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?
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.