Category Archives: art

petals and parasites

The garden is turning decidedly brown as the temperatures warm and the dry summer gets underway–Sounds like a perfect time to revisit high spring in the local foothills. Or maybe that’s just a ruse to get an excuse to show some photos I didn’t get to posting yet. Pick whatever motivation sounds good to you…

When I visited Crestridge Ecological Preserve last May the rock roses (Helianthemum scoparium) were announcing themselves assertively. The little low plants were at their peak and vibrated with dozens to hundreds of brilliant yellow five-petaled flowers on each plant.

And anywhere that you saw rock roses you’d see hundreds of rock rose petals beneath the plants. I was trying to decide what I liked better, the flowering plants, or the red earth beneath them, dusted gold with fallen petals.

Rock rose. Cool plant.

“Cool plant” might not be your first reaction to the dodder (Cuscuta californica) that was everywhere. Lacking chlorophyll, its only way of surviving is to latch on to a host plant and suck on its vital plant juices, depleting the host while growing extravagantly all over it.

Hillside with chaparral mallow, chamise, pearly everlastings, deerweed and...dodder (the gold, twiny stuff)

Someone on the trip pointed out that DNA work has established this as a member of the Convolvulaceae, the same family that includes Calystegia, the genus of native morning glories, as well as Convolvulus, the genus that contains the common garden morning glories. The new draft Jepson manual follows this classification.

Dodder doing its thing, with chamies, golden yarrow and Lakeside ceanothis in the background. Ooh, pretty...

If you’ve planted the garden morning glories, only to recoil in horror at how they coil over absolutely everything in their path, you’ll recognize the growth pattern that dodder adopts. Like morning glories, it twines like crazy. And, it’s parasitic! Extra bonus!! Dodder is an annual, so that even though it feeds off its host, it does so for only part of the year, mainly during the growing season when the host stands the best hope of keeping up with the dodder’s demands.

All that ickiness aside I happen to love how the stuff looks, twiny and golden, working its way through the landscape. Visually, it does what nothing else in the landscape does. I’m not the only person struck by its forms. There’s a fairly abstract, very modernist photo of dodder in Laguna Beach that was taken by Edward Weston way back in 1937. [ Check out the image at the Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson. ]

So, as far as I’m concerned: Dodder. Cool plant.

About the time I took this trip I happened to open up the Sunday comics to see the week’s Bizarro single-panel. I won’t stomp all over copyright and lift the image for here, but you can view it on Dan Piraro’s blog [ here ]. But let me try to describe it:

Night. Suburbia. Exterior of a house with a lawn and low, mounding foundation plantings. A sidewalk leads away from the front door. Tight shot of a couple who are leaving the house.

The woman, smiling, says to the man, “What terrific hosts.”

Behind them, in the doorway of their home, stands the host couple. Light spills out from indoors and onto the stoop. The man wears a pair of round black glasses, “Harry Potter glasses” you might say, though you sense that he was wearing them long before Harry Potter existed. He waves a weak farewell.

Next to him the hosting woman stands, her hands clasped. She does not look happy. She speaks.

“What incredible parasites.”

Who’d ever think that the host/parasite relationship would ever be material for the funny pages? Talk about timing, talk about coincidence, the trip to Crestridge, the dodder, the Sunday comic…

after the party

If your definition of a good party is one that gets the police called on it, my July 4th party was a failure. But by other standards I think it went pretty well. (The new garden bench was really appreciated and well-used.)

As you try to play host, the party can pass by so fast you don’t have time to really take it in. And before you know everyone has left and you’re left with what people didn’t eat or drink, plus all the things people bring along, edible and not.

Inventorying the drinks it almost looks like we have more cans and bottles than we started with. I guess people were scared to try this year’s weird/unusual beverage offering, Malta India, a sweet non-alcoholic drink from Puerto Rico. We ended up with eight out of eight bottles unconsumed. And there were gifts of a lot of sixpacks of things we didn’t start out with.

There was a gift of this patriotic chrysanthemum…

…and then this…

I’ve known San Diego artist Tom Driscoll for a while, and he brought along one of his recent pieces.

Tom Driscoll: Array 2, in a preliminary mockup before its exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. Gypsum cement and powdered pigment.

