More than a calendar: A tradition

Gallery

This gallery contains 13 photos.

In 2005, we traveled thousands of miles, aboard sailboats, ferries, buses, trains, canoes, and bicycles to reach the site of the claim that kicked of the 1897 Gold Rush. That Christmas, we compiled the breathtaking photos into our first calendar. … Continue reading

Still Life With Fruit

There are critical foods that I lack,
So I pedal with trailer and pack,
To buy berries and greens,
And some snappy fresh beans,
And it’s only 12 miles, out and back.

I admit, I ate a few of the strawberries while I was making the drawing below. I bet Cezanne and Caraveggio were sometimes tempted to eat the stuff they were painting, too. You can find thousands of beautiful fruit still-lifes on Google Images.

Drawing of fruits and vegetables

Fresh local food

Beauty and goodness are in the air

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,
And one woman’s work is another one’s pleasure.

Painting Flutterby's name with a marl-stick

Painting Flutterby’s name with a marl-stick in 2010

On a warm, sunny day like last Saturday, the boatyards are full of all kinds of painters. You can tell the bottom-painters by their green or blue hair. Topsides-painters don’t usually have colorful hair, just colorful language. Every gnat who drops an infinitesimal bit of dust on their perfect mirror finish provokes a new and interesting batch of swear-words.

Less common are the traditionalists who paint the name of their boat, using a marl-stick, instead of ordering vinyl stickers. I didn’t know what a marl-stick was before I painted “Flutterby” on the side of Flutterby.

The least common painters are the women I saw last Saturday, who had colorful smocks and sweaters instead of colorful hair and language. Before they began, they walked around the yard, holding up their fingers to make little rectangular frames. Then they set up their French box easels and went to work on pristine white canvases.

They were “plein-air” painters: People who go outdoors to paint pictures. They follow in the tradition of artists like Money, Pisarro, Van Gogh, and Renoir, taking advantage of natural light to create images on location.

Average-looking fiberglass sailboat with lots of junk around it

Average-looking fiberglass sailboat with lots of junk around it

But here, in an industrial boatyard, full of heavy equipment?

I struck up a conversation with one of the painters, commenting, “Every day, I ride my bicycle five miles to the library to draw. Then you guys drive all the way out here to paint!” “Oh, you should join us,” she told me, earnestly.

I shook my head. I couldn’t take a day off just to paint a pretty picture.

I asked what brought them out to the boatyard, because she’d told me she came from Fernandina Beach, about 45 minutes away. “We love the shapes of the boats,” she said, looking over my shoulder at a row of hauled-out sailboats. I turned and took in the scene. I saw a compressor, an orange pylon, a blue plastic kayak, a small RV, and in the middle, an average-looking fiberglass boat with a lot of stuff on the deck.

Then I looked at her painting. She had simply painted the maroon and white sailboat, capturing the classic lines of the yacht and the marshes behind it. All the ugly stuff was absent.

Artist working on her painting of a sailboat

Artist with painting of sailboat

Suddenly, the whole boatyard looked different to me. “It’s about what you leave out, isn’t it?” I said, more to myself than to her.

In the days since then, I’ve looked at this place through new eyes. I’ve noticed the lines of the tugboat against a dazzling sunset. I’ve noticed the perfect reflection of a rusty crane in the water. I’ve noticed some breathtakingly colorful oil slicks.

For years, I’ve been telling Barry that living in boatyards is no fun, that these places don’t speak to my “artist’s soul.” But if artists are driving out here deliberately, in order to make art, I’d better rethink that perspective.

There’s a wonderful lesson for all of us from the plein-air painters. We see what we choose to see. No matter where we are, we can choose to see beauty and goodness with a little imagination.

Painting of a boatyard in front of the boats

This artist made a dumpster look romantic and added a shipwright who didn’t exist

~

 

Choose ART, or how I got my fluffy

This is my third blog entry about Choose ART. You might also enjoy the gallery itself, and the entry about the construction of the piece entitled, “Grabbing a Tiger by the Tail.”

In 2012, for the first time, I got a “fluffy.” It was a proud moment for me, and I felt more validated as an artist than when I received my B.F.A. in painting and sculpture.

Meps installs the fluffy

With the help of her Winnie-the-Pooh backpack, Meps drives the fluffy into the ground, showing where CHOOSE ART will be installed at Burning Man 2012.

The “fluffy” is nothing more than a silver disk, actually a CD, with a construction nail and a tuft of pink plastic whiskers. On the disk are written, in black magic marker, the name and number of your art piece. On the vast surface of the desert at Burning Man, the fluffy’s importance is to show where your art goes.

