Last week in the falling rain, I was driving to work and flashed on a jewel-like neighborhood park building, glistening and sparkling, just about as colorful and as playful as I had ever seen. I immediately slowed, pulled over to the curb, and walked under the dripping canopy of trees so that I might see this magical building close-up and personal.
The exterior walls of the entire building (housing bathrooms) from ground to roof-top had been covered with colorful mosaics. Birds and butterflies in a blue blue sky, sun and moon on high, and a waterfall, rain like rivers coursing down. Flowers blooming, children leaping, tiny dogs with tails (I swear) wagging so hard raindrops escaped the wall in widening circles.
Small cats with big whiskers and leopard spots. Rainbows arcing, hibiscus detached from trees. Hummingbirds as iridescent on the wall as they are in air, and fish swimming in the oddest places. What would ordinarily be a drab utilitarian building had been transformed to a magical mystery tour of sunshine searing shade.
The mosaics reclaimed Maxwell Park
as a place for play and happiness, banishing the darker days of dissipated decay. Apparently, as I learned, this project, four years in the making, is not over yet. Neighborhood residents promise the walls inside the bathrooms will soon be covered with equally cheerful mosaics. Like the contagious joy of the Peralta Junction Creative Commons, this neighborhood art project brought positive energy, expansive hope, and joy
to a struggling community.
Art is magic; it has the power to transform the dingiest landscape, the most mundane yet necessary objects of everyday life, like the trash cans pictured below -- also covered with lively mosaics -- located some miles away from Maxwell Parl along Grand Ave near Lake Merritt, standing like sober sentinels, motionless but still breathing happiness onto city streets.
Transforming trash, and using trash to transform.
Recycle, reuse and be reborn.
Karen Cusolito sculpture, outside the American Steel Building
The other day, I was walking with a friend and our dogs on the far fringes of West Oakland and came upon the lively mural pictured here. My friend, who has long been busily restoring buildings in the neighborhood, brick by brick, board by board, told me that these murals shield what remains of a lively museum that was once on this site -- the dream of his friend Marcel who has since relocated to New Orleans. The only actual building on-site, an ancient little one-story one-room house slipped between two panels of the imagined street of bustling shops, he tells me, was moved from the opposite side of the street when it was threatened with oblivion. This building, perhaps the oldest building in West Oakland, was once abandoned but now survives as we all survive . . . protected by memory and dreams, grounded but ready to fly.
On that morning of the long walk through recent West Oakland history, I returned home and then sat very still for quite some time, elbows on my drawing table, fingers stretched across eyes, thinking of what is created and left behind, what crumbles, what remains . . . the through-lines describing the limits of birth and death . . . and all that expands between. I thought about the great generosity of these paintings -- and all street art -- offered so freely to those who pass. I thought about all the hope that breathes in West Oakland -- the gardens, the art, the cheerful hellos -- in spite of struggle.
What we give, what we keep, what we leave behind.
Once upon a time, I came close to abandoning a decade's worth of my own paintings stashed for an even longer time in a tin-roofed desert warehouse, but then rallied and retrieved them, damaged but more or less intact. Decades earlier, I did abandon all my sculptures. Too much weight. Maybe some survive -- who knows -- those I gave away might still be available to eyes and hearts. Often that which we give to others, lives; that which we stash away and hide, dies.
As I sat at my drawing table, listening to John Coltrane with my thumbs pressed to my eyes, I thought of all the stories and poems of my own that remain trapped in files, uncollected and unpublished . . . and what that means . . . if anything. I recalled a small number of poems written during a rather difficult time in my life when I had been forced to deal with some intense internet 'bullying' that both affected my ability to work, to earn money, to be in the world. Even as that cowardly bullying cut my 'worldly' ties, I held fast to my creative heart and wrote.
I decided to paste a few of those poems into this blog -- as odd as they might be. When I wrote them, the very foundation of my world had cracked, and I was feeling quite alone, no longer sure whom I might trust. Nonetheless, I determined to remain close to beauty, to grace, to kindness. I didn't want to descend into the dark howling desperation clawing at the fringes of my life and did my best to ignore the miserable virtual nastiness of behind-the-scenes bullies. I set out instead to find an affordable home, putting one foot in front of the other, listening to the city, talking to trees, watching the sky. And while I searched, I wrote down words pushed through the open windows in my heart.
