Friday, December 3, 2010

Holiday Gift Ideas for the Crafter who Loves Books

Great books for the maker on your list
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 4, 2010

For the crafter of any age or inclination on your holiday shopping list, books are a welcome gift. From home decoration to wedding planning to backyard fun to photo and movie making—books are full of innovative ideas and well-illustrated step-by-step instructions. The best of them encourage cooperative planning/construction and earth-friendly materials. Here are a few to consider this holiday season.

For kids:

Movie Maker: The Ultimate Guide to Making Films

Movie Maker

The Ultimate Guide to Making Films

By Tim Grabham , Suridh Hassan, Dave Reeve, Clare Richards, Garry Parsons (Illustrator)


If your child has ever put on a play, a puppet show, or knows who Steven Spielberg is, why not encourage his/her inner filmmaker? Movie Maker is a kit to help kids make movies using a digital camera or cell phone. Aimed at children age 8-12, the box (which doubles as a working clapper board) includes a CD of sound effects, small push-out costume accessories and props, a fill-in storyboard, and a 48-page step-by-step director’s handbook. Extras such as stickers for the director's chair, stars for the actors' dressing rooms, and tickets for the premiere of the movie make this a complete experience.

For parents:

Handy Dad

Handy Dad

25 Awesome Projects for Dads and Kids

By Todd Davis

Chronicle Books

Here’s your chance to enter the hallowed ranks of best dad (or mom for that matter) in the world. Flip through this book with your offspring so that you can plan your chosen project together. Picture your daughter scaling a colorful Climbing Wall in her own backyard or your son flying from tree to tree on his very own Zip Line. Assuming you have the tools and the knowhow, the projects take 10 minutes, “one beer,” an afternoon or a weekend and there’s something here for children of every age and interest, including a lava lamp, a water balloon launcher, a dollhouse, a half pipe, a treasure chest, a go cart, a circus tent, and (my favorite) a stunt dummy/abominable snowman.

For the bride and groom:

Crafty Ideas for the Bride on a Budget: 75 DIY Wedding Projects

Crafty Ideas for the

Bride on a Budget

Edited By Linda Kopp

Lark Books

A budget wedding doesn’t have to be a drab one, or even a noticeably low-cost one—as the elegant projects in this book attest to. You can save money by making your own invitations, bouquets, flower girl basket, ring pillow, seating cards, centerpieces, favors and thank you notes—especially if you’ve got the tools and a few crafty friends to lend a hand. “Budget” has included the essential and ephemeral in its 75 projects—even several wedding cakes—but made me question the budget premise. Another budget-wedding book, “The DIY Bride Crafty Countdown” by Khris Cochran, actually provides a “Crafty Calculator” comparing your cost vs. store cost for each of its 40 wedding projects, and avoids pricier materials like the satin ribbon and large silk flowers used in “Budget.” However some of the projects, such as “Groovy Owl Cake Toper” and “Gourmet Popcorn Buffet,” didn’t look groovy, gourmet, or even appropriate for the most economical of weddings.

For the techie:

Fashioning Technology

A DIY Intro to Smart Crafting

By Syuzi Pakhchyan

Make Books

When geek and designer get together amazing things happen. “Fashioning Technology” is a beginners’ guide to integrating simple electronics with wearables, home accents and interactive toys. The author is a robotics instructor with an art background, whose projects are both fashionable and useful. Wearable projects include headphones that keep your ears warm and have lights for added safety at night. For the home, you can make a luminescent tea table or an LED chandelier. “Smart materials” used in project construction include thermo- and photochromatic inks, magnetic and conductive paints, polymorph plastic and fiber optics. For forward-thinking crafters, it’s time to learn some a new vocabulary and put it to great use. (This isn’t a new book, but it’s the best one I’ve seen yet for teaching the basic techniques of technology-based crafts.)

For the photographer:


Insanely Great Photo Projects and DIY Ideas

By Amit Gupta and Kelly Jensen

Potter Craft

“Photojojo!” isn’t a book for would-be Ansel Adamses who painstakingly print, mat and frame their images for the gallery. It’s for those who love to be surrounded by lots and lots of photographs, everyday, in fun and unexpected ways. Access to a camera, a computer, and image-editing software are requisite, but most of the projects don’t require lots of shopping for materials. Create a mural-sized photo displayed in multiple re-purposed CD jewel cases, a photo easel from an old fork, or cupcakes crowned with edible photo icing. “Photojojo!” aims to get you shooting and using your photographs more creatively.

