Saturday, June 1, 2024

The School: Lessons from the plague years


Because I often work with found materials and what could frankly only be called garbage, it's not unusual for friends to give me bits and pieces they think I could use. About two months ago a friend handed me a cotton covid mask they'd purchased from a museum, saying, "I thought you could do something with this."

Their donation reminded me I still had an entire drawer in my dining room I had cleared out at the start of the pandemic and then used only for Covid masks and gloves — before the science evolved and we learned that cotton masks aren't terribly effective while cotton gloves were worse than useless.

I dumped the drawer out on my table and studied it during idle moments for a week or so.

The covid stash

Once the "ah-ha" moment occurred I started to papier-mâché.

Papier-mâché fish

And fish by fish, the covid school emerged.

The final result, installed in a corner of my living room:

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

The Paper Bag People: An Interactive Art Experiment

 Why is the effect so visually and cognitively intriguing and puzzling when a human puts a paper bag on their head? I have been intrigued by this for years, and point to the best existing example I can think of that always serves as an inspiration: the Mask Series by Inge Morath and Saul Steinberg (

Inge Morath and Saul Steinberg

Steinberg's drawings on the paper bag masks turned what was probably already a pretty good Manhattan dinner party into a whimsical triumph.

But it turns out no drawing is necessary. The simple act of photographing someone with a bag on their head produces magical results and uncertain reactions, with no embellishment necessary. Here are a series of photos of family and friends that illustrate this point. Note that the "da"s were originally added to the photos as a nod to dadaism, but if you say them out loud as you scroll through the photos you will find yourself humming the tune of the Vienna Waltz.

Citroen Rally

The Dada Olympics

Sushi Tuesdays

The vivarium


So why do we humans find seeing a fellow human with a paper bag on his or her head so intriguing? I turned the problem over to ChatGPT, asking it to write a one paragraph response. I believe AI has nailed it:

"Photographs of people with bags on their heads have a strange and intriguing appeal because they distort our perception of identity and individuality. By covering their faces, these images create a sense of anonymity and mystery, allowing viewers to project their own thoughts and emotions onto the subjects. It also adds an element of playfulness and absurdity, as the act of wearing a bag on one's head is often associated with whimsy and humor. The juxtaposition of this unconventional accessory with the human form creates a visually striking and thought-provoking image that challenges our preconceived notions of beauty and identity. Overall, these photographs captivate and captivate us with their enigmatic and distinctive aesthetic." - ChatGPT

It is your turn to reclaim your sense of play. If you are looking for a way to see the world or your fellow man in an altered light, grab a paperbag and have at it. 

Monday, March 25, 2024

Gritty Urban Interactive Wear: Alarmed!


Does this woman look alarmed?

Well she is!

This fashion statement was inspired by a little gadget called "She's Birdie," a personal safety alarm (pull the ring out and you have a 130 decibel siren and a flashing strobe light). If you've read the news about Oakland, California lately you know that we are teetering on the brink of civil collapse and in a state of lawlessness that rivals those old Westerns we all grew up on. However, the weather is nice and I can't imagine living anywhere else. I decided on a whim to invest in this little budget safety alarm and while I have no idea whether or not it would actually deter a thief I figured it could easily become part of an ambulatory interactive piece.

The Birdie

The first step was converting a prime thrift store find: a gray linen jacket with wonderful pockets but lacking any front closure. I snipped some fabric out of the back side of one pocket (replacing the missing section with scrap fabric) and stitched plackets onto the top front of the jacket to support buttonholes for a pair of vintage buttons.

Jacket front 

The next step was creating a template for the back lettering. I chose Bookman Old Style Font at 188pt, and printed out the letters and punctuation I needed on one 8.5x11 sheet.

Bookman Old Style 188pt

The printed letters were used as a cutting pattern on crafting felt, and the felt letters were then stitched onto the back of the jacket.

Jacket back

Stitched felt letters

More stitched felt letters!

My hopes and dreams for this piece may be overly ambitious. I envision a conversation with one of the many strangers I encounter on my ramblings about town.

Them: You are alarmed? What are you alarmed about?

Me: No, no, this is not a philosophical or political or emotional statement - although I would say if you are not alarmed about the current global situation you would have to be brain dead. This is a simple statement of fact. I am literally alarmed!

I then wave the Birdie dangling from my neck and a good laugh is had by all. Sometimes I even imagine having this conversation with an armed mugger wearing a hoodie. We will see how it goes.

Heading out...

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Stitching Tea and Roots


Stitched roots on tea-dyed paper

The title of these two pieces says it all: "The feeling I think you're supposed to get when drinking tea...but I don't." 

For some reason, for decades people seem to assume that I love tea. As a result, whenever a gift-giving occasion comes along I usually end up with at least one gift pack of specialty teas and have even scored a teapot or two along the way. The tea always goes into a large brown shopping bag labeled "tea" that is stored in the dark recesses of my walk-in art closet. I have herbal teas, smoky English teas, gift packs of tea from Taiwan, and curative teas.  In one of those 2 a.m. idle moments the thought occurred that it might be interesting to see if they could be used as dyes. 