By the time you’ve gotten your fluffy, you’ve not only created a large piece of art, you’ve documented that art. You’ve made sketches and submitted a written description of it to the Burning Man organization. You’ve told them how you plan to light your art and keep it safe, and how you will make sure it doesn’t leave “moop,” or trash, behind on the surface of the playa.

Based on your written submission, the art team has decided where to situate your piece. That way, the city is totally full of art, without it being concentrated in one place. They also give a map to every person who comes through the gate, showing where all the art is.

To get our fluffy, my artistic partner, MacGyver (aka Philip), and I went to a place called “The ARTery.” Like a real artery, this place is the lifeblood of the event, yet we take it for granted. We were greeted by volunteers who treated us like royalty, who made it clear that our title is Artist. They reviewed our submission and showed us where they’d placed us on a large map. “Is this OK?” they asked. After we asked to be moved further away from the loud sound stages, a couple of field operatives armed with a GPS took us out in a golf cart.

When we arrived at our spot, they again asked, “Is this OK?” We nodded, and then they handed me the fluffy. I personally drove the nail into the ground with a mallet, and when I stood up, we had a little ceremony of congratulation, with hugs all around.

Of course, this simple, exhilarating moment was followed by three days of exhausting setup in driving dust storms.

It was worth it, because I like art. I like it a lot. I like to make it, and talk about it, and look at it, and play with it. I like to encourage people to think about it. I love to inspire it. I’d worked hard to inspire this art — it wasn’t just mine.

Many artists listen to music while they work. In 2011, I had an idea to take that one step further. Just as we convert music into dance through our bodies, I wanted to convert music to art, and then take that art to Burning Man.

The progression goes like this: An artist chooses a song that inspires them to create a piece of art. A passer-by chooses that piece of art, which starts the music playing. That music, combined with some intriguing lights, inspires them to dance. Now we’ve merged music, art, and dance into one experience. What will come from that merged experience?

With this in mind, I created a list of 30 eclectic songs, ranging from the Weiner Blut waltz to the Hokey Pokey. I sent them to artists and photographers, and eight people began creating art for the installation.

For myself, it was exciting, as well as completely intimidating, to sit down and make “real” art on paper. Despite having a degree in painting, I haven’t given myself permission to do this in many years. But Burning Man is about giving ourselves permission to try all kinds of things. I even gave myself permission to fail, knowing that I might have to tear something up and start over.

As I was finishing up my last painting, the other pieces of art began to arrive, and I was completely awed. Wow! I wanted everyone in the world to know about the incredible artists I had discovered, who had been inspired to make beautiful pieces simply by sounds. I was the proudest curator on the planet.

We sent the art out for high-quality scanning and had it reproduced on special material used in the sign industry, so that it could be backlit at night. To my surprise, when it came back, the images were vivid both ways, with or without the backlighting. Now, instead of a nighttime-only installation, we had art that could be enjoyed 24 hours a day.

The problem was, playing music without the dancing lights didn’t make sense. So I contacted the artists and asked them to record an artist’s statement that we could play during the day. The recordings I received were not only thoughtful and interesting; some were theatrical and others poetic or lyrical. In them, I heard the same creative spirit that inspired the art.

In August, I turned my attention to signage and final painting of the installation. I needed something that would draw people’s attention and give them some instructions, but I didn’t want to upstage the art itself.

I’d originally envisioned a big sign at the top that said “Mating Shadows,” but as the time came to create it, I dragged my feet. I later ran across this quote, by Tom Price of Burners Without Borders, that explains exactly what I was struggling with:

“(Burning Man) is the epitome of an unbranded event. It is the anti-brand.”

How could I make a sign to attract people without branding the art? That’s when a bolt of inspiration struck me:

CHOOSE ART

It was so simple! In just two words, I could provide the instruction: “Come over here and choose a piece of art” as well as deeper meaning: “Choose art as a way of life.”

The CHOOSE ART sign at night

Barry and I designed and created the CHOOSE ART sign together. It was one of our most satisfying collaborations.

To avoid creating a brand, I accidentally created a movement.

As I designed the lettering and did the woodworking on the sign, something inside me was changing. I gave myself permission to play the piano every day. I gave myself permission to sing. I got up and sang a solo, a capella, in front of 50 people. I wrote poems. I made theatrical recordings layered with music. I danced. I didn’t just appreciate the creativity of others, I reveled in it. I was the poster child of Choose ART.

Once the art was installed at Burning Man, I went to visit it every day. It was far out in the desert, but it was never lonely. Every time I went out there, people on foot, bicycles, and art-cars came to look at the pictures and talk. Often, they snapped a picture of the Choose ART sign.