For the daydreamer:

Woodland Style: Ideas and Projects for Bringing Foraged and Found Elements into Your Home

Woodland Style

Ideas and Projects for Bringing Foraged and Found Elements Into Your Home

By Marlene Hurley Marshall

Storey Publishing

Even the cover incorporates wood (literally) in this book about home décor made from things found in the woods. Anything tree-related that can be preserved such as twigs, roots, seedpods, bark or logs is fair game, as well as greenery such as mosses. With an emphasis on lovely photos intended to spark ideas, the book also offers instructions for a few simple projects such as a moss wreath or leaf garland, and recipes for cooking with wild edibles. It’s a celebration of the dark, damp, woodsy side of nature, and an exploration of decorative ways to bring those rustic elements indoors.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dia de los Muertos

A day for the living

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel Oct. 23, 2010.

“The Mexican…is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it…”

--Octavio Paz

I was fortunate enough to attend dancer/choreographer Tandy Beal’s multi-media presentation “HereAfterHere” last month at Cabrillo College, which attempts to “imagine the unimaginable” in exploring the question, “What happens after we die?” The performance explored the topic of death not only through spell-binding, thought-provoking dance, video, music, and theatre, but also, audience participation.

At intermission, we were asked to call another audience member on our cell phone—someone we didn’t know, but had been given their number—and share our personal view of what happens after we die. I was a little embarrassed by the experiment, but, with uncharacteristic optimism inspired by the performance, I plowed ahead, babbling something like, “if life itself is such an unknowable miracle, maybe death will be too.” When I asked my anonymous cell phone partner what he thought happens after we die, he offered, “I don’t know.”

Of course there are many cultures who embrace a very specific notion of the afterlife. The indigenous people of Mexico—the Aztecs—for example, believed that souls did not die, that they continued living in Mictlan—a parallel continuation of life. Mictlan was an ideal, peaceful place to stay until the day they could return to their old earthly homes and visit living relatives. Upon their return, relatives would not see them, but would feel their presence.

In Mexico today, the ancient traditions continue, woven together with the Catholic holidays of All Saints' Day (November 1) and All Souls' Day (November 2). Each town and region in Mexico has its own way of celebrating the return of the dead on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), but the purpose is the same—to welcome relatives’ souls as guests, feed them, bring gifts and spend time with them.

In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They decorate gravesites with marigolds and candles, providing scents, colors and light to guide the souls home. They bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones.

In the United States and in Mexico’s larger cities, families build ofrendas (altars of offerings) in their homes to commemorate their loved ones. The elements are usually decorative (like cut tissue paper), symbolic (like incense, bread, candles, and flowers), personal (like photographs or possessions of the deceased), or traditional (like sugar skulls and skeletons).

In contrast to the more personal, home version, ofrendas can also be a kind of public art, frequently invested with humor and irony. Elegant catrinas (skeleton figurines) and sugar skulls created for use in public ofrendas may poke fun at transitory possessions like money and social status. It’s as if to say, despite all our pretentions and the inequalities in this life, death will ultimately be the great equalizer. They also remind us of our own mortality. Sometimes the sugar skulls are painted with tears, to show that the dead miss their everyday earthly life.

Jose Guadalupe Posada , the early 20th century Mexican cartoonist illustrator and artist, and after him, the muralist Diego Rivera, were the first to use skeletons in their work to make social and political statements. Posada’s best known works are his calaveras--whimsical engravings of elegantly dressed skeletons, meant to satirize the life of the upper classes. Since his death, his images have become associated with the Día de los Muertos.

Each year, all over the Bay Area, Día de los Muertos is celebrated privately and publicly on or near November 1-2 (see for a listing). But you don’t really need to go any further than Watsonville for a wide array of events. The community celebration—including impromptu altar-building, a peace ceremony, music, art and dance—will continue all day at the downtown Plaza on Saturday, October 30. At 4:30, a procession will travel from the Plaza to the Pajaro Valley Arts Council (PVAC) gallery on Sudden Street, to view altars created by local groups.

The theme for the gallery’s annual Día de los Muertos display—Mi Casa es Tu Casa, Celebrating Community Diversity—is inspired by Día de Los Muertos, but emphasizes multi-cultural interpretations. PVAC solicits applications each September, holds an altar-building workshop in October, and then offers a small floor/wall space for each altar in the gallery.

At the altar-building workshop on October 9, many participants were still formulating the concept for their altar. José Ortiz, from Hijos del Sol Arts in Salinas, helped participants get started by showing them how to cut lacey tissue paper designs (papel picado), and make dancing skeletons and tiny coffins from paper.

More experienced groups have gotten started on their own, and embracing the multi-cultural approach. Representing the Corralitos Artists’ Collective, Ann Cavanaugh and Mary Manfre have emphasized their Irish heritage to create their altar. “The Celts’ were a nature-based culture,” explains Cavanaugh. “They saw the earth as being home to all of us, and the ‘other world’ belonging to all of us too.” In their ofrenda they have used a doorway, a river, and animal imagery to symbolize a Celtic sense of eternity. Death is about “a spiraling world, in and out, recycling,” says Cavanaugh. “We come out of nature and we go back to nature.”

