Part of this is the unifying quality of the rusted patina on so many of the pieces. But it also says something about Brubaker’s editorial eye, his ability to frame what he calls “3D poems,” even among the chaos. There’s also a 15 X 15 foot bird’s nest that rests tentatively at the back of the gallery that is amazing to see. The nest is simultaneously still and moving. And you have to look carefully to see the gold chair positioned at the back of the nest’s vortex of laced and swirling wooden slats, which are a beautiful and uncomfortable metaphor for life’s wild, unpredictable intersections.
About 50% of the material that goes into these gardens is Brubaker’s, according to Crane. The rest comes from people like Jeff Hvid, a mycologist and birder who’s been harvesting Marin beaches for 30 years to amass his gnarled plastic contribution to Brubaker’s collection, colorful clumps of which now hang from the MCD ceiling. Other people contribute material throughout the year—the possum skeleton, for instance, nestled in an old radio, which I had to crouch down low to see. Most of this is kept in Brubaker’s storage containers north of San Francisco until it’s needed and pulled out so the group can go to work again.
Which is what made me think of my sewn story. The idea of the Exquisite Gardens is not to start from scratch, but to start with a known vocabulary (whether that’s a recurring object, such as trees and nests, or a certain type of material that is used over and over), and then to see what new variation can be discovered on these themes. What Brubaker wants himself and his crew to do—and us—is to look more carefully at things we think we know but probably no longer really see. Then he wants us to ask, “What would I do with that?” And that process of seeing, of looking deeply into all that stuff, followed by the unexpected and creative associations and solutions Brubaker says we are all capable of coming up with when we do really see is more important than having a set outcome. If we’re in the moment, the outcome, or the garden, will eventually appear.
I cringed a little just now using the word “process,” for fear of sounding New Agey, I suppose, but also because I, with my swirling, slightly obsessive mind, am aware of how easy it can be to get stuck there. And I don’t think I’m alone. Process is messy, it’s ongoing, it’s the unresolved lead up to resolution, which is all that most of us really want. But resolution takes time and patience—another quality Brubaker is trying to slip into his creative mix—a quality that is harder to come by nowadays, especially when a dozen different tasks always seem to be yowling for our attention.
That white noise is just what we have to overcome according to a great article by Daniel Levitin in the New York Times recently (“Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain”). It’s as if he’s channeling Brubaker when he says “increasing creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods…” He also advocates daydreaming, or what Brubaker might call “adult play,” a state that Levitin says leads to “creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment.”
But first comes the watching and the waiting. It’s one of the hardest periods an artist (or anyone) goes through, a time when nothing much feels as though it’s happening but when we still need to be attentive—perhaps more than ever—without being too quick to resolve an idea or a feeling.
Before I went to Brubaker’s show, I wandered around Dogpatch. The neighborhood is going through a transition, old warehouses and dive bars now side-by-side with artisan bakeries and high-end bike shops. Crumbling remnants of Pier 70 are just three blocks away from the MCD. Still, it felt dicey going back among all those boarded-up brick and stone buildings with the windows cracked and the “Do Not Enter” signs all around. What was I expecting to find anyway? I could hear the sound of heavy machinery so I went in that direction. In the dark hull of a mostly empty building a forklift operator crisscrossed the cement floor. On the bed of the operator’s lift was a pile of enormous chains, so large they looked as though they’d come from some old ship. I stood there watching the chains, which dribbled over the edge of the forklift like spaghetti, feeling something I couldn’t explain. Then I caught myself, turned around, and headed toward the museum. After all, I thought, what could I do with a big pile of abandoned chains?
I'm calling this piece "The Tree of Life." Looked at from certain angles, it evokes individual dancers entwined in one mass. The elements are moving toward one another and writhing to escape.
Maya Angelou once said that nothing that man makes can be alien to man. She was talking about our fear of things considered unnatural, all the Others we push away and to the edge of society or accept only with grudging skepticism. Technology is one of our reigning Boogeymen, even as we become more and more dependent. I ricochet between wanting to keep the beeping and the screen time spent hunched over one metallic device or another to the fewest possible hours, and feeling as if cell phones, tablets, computers—the entire electronic maelstrom—may be the way that so many of us will realize ideas and dreams to an extent we can't even imagine right now, and never would have otherwise. Wearable computers and nanobots and athletic tracking devices are already piggybacking outside and inside our bodies; myoelectric prosthese
How Was It Made?
Each of these seed pods takes about an hour to make. The thousands of ceramic capacitors and radial varistors I use need to have the long, insecty metal "legs" clipped off. Different sized putty balls are formed. And then I press the computer parts into the balls. After the finished seed pods dry, I fasten them to the wood with glue and nails. I did a quick count and I've used about 200 seed pods for just this piece. Which means 200 hours, not counting the time to attach the pods or to first track down the wood. Oh, and freezer time: 3 days. It's amazing how something takes on a life of its own.
I've added two large grape-vine trunks and several small branches to the tree sculpture I'm working on, the last in this series. This feels like the right fullness to me. Frankly, I'm glad I have any kind of tree at all.
About a month ago, I discovered borer beetles were feasting on the wood: the tiny holes in the wood and the piles of sawdust I woke up to each morning were the tip-off (see previous post). Every day, more holes and more sawdust. At the rate the beetles seemed to be indulging, my sculpture would soon be a useless sieve.
