Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Photographers, others find more and more creative uses for drones
Originally published July 10, 2015 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

This beautiful view of Lighthouse Point at sunset shot by Steve Mandel, has great color and shadow
 patterns. The Surfing Museum lighthouse can be photographed by a drone, but the coastline north
 of the lighthouse cannot. By law, drones cannot cross the mean high tide line over the Monterey Bay
 National Marine Sanctuary (about ¼ of California’s coast), with certain exceptions. (photo by Steve Mandel)
Mandel uses a sun-shaded high-definition monitor
—or occasionally goggles—to see what his drone
 camera is seeing and to frame his photographs.
 (photo by Tina Baine)
As a former photojournalist, I’m wondering if newspapers will ever be allowed to use drones to capture the scope of a rock concert, the drama of a high-speed police chase, or simply the beauty of the earth viewed from 400 feet in the air. If these camera-toting flying machines had been around back in the 90s, I might not have been denting the hood of my pick-up by standing on it, or routinely carrying a ladder in my truck bed or constantly searching for roof access in buildings—whatever it took to get a better perspective on things.  

But although photojournalists and other professionals have lobbied the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), they may not be allowed to use drones at work anytime soon, because privacy and safety concerns currently out-weigh the need for a perspective from a higher vantage point. The FAA has made the use of drones for commercial purposes illegal.

However, flying drones recreationally is okay, as long as it’s not endangering lives or in restricted airspace—and there’s quite a lot of that, including over National Parks or higher than 400 feet from ground level. This means you can buy a drone and photograph your own outdoor wedding (as long as it’s not in Yosemite or along most of West Cliff Drive), but you can’t hire a professional to do so. And despite one industry analyst’s prediction that consumers worldwide will spend about $720 million on drones in 2015, most of us will not see many photographs taken with drones unless we shoot them ourselves.

Which isn’t such a bad idea, because in the last few years, drones (also known as quadcopters or UAVs—unmanned aerial vehicles) are becoming increasingly more affordable, reliable and simpler to operate. And best of all, they can capture high-resolution, stable images that are quite extraordinary. Even subject matter you’ve seen a thousand times from ground level becomes entirely fresh and fascinating when viewed from above.

This Hoverbike Star Wars drone came assembled, but Mandel
modified it by completely changing the electronics.
  (photo by Steve’s wife, Carol Foote)
“They say it’s like putting a tripod up in the sky,” says local photographer Steve Mandel. “Friday night we went to some friends’ house in Saratoga for dinner—it was an outdoor barbecue—and I launched it and took a picture straight down.” The resulting photograph is proof that even the most commonplace subject matter can be transformed into something extraordinary by virtue of a “heightened” perspective.

An enthusiastic promoter of drones, Mandel also appreciates their potential for good. “They can do all kinds of things with these,” he says. “You can attach infrared cameras for search and rescue work. In Canada last year a guy got into an auto accident and he got a concussion and he wandered into the woods and the temperature was dropping rapidly and he would have probably died in the woods. And they sent up a drone with an infrared monitor and they spotted him and were able to rescue him.”

A Soquel resident and founder/president of Mandel Communications, Inc., Steve Mandel has also been an exceptional wildlife photographer and conservationist for many years. In 2008 he established the Lions of Gir Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the construction of barricades around open pit wells in India, to help save endangered Asiatic lions of the Gir Forest.

Now he uses drones to further his interest in wildlife protection. “I’m working with scientists and we’re looking at using drones to gather data on elephant seals,” he says. “And I’m going to be taking this one with me (pointing to one of many drones filling up his office workshop) to Antarctica at the end of this year and doing studies in Argentina and Antarctica and filming elephant seals. Their populations were decimated and now they’ve came back and they’re trying to study them and understand them and prevent any future catastrophes. I’ll also be filming southern right whales off the coast of Argentina when we go down there.”

When in flight, drones sound something like a swarm of bees, and wild animals react in different ways to the sound. ”I took a smaller drone with me last year when I went to Kenya,” Mandel says, where he stayed at a hotel called Giraffe Manor where giraffes roam the lawns. “I’ve wanted to stay there for 20 years. The owner flies a drone and they’re used to it so it doesn’t bother the giraffes. So they let me fly around there and take pictures. So that was really fun."

Steve Mandel took a small drone to Nairobi, Kenyan last year when he stayed at Giraffe Manor where giraffes roam the lawns. You can see Mandel on the ground, remotely shooting the photograph from his drone, which can hover like a helicopter. (photo by Steve Mandel)
But, “a lot of the wild animals are really afraid of them,” he says. “A problem they have in Kenya and Tanzania is that sometimes the elephants will roam into the fields and eat their crops.  And sometimes the farmers will attack and kill the elephants. So they’ve got a couple of places now where they’re trying to use drones to chase away the elephants.  Because elephants are afraid of very little, but they are afraid of swarms of bees.” 