I have include these poems here not as commentary on the remarkable murals discovered on my recent walk and pictured here and not because I think they are 'gems,' but because of their obstinacy, a reminder to myself that that art creates life and that art can be made even in the worst of times . . . we all need to breathe . . . and breathe and breathe. Just breathe.
The poems stand, I hope, quietly respectfully to the side of the images as separate rhythms -- drums, strings or piccolo.
You decide. Or not.
Afternoon Tea with Bees and Bombs
Downstairs, an old woman, gray haired green eyed,
speaks of pastimes, carrots grown in backyards.
The boy nearby smokes clove cigarettes, breathes
symphonies, hardwired to LED lights
taped to his chest. A legless woman, blond,
complains of mud and frogs while clematis
bloom blue and wide on vines attached to drains –
two orange cats curl against an iron pot
awash with moss and forest ferns. Beauty –
soon smoked out by evening fog. I can’t stop
grinding down my teeth. Yesterday, driving
north through thirty-five miles of acrid smoke,
heat eclipsed dry hills, screaming traffic noise.
I melted faster than the grasses burned.
Now, I’m hammered steel, pollen etched, extreme.
Tomorrow, rockets explode stars to clouds –
White gold – what it is to be disbelieved.
. . . . Ballantine, 2008
A stray dog runs the stairs near waterfalls
with a stride so wide, I hear his hoof beats –
see him shake his mane.
A Buddhist monk comes down at slower speed –
a six-foot scroll painted under redwood trees
rolled beneath her arm.
Below neatly pruned roses bloom, and here
on this waterless slope, dry weeds tango –
red spikes and white rounds.
I’m hanging tight to god’s rope, trapped inside
falling water, rolled flat out to circles,
chained inside the heart.
This absence of doves, such a lack of bees
can’t matter. Living behind barbed wire
is not an option.
. . . Ballantine, 2008
An End to War
Morning glories at dawn, cobalt circles
on a flat pink wall. Commotion below.
An ex-Navy seal talks loudly of dolphins
blinking as light curves across sonar screens.
He drinks gin at 10 a.m., toasts the girl
with neon pink hair slashed above her eyes –
She answers with tales of roller-blading
on Ecstasy, snorting lines in Home Depot.
The plastic drainpipes (she says) in Plumbing
sang songs as fine as fishnet catching light.
When she tells him a mermaid sat astride
her bass fiddle, mouth agape to sea sounds,
he laughs and clouds of dragonflies rise up.
. . . . Ballantine, 2008
Yesterday, the washing machine caught fire.
The smoke alarm didn’t sound.
We put the fire out.
Now, a small bird builds a nest
of twigs and dryer lint, tucked
into the morning glory vine –
and at last – a silver-spangled
maple leaf, chemical orange.
Moths singing soprano through the night.
This missile could reach targets
as far away as Jupiter.
. . . . Ballantine, 2008
is now officially open for business.
Today's grand opening was joyous and peaceful, alive with music and smiles.
Pumpkins were carved. Faces were painted, and visitors danced while music played, and I came away with some moderately priced and unique gifts for future occasions neatly tucked in a paper bag.
Last night the fog horns were moaning dolefully out on the Bay, but the early morning fog burned quickly away, leaving stunning blue skies and warm -- almost too warm -- sun. I walked up to the Junction late morning with my little Earnest trotting beside, discovered the magic of this brand-new creative commons , and then returned mid-afternoon alone so I might explore the booths and speak with the artists. The morning crowd was small, but by mid-afternoon, the parking lot was filling fast . . . (yes, there is a parking lot -- and a parking lot attendant!)
I can't say I was able to speak with all (I'm too shy) or that I saw all that there was to see (so much!), but what I did see and what I did hear, I thoroughly enjoyed. The Midway was open with its delightful games carefully (and playfully!) crafted from found materials. I think my favorite game is the one that has participants shooting streams of water into suspended oil cans. Fill the cans and a truly magical balloon ship careens into an imagined sky. Cooperation encouraged. :-)
Bucksome (sic) Bedy's booth features winsome painted ladies, scantily dressed, who willingly further disrobe if a player's beanbag hits the painted panel just right.