Groups typically meet ahead of time to work out their concept and distribute the tasks involved. But some altars are amorphous and organic, and don’t actually take shape until the group finally constructs their piece in the gallery.

The VooDoo Ridge Collective, discusses their theme and approach ahead of time, but they don’t necessarily work from a blueprint. During September and October they gather on Saturdays to work in their mentor Tom Wolver’s studio. This group of sculptors has created two boats to symbolize spiritual journey, but various members will add their own personal ceramic pieces to the finished altar, reflecting themes such as transition and transformation. “We all bring what we think will fit in,” says Pat Taylor. “It’s like working in clay. You don’t have a fixed thing in your mind, but somehow the creative process takes over and this amazingly spiritual thing is created.”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Doctorow's "Makers" points the way to the future of art

Makers make the Future

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel August 7, 2010

Cory Doctorow’s 2009 futurist novel “Makers” is about people who thrive on labors of love. The main characters—Perry and Lester—are heard to say, “I just want to make stuff,” on more than one occasion. They are inventor artists…or junkyard engineers—however you want to look at it—who tinker and devise new ways of reusing and repurposing (and even glorifying) just about everything obsolete—from old technology, to abandoned malls, to homeless shanty-town residents.

Perry and Lester are okay with feeding the ravenous appetite of a public who is quickly bored and impatient for the next big thing. To their credit, though, they care much more about making stuff than about making money. (This is also a love story, so making good relationships is also a part of the happiness equation.) They also represent the sharing ethic of open-source hacker culture—allowing and encouraging fellow hackers and even users to easily change the content of just about everything they design.

Is Doctorow giving us a glimpse of what the near future will look like for crafters? Will the depressed economy encourage artists to down-size their lifestyles so that money-making doesn’t get in the way of creating? Will the future demand that we be more honest with ourselves, and recognize that most of what we make will ultimately become landfill? Will we happily embrace the restless nature of consumer demands and tastes, and become less proprietary about our designs?

Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between what Perry and Lester are making from discarded Barbie heads, conch shells, garden gnomes and Boogie Woogie Elmo dolls—and whatever we are making. But there’s a big macramé monstrosity hanging in my parents’ hallway that tells me otherwise. Not everything we make is a timeless masterpiece.

Maybe turning an abandoned mall (or tannery) into a living/workspace for hundreds of people (even the homeless)—which, in turn, renders cars an occasional convenience rather than a daily necessity—seems too unlikely. But technology-enabled telecommuting has already begun to erode the paradigm of the centralized work place. Many more of us could do our jobs without leaving home.

Perhaps repurposing an empty Wal-Mart into a crowd-sourced theme-park ride, sounds too idyllic. But I’ve seen Halloween stores, health clubs, thrift shops, and charter schools pop up in these ghost store locations with more and more regularity.

The fact that “Makers” is not set in some unimaginably distant future, but in the teens and 20s of our own century, makes it seem much more ponder-worthy—and maybe even possible. The near-future world Doctorow paints is also rife with crime, poverty and unscrupulous boardroom “suits.” But optimism prevails in the boundless energy and imagination of open source hacker culture. If you’re a crafter/artist, you could be a source of that much-needed optimism in the future.

(In the true spirit of open source sharing, you can download “Makers” from the author’s website,

  • (Long shop of quilt and close up.) Photographic images can be printed onto fabric without having to buy expensive commercial inkjet fabric sheets. The resulting fabric can be cut up and pieced into a quilt in a variety of ways. The images can be used very literally--portraits of family members, for instance, for a family tree quilt--or in a more abstract way. The resulting quilt can be like a fabric photo album, or simply referential, evoking a sense of time or place that might not be otherwise possible with store-bought fabrics. (see for instructions)

Open source crafters’ haven: Instructables

I gave myself an assignment recently, to become a contributing member of the DIY community. I’ve perused the San Francisco-based website for a year or two, always amused by the variety of the projects and astounded by the ingenuity of its members. Now I appreciate even more these hacker/crafters who are so willing to share their expertise and great ideas, because I realize the extra effort it took to do so.

It’s not difficult to submit a project, but it takes time to photograph all the steps along the way, and then write succinct descriptions of each step. I made a photo quilt for my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary (to replace that ghastly macramé wall hanging) and kept my camera near the sewing table at all times, so I wouldn’t miss photographing a step (I did any way). You can see my 9-step project at:

If you become a member (free) you’ll receive the weekly project list. This week’s list includes:

Build an artificial reef

Easy Rain Barrel

Magnetic Rubik’s Dice Cube

Paper Wallet

Weld a Barbecue

How to Freeze Blueberries

Trash-Burning Car

Giant Bristlebot

25 Cent Ring

Clone a Tomato Plant

Beach Towel for Two

Stainless Steel Patio Heater

  • My husband made this beautiful plate for his parents by adding words to an image via Photoshop, printing and cutting out the image to fit the bottom of the plate, then adhering the image with Modge Podge glue. Rice paper was then glued to the entire back of the plate. Finally, a gold edge of acrylic paint was added around the rim and on the bottom of the plate.