Drone flying regulations vary country to country, says Mandel. “People have tried to fly drones over a lot of World Heritage Sites, but they’re banned. You can’t fly drones over the Mayan pyramids in Mexico. They don’t want you crashing a drone in certain areas. And when I fly in Antarctica I have to attach pontoons to the drone, because if I crash it in the water they don’t want plastic into Antarctic waters. They try to keep it pristine. So I’ve designed pontoons that I’ll strap onto the drone,” he says.

Make: magazine says that the most popular quadcopter for aerial photography and filming is a $679 DJI Phantom because it’s ready to fly (RTF) out of the box and designed to hold a GoPro video camera. They are also easily hackable. More budget-friendly options include building one from a kit or from scratch (see makezine.com/projects/the-handycopter-uav-2/ for a drone made with hardware store parts).

Steve Mandel photographed his friend’s DJI Inspire 1 Quadcopter over the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor with his own drone of the same type.  This model (priced at $2,899) has landing gear that raises up during flight to allow a full 360-degree unobstructed view for the camera attached at the base. (photo by Steve Mandel)
Because it takes some practice to fly well, Make: recommends starting with an inexpensive (less than $100) toy quadcopter without GPS or a camera, like Syma X1, Blade Nano QX. They fly using the same controls and the skills you learn will translate directly to larger aircraft.

Mandel learned to fly with inexpensive off-the-shelf models and kits. “I’d go out at lunch and I’d fly for ten minutes every day. So after a month of practice I learned how to fly it and I got the coordination,” he says. Later he bought components and built drones from scratch. “The mechanical parts—the little motors and everything—are pretty easy. It’s the electronics that are really difficult that you have to learn, because there are video signals that come down from them.”

Scientists and makers around the world are constantly coming up with exciting new uses for drones—from tracking poachers in Nepal, to delivering text books to students in Australia, to performing avant-garde dance moves in New York.

“It’s just kind of infinite what you can do now,” says Mandel. “People are finding all sorts of creative uses for them. It’s just like anything out there—people can do good with it or they can do evil with it. So there has to be regulation and people will do stupid things, so you have to keep an eye on them. But you know, they’re just really, really fun.”

Friday, June 26, 2015

The lawn is gone…now what?
Three ways to save water and still have a fun, 
versatile outdoor living space
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 5, 2015

Nancy and Mark Voogd stand beside the more hidden of their two triple-spiral labyrinths. The triple-spiral pattern has three round sections connected by one continuous course.
A coworker recently told me that, due to new watering restrictions in her city, her family was thinking about replacing their lawn with artificial turf. With a moderately sized yard in a suburban neighborhood, the professional estimate she got was $10,000 to replace the lawn with synthetic grass. (Really??) To give her a more affordable, and, in my opinion, more preferable option, I showed her a photo of our backyard, where, last fall, we traded lawn and sprinklers, for succulents and a drip system.

If you want to replace your lawn, but the alternatives sound too expensive, too challenging, or too activity-limiting, I’d like to present three relatively inexpensive DIY options that will reduce your water bill, while still providing a versatile, pleasing place to hang out on a Sunday afternoon.

The labyrinth
Creating a labyrinth is probably the simplest way to cover a large (or small) space with a minimal investment of time and materials. Labyrinths have ancient origins, and can be found all over the world. Although the term is often used to connote a confusing maze of pathways, the classic labyrinth is actually a large circle or square shape with a single course that twists and turns to lead you to the center and back out again.

I happened upon this labyrinth strewn with red rose petals while
 hiking the trail at Land’s End in San Francisco—a good example of a

unicursal seven-course "Classical" design. The rose petals had been
 added for a wedding portrait photo sessions later in the day.
A labyrinth can be created with various materials including rocks, flat stones, bricks, concrete, herbs, grasses or even raked leaves.  If you Google “backyard labyrinth,” you’ll see the huge variety of materials, patterns and shapes used, and it seems as if no two labyrinths are alike.

Nancy and Mark Voogd live on a forested acre in Bonny Doon and have created two, large, triple-spiral labyrinths on their property—a more private one behind their home and another near the road, easily accessible to walkers and neighbors. Nancy became obsessed with the triple-spiral pattern when she encountered one in a nearby yard. “I was walking the path and thought, ‘I want to be doing this every day.’ I was a quilting, singing, stay-at-home mom—meditation and all of this was not part of my world. But something about this labyrinth just grabbed me,” she says. Four days later she and Mark had built their first labyrinth.

Nancy visits her labyrinth daily, spending 15 minutes or more following or resting on its courses. “I’ve walked other patterns before, and they’re lovely, but there is something about this pattern and my brain. It’s pretty magical actually—I feel so much calmer and happier. It’s just a goofy pattern on the ground, but it’s had a profound effect on my life,” she says. “Sometimes, I’ve gone into it so angry, but I don’t come out angry. It’s hard to hold onto those stories I was angry about. It looks very innocuous, but it’s a powerful experience.”

