Sunday, March 28, 2021

Roots Project: The Way of Good Advice


This is the third in the initial series of experiments working with native grass roots, and the last work that incorporates the original planter, with the dried grass above and the roots below.

I had been mulling over the frustration of elders who, having suffered a long haul of human existence and gathered what seem convincingly like core, universal truths and strategies for living, find that there is an insurmountable communication barrier — the young appear to be utterly indifferent to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In this way are we any different from the octopuses, orphaned at birth, who have to learn everything from scratch and then proceed to take all of the knowledge their brilliant little brains have accumulated with them when they die?

I used Chinese good fortune paper, normally burned as an offering for dead ancestors, to write down a few key things I have learned over the last 72 years, rolled them into beads, and used them in this piece.

Step one: transcribing wisdom

Step two: transforming wisdom into beads

The assemblage utilizes a rather gorgeous clump of Reed Manna grass, the roots removed from the hydroponic bath and gently, gently teased apart with a toothpick. Finally, the roots were carefully threaded through the beads of wisdom.

The final piece


And there the advice remains, available, unseen, beneath the surface. It occurs to me at this stage that perhaps, while the advice is never directly imparted or communicated, the fact that it was accumulated somehow magically translates into the structure and growth of the plant. It's a hope anyway, and a very vague, dimly understood metaphor.

For more about this continuing experimental work with roots, see The Roots Project.


Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Roots Project: The Beginning


Indian grass (left) and Reed Manna

The Roots Project began during the Covid-19 pandemic, has continued for the past six or seven months, and is ongoing, with new experiments growing as I type. The project began when I lifted some wheat grass up out of the hydroponic system I was growing it in and noticed how wonderfully fascinating the roots were. I "harvested" the wheat grass a little later, lifting the roots entirely out of the water, and hung the whole thing to dry. Then I found a little spaceman in one of my bins of rubble, and the result was the first piece in the Roots Project.

Roots bottle series #1

Roots bottle series #1

Roots bottle series #1

I decided to take a deep dive into working with roots and seeing what was possible. The first step was to order three different types of native grass seeds: Indian Grass, Reed Manna, and Winter Wheat. The hydroponic system I have been using for years, fashioned from recycled plastic soda bottles, was already ideally suited for root growth and harvesting.

Hydroponics using recycled soda bottles

Grass varieties used

Within a month I had a little prairie growing in my front windows overlooking Lake Merritt in Oakland.

The prairie

This long, slow art project was ideally suited for floating through pandemic isolation with a measure of calm. I had only to wander up to the living room and watch the grass grow and see how the roots were developing to feel I was accomplishing something.

Below is the first of the harvest and the second in the Roots bottle series.

Roots bottle series #2


Another close-up

This piece is made from Indian Grass, which has a lovely red tinge to its roots. Tucked inside the roots is a small, corked vial with a message inside. And yes, I wrote the message, but because of pandemic-brain have absolutely no memory or idea at this point of what that message says. Which works perfectly with roots and buried memories, and loss and the passage of time, and the messages that never get delivered — from words of love to sage advice.

Another early experiment was the hanging shown in the first photo in this post and again, below. The hanging itself was too latter-day-hippie and ho-hum for my sensibilities, but it was my first foray into teasing the roots apart and learning how strong they are, and how different the roots from different grasses look. 

Pink-hued Indian Grass (left) and the stronger, white Reed Manna

A series of posts will follow over the next week or two, illustrating how I began to become a little more bold in working with and manipulating the roots, moving on from the bottle series to jewelry fashioned from roots, to a collaborative jewelry project that involves actively working with the roots as they are growing. Stay tuned. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Funerary Art: Souvenirs from the Bardo

First Journey: Bardo Beads

Bardo Beads

My lifelong friend and traveling companion of 51 years left the planet on January 12. In Tibetan Buddhism they believe the soul passes from death into the bardo state - a realm I envision as a jungle or forest with a lot of confusing adventures in store. The goal in the bardo is to strip away the illusions, fears, and misbegotten ideas about reality and to see reality stripped bare, to see the light of raw being and to go for it. Meanwhile, all of your old fears and ideas and character defects appear to you as hallucinations, attempting to trick you into buying into the same old burdensome reality you just escaped in your last life.

The bardo journey lasts for 49 days, after which you are reborn (or, if you succeeded in the bardo, you achieve enlightenment and a pure state). My companion's stay in the bardo ends today. During this final trip together (or almost final, as you will see below), I fashioned some artifacts that are, in effect, bardo souvenirs.

The bardo beads

The first project was to make papier mâché beads. Source materials included old notebooks from our global travel adventures and birding expeditions, old travel documents, and letters, including a vintage aerogram sent by me in Nairobi to him on the Serengetti back in 1968, just after we had first met.

Source materials

papier mâché technique I used was one I learned in San Cristobal de las Casas from a master of puppetry, Licha Matita. Begin with a clay base and roll it into a ball. For the first layer, cover the clay ball in lotion (any hand lotion will do) and use more lotion to cover the ball with tiny scraps of paper, all the same color, to create your first layer. This will make it very easy to remove the clay ball in the final steps.

Clay innards revealed in final step

You then want to build up six to seven layers of papier mâché, using a standard paste of half water and half flour (thinned as needed for easy application). Using tiny scraps of paper allows you to retain the curve of the ball easily. Most importantly, use a different color paper for each layer. This allows you to easily see what you have covered and what you have not. Otherwise you will get hopelessly muddled, which is easy to do in the bardo. I used the good luck paper the Chinese burn for the dead, which you can find in any Chinatown, and which seemed very appropriate for bardo beads, alternating that layer with layers from notebooks pages, letters, and other personal ephemera.

Layers of letters and notes

Layers of Chinese good luck paper

This was slow, patient, meditative work, and I sometimes chanted the heart sutra while working. A few days ago I knew I was done. The final step was to cut the balls open with an exacto knife, scoop out the clay core, and then seal the ball back together with a final layer of papier mâché.

Second Journey: Bardo Bag

Half-way through the meditative bead work, I suddenly got a call that the Neptune Society had the ashes ready and I needed to receive them. The idea momentarily horrified me. The whole point of the bardo process is to let go of everything, and now the earthly remains were boomeranging back. After giving myself a day or two to think it over, I decided to fashion a bardo bag - a little pouch I could use to take a portion of the ashes along with me on all future travels, and distribute them to the wind and sea around the world, in the spirit of letting go. I used a length of exquisitely hand-embroidered Chinese trim, a spiral button from Portobello Road in London, and a piece of horn from who knows where to create this little traveling bardo bag. A sealable plastic snack bag containing ashes can fit neatly inside. 

Bardo traveling bag

Back of bag

This was all a deeply satisfying process, and it is being shared here with love in hopes that, when the time arises, it may offer you ideas about how to process loss and grief.

Interested in learning more about the bardo and the heart sutra? Here are two good links:

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