August Milestones

Besides my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary, our family will also be celebrating my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary in Raleigh, North Carolina. So July has been weekend project month. For his parents, my husband made a great 15-minute video with music and voice-overs on his iMac, with the help of iMovie, other downloaded conversion software, digitized home movies from childhood, and lots of still photographs. His brothers, who live in North Carolina near his folks, helped by photographing all the homes the family has lived in over the years and filming short clips of congratulations from friends.

Other anniversary gift ideas

  • A personalized anniversary greeting from the white house (see for instructions)
  • An anniversary greeting from another famous person (we got Clay Aiken to send his best wishes on an 8x10 photo, by writing to his publicist in Los Angeles)
  • A glass plate Modge-Podged with a special photo in the center and rice paper around the rim.
  • A scrapbook of photos and personal greetings from friends
  • A photo quilt, incorporating special people or places
  • A professional photograph of the whole family (we used A.K. Rowland, who took beautiful photos of us on a Santa Cruz beach at sunset)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Little Odors and Simple Pleasures

Making my home town--AROMAS--the subject of art.

Originally published in the Santa Cruz , August 28, 2010

My family’s home is situated on the Mexican land grant, Rancho Las Aromitas y Agua Caliente, which translates as “little odors and warm waters.” The rancho’s name was made official in 1835 when Juan Miguel Anzar received a grant of 8600 acres northwest of the San Juan Bautista mission.

The inspiration for the Rancho’s name is a bit of a mystery to those of us living in Aromas today. Many think that “little odors” refers to the sulfur/rotten eggs smell one encounters when driving west on Highway 129—not a very romantic notion. The bigger mystery is the whereabouts of the hot springs—which must be hidden on someone’s private property, since the location is not commonly known.

When the town of Aromas made its name official about 100 years ago, “Aromitas” was also a contender, and, in my opinion, a much lovelier sounding and perhaps less misleading word. But, despite the implied promise of olfactory delights, Aromas does not have any distinctive aromas I’m aware of—certainly none to rival its northern neighbor, Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world.

So “Aromas” is simply the name of our town, without any further implications. It’s a small country town with a funny name that tries to make its location more widely known once a year on Aromas Day. Perhaps it is a sign of my own ambivalence about Aromas, that I invited a friend to Aromas Day with the dubious sales pitch of “yard sales as far as the eye can see.” In fact, the downtown festivities are actually kind of special, in a low-key, small-town sort of way. There’s a parade with Girl Scouts, classic cars and tractors, horses and other livestock. The 4H sells plants and homemade jam. The Boy Scouts sell hot dogs. A horse-drawn wagon gives folks a free ride from the field parking lot. The Grange serves a warm pancake breakfast. And Aromas Hills Artisans (AHA) has an art sale in the rejuvenated downtown park. What could be sweeter?

My contribution to AHA’s art sale was pending until I decided to roam around downtown with my camera to explore Aromas’ identity through its civic architecture: the school, the library, the post office, the fire station, the water department, and the Rogge Lane Bridge. It seemed like a good idea: spell A-R-O-M-A-S with a photo of each letter. The letters wouldn’t be literal letters found on signs, but rather implied letters, found in architectural embellishments. But I soon discovered that, although a few of Aromas’ buildings are over 100 years old, they were all built with an emphasis on functionality. Only one building—The Old Firehouse, which was originally a K-8 school designed in 1925 by the famous Bay Area architect William H. Weeks—has tile work, wrought iron and a few other flourishes of the Mission Revival style. I had my work cut out for me.

So I widened my parameters just a bit. Aromas (pop. 2797) doesn’t have a sit-down restaurant (although the two markets make great take-out burritos and barbecue on Sundays), a city hall (we aren’t a city), a high school (that’s in San Juan Bautista), or a hotel. But it does have Aromas Feed (with lots of great garden ornaments), Marshall’s Grocery (with its creaky wooden floor and squeaky screen door), the Grange (our social event center), and Granite Rock Quarry (a little difficult to photograph without permission, but very visual in an industrial sort of way). Thank goodness Aromas is only six letters, or it would have taken me much longer than a weekend to find the requisite number of decent images.