Although the Voogds appreciate the symbolic and meditative possibilities of labyrinths, they also embrace the fun it can inspire. “I skip, I run, people have crawled. I feel more in my body and listening to whatever my body wants to do on this pattern than on other patterns. I don’t know why that is. It’s for laughing. It’s for playing.  I’ve tried to walk it backwards—that’s hysterical,” says Nancy. Children love it too. “For awhile we had a trampoline, but even with the trampoline the kids would come and run the labyrinth first, and then they would go play on the trampoline,” says Nancy.

The real bonus of landscaping with a labyrinth is its versatility—one can be created in just about any size or shape of available space, using materials you may already have on hand. Although the pathways are typically defined with rocks or paving stones, a labyrinth could also be constructed from found materials such as broken pottery, cut-up tires, pine needles, or landscape edging.

The wildlife sanctuary
My favorite backyard feature in Cathy Gamble’s
 Aptos backyard is her rusty hand-push lawn mower,
 which she retired after replacing her lawn with
 drought-tolerant landscaping three years ago.
The first thing I noticed at Cathy Gamble’s house in Aptos, were the two small signs posted on her the front of her home— “Native Plants Live Here” and “Certified Wildlife Habitat.” She says she’s not trying to brag. She just wants people to be aware of the possibility of creating a wildlife sanctuary in their own yard.

Her relatively small, mature yard was described to me as the picture of what a drought-tolerant garden should be, but I didn’t expect such lush, natural-looking beauty. Cathy says she has a drip system to get new plants established, but otherwise, rarely uses it. Instead, with a combination of California native and non-native drought-tolerant plants, she monitors the water needs of her plants by sight. “I look at the plants to see if they’re looking stressed,” she says,” and water only the ones that really need it.” On the ground, she surrounds her plants with a thick layer of gorilla hair mulch (made from shredded redwood) which prevents them from drying out, and she tries not to do too much manicuring. “I leave it wild to attract grown and feeders,” she says.

Cathy Gamble has three dry creek-beds that
 break-up the landscape, reduce the number
 of plants she needs to water, and also help
 divert rainwater to where it’s most needed.

To kill the lawn, she covered it with cardboard (without much ink) for two months. Then—with the help of two friends—she put landscape cloth over the cardboard to keep down the weeds, and planted California natives that know how to survive in our dry climate, and provide a year-round food source and cover for wildlife, such as California coffeeberry, ceanothus and Manzanita. During my short visit I saw squirrels and lots of birds (she’s counted 38 species of birds in her garden for Project FeederWatch) attracted by the food and protection offered by this small oasis.

Cathy has three dry creek-beds that break-up the landscape and also help divert rainwater to where it’s most needed. Most of her yard is surrounded by trees (rather than fences) to add privacy and cut down on the drying effects wind. My favorite backyard feature is her rusty hand-push lawn mower, which has been retired to a soft bed of mulch with a sign that reads “R.I.P.”

The patchwork quilt
When we let our lawn die last summer, I studied Pam Penick’s helpful book “Lawn Gone” for ideas about what to do next. In September, my husband began digging up the dead sod. At a workshop at Native Revival Nursery, I learned that we could leave the dead sod in place and use chunks of it to build mounds for our future landscape. I hired a landscaper who also works at Succulent Gardens in Castroville, and she drew out the plans for a raised island of succulents in the center, surrounded by a wide gravel pathway, and more succulents and ornamental grasses around the perimeter.

My patchwork quilt of colorful succulents has grown
 and flowered impressively since it was planted
 about six months ago. Succulents are naturally
 drought-resistant and look great all summer long.
We saved money by doing much of the heavy lifting ourselves—digging out tired plants, choosing new ones, and hauling fresh garden soil from the driveway to completely cover the dead sod and improve the soil. My landscaper converted the sprinklers to a drip system, which I use sparingly now that the plants are more established. Large succulents can be expensive, so we purchased mostly small ones, many of which have grown quickly enough to fill in the spaces. (Succulents can also be easily rooted from cuttings.) The wide gravel pathways reduced the number of plants we needed to purchase, and, in one corner of the yard, the path transitions into a small gravel patio.

The colors and variety of succulents reminds me of a patchwork quilt, and I couldn’t be happier with my new low-maintenance, low-water garden. I’m currently thinking about creating some pebble mosaic stepping stones to break-up the gravel. Stay tuned.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Big Fish
Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan, South Korea inspires community art in Aromas, California
Originally published May 1, 2015 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

Round my hometown
Ooh the people I've met
Are the wonders of my world       

The “Big Fish” was created by over 200 residents and friends of Aromas in the fall and winter
 of 2014-15. and installed in the Aromas Town Square Park on April 12, 2015.
There are many people I regard as unsung heroes in my home town. As hard-working members of unglamorous boards and committees, or just self-appointed organizers, they work tirelessly, with little or no compensation, to bring our community closer together. They create social gatherings, concerts, workshops, classes, festivals, talent nights, fund-raising events and food distribution centers. They plan soccer fields and buy Christmas gifts for those in need. They give us tasks to do, and forgive us when we let them down. They make us feel like we truly belong.