We’d had some t-shirts made, and I noticed thoughtful smiles and nods when people read the words on the front: “Choose ART.” We began to talk about where we could set the installation up after Burning Man. We began to talk about how to improve it, keep it new and fresh. We began to call it “Choose ART,” instead of “Mating Shadows.”

The movement was taking on momentum.

Today, it is still gathering inertia. We’ve modified the design to make it easier to set up in a variety of environments, and tweaked the electronics to make the lights work better. You can sit at home, view the art, and listen to the artists’ statements right here on mepsnbarry.com.. I even made a CafePress store where you can buy a shirt or a canvas bag to show off your favorite piece of art and spread the Choose ART message.

How do you Choose ART? Do you make it, talk about it, look at it, play with it? Let yourself be inspired by our project. Give yourself permission to create, and watch what happens.

 

Grabbing a tiger by the tail

Meps unveiling the art

Meps unveils the artwork for the first time at Burning Man

Eleven months ago, I grabbed a tiger by the tail, and when it took off, I didn’t let go. As is often the case with tigers that one is holding by their rear-most appurtenance, I didn’t recognize it at the time.

It started so innocently. Barry and I were sitting in Philip and Linda’s backyard, in Santa Clara, California. “Take a look at these,” said Philip, whose Burning Man playa name is “MacGyver.” He held up a couple of mysterious little metal boxes. Then he wired them to a power supply (using duct tape, chewing gum, and his Swiss Army knife) and turned them on. The backyard was flooded with intensely bright, colored light.

“They’re LEDs,” said Philip. “I’d like to do something with them at Burning Man,” he said. He went on to say that he envisioned people dancing in front of the lights, casting long shadows across the desert.

I took the bait and jumped out of my chair to dance around the backyard in front of the lights, making shadow-puppets. I could see what he meant. Wouldn’t it be fun to play with these bright lights at Burning Man?

Barry and Philip starting talking about how to feed a sound signal through the lights, so they would change color and intensity in time to music. Linda suggested that the music should be something more varied than Burning Man’s ubiquitous dubstep. I said people should be able to select the music, but the selection process should be engaging and mysterious.

The brainstorming continued across the country for the next couple of months, and in January, Philip and I submitted an art grant. We didn’t get an honorarium, but by then, we had put so much work into it, we were committed. We scaled the costs back as much as possible and decided to go for it.

Colored pencil illustration of Mating Shadows installation

Mating Shadows concept sketch

In my concept drawing, four speakers face into the center of a cirle, with the bright lights mounted on scaffolding in the middle. To one side is a free-standing art gallery displaying 16 pieces of backlit art, each with a single unlabeled button. Pressing a button would play the music and activate the lights, but the only indication of what kind of music to expect would be the artwork itself.

It looks so simple. Behind the scenes, though, is a massive year-long effort.

Mating Shadows, as it came to be known, started with 4 friends in the backyard and grew to involve about 15 people, including engineers, fabricators, and artists from as far as Australia. Barry and I stored our boat on the east coast, flew to San Francisco, and worked on it off and on all summer. Philip retired from his job and dedicated his time to it. By then, Linda had shifted her work schedule to part-time, so she had mornings off.

The Mating Shadows team created and integrated custom electronics and software, an amplifier, backlighting, safety lighting, underground cables, signage, and batteries. Some efforts were multiplied by 16, such as installing 16 switches with 16 circuit boards. We recorded 16 sound files for daytime operation and selected 16 playlists for nighttime operation. Eight artists created the 16 pieces of art, taking inspiration from their choice of 30 songs.

To call it an eclectic team would be an understatement. Some were old friends or relatives, like Linda’s cousin, Claire. Others, intrigued by my posts on Burning Man discussion boards, contacted me by email. Scary volunteered to transport our baby to the playa, carefully packed in the back of his mutant vehicle, the Cuddle Shuttle. Managing the efforts of such creative, energetic, brilliant people was a lot like having a tiger by the tail.

If you think this is aggrandizement, let me introduce you to some of our quirky construction crew:

Four members of the setup team

Claire, Roger and Linda help Philip wire the speakers in a dust storm

Primary Conceptualizer & Lord of Small, Fussy Parts: MacGyver (aka Philip Wilson)
When I met MacGyver 3 years ago at Burning Man, I simply noted that that he gave great hugs. I later learned that this giant guy with huge hands and size 16 feet has incredible focus and dexterity. He can painstakingly, lovingly solder miniscule, elaborate electronics in the middle of a full-blown dust storm.