After I printed each letter as a 4x6 black and white image I had several ideas about how to present them. The customary choice is a white mat with 6 openings and a black frame, and I found several of these online for around $20. A slightly less expensive idea is to use glass clip frames (the kind that don’t require a frame) adhered to a black strip of wood. I found clip frames online for $2 each. My bargain basement idea is to use small plastic Fotoclips ($10 for 100) and clip the photos together in one long vertical strip.

So, on Sunday, we’ll see if my A-R-O-M-A-S photo collage actually sells, or inspires any civic pride. I rekindled my own bit of hometown pride when I encountered some helpful fellow Aromans while making my photographs. One woman said she’d seen me all around town with my camera, asked what I was doing, and then told me about the yard sale she has planned for Aromas Day. Another inquired about my project and then suggested a place to find good “As.” And at the fire station, one young firefighter offered to open the bay doors of the garage where the fire engines are parked, then looked inside and outside the truck compartments, and all around the station yard with me, trying to help me find a better “A” and “M.”

One thing I love about photography is that it opens your eyes and helps you see things in a whole new way. Looking for ways to describe my small town through photographs, enabled me to see more clearly what Aromas has going for it. And despite our deficits in architecture, amenities, and aromas, I kind of liked what I saw.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What is Art? Who decides?

Three new ways to answering the age old question

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel July 10, 2010

Campbell’s tomato spray—an homage to Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup Cans--was one of the works featured in Mr. Brainwash’s LA art event, which made him an overnight sensation.

The question "What is Art?" always reminds me of the "I could have made that" reaction of some to the splatters and drips of abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock. It's not always easy to defend art--or even distinguich good art from bad. Should we trust that something is art just because it's in a museum or gallery? Is the measure of a painting's quality, what a collector will pay for it? Is a work of art good because an art critic teels us it is?

Obviously art has many different guises and not everyone is in agreement about what is art all of the time. Who would argue that what Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is not art? But what about Jackson Pollock’s large splattered canvases? Does art need to be difficult to make or pleasing to look at to count? What about Thomas Kincade’s mass-marketed paintings of bucolic, idyllic scenes? Does commercialization and appealing to a mass audience, taint the legitimacy of art? And what about street art, which is often crudely made, impermanent and irreverent—is it the real thing?

I like the fact that art has the power to take us by surprise, and cause a myriad of reactions, from serenity and wonder, to confusion and outrage. As I encountered a new book, a new television show and a new movie in June, all dealing with very different forms of art, I was reminded of how elastic the term “art” can be—and perhaps should be.

50 Paintings You Should Know

As I turned the pages in “50 Paintings You Should Know”—a new book by two Europeans, Kristina Lowis and Tamsin Pickeral—I tried to approach each work—even the tote-bag icons like the Mona Lisa or The Scream—with a fresh new eye. This book includes only art with a capital “A”—the great works which would be in any art history professor’s PowerPoint lesson. Without preface, the inventory starts in 1303 with Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescos and ends in 1962 with Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. A more honest—albeit less tantalizing—book title would be, “50 of the most recognized Renaissance to Modern Paintings by male European artists”—although a few works by new-world artists, including three women (Cassatt, Kahlo and O’Keeffe) and one printmaker (Warhol), did squeeze in between the covers.

To the book’s credit, it does attempt to explain why each individual work has its place in history. For the give-me-the-gist reader, each entry starts with one or two sentences that answer the question, “Why this painting?” For example, Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” is so universally recognized because “the whole drama of the Creation, and the longing for the divine, are concentrated into a small gap separating the fingers of Adam and God.”

But the breadth of this catalog is disappointing. Only a tiny portion of the world’s artwork is represented by these 50 paintings: there are no Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Australian, Middle-Eastern or African paintings here. The book presents exactly the same artists I studied in college in the 1970s. Hasn’t our awareness broadened and become more inclusive and supranational over the last 40 or so years? If this is a list of paintings we should know, shouldn’t we know more?

Work of Art

A new competition/reality show on Bravo TV (Wed. 10 p.m.) defines art as that which can be made by a handful of artists under pressure. The pressure comes not just from the fact that there are cameras in their faces 24/7, expecting them to be controversial and/or eccentric and/or titillating, but also from imposed restraints on time, materials, workspace, and assignment. It’s called “Work of Art—The Next Great Artist” and uses the successful “Project Runway” template to give a selected group of visual artists the chance to be judged as the best in the bunch. Episode one, which aired June 9, introduced the 14 competitors—mostly college-educated, award-winning young artists from a variety of media and styles. China Chow is the host, while auctioneer Simon de Pury is the seasoned mentor, appearing periodically in the studio to coach the artists. Each week a panel of three or four judges plus Chow, applauds one winner and dismisses one loser.