For several years now he’s been making casts in found molds–the packaging for various consumer products that we usually throw away–using gypsum cement and powdered pigment. Talk about recylcing.

Here’s a preparatory installation in his studio of a big piece, Array 2, that was featured in the Here Not There: San Diego Art Now exhibition last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

Tom Driscoll. Array 2, detail of installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. Photo: Elena Jacinto.

Here’s an alternate view, looking upwards, that lets you appreciate the physicality of the components.

Alexander Girard Quatrefoil fabric

If the only thing keeping you from bringing this piece home is that it might not match your sofa, you could reupholster your living room suite in this fabric, Alexander Girard’s 1954 Quatrefoil design, shown here in the “pink” colorway… (Image from

The piece that Tom brought to the party is a cast of packaging for a computer mouse. Although you look at the object and say “computer mouse,” the packaging was a simplified version of the original object. The resulting piece is more like a sketch of the original object, not a faithful reproduction. It looks great, but if you’re lucky you can complete the experience of the piece by holding it in your hand: cool, smooth, muscular and heavy, it looks and feels like an artwork crafted out of an exuberantly colored piece of stone. If Jean Arp or Constantin Brâncusi sculpted computer mice they might look and feel something like this. This is one seriously sensual object! And–yikes!–I actually have a red sofa it would match.

Thanks, Tom, and thanks to everyone else who contributed to making this a great day!

piece o’ history

Here’s the latest addition to the garden, a small chunk of the House of Hospitality in Balboa Park, a small chunk of San Diego architectural history.

In the late 1990s the city rehabilitated the building, one of many historic structures built as temporary exhibition spaces for the 1915 Panama-PacificCalifornia Exposition. The exhibit halls weren’t really intended to be a landmarks to pass into time immemorial. But the city has grown attached to these examples of Churrigueresque architecture, and the buildings are actively preserved.

(“Churrigueresque” refers to the Spanish/Catalan architect José Benito de Churriguera, who developed a fairly elaborate Rococo style of ornament that was picked up in Colonial Mexico. Bertram Goodhue and Carleton M. Winslow, the architects who worked on the Exposition, studied the style in Mexico and brought it a few miles north of the border. The over-the-top plaster details made for dramatic and escapist exposition buildings, but the details are high maintenance and can begin to fail over the years. It got to the point that the ornamentation was falling off the buildings and threatening to ka-bonk passers-by.)

“Preservation” of the building went through several phases, and eventually employed the wrecking ball. The old House of Hospitality was demolished and a new one erected in its place. To make sure that the new building closely resembled the original the old ornamentation was removed from the buildings and casts made. The new ornamentation is now made of glass-fiber-reinforced-concrete instead of the original horsehair-reinforced plaster.

Rather than landfilling the old architectural ornamentation, the interesting chunks were sold off to benefit the preservation efforts. And it was on a frantic Saturday morning in 1997 where we were able to fight off some of the most aggressive shoppers I’ve ever encountered to pick up this piece of local history. I’m pretty sure that my chunk of history comes from the tower in the photo above, from around the arches.

The fragment was really cool, but it sat in various corners of the house and my studio as we decided what to do with it. Last month we finally decided to liberate the piece back to the outdoors. Here’s its probably final resting place, attached to a long blank stretch of fence above the fishpond.

I don’t typically go in for lots of garden art or pieces of fake Roman artifacts sprinkled around a garden. But I was happy with how this relatively small chunk of Balboa Park serves as a cool focal point for a part of the garden presided over by a long, plain fence.

In demolishing the original building and dispersing its surfaces the city has managed an odd sort of preservation. Zoos and botanical gardens sometimes have the sad burden of keeping alive species that no longer exist in the wild. And my back yard holds a piece of a building that exists only in a facsimile of the original.

all shook up

Visitors to this part of the UCSD campus won’t forget that California is Earthquake country. Set at the edge of a walkway next to the landscaping are these pillars that have undergone simulated tremors on a jumbo shake table that can deliver a massive series of movements emulating the Big One.

Another hint that this is California lies in the fact that these are pillars modeled on those that keep our freeways high in the air. The structures lab here has worked with transportation agencies to try to develop safer structural components for bridges and overpasses.