Illuminator & Magical Maker of Things: Big Barry Stellrecht
If you’ve read this blog before, you know that my husband can create or fix just about anything on a boat. The great thing about his involvement with Mating Shadows was that it did not have to float, so he worked twice as fast, with half as much stress. The only stressful thing was the lack of good tools; he was forced to do unspeakable things with a circular saw. Philip just shook his head, saying, “Barry is amazing.” To which I replied, “This is nothing. You should see what he can do with a table saw.” When Philip later found out he’d had access to a table saw all along at his Mom’s house, Barry almost cried.

Reticent Enabler & Secret One-in-Charge: Lucky Linda Knepper
The miracles Linda accomplished with her mornings never ceased to amaze me. Parts and materials appeared right when we needed them, wood surfaces got primed and painted, and a critical piece of wood that the amazing Barry miscut was replaced by a correctly-sized one.

Philip and Jason conduct a software meeting on the couch

Philip and Jason conduct a software meeting on the couch

Superhugger & Mastermind of Bits & Bytes: Jason Hollister
Jason, an old friend of Philip and Linda’s, showed up one day to write the software. I provided him with a carefully-written description of the user interface, but he made it clear that he needed more of something before he could begin. I finally realized it was chips and salsa, not documentation, that his programming required.

Virtuoso Craftsman Extraordinaire: Archimedes (aka Blaine Gilruth)
We met Blaine and his wife, Suzy, at the boatyard in North Carolina. They started outfitting a boat at the same time we did, but they finished, took it out cruising, sold it, and moved back to the west coast before we even made it out of the boatyard. When Blaine volunteered to help with construction, I was super-excited. Now I would see first-hand how he gets 12 hours worth of quality work done in 37 minutes.

These two members of the setup crew are extra-special, because they are also two of the artists:

The setup crew on the playa

The setup crew watches Suzy work. L to R: Big Barry, Lucky Linda, Rumi-Nator (Roger), Archimedes (Blaine), Halcyon (Suzy), MacGyver (Philip).

Renaissance Woman: Halcyon (aka Suzy Gilruth)
We had a serendipitous moment at Burning Man last year, after placing my brother Stevie’s ashes in the temple. I walked out of the building and right into Suzy and Blaine, probably the only people at Burning Man who had met my brother. Suzy showed me the beautiful piece of artwork she had made on the temple wall, which is how I knew I wanted her art in our gallery. She was probably the most multi-talented member of our team, creating four completely different art pieces and performing four audio recordings to go with them. On-playa, she provided the t-post driver (“It’s mine, not Blaine’s,” she told me), drove fenceposts and rebar, dug and covered trenches, ran wires, and did it all while looking cool as a cucumber in a ruffled green mini-skirt and a pink Choose ART top with spaghetti straps.

The Man Who Can Do Anything, But Doesn’t Know It: Roger Cunningham (aka Rumi-Nator)
We chanced upon Roger one Christmas Eve in Vero Beach, Florida, where we rafted up with his boat in the mooring field. I’m sure he had the only dreadlocks in town. He was taking his boat to Key West, and although we haven’t rafted since, we’ve ridden buses together in Miami and shared margaritas at a Hooters in Jacksonville. Roger provided two photographs and audio recordings for the installation — somehow managing to include the phrase, “a quivering, slobbering mess of capitulation.” He showed up on our doorstep in Santa Clara in August, told us he was lousy at soldering, the proceded to make a liar out of himself by soldering together the entire backlighting system. At Burning Man, he cheerfully volunteered for both setup and takedown, looking just as good as Suzy, but not as modest.

Artsy-Fartsy Conceptualizer & Design Dominatrix: Me
Reading back over what I’ve written about my friends, it is aggrandizement! Since I’m too humble to say such things about myself, I’ll just admit that I worked with power tools, did not cut off any appendages, packed the artwork, arranged transport, did setup and takedown at Burning Man, and performed a tiny bit of behind-the-scenes project management. The next time I write, I’ll tell you more about the artists, my first experience having “placed art” at Burning Man, and why the Mating Shadows sign said “CHOOSE ART.”

Roger, soldering

Roger revisits a lifelong belief that he can’t solder

Me, with the router and the Choose ART sign

Me, with the router and the Choose ART sign

Barry with the danged circular saw

Barry with the danged circular saw

Blaine at work

Blaine started digging trenches at 7:30 in the morning and didn’t stop for many photo ops.

Philip soldering

Philip soldering in the backyard. The paper bags hold small, fussy parts.

Closeup of Philip soldering

Philip solders parts on one of the small boards

Roger's legs

Roger’s legs are not just behind the console…

Roger, working under adverse conditions

…he’s inside it! I think he’s used to working in tight spaces, given the size of his boat.

Suzy runs cable

Suzy runs cable to the speaker poles