After the first assignment—to make a revealing portrait of a fellow competitor in 24 hours—it seemed that the painters in the group were at a disadvantage, when a silkscreen artist and a photographer came up with by-far the best work. When one of the contestants said he broke a light bulb he needed for exposing his photographs and that he was “screwed,” my head filled with fairness questions (or was this just a light bulb joke?). What materials are available to the artists in the studio? Why would there by only one light bulb? Are they really thinking on their feet, or did most of them arrive with 10 or 20 good concepts before the contest even began? Are the judges really honoring the best and weeding out the worst, or is there an over-riding entertainment-value mandate, such as keeping the controversial, back-stabbing ones over the nice, quiet ones? Who are these judges and what are their motives for being on this show?

Of course this is television and ultimately entertainment and I shouldn’t take it so seriously. Perhaps the show’s strength is in its ability to provoke questions. For example, the second show left me scratching my head when I couldn’t even tell the good work from the bad, the conceptual from the cliché. But I will keep watching, just to see if there are considerations beyond ratings—and, of course, to find out who is “the next great artist.”

Banksy’s trompe l’oeil hole in the Israeli West Bank Barrier was one of several protest murals created by the British graffiti artist.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

This remarkable new film focuses on street artists. Street art has escaped the confines of the gallery, and challenges all the conventional definitions of art. The film’s affable protagonist, Thierry Guetta, has a passion for documenting street artists, because, he says, their art is so transitory. Over a period of years, he creates a huge stockpile of footage. The artists he documents are not commissioned mural painters, or even bored teenagers, but talented bandits who deface the walls of large city buildings with their trademark brand of art. They work quickly, often with stencils and spray paint, or large panels of paper pasted up with a push-broom. There is forethought, planning, stealth and a point of view in this art.

One of the more brilliant street artists featured in the film is the mysterious Banksy, who Guetta idolizes and is eventually allowed to meet and document. Guetta becomes Banksy’s helpmate and friend, watching his back and concealing his identity on film. When Banksy proposes trading roles with Guetta—encouraging Guetta to take up street art while Banksy makes a movie from Guetta’s miles of film—“Exit” becomes a hall of mirrors.

Guetta adopts the name “Mr. Brainwash,” and hires a workshop full of graphic artists to start mass-producing his own brand of saleable pop/street art. He then stages a large-scale art event featuring his work, rakes in hoards of crowds and cash, and becomes an over-night sensation. As the line between radical street artist and commercial opportunist begin to blur, the veracity of the whole story comes into question. Is this still a straight-ahead documentary or something much more contrived and manipulated? If so, at what point did it switch over? Is Banksy breaking the rules of documentary movie-making in the same way street artists break the rules of conventional art? Is the whole point of the film to condemn the ignorance and susceptibility of the public?

It seems to me that the film’s more significant message—that you should always question what is real—helps us answer the “what is art” question—especially when it comes to a new book, a new television show or a new movie. Are these truly the most important 50 paintings you should know? Are these 14 overly-constrained artists really creating great art, or just great entertainment? Do rule-following and art have anything in common? You get to decide.

The third episode featured a commercial art challenge: to make a book cover for a classic novel, and this artist's "Dracula" was judged a little to "slick" for first place.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Julia Child was a hacker

Embracing DIWO—the better way to DIY—at the Bay Area Maker Faire
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel June 5, 2010

I just learned a new definition for a word I thought I knew: hacker. A hacker—the hobbyist kind—does not have a negative association. It’s someone who makes innovative customizations or combinations of retail electronic and computer equipment. Put more simply, a hacker creates by combining things in a whole new way.

Perhaps hacking is at the essence of all American invention and innovation. Isn’t hacking what Julia Child did when she decided that the American housewife needed to learn to cook like the French? And wasn’t George Washington Carver hacking when he created so many uses for peanuts? And weren’t the founding fathers hackers when they dreamed up a country governed not by a monarch, but by its population?

I just attended my third Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo and came away more dazzled than ever before. The big picture—what Maker Faire is all about—is hacking, and hacking in such a way that everyone is part of the process. Children are learning to solder circuit boards right next to adults. Men are learning to crochet right next to women. It’s one big collaborative making frenzy, inspired by exhibitors large and small, who are there to amaze, educate, and share their particular passion.


If hacking is all about making new combinations, Maker Faire exhibitors showed us how. Some great combinations I witnessed were:

· The Human Powered Stage, which hosted hourly concerts, with mikes and amplifiers powered by audience members pedaling several stationary bicycles.

· The Coke and Mentos show, where two guys got drenched in sticky brown soda, and taught me why 108 2-liter bottles of Coke Zero and 648 Mentos candy can make a spectacular, synchronized geyser show.

· Musical iPhone apps, where I learned how to turn a cell phone into a trombone or a piano, and ways to connect and perform with other iPhone players throughout the world.

· Kinetic Steamworks, where a snow cone machine was powered by a 75-horsepower traction steam engine that belched steam and whistled periodically like a locomotive.


