Sunday, May 11, 2014

Vivian Maier and Jon Sarkin
Artists by strange circumstance
Also: Cabrillo Extension, Aromas Garden Tour, and Bay Area Maker Faire
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel May 2 and May 9, 2014

“Finding Vivian Maier,” currently showing at the Nickelodeon Theatre,
 is the critically acclaimed documentary about a mysterious nanny, who
 secretly took over 100,000 photographs (including this self-portrait) that
 were hidden in storage lockers and, discovered decades later. Some consider
her one of the 20th century’s greatest urban street photographers.
Finding Vivian Maier
I’m hoping I have the chance to see “Finding Vivian Maier” (currently showing at the Nickelodeon) at least one more time before it’s gone. I loved this documentary about a mysterious woman, who knew she was a good—maybe even great—photographer, but kept her massive body of work hidden away until the day she died. She worked in New York and Chicago as a nanny for over 40 years, had no close family or friends, and even the families she lived with were unaware of her passion and unusual talent for photography.

She was born in New York in 1926, moved back and forth to France with her mother, and returned to New York as an adult in 1951 where she was hired as a live-in nanny, and purchased her first serious camera: a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex. On her days off she wandered the streets of New York, documenting urban America. 

When she moved to Chicago in 1956, Maier was nanny to three boys, and had access to a darkroom, which allowed her to develop film and make prints. After the boys were grown, she bounced from family to family, accumulating hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film. By all accounts—from her employers and the now-grown children she helped raise—she was an eccentric, fiercely opinionated, intelligent and intensely private person. Some implied that she may have been mentally imbalanced as well. Making photographs must have been Vivian Maier’s way of understanding the world, and finding her significance within it. She didn’t need any more than that.

Maier’s massive body of work—kept in delinquent storage lockers—would come to light when, in 2007, cardboard boxes of her negatives were purchased at a local thrift auction house by a Chicago real estate agent, John Maloof. Ever since his remarkable find, Maloof and others have dedicated themselves to collecting her work, constructing and printing an archive, and promoting her rare talent through the making of a film and gallery exhibitions around the world.

View her beautiful black and white street photographs and read more about Vivian Maier at

Cabrillo Extension SummerArts Program
May EL Wire Class Land Sharks (photo by Tina Baine): Todd
 Williams, who will be teaching in Cabrillo Extension’s
 SummerArts Program, likes to take his remote-controlled EL wire
  land sharks to Maker Faire Bay Area each year, thrilling the
 crowds as them “swim” around one of the darkened exhibit halls.
EL Wire expert Todd Williams shows his Cabrillo Extension class, how to 
work with electroluminescent wire. Explorations in EL Wire 101 is just one 
of 33 community art classes being offered this summer at Cabrillo College.
 For a tour of the amazing art facilities, exhibits student work and
 demonstrations, come to the “Art Party!” at the Visual Applied & 
Performing Arts (VAPA) Open House on Saturday, May 17, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
In order to make the impressive Cabrillo College visual art facility more available to the people who paid to build it (see your property tax bill), and to offset the fact that CabrilloArts (community courses) will be taking a one year hiatus starting next fall, Cabrillo Extension is offering an unprecedented 33 SummerArts classes beginning this June, including 21 new classes that have never been offered before. The selection is broad and tantalizing, and includes stop-motion animation, handmade teapots, stained glass and steel-based furniture. I took the Explorations in EL (Electroluminescent) Wire 101 class from Todd Williams last year, and I can attest to the high-quality of the facilities and equipment available at Cabrillo, and the value of learning from a professional, experienced artists.

Workshop Coordinator Patrick Stafford says Cabrillo Extension is also offering something new for teens this summer. “There will be 2 one-week sessions in which [middle and high schoolers] will be able to experience a sampling of most of the different media taught in the art department,” says Stafford. In DiscoverArts Camps, teens will have the opportunity to experience ceramics, jewelry making, woodworking, collage, screen printing, painting, 3D assemblage, blacksmithing, camera-less photos and hacking toys (ala Sid from Toy Story). To register go to

Maker Faire
The next Maker Faire Bay Area is coming up soon, May 17 and 18 at the San Mateo Event Center. If you’ve never attended this making-frenzy-fest before, I promise you won’t be disappointed. There is so much to see and do—from high- to low-tech DIY—so plan to arrive early and spend the entire day (or two). For details and advance tickets go to

Candy-colored irises stretch over a broad hill-side at one of the stops on the Aromas Country Garden Tour, held Saturday, May 10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Aromas Garden Tour
Sponsored by Aromas Hills Artisans, this year’s garden
 tour held the day before Mother’s Day, will featur
e artists in each garden, demonstrating their talents.
If my mother lived nearby, I would treat her to a day of exploring country gardens and art on the Aromas Garden Tour, held May 10, the date before Mother’s Day. Local artists will be stationed in each garden, painting irises, carving or weaving guitar straps, with some of their wares for sale. In my opinion, the three not-to-miss gardens are the iris gardens, where you can see hundreds of these candy-colored rhizomes in bloom and pick out ones you’d like to own; the protea farm with these incredibly large and extraordinary South African flowers, blooming on a lovely hill overlooking Aromas; and—because it’s time to replace your thirsty lawn—the brand new, drought-tolerant demonstration garden behind the Aromas Water District, with drip irrigation and all plants labeled. For details, go to
Jon Sarkin: When Brain Trauma Results in Art
I just finished reading “Shadows Bright as Glass” by Amy Ellis Nutt, the remarkable story of a man who became an artist overnight, with an obsessive need to create. In 1988 Jon Sarkin was suffering from tinnitus, hearing a continuous, high-pitched screech that grew louder and shriller every day until it was nearly deafening. After months of seeking treatment, he resorted to radical brain-surgery, from which he suffered a major stroke. To reach the clot and save his life, his surgeon had to carve away thin layers of his brain. During surgery his heart stopped twice, depriving his brain of oxygen. When he awoke later, he was a completely changed man--emotionally detached from his wife and child, and, although he tried, unable to return to his normal working life as a chiropractor.

Jon Sarkin is described on his website as “a prolific, 
even compulsive, artist who creates elaborate drawings
 and paintings cluttered with words and images.” Sarkin
 became an obsessive artist overnight after complications
 during brain surgery. (Courtesy of Princeton Day School)
The transformation was very difficult for his family, but even harder on Sarkin, who not only knew that he lost a part of his brain, but that he had lost his identity as well. Nutt’s book chronicles this prodigious alternation in Jon Sarkin’s personality and sense of self, and how making art became the bridge back to a meaningful life. For me, the transformation of Sarkin from a hard-working family man who occasionally sketched and painted, to someone who had become completely consumed with the need to make art, says a lot about the brain’s belief in art’s ability to provide answers.

For Sarkin, his brain was working overtime to solve the essential problem: Who was he? “He knew he was consumed with getting his thoughts and sensations down on paper, as if only then, looking at the colors and shapes and words, would it all come together into a pattern and make sense of his past and his present,” writes Nutt.

Jon Sarkin’s cluttered, stream-of-consciousness, crazy quilt style is anything but linear, but it has caught the attention of the art and publishing world, where his work has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, ABC Primetime, This American Life, GQ, ArtNews, and galleries in New York, Los Angeles, and around the world. I encourage you to see Sarkin’s work at

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