So what is this “sense of community” they are chasing and why is it so important? A recent article by Virginia Sole-Smith in Real Simple magazine makes the case that face-to-face connections are rapidly declining in favor of social networking and isolation. And the daily cycle of home-to-work-to-couch-to-bed keeps us unconnected, distrustful and even, unhealthy.

Sole-Smith shares some disheartening statistics:
  • The last quarter of the 20th century saw a drop of a 33 percent in the number of people who regularly invite friends over and a 58 percent drop in the number who join community clubs and actually attend meetings.
  • In the 1960s, half of Americans said they trusted other people, even strangers; less than a third say so today.
  • 25 percent of us lack a single close confidant (defined as someone with whom you can discuss “important matters”), while 50 percent of us are just one friend away from social isolation—and social isolation is a strong predictor of premature death.
Nested high in the hills of Busan, my family enjoys a delicious
 breakfast with a great view of the colorful homes and maze of
 alleyways in Gamcheon Culture Village. While the villagers had for
 decades painted their own homes in pastel hues, artists added
 dozens of colorful touches throughout the town, attaching
 nicknames such as “Korea’s Santorini” and “Lego Village.”
Most of our group-living now happens online, but Facebook can’t substitute for the safety and security that comes from living in a community where your neighbors watch out for you and know your kids’ names. Likewise, shopping online and in big-box stores has contributed to a loss of community interdependence. Big corporations like Amazon and Wal-Mart have replaced the merchants and crafts people who we might have gotten to know in local shops, and limited opportunities for running into friends and neighbors.

One family profiled by Sole-Smith, however, took a dramatic leap of faith and used Facebook to broaden their face-to-face associations. Feeling like they never saw their friends and neighbors between the demands of work and home, the family posted an open invitation on Facebook for Friday night spaghetti and meatball dinners at their home. Anyone was welcome at their table, and they kept the meal prep and housekeeping to a minimum. The priority was spending more time with their village. (Now the idea has gone global, and stories of its success are posted on FridayNightMeatballs.com, whose motto is “Building community, one dinner at a time.”) I’m truly astounded by the willingness and trust it takes to make this kind of continuing commitment in the name of community.

The big fish in Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan, South Korea, was created collaboratively by artists
 and many of its 10,000 residents as part of an art-themed make-over of the suburb in 2009-10 by the
 the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.  The 2009-10 project—originally named "Dreaming
 of Machu Picchu in Busan”—resulted in an adventure of discovery for visitors willing to wander
through the hillside labyrinth in search of art. Installations include trompe-l’oeil cut-outs, sculpture, mosaics,
 murals, and even rooms remodeled around a singular art concept, such as “peace” or “darkness.”
Last year, my husband discovered another great example of community-building on the other side of the globe. We flew to South Korea—the country our 20-year-old daughter has chosen to call home after a ten-month stay there as a Watsonville Rotary-sponsored exchange student in 2011-12. We visited several cities, but our favorite was Busan—a modern metropolis of 3.6 million at the southern-most tip of the Korean peninsula.

Gamcheon Culture Village after the Korean War.   
Gamcheon Culture Village today.

In addition to experiencing the beautiful beaches, glamorous department stores, fascinating fish markets, cat cafes, and sweet potato pizza, we also visited Gamcheon Culture Village – a residential community of colorful, box-shaped homes terraced on a steep hillside overlooking the southern coastline. In contrast to Busan’s glittering high-rises, Gamcheon Culture Village has retained its traditional look and identity, housing many of Busan’s less-affluent since the early 20th century. What makes it a tourist destination is the art-themed make-over it received in 2009-10, when the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in South Korea invited artists and art students to add murals, sculpture and art installations to the village.

Most impressive to me was the fact that much of the artwork was created collaboratively by artists and village residents. One of the best products of this teamwork was the painted wooden fish, posted along the narrow pathways to guide tourists through the hillside labyrinth of art and homes. These same small fish were also arranged on a tall retaining wall in the shape of a very large fish, creating a colorful backdrop for tourist selfies.

Aromas School fifth graders painted fish for the project.
In the history museum, a photograph showed the villagers seated at long tables, painting the fish together—an opportunity to meet neighbors and form new alliances as their village was in transition. (The village make-over also included establishing a community center, residents’ association, maintenance group, public relations office, village businesses, and music and arts workshops—making the tourist invasion a little more welcome.)

Before our trip to South Korea, one of the community-builders in my own hometown came to my arts group and proposed that we create an art installation for Aromas’s Town Square Park. We scratched our heads and worried about vandalism.

After my trip to South Korea, I showed photos of Gamcheon Culture Village and proposed that Aromas, as a community, could create a large fish mosaic of our own. With the guidance and commitment of a few dedicated volunteers, and the participation of about 200 community members and their friends, we were able to paint 350 fish over a five-month period and finally install the big fish in the park last month.

The Aromas community had several opportunities to paint
 fish at various Grange events such as the pancake breakfasts
and holiday arts festival.
And so, like Gamcheon, my village sat together—young and old, elbow to elbow—to paint fish and get to know each other a little bit better. The finished product has also drawn us together, as we congregate at the park to find our individual fish and admire the others—all swimming along together.