To get the audience on the road to hacking, Maker Faire gave its audience plenty of opportunities to learn and play:

  • Lego dumped a huge pile of their colorful plastic blocks on the floor, ready for assembly.
  • Sparkfun Electronics sponsored a SMD (surface mount device) workshop, with long tables and plenty of instructors to learn the basics of soldering circuit boards.
  • Lion Brand Yarn hosted beginner knitting and crocheting classes.
  • Singer provided sewing machines in the Swap-O-Rama-Rama room, where tables piled high with second-hand clothing and embellishments were ready to be cut, sewn and altered into totally new fashions.
  • The Maker Shed Store was full of how-to books and kits for sale—fun stuff like the electro-mechanical Blinkybug kit or more challenging stuff like the Daisy pocket-sized open source MP3 player kit.

DIWO (Do it with others)

If hacking is about working collaboratively, exhibitors also suggested some post-Faire ways to make that happen:

· is a virtual how-to and DIY community where people make and share step-by-step project instructions for free. Projects include just about anything you can make, and so, even if you consider yourself a more traditional crafts person, through weekly emails you’re exposed to everything from how to make Nutella cheesecake, to a mouse for people with hand disabilities, to an Altoids box barbeque, to a DVD drive iPod dock. Currently, Instructables has over 36,000 projects posted on their website, and they make it fairly simple to post your own. (I love this website.)

· Hacker Dojo is a non-profit actual community workspace for learning, sharing and making things. Located in their 600-square-foot facility in Mountain View, they hold classes, events, lectures, parties, DevCamps, DevHouses, and Hackathons. Their members make everything from code to robots to homemade bread, and believe in sharing not only ideas, but tools and materials. According to one member, “If it’s not nailed down you can use it.” They currently have about 150 members, and charge a monthly membership fee to cover overhead. Another Bay Area hackerspace represented at Maker Faire was Noisebridge in San Francisco.

· Make Magazine, who originally created the Maker Faire in 2006, publishes a quarterly magazine full of technology-oriented projects., the online version, keeps a list of hackspaces, groups, and other DIY organizations at Also see its sister,, for a wealth of craft projects and forums.

(As an aside to crafters without the technology background, don’t let wires and circuitry intimidate you. I threw my reticence aside, when I walked into a darkened exhibit hall at Maker Faire and saw a spectacular wearable computer fashion show, with textiles that sparkled and glowed with the help of conductive thread, fiber optic cable and LED beads. We can learn this stuff too.)

Some people might not find much merit in projects involving snow cones, Mentos or Blinkybugs. Of course Julia Child and George Washington Carver hacked their way into the history books with end-products as deceptively trivial as a cookbook and a jar of peanut butter. But I can’t help seeing the promise in the convergence of 80,000 people of all ages, over one weekend in May, gathering simply for the chance to learn, play, make and hack.

Note: If you missed Maker Faire in San Mateo this year, you can still catch the World Maker Faire in New York, September 25 and 26, 2010 at the New York Hall of Science. See for details.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Create Ceramics for the Garden

Santa Cruz County has all the Resources You Need
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 8, 2010

It’s Spring, it’s warm, and I’m outside again, digging in the dirt, schlepping bags of potting soil, rearranging plants, looking for ways to make my garden look well tended, fresh and dazzling. Last August, after visiting the Sierra Azul Nursery sculpture garden in Watsonville, I got this crazy idea to make a ceramic totem pole. There were some great examples at Sierra Azul, including works by Carole DePalma, Jenni Ward and Jane Reyes. Although I love lots of large-scale garden art, it’s often made with materials, such as steel and glass, which I expect might require some expensive cutting and welding tools and a large workshop. But ceramics seemed more doable, although I had to first overcome my three-dimensional art phobia.

Perhaps my 7-step history with ceramics is not uncommon:

  1. Had to take it in college (art major).
  2. Struggled on the wheel.
  3. Made lots of small, useless containers.
  4. Took a summer class.
  5. Learned to make pinched and coiled pots.
  6. Liked the cool, squishy feel of the clay, but never made anything satisfying.
  7. Convinced myself to stick with two-dimensional art in the future.

To begin my totem pole project I contacted an artist friend—Sally Diggory—who makes great ceramic garden sculpture and has a studio near my home. She was happy to teach me the basics in her studio. I brought in some photographs of shapes and pieces I liked, and we started with pinch pots.

Pinch Pots

Sally showed me how to start with two lumps of clay and end up with a rounded, hollow shape. The air trapped inside supports the shape until it is dry enough to poke a hole through. (Note: when creating a hole for sliding the pieces onto the center shaft of the totem pole, allow for shrinkage of the clay in firing.)