During severe shaking the tremendously strong yet fragile concrete disintegrates, leaving the supporting steel which has flexibility but comparatively little strength to keep structures aloft. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a freeway with compromised supports like this.

The solution the structural engineers came up with is to wrap the columns in a material that bandages the concrete and keeps it from pulverizing into gravel. It almost seems too obvious a thing to do, but it looks like it really works when you compare these two pillars to the first ones I showed.

So, here in the middle of clipped hedges and mounds of orange lion’s tail, you have these six pillars, standing around like decaying Grecian columns or remnants of a garden folly in an Eighteenth-Century English garden.

Temple of Harmony SE Facade

This image is of the Temple of Harmony, a folly on the grounds of Halswell House, Goathurst, Somerset, courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons. (Image by Stronach, released to the public domain. Thank you Stronach!) Even though it’s far from this land with the shakes the Temple apparently has some trouble standing up. The Wikipedia description states that “it now has the addition of a tie bar, a long retaining bolt that runs through the structure from one side to the other, helping to keep it together.”

Maybe the Halswell Park Trust could take a clue from the clever Californians and wrap the Temple in fiberglass, though, yeah, it might look a little more like the work of Christo than that of Thomas Prowse, its original architect…

california native plant week, the cartoon

Here’s a little cartoon I whipped up this morning on Xtranormal, the site that lets you create and distribute your own animations without needing to really know what you’re doing. (When it comes to CGI, that pretty much describes me…)

It’s pretty much California Native Plant Week meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets Hello Kitty. And it’s a test of how well voice synthesis can deal with some common (and less common) scientific names.

Pixar, my number is (619) 555-0213.

concert review: concerto for florist

George Schlatter, creator of the late 60s/early 70s classic TV show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, recently said this about entertainer Tiny Tim of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” fame: “One time we filled his dressing room with flowers and he came out crying because he said we had killed the flowers!”–Quoted in the Los Angeles Times

Well, I didn’t cry, but by the end of the world premiere performance of Mark Applebaum’s Concerto for Florist and Orchestra many flowers had given their lives in the name of art. I wrote a quick post last week about this odd little bit of music theater that was going to be played by the La Jolla Symphony with florist soloist James DelPrince. Saturday night I went to the concert.

Some of the buckes of flowers before the soloist and orchestra took to the stage

Over the course of three movements the solo florist arranged flowers manically while the orchestra plunged into a score that had some really strikingly beautiful passages as well as some butt-kicking moments. In one of the movements the strings slid around in quietly dissonant clouds of sound while tuned gongs sounded above the clouds. In another the orchestra bounced along on tricky rhythms, egged on by the percussion. And at the end the ensemble pretty much fizzled out in an orchestrated dissolution of the music. All this time the florist attacked buckets of raw floral material and stabbed the stems into bricks of green florist foam.

The set piece that was constructed during the second movement

While all this was happening I kept withing the florist would disappear so that I could just concentrate on the music. I’m sure there were others who’d have preferred the orchestra take their dissonant chords home and let the florist arrange away in peace. Whatever. In the end it wasn’t much more than a stunt. Still, the stunt pretty much filled the hall, and the piece got more applause than you’d have experience downtown at the more staid symphony.

Part of the floral creation that was made during the third movement grand finale

Before the concert the composer had a chance to speak, and said something like how he was bored of a lot of regular music and that he’d “rather fail in an interesting way than succeed at doing something normal.” So yes, I think he managed to fail interestingly.

As far as the floral creations, they were nice enough, but I think I’ve seen much more compelling avant-garde arranging done. Just think of the amazing Japanese ikebana creations that you can see every now and then. The arrangements reminded me of the monster showpiece “cakes” that you see assembled on the reality TV subgenre devoted to cake decorating and cake decorating competitions. They’re always impressive because of the sheer size and fragility, but so often the ideas behind the cakes just seem trite. Sorry. I sound like such a snot sometimes.