Just last weekend, I was thrilled when our spring talent show, Aromas Live, used an image of the Big Fish on the program cover and recognized its completion. Perhaps the Big Fish will serve as a symbol of a small town devoted to creating a sense of community. Perhaps, as we drive by the park on our way home, we will now turn our heads and smile at the colorful reminder of how fortunate we are to live in a place where we feel like we truly belong.

Wet fish dry in the sun—a contribution to the Aromas Big Fish
 from an intercession arts class at our local Anzar High School.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

High Style in Freedom and beyond
Originally published April 3, 2015 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

“It’s never a good idea to start a small business. People see you
 as ‘living your dream,’ but It’s been really hard,” says Carla Goldman.
 But she’s been making it work, and providing Santa Cruz County
with fine fabrics for 18 years.

Carla Goldman makes you want to buy. We wander through her home decor section, hung with heavy rolls of sample fabrics made in Europe for American fashion designers. Goldman buys these bolts in San Francisco—the leftovers after designers have placed their orders for the season. She jumps quickly from one fabric to the next, explaining why each one is so extraordinary. “This guy from Belgium does a lot of samples,” she says. “These fabrics are still in Ralph Lauren’s line. So when he kinda gets extra he’ll call me and that’s cool.”

She moves on. “This is a Belgium linen and this is a Belgium linen. I sell these at $26 [a yard] and these are $105 in the book.” She moves again.  “And then we get something like this that’s just outrageously gorgeous and it’s $18.”

We walk across her shop to the clothing fabrics. “As you can see here, this is a fabric from Germany,” she says, unfurling a roll of fabric sitting upright in a barrel. “So this is a beautiful hybrid—a wood fiber that has been treated to the point of stretching.” 

Elsa Schiaparelli and Andre Perugia,
evening ensemble and shoes, 1933-1935.
“And then this is a rayon that I burn to see what kind of poly and synthetics are in it. And they’ve done it so perfectly, I can’t get any synthetic in the burn. This is very rare to have German fabrics,” she says. When Goldman buys her samples fabrics, the labels are often removed, so she tests it for fiber content. Synthetic fibers like polyester will usually melt. Natural fibers will burn.

I’m caught up in her enthusiasm for fabric content and quality. I’ve browsed in Crossroad Fabrics on and off over the years, but have rarely bought anything. It dawns on me now that I didn’t really know what I was looking at.

Crossroad Fabrics is hard to find in its newest location because it’s not where you’d expect it to be. It shares a corrugated metal building on Airport Blvd. in Freedom with a plumber and a motorcycle repair shop. The ceilings are high and the floors are concrete. Most of the bolts of fabrics are on long rolls which you have to pull out from a stack to really see. Other bolts stand on end in barrels around the store. There are no pattern books and a limited supply of notions.

A seamstress since age 7, Goldman honed her sewing skills at Watsonville High School under the tutelage of Diane Severin and Mary Kay Chapel in the late 70s. “We had a wonderful sewing program at Watsonville. They forced me to clean up my sewing. I still French seam my clothing,” she says, showing me the inside of her sleeve. After graduation, with “starry eyes,” she enrolled in the Fashion Institute in San Francisco, but a career in fashion design never worked out.

At the “High Style” exhibit in San Francisco, I wanted to feel
 the silky textures and weights of these luxurious fabrics.
 Yes, the designs were iconic and highly influential, but it
 seemed to me that the success of many garments depended
 in large part on the fabrics chosen. Memorable examples
 were the soft and shimmering gold lame dress by
 Jeanne Lanvin from 1923, the 1930s emerald green
 silk faille evening ensemble woven with metallics by
 Elsa Schiaparelli, and the 1950 fuschia and gold silk sari
evening dress by the American designer, Mainbocher.
Instead she bought a fabric store, and for the last 18 years has been selling high-quality fabrics to the various sewing demographics of Santa Cruz County, and especially Watsonville: wealthy farm families who collect fashion ideas as they travel; a younger group sewing sportswear and inspired by Pinterest; young Latin-American women who want to make things that fit better and were taught to sew without a pattern; those who like to sew the occasional blouse or want to have something unique to wear to a party; costume-makers for holidays, performances and events like Halloween, Renaissance Faire, cosplay or baile folklorico; a few quilters; and, of course, those who sew just because it’s creative and fun. “Sewing is definitely a spiritual thing to do for yourself,” says Goldman.

I kept my eyes out for unique fabrics when I recently saw “High Style”—the current special exhibit at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor—which traces the evolution of fashion with 125 influential pieces from 1910 to 1980.  I was fascinated by the variety of fabrics used in 20th century women’s clothing—many of which I didn’t even know how to pronounce. There were dresses made from silk faille (/fīl/a soft, light-woven fabric having a ribbed texture), evening ensembles made from silk charmeuse (a soft light-weight fabric woven so that the front is lustrous and reflective) with filet lace (a decorative netting), and hats made from fur felt (apparently rabbits, beaver and nutria are the contributors).