Sally showed me how to roll out the clay with a rolling pin between two sticks to keep the thickness of the clay uniform. She then showed me how to drape the slabs over molds for shaping and drying a bit, before removing the molds and joining the two pieces into a hollow shape.

If you don’t have an artist friend with a ceramics studio, these two techniques can be easily done at home, on your own, without a lot of space. First, get a good book on hand-built pottery. One I really like is Handbuilt Pottery Techniques by Jacqui Atkin. Then, check in your kitchen, bathroom and garage for items that can stand-in for the ones you might buy at an art store, such as:

Cutting wire: An 18-inch piece of thin wire, with the ends wrapped around two short dowels for cutting off wedges of clay from the slab

  • Large (about 24-inch square) piece of heavy canvas: Porous, non-stick surface for rolling out clay.
  • Wooden rolling pin: The longer the better, for rolling out slabs.
  • Two 18-inch pieces of wood, ¼ to ½-inch thick: These will act as roller guides on each side of the clay. The ends of the rolling pin rest on each guide to keep the thickness of the clay uniform.
  • Rasp blade: Use to pare down clay surfaces, create surface texture.
  • Small serrated knife: For cutting and trimming clay.
  • Tools: For carving, cutting holes, modeling, poking.
  • Large, flat wooden spoon: For beating, smoothing and texturing.
  • Sponge (natural is better): To smooth clay, remove glaze.
  • Brush and jar: To apply water or slip, and glaze.
  • Tools for shaping, texturing and stamping: These are everywhere you look. Credit cards cut into shapes, old mascara wands, buttons, flea comb, zippers, meat tenderizers, shells, etc.
  • Paint scraper: Useful for cleaning work surfaces.

(Note: Choose a well-ventilated room and an easily cleaned work surface. Avoid creating airborne dust by cleaning work surfaces, floor and clothing before spilled clay has a chance to dry.)

All of these materials can be found at Phoenix Ceramic Supply, located behind Costco in Santa Cruz. They also have a very knowledgeable staff to help you find the right clay, glazes and tools. Best of all, they can also fire your pieces onsite, with rates calculated by the amount of kiln space your piece requires. Finished pieces require a bisque firing and a glaze firing.

Clay Creation, just down the street from Charlie Hong Kong in Santa Cruz, offers another alternative: for a monthly fee, you an work in a studio space with all the clay, glazes, wheels, and tools you need in one place. In addition, instructors and classes are available several mornings and evenings each week, and they have an onsite kiln for firing. You can work at your own pace, when it’s convenient, and benefit from the inspiration, experience, and successes of other studio users.

Several artists in the county offer private classes. One is Jenni Ward, whose ceramic work (fanciful totems, flowers, and hanging pieces) can currently be seen at NewGarden Nursery in Live Oak—a relatively new retail venue for outdoor sculpture combined with unique plants in Santa Cruz.

(Clay Creation instructor Geoffrey Nicastro also has lovely cats and abstract ceramic pieces on display at NewGarden Nursery.) Jenni teaches classes at her Earth Art Studio in Aptos, catering to school-age kids. Her students are currently working on slab-built birdhouses, which will be for sale as part of Ward’s spring studio sale May 1 and 2.

I also took a recent workshop form Elaine Pinkernell, whose specialty is stoneware and raku wall pieces. She uses roofing paper as templates and to mold slabs into rounded shapes, and loves to create high-contrast textures—both very useful techniques in my totem pole project. Elaine teaches at Blossom Hill Crafts in San Jose, and at the Corralitos Cultural Center, which offers art workshops and includes the Corralitos Cultural Center Art Gallery, which currently is showing work by numerous local artists in a variety of media.

Since I started in September, I was hoping to have my totem pole completed by now, but other projects have delayed its completion. I’ve got three sections bisque fired and ready for glaze, and two more ready for bisque firing. I don’t know how cohesive the whole project will be in the end, but a ceramic totem pole has proved to be a good project for a beginner like me, in a county as full of resources and inspiration as Santa Cruz.

Resource list:

“Sculpture Is: 2010” at Sierra Azul Nursery and Gardens, (May 31 to October 31), 2660 East Lake Avenue (Highway 152), Watsonville,

Phoenix Ceramic Supply, 350-D Coral Street, Santa Cruz, (831) 454-9629

Clay Creation, 1125B Soquel Avenue, Santa Cruz, (831) 429-1645,

NewGarden Nursery & Landscaping, 2440 Mattison Lane, Santa Cruz, (831) 462-1610,

Earth Art Studio/Jenni Ward, (Spring studio sale May 1-2), 767 Cathedral Drive, Aptos, (831) 818-9569,

Geoffrey K. Nicastro,

Corralitos Cultural Center/Art Gallery, 127 Hames Road, Corralitos,

Elaine Pinkernell,