At the conclusion of the Concerto for Florist and Orchestra everyone with a cellphone camera had to make their way up on stage to snap some shots of the finished arrangement

So, are there any reality TV shows devoted to florists? Florists working with stressed people trying to prepare for a wedding? Or dealing with grieving families after a loved one has passed on? Or working with the hapless bachelor trying to impress the new love interest with a pile of so many dead roses Tiny Tim would be bawling? If Bravo or Lifetime suddenly comes up with one, remember you saw the idea here first.

music for the eyes

Here’s a fun one: My local community/university orchestra will be premiering a new piece this weekend. Stanford University composer Mark Applebaum has composed a work for orchestra with a special, unusual soloist: a florist.

The Concerto for Florist and Orchestra riffs on the traditional notion of a concerto, where one or more virtuoso solists duke it out musically with an accompanying ensemble. In the new work, the orchestra will play and the florist will…presumably array flowers and leaves virtuostically all over the stage. Some musical concerto soloists have reputations for being high-strung individuals, and to my mind the new piece also riffs on the idea of florists sometimes having a reputation for being just as high-strung.

The work’s soloist will be James DelPrince, Associate Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences with a specialization in Floral Design and Interior Plantscaping Design at Mississippi State University. On his campus biography page DelPrince writes, “The aesthetics of horticulture involve recognition of the intrinsic beauty of plants and flowers along with the practiced skill of floral design and interior plant placement. I enjoy and value the opportunity to bring understanding and appreciation of floral and plant design to people.” And this weekend’s performance–the second time DelPrince has worked floral magic with Mark Applebaum’s music to accompany him–seems like a great way to bring some of that appreciation to a different sort of audience than people looking for something to decorate their wedding.

If you want more traditional fare, the all-concerto concert opens with Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, with Hannah Cho, winner of the orchestra’s 2009 Youth Artist Competition. Closing the evening will be another “conceptual concerto,” Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a concerto with no soloists at all other than members of the orchestra, all of whom will have to work pretty hard to play the score.

One of my music profs from many years ago, Robert Erickson, was famous for shutting his eyes when listening to performances. He wasn’t bored; he just didn’t want the visuals to get in the way of truly hearing the music. You won’t want to shut your eyese for Saturday’s and Sunday’s performances.

The La Jolla Symphony performs. Steven Schick conducts.

long, winding path

Sunday we went up to LA for a family birthday. While we were up there we stopped by Los Angeles Modern Auctions, which was having a preview for an upcoming sale that includes some really cool items by Ettore Sottsass, one of my favorite 20th Century designers. Paintings, sculpture, furniture, general stuff: you can see it for years in books and magazines but the experience of coming face to face with it can be pretty different.

Once of the not-by-Sottsass lots in the sale is this immense garden path designed by California ceramic artist Stan Bitters, a student of Peter Voulkos. Like Voulkos his work is inspired by the material of clay itself–And how can you get more earthy, more primal than clay? Ceramics, gardening, it all can come from the same place.

The path can be assembled in several configurations, and in this configuration coils more than forty feet long. The piece comes from the later 1960s, at a time when Bitters was working with a ceramics manufacturer that basically gave him 20 tons of clay to see what he could make out of it.

When someone gives you 20 tons of clay you make big things, and this is just one of many examples of the really really big artworks he started to create. Most of his works of that era grew out of collaborations with architects–Big work works really well outdoors.

His work is all over public spaces up in the Fresno area. In recent years he’s been doing public and private commissions in the Los Angeles and Palm Springs areas.

The garden path looked a tad cramped and out of place on display in a warehouse full of polished modern and postmodern furniture and art, but just imagine this snaking its way through a landscape. Very cool.

This was a path he made for his own home and garden, and it has a gentle casualness, a welcome lack of striving, that you can see in the private pieces artists make for themselves and friends. You can make out the casual, earthy surface details and glaze in this detail.

So if your garden needs a casual but still pretty stunning focal point here’s your chance. You’ll probably need to rent a very large truck to bring it home.

other people’s winter

I drafted this post on a plane back to San Diego after having spent most of week in Philadelphia for a conference. This particular conference has the perverse habit of holding almost all of its meetings in February, almost always in places where winters are less benign than California’s.

Philadelphia sunrise. This was about 3:30 a.m. San Diego time.

Last week I walked on snow, slipped on ice, and encountered sidewalks heaped with piles of dark, bleak urban snow. But I also saw still waterways encrusted with transparent ice, architecturally leafless winter trees, and stands of sturdy grasses asserting themselves through snow-covered embankments.