You can’t help but wonder what it must have felt like to be the original wearer of these lovely creations at their debut. I was drawn to the everyday sportswear—a fresh concept born in Depression Era America, created by a pioneering group of American women designers who understood that women wanted greater comfort and adaptability in their clothing, with fewer costume changes. Bless their hearts for setting in motion the concept of unpretentious, functional, yet chic clothing made from washable fabrics.

And then there were the iconic evening ensembles by famous designers like Dior, Chanel, and Givenchy—undoubtedly intended to make a woman feel stylish, sophisticated and sexy, in equal measure.

This 1953 strapless “Four-Leaf Clover” ball gown by Charles James
—a voluminous show-stopper that took up quite of bit of museum
 real estate—wowed the audience with barely a hint of the
 architectural superstructure underneath. By all accounts, James
 was a fine artist who just happened to choose fabric as his medium.
But imagine your entrance in one of those celebrated ball gowns (typically designed by men). Would that have been a Cinderella moment or something else entirely? The strapless “Four-Leaf Clover” ball gown by Charles James—a voluminous show-stopper that took up quite of bit of museum real estate—wowed the audience with barely a hint of the architectural superstructure underneath. James’ shaped his four-leaf clover skirts from layers of nylon mesh, feather-boning, buckram (coarse linen stiffened with paste), and horsehair braid, with each dress weighing 10 pounds or more.


The labels on clothing today with longer fabric-content lists, made me think that fabric has changed a lot since I first learned to sew, combining more types of fibers. All fabrics seem to have been made stretchier with the addition of Spandex. Carla Goldman set me straight. “Are you telling me the ice skaters in the 1950s didn’t wear Spandex? It’s just a brand name, it’s a label. We’ve always had stretchy fabrics. Labeling textiles has only been [required] in the last 15 years. You might have been buying it before.”

She reminds me that fashion (like the fabric it’s made from) is always moving forward, but it’s also tied to the past. “Fashion’s a massive circle; it’s constantly looping around. What goes around comes around.”

Jeanne Lavin, evening dress,
Spring/Summer, 1923.

All photos provided by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, except Carla Goldman portrait by Tina Baine.

High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection
March 14 – July 19, 2015, Legion of Honor, San Francisco
Visit Legionofhonor.org for more information.
Why see a fashion collection? Clothing is all about popular culture and social history. It tells the story of status and gender distinctions, social mores and behavior patterns, and how and why all of these societal standards change over time. Clothing provides examples of America’s shifting economy and technologies. It’s about American priorities, allegiances, and rebellion. As the curator, Jan Glier Reeder said, “The importance of looking at historic forms is that if you don’t understand what came before, you can’t really understand where you are today.”

The fabulous Maker Faire Bay Area-- a family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, and a celebration of the Maker movement—is coming up May 16 and 17, at the San Mateo Event Center. A small group of organizers in Santa Cruz County is putting together a mini Maker Faire for 2016 at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, and is looking for more volunteers. For more information contact Miguel Aznar at miguelfaznar@gmail.com. Their next meeting is tentatively planned by Sunday, April 12.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Maps: The Big Picture
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, March 7, 2015

Maps help fulfill “the need to visualize our little lives in the context of a grander scale.”

   -Ken Jennings

Before I take a trip to an unfamiliar place, I go to AAA to get a free map of the area. Yes, I have a cell phone, but a fold-out map gives me the big picture and all the details at the same time.  My cell phone, with its tiny screen, can’t do that.  After I’ve unpacked my bags, it’s time to unfold the map, spread it out on the bed, and plan my next move. Once I know my destination, the cell phone will help me find my way.

Attributed to prolific Dutch mapmaker Joan Vinkeboons, 1650. Even though Cabrillo had proven California to be part of North America in his 1542 expedition, some European cartographers continued to depict California as an island well into the 18th century—cultivating its mythic mystique.

Maps: Depth and comprehensiveness
The big picture is important, and so, maps still serve a useful purpose—they show you things you don’t know, in relation to things you do know. If you decide you need to know where Ukraine is for example, a map will show you that it’s two countries away from Germany, with Poland in between. It will also show you that it shares the Black Sea coastline with Russia and Turkey and three other countries. And yes, I had to look at a map to tell you that.

Maps help us understand what’s going on in the world. “We live in an increasingly inter-linked world where developments an ocean away affect our daily lives in countless ways,” says Ken Jennings of “Jeopardy!” fame. If we know where Ukraine, or North Korea, or Nigeria is on the world map, we can “synthesize and remember the events that we hear about taking place there.”  Otherwise, they just become names that wash over us.

Jennings wrote the book “Maphead” in 2011 about his life-long fascination with maps. “My childhood love of maps…was something much more than casual weirdness,” he writes. “I could literally look at maps for hours. Each page of an atlas was an almost inexhaustible trove of names and shapes and places, and I relished that sense of depth, of comprehensiveness.”