This series of artworks is about integrating nature, spirit, and technology, elements that we often assume don't cohabitate all that well. Technology, in my mind, was the material I was subduing: after all, aren't cell phones and computers and our increasingly mechanized world significant contributors to the anxiety so many people are feeling nowadays, and adding to our growing disconnection from each other? For the moment, though, it wasn't the computer parts—mostly ceramic clay varistors and capacitors—that were giving me problems, it was these beautiful pieces of organic wood and the pests they were hosting.
To keep the beetles from spreading, I sealed the wood in multiple layers of plastic using heavy packing tape. Orkin Exterminators makes house calls, so an inspector, Earl, came out to take a look. He liked what I'd done with the plastic. I poked a hole in it and Earl shook his head. For $1,800, he said, he could gas the buggers, which seemed out of the question to me. Then he shared an exterminator's secret: I could either put the wood in the oven for several hours, or in a freezer for two or three days. The idea of cooking the wood made me squeamish; plus, my oven was too small. The freezer above my refrigerator also wouldn't accommodate the biggest pieces of wood. But surely someone had a freezer that would work?
I put on a jacket and went outside. I talked to the man who owns the pizza parlor a block north of my apartment. He is a huge fan of art, and someone who has always seemed game to me. When I explained my problem, he laughed and said, "Sounds like you're hiding drugs." I assured him I wasn't, but he said he still couldn't help since all he had was an oversized refrigerator. I walked a half-block north, to the ice cream shop. There's always a crowd out front, and that day was no different. I stared at the shop's pristine white walls and immaculate tiled floor and the counter help all dressed in white shirts. I didn't even bother to go in. But across from the ice cream shop is a corner grocery where I've been shopping for 18 years. I've only known the current owner for five of those years, but maybe that would count for something. The owner told me he did have a room-sized walk-in freezer, accessible from outside. But he was concerned that a 20-pound block of ice might fall on the wood and then he'd be liable. I assured him that what I had was merely a work in progress all safely sealed in thick plastic—Orkin approved—basically junk wood worthless in its present form, so he agreed to let me store it in his freezer for three days.
After I got the wood back home, I unwrapped it and for days I circled the piece, watching and waiting. I'd read recently that a slab of ancient moss had suddenly begun growing again, and I wondered if the borer beetles could do something similar. I kept my vigil up for a week, but I saw and heard nothing. (When the beetles are eating, there is a distinct and constant clicking or rattling sound that they make. Some entomologist decided the sound was similar to the one humans often make when we're gasping for breath at the end of life, and so the beetles were nicknamed the deathwatch beetle.) This weekend, satisfied that the beetles were gone, I attached the extra pieces of wood to the base tree with dowels and glue. I stood back. I'd subdued something, which is what culture is, after all. And art grows out of culture. Then why wasn't I entirely pleased?
Step Three: Coming soon...
It's exciting and a bit anxiety inducing to start a new piece of art. The goal is always to push beyond the parameters of the last piece, but not to fall off the edge.
My goal in this series has been to create works that harmonize elements that we don't typically think of as fitting easily or comfortably together: natural/organic elements, spiritual or cosmic aspects + technology. What I've accomplished so far is up in the portfolio section of my website (www.daleeastman.com).
With this piece, I wanted to push myself to create something larger than the previous pieces. Could I suggest the vastness and beauty of a forest (nature) as well as its wildness and mystery (spirit) and still incorporate technological elements? When completed, I want a viewer to be able to look at this piece and initially see harmony/unity, and only later realize that the different parts exist in precarious symbiosis.
Step 1: Using several branches of grape vine wood, dowling plugs and industrial strength glue, I've begun to build a stand of trees. I had to fit them together like a vertical puzzle, while also making sure they were balanced in a way that they won't tip over once I affix the canopy. The wood came from a garden center out near the coast. Without a car, I had to schlep out and back by train, carrying the wood in my arms, a juggling act that left me scraped up and pretty dirty. Several times I was asked, "What's that?" After my explanation, I got similar replies: "Wow, cool," or "Gosh, how interesting." The individual pieces of wood look a bit like misshapen swords, an implement that's mysterious or magical looking and maybe even a little dangerous in the wrong hands. At least half a dozen people stopped and asked me about the wood. They were all either young boys or women my own age.
Step 2: Next up....
One of Kako Ueda's intricate paper cuts is up at the Museum of Craft and Design in SF. Ueda is fascinated by the constantly shifting boundaries between nature and culture, as well as the way those two states influence/support each other, and her work can often look as if it's one careless X-acto knife slice away from collapsing back into the void. The 50" X 50" piece in this show, Memento Mori, looms over the exhibition's entrance. This might have been a misstep on the curator's part. The piece is so intensely detailed, it works like a narcotic pulling you deeper and deeper in. Even studying it for 15 minutes didn't seem like enough time to me. By then, though, I was in other people's way and a little exhausted so I moved on. The rest of the show, "Obsessive Reductive" (up through March 30), is wonderful. Sadly, I gave the remaining artists' work shorter shrift. But maybe, I reasoned, this was the only piece I needed to see closely. What's that saying: an entire world in a grain of sand.
At some level, everything feels connected to me. This blog is about discovering those linkages as well as other artists and writers working and thinking in similar ways.