I didn’t die. I returned with all of my fingers and toes intact. But as beautiful as things were I felt out of place. Visiting other people’s winter was like visiting other people’s houses. You don’t know the rules. What can you touch? Where should you sit? When do you open the windows and doors on warm days?

Over time you can learn the rules and begin to feel comfortable in the strange house, but a week isn’t enough. It all still seemed exotic when I left.

These are a few shots from my exotic adventure, most of them taken the day after the conference concluded, most of them on a trip out to the Barnes Collection in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion.

The Barnes is best known for its important post-impressionist and early modern artworks, all of which are “permanently”* displayed in a gallery in the exact locations where its founder Albert C. Barnes placed them during his lifetime. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Cezannes and Renoirs stacked up on gallery walls in one location. It was thrilling and uncomfortably tight at the same time.

Outside the Barnes, in the arboretum

In addition to being one of the more important collections of post-impressionist and early modern art, The Barnes is also a small garden estate that calls the grounds an arboretum. This is a landscape of big trees and larger lawns. If you’ve read some of my other posts bashing lawns you’d probably never think you’d read me something nice about them, but here’s one thing: A lawn covered with snow gives you a sense of space similar to a lawn with no snow in the spring. It’s a flatness, whether the flatness is white or green, and the flatness serves as a uniform foil for the plants placed in it. You can still read the space and get a sense of how it would be during other times of year. Additionally I’d guess that it’d be easier to focus on the seasonal cycles when some things stay the same.

One of the plants with a label: Franklinia alatamaha. It originated in Georgia, but the little trees are now considered extinct in the wild there.
A little bonsai parked outside the greenhouse at the Barnes
The greenhouse was closed on Sunday, but you could peer inside and window-shop for a climate even warmer than California's.
An outdoor arrangement at the Barnes of evergreens and grasses

All you cold winter-dwellers will know these plants better than I do. The only IDs I have are from the plant labels placed generously around the grounds. But I was deterred by the blanketing snow to go exploring off the cleared paths. It’s back to that other people’s house thing. Was it okay to go traipsing all over the place, maybe stomping on some precious low plants I didn’t see under my boots? There wasn’t anyone to ask on my way out, so I tried to be the good houseguest and wandered off only a couple times–nothing equivalent to peeking in closets or checking for dust on the frames of the host’s Picassos.

One of the Barnes' neighbors who clearly feels the collection should remain in its current location.
The new home of the Barnes Collection under construction in downton Philadelphia

A note about my asterisked “permanently” above: Many of the paintings were removed for conservation in preparation for the entire collection about to be moved whole to a new building on Philadelphia’s museum row, a prime block of land with plenty of room for a small museum, but not enough for even a small arboretum. The major soap opera and powerplay behind the relocation are the subject of the recent documentary The Art of the Steal. Plants don’t have the same dramatic value as wars over eight-figure artworks, so not surprisingly there’s no discussion of the arboretum in the documentary. Also not surprisingly I didn’t see any copies of the film available for purchase in the official Barnes Foundation giftshop.

Along with lots of other gardeners I’ve gone all sad and nostalgic on how gardens seldom outlive the gardeners. The drama of this collection’s relocation tells you that a will with very specific instructions is no guarantee that things will be left as you envisioned. Art collections, lifetime gardens—nothing is forever is it?

sun and smoke

Here’s a quick invite to anyone in the area to check out my piece in the current Juried Bienniel at the William D. Cannon Gallery in Carlsbad. The show runs through March 18.

James Soe Nyun. Sun and Smoke, Video Still (Two Suns), 2010. Pigment print laminated to plexiglass, 18 x 36 inches.

This is a still from a video work in progress that uses still images that I took staring into the sun during the big October, 2003 Cedar Fire that was the largest of several firestorms that burned through this part of California.

This past October we didn’t get the intense dry winds from the desert that often hit that time of year. Instead, we’ve been getting those Santa Ana winds now, making for a warm winter, with humidity down into the teens or single digits.

I’ll take a warm winter over a hot October. But the intense fire weather will be back as sure as this is California. No paradise is perfect.