In “Maphead” Jennings sees geographic illiteracy as a serious societal problem in the U.S., and gives lots of examples including a National Geographic poll showing that one in ten American college students can’t find California or Texas on a map. Geographers trace our decline in geographic knowledge to the widespread adoption of “social studies” in grade schools over clear-cut history and geography classes in the 1960s and 1970s. “The United States is now the only country in the developed world where a student can go from preschool to grad school without ever cracking a geography text,” says Jennings.

Author Rebecca Solnit’s “Infinite City-A San Francisco Atlas”
 features various Bay Area maps, including this one called
 “Poison/Palate” which shows the proximity of gourmet treasures 
to toxic waste in the Bay Area, and features mutant mermaids
 and a fruit tree “to both whet and ruin your appetite.”
Geography: How humans relate to the planet
Geography of course, isn’t just about reading maps or understanding the Earth’s physical features. It’s about how humans relate to the planet. “Geography explains the map: why this city is on this river, why this canyon is deeper than that one, why the language spoken here is related to the one spoken there—even perhaps, why this nation is rich and that one is poor,” says Jennings.

A great example of maps that help us make sense of our complex relationship to the planet is “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas” by Rebecca Solnit. Her book features maps (created by various artists), that make surprising and intriguing connections. “Poison/Palate” shows the proximity of gourmet treasures to toxic waste in the Bay Area. “Dharma Wheels and Fish Ladders” plots the little-noticed salmon migrations in the Bay Area, beside the practice of Zen Buddhism. And “The Names before the Names” charts the 140 or so indigenous tribes that lived in the Bay Area prior to 1769—an astounding density of communities which have since completely vanished.

Mapmaking: A reflection of the maker
Scudder takes many months to draw each
 of his city maps.  The series now includes
 Santa Cruz, Monterey, Palo Alto and Boston.
The Santa Cruz poster was so popular, he also
 made a 30-foot mural version for the corner
 of Bay and Mission Streets.
All mapmakers choose what to include as well as what to leave out—and accordingly, a map is a reflection of its maker and how it will be used. Santa Cruz artist Kirby Scudder created a poster of Santa Cruz in 2012 that included only the features he found most emblematic of the city. To create large city maps, he uses Google Earth for research and Photoshop with a Wacom tablet to painstakingly draw people, vehicles, buildings, shadows, land and water features from an angled aerial perspective. He takes great liberties with spatial accuracy—bending and foreshortening land masses, selectively showing only the resonant landmarks, streets and buildings he believes are the essence of “The Cruz.”

Historically, mapmakers have always had a point of view, and many wanted to tell stories of adventure and discovery. They rarely had the firsthand experience they needed to be certain of all the details on their maps, so they listened to surveyors and explorers, read books and studied existing maps, and made educated guesses. Oftentimes, they made mistakes. One of my favorite books of historical maps is Vincent Virga’s “California, Mapping the Golden State through History” which begins with the famous 1650 Map of California shown as an island. By the mid 1700s, California was finally attached to the rest of the continent on maps, but with very few details, remaining on the fringes of the world as the Europeans knew it.

Mapmakers are also influenced by commercial concerns: they want to sell maps. A U.S. map produced in 1849 shows most of North American in great detail with two insets on either side: one of South America, and the other of the California gold country, to make it more appealing to map-buying gold-seekers.

Some of the best old maps of California are romanticized versions of the frontier. They depict the carefully planned streets and grandest structures of farm cities like Fresno and Bakersfield at the turn of the 20th century from that same vanishing point perspective in the sky as in Kirby Scudder’s Santa Cruz. But each map is bordered with a series of hand-tinted photos or drawings of various businesses, impressive homes and civic structures. These flat, hot central valley towns were trying to attract new residents by making their city look substantial, thriving and full of opportunity.

“Map of Fresno, California, 1901” from the Library of Congress
 website, LOC.gov
“Map of Bakersfield, California, 1901” from the Library of Congress
 website, LOC.gov
Jill K. Berry and Linden McNeilly, the authors of “Map Art Lab,” also recognize the fiction inherent in many maps. “The truth is,” they say, “many historical maps are fiction posing as fact, and are artful rather than scientific.” Their DIY book is intended to entice map lovers to become mapmakers as a tool for self-discovery, storytelling and art exploration. They break the complex task of mapmaking into its various components and provide ideas for constructing and using maps in art pieces.

On the Map

However accurate a map is intended to be, it can only offer a snapshot of what things were like at a certain point in time, and is already out-of-date when published. Fortunately, most maps are not intended to accurately describe spatial relationships. They are intended to make a point. Whether you use GPS, Google Earth or paper, maps are essentially a collection of cartographic symbols—straight and wavy lines that help us make sense of the world and our place in it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Binding Love
What to do with all those books you can't let go of
 Published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel January 30, 2015

Freestanding, easy to assemble, and highly transportable
, ladder shelves can be made from a ladder of any
 height that works for your space (preferably an old
 wooden one) and some wood planks.
In the movie “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) sets out alone to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)—one of the country’s longest and toughest through-trails—with little outdoor experience and a backpack so heavy she develops nasty, raw welts on her hips and shoulders. A helpful guy she meets along the trail shows her how to lighten her load by paring down the items she’s carrying to the absolutely essentials. When they get to her books, he suggests carrying only the chapters she hasn’t yet read, and burning the rest. He demonstrates by tearing out a big hunk of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.”