Experimenting with tea dyeing

After kicking off a round of experimental dyeing using strips of paper towels and an endless variety of teas, I turned to the other key ingredient in this project: bamboo and wild grass roots. (See Roots Project for earlier experiments with roots.)

Bamboo and native grass roots

A first step was separating and organizing the roots in preparation for stitching.

Organized roots!

Close-up of roots

Thence ensued a blissful interlude of stitching. The results are below and perfectly capture the original theme — that elusive, zen-like feeling I uneasily suspect you are supposed to experience while drinking tea.

Panel One (11" x 11")

Panel One detail

Panel One detail

Panel Two (11" x 11")

Panel Two detail

Panel Two detail

As a beverage, the point of tea continues to elude me. As a dye, however, it holds enough possibilities that my battered old bag of teas will remain in the art closet. And in future, when gifted with yet another gift pack of teas, my enthusiasm may be marginally less false.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Embroidering Blind Contour Drawings: The Sister Shirt

Blind contour drawings

Blind contour drawings are a fun, relaxing art exercise that supposedly improve your observation skills and hand-eye coordination. They can also make for some hilarious sessions with fellow artists. We've done several rounds of blind contour drawings on Zoom over the past few years since my sister and I formed a weekly maker group with her granddaughters during the pandemic. 

In our sessions, each of us chooses another person on the Zoom screen without telling anyone who we've chosen. We then start our drawing with the following rules: Don't lift your pen off the paper from start to finish; don't look down at what you are doing, just keep your eyes on the screen. After a set time period (about two minutes) we each show our drawings and the others guess the identity of the portrait subject.

The sister shirt (front)

During a gloomy interlude this winter featuring dark skies, damp chill, and atmospheric rivers, I searched through my closet for likely upcycling candidates and found this bright green linen thrift store find. Originally a long and frankly blah tunic with no pockets, the shirt was first transformed by cutting off a sizable portion of the bottom and converting those scraps into generous pockets. Vintage buttons from my collection embellished the piece.

Vintage buttons

Shirt back

The next step was to get my sometimes-hopelessly-spaced-out grandnieces and sister to send me their blind contour drawings. Once in hand I sorted through, picked out four, and transferred the drawings onto the shirt using carbon paper. The final step was stitching over the transferred drawings, adding "tethers" that extend to the bottom of the shirt so the heads look life floating balloons.

Blind drawing of Aleida by Nana

Blind drawing of Cici by Nana

Blind drawing of me by Nana

Blind drawing of Nana by Nana

You will note that all of the blind drawings used for the shirt were by the artist known as "Nana," my sister Judy, who has firmly and repeatedly identified herself as a non-artist. Blind contour drawing eliminates judgments and labels and allows everyone, no matter how they identify, to have big time fun. Nana's drawings were selected for this project because they simply suited the design best. The shirt is called the Sister Shirt because it depicts two sets of sisters, two generations apart.

A fun project from beginning to end.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Eco-Dyeing: A Lake Merritt Quilt

Lake Merritt Eco-dyed Quilt

When in doubt or the the throws of depression: eco-dye! This project, a hand-stitched, eco-dyed quilt, involved days of foraging along the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. The fabric is flour-sack Lito linen towels that I order in bulk from Amazon for both the quality and affordability. The leaves include eucalyptus, Japanese Maple, and rose.


Leaf journal

But first, a word about tools and techniques. I have been using a blank journal — one of many given to me over the years by people who felt the need to proffer a gift but had no idea what to give. I am sure that you, too, have one lying around the house unused. This one has the advantage of a strong elastic cord attached to the journal that keeps it firmly closed when not in use. As I was starting this project I noticed just how unlovely the commercially-designed cover of the journal was. I used Modgepodge, a brown paper bag, and gold paint to transform the unlovely object. It turns out that if you generously slather on the Modgepodge, you can decoupage a leaf collage onto the surface that will endure rough handling.

Journal innards

By keeping a leaf journal, you are able to forage at random all year long, press the leaves, and tap this rich resource whenever the mood for eco-dyeing strikes you.

Now back to the quilt:

The quilt is comprised of two layers of linen. While the top layer features eco-dyed panels, the flip side employs a variety of patterns using bits of raw turmeric root tied or stitched into the cloth, boiled, and removed.

Turmeric panels

In the past I have used long rows of vertical stitching to hold the two sides of a quilt like this together. This time I experimented with stitching around some of the eco-dyed leaves on the top side of the quilt, which produces stitched ghost outlines of leaves on the turmeric-dyed side.

Stitched leaf silhouette

Look closely to see stitched border on leaves

Making a quilt like this — from the ambling walks to forage for leaves to the slow, mesmerizing practice of hand-stitching — is one of the best ways I know to tune in to the universe and be here now.
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