Which just about killed me.

Destroying, defacing, even just drawing in the margins of a book—especially one you love—still strikes me as barbaric. (Don’t even get me started on the disrespect of dog-earring pages.) Yeah, I eventually learned to underline the heck out of a dry college textbook, but even then I did so with a light pencil mark and a ruler. Books are precious, sacred and deserve our respect.

But of course repurposing enthusiasts have other ideas. They excise pages from books and fold, cut, crumple and print on them. They carve the covers, contort the spines. They make jewelry, vases, wreaths, bouquets, collages, garlands, even pumpkins out of books. I suppose they gravitate towards book pages because the text will give their project a nice mottled-gray surface pattern, or imply a sense of literary sophistication, or convey a message, or just give new life to an object they might otherwise add to the landfill.

If you want to explore making household objects both decorative and utilitarian, artist/author Lisa Occhipinti’s 2011 book “The Repurposed Library” is a good place to start. In 33 projects she demonstrates how to deconstruct books to make lampshades, journals, mirrors, clocks, birdhouses and more.

But Occhipinti’s more recent book takes a somewhat different approach to books. “’Novel Living,’” she says, “is a hymnal to actual, physical books, their forms and their functions.” She talks lovingly about the physicality of books, as only an avid reader and collector would. She describes how reading a book stirs our senses: we are aware of its scent and tactile qualities as we cradle a book “as we would an infant child,” close to our heart. She compares the intimate interaction we have with bound books—“the tender, nearly silent turning of pages, like tucking a lock of hair behind the ear”—to the much less visceral swipe of a screen.

Her writing takes me back to my junior high days when, after school, I walked out of my way to the small branch library to check out “Lad: A Dog” and every other noble collie tale by Albert Payson Terhune, who was instantly my favorite author from my teacher Mrs. Faus’s classic reading list.

To create a lighted book box, basic wooden crates,
whether purchased new or sourced from a flea
 market, are outfitted with a little mood lighting
 and textile or wallpaper design, then hung on the wall.
 The little light inside illuminates the books like art.
It also reminds me of my parents’ childhood books I have stored in stacked cardboard boxes in the garage, like my dad’s “Peter Rabbit,” “Oz” and “Big Little Books,” or my mom’s copies of “Jane Eyre” and Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” Occhipinti inspires me to retrieve those beloved books from the cold, damp garage to preserve and conserve them, and perhaps even display them.

Our books, she says, represent our cultural and personal histories. She wants our haphazard book collections to become inviting, conveniently accessed libraries. “A library organizes books into a snapshot of who you are,” she says. “To live with them reminds us of who we are and where we came from.” When Occhipinti uses the word “library,” she’s not suggesting a dark-paneled room, with a fireplace, over-stuffed chair, and a ladder on wheels (although, that would be nice to have too). A library can be set-up in just about any room of the house, and arranged on various configurations of shelves, carts or cabinets. (One of her most clever and portable display ideas is an old wooden ladder with spans of plywood for shelves.)

The Gallery Table project—made from
 an IKEA Lack table—is based on museum
 furniture for exhibiting books and other
 ephemera like valuable antiquities.
A collection of books don’t become a library, the author says, until they are curated and organized. Bibliographic order—by subject, author and/or title—will help keep books easy to find. But aesthetic considerations such as color and size can be part of the equation too. “To alleviate the needle-in-a-haystack-ness that is part of the color or size-based system of arrangement, merge aesthetics with function by covering your books in color-coded paper and writing their titles on the spines,” she suggests.

Occhipinti also wants us to design with books by creating small tableaux she calls “bookscapes.” Books can be placed in idle places such as a non-operating fireplace (kind of an unsettling association, if you ask me), or stacked on a rarely used accent chair. A thematic seashore tableau can be created with nautical books and seashells on top of a dresser.

To me, though, decorating with books downplays their content and higher purpose. If a special book is to be displayed outside the library context, it should be in the spotlighted like a prima ballerina. Occhipinti’s two best project ideas exhibit books like works of art: her IKEA hack is a Gallery Table that mimics a museum display case, using an IKEA Lack table, four wooden spacers and tabletop glass; her Lighted Book Box, made from a wooden wine crate, vintage wallpaper and a wireless puck light, would be perfect for my dad’s “Peter Rabbit” series.

On an excursion to San Francisco last fall, we came across a small North Beach jewelry shop that must have had over 1,000 old books. The whole place had that musty-tangy perfume of aged paper, ink and adhesive. These hardcover rescues—some masked with construction paper—were arranged in myriad ways to hold and display necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Yes, they were using books in a “supporting” role, but, for me, the jewelry wasn’t really there—it was all about the books. I wanted to sit on the floor, open each one and see what was inside. I wanted to give each book a little moment of solemn recognition before we both headed off down the trail.