Parental approval required ;-)
The tilting board of 'Bar to Home' asks a player to gently coax a largish ball to wend its way home through a maze on trails drilled with strategically placed holes. Not easy. Necessary moves are subtle but the controls large, requiring full-body involvement.
By the way, as a woman, I have mixed feelings about the painted women standing targets, patiently waiting for beanbags to hit their clad bottoms and tops, revealing what hides below. I don't want to throw any kind of object at man or woman, even in play. I understand, of course, that as Baktin suggested, that 'to degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better,' to ask us to confront our habits -- as uncomfortable as that might be. I just wonder if a similar and equally happy game might be made with a magically painted landscape, clouds hovering above. Hit the clouds and flowers sprout below. Hit the sun and fruit sprouts on the tree. I do, however, appreciate the cheerful carnevalesque painting of the Bucksome Bedy booth. This is carnival, farcical fun. Farceurs have long considered it their responsibility to breathe a little oxygen into the smoldering fires of society’s discontent . . . and do so while inhaling lyric beauty.
The surrounding shoppes offer hand-made foods -- organic doughnuts, delicious Oaxacan tamales (meat, chicken, or vegetarian; I once enjoyed one of their breakfast pineapple tamales -- exquisite), popcorn, and gorgeous little cupcakes plus all kinds of hand-made goods and crafts, including organic body lotions, distinctive hats, wild vests, metal work, hand crocheted baby shoes, jewelry (no bling, just hand-made wondrous stuff), and the unique silk-screened ties, cheerful dresses and skirts of Trinity Cross' inspired Field Day.
Have fun browsing and rummaging. You're sure to find something you like.
And for those who want an unusual souvenir of their day at the Junction, there's even a photo booth where families can have their picture taken against a cheerful red and white background . . .
I don't think it's possible to come to Peralta Junction and leave grumpy. There's just too much to make you smile, too many other people smiling and and laughing, too many horses and monkeys and elephants and strange birds -- and pumpkins -- all grinning madly.
Shawn Feeney's portrait pumpkins smiling under Bunnie Reiss' Diamond Horseshoe stage
Don't wait until November to come to visit the Peralta Junction Midway and its shoppes. Most vendors now on site will be gone by November. There will be new folk, new wonders, in November, but certainly, you don't want to miss these folk!
See it all!
Come on down and dance a little, smile a little, remind your bones what it is to have fun.
Your heart will thank you.
It is -- as you like it! Peralta Junction
Opens!Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it. ( II.i.)
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrance . . . ( II.vii)
And the stage is set!
O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful
wonderful! and yet again wonderful, and after that,
out of all hooping! (III.ii.)
Welcome. Set down your venerable burthen,
And let him feed. ( II.vii)
Peace, ho! (V.iii.)
Peralta Junction . . . GRAND OPENING -- OCTOBER 6!! Come one, come all!
Peralta Junction and the Exploding Universe Mandala
When William Carlos Williams wrote “No ideas but in Things," I'll swear he was thinking of 'thing' as resting within its original meaning -- A meeting, an assembly, a joining. A juncture. A Junction -- Things are happening in West Oakland. Poetry is rooting in the earth, attaching to fences, drifting skyward.
“The subject matter of poetry,” Wallace Stevens reminds us, “is not ‘a collection of static objects extended in space’ but the life that is lived in the scene that it composes; and so reality is not the external scene but the life that is lived in it. Reality is things as they are." And here are things as they are at Peralta Junction in West Oakland. Everyday a new cheerful painting appears on the exterior wall; Nome and Eskae's two story mandala is very nearly finished, and Haley's blue whale is leaping through vibrant waters. None of these artists is being paid to create these magnificent works of art. They paint for love, for community, for our collective futures.Imagine that. They paint for you, for me, for us -- all of us. Not 1%, not 5%, not 47%. All of us.
Can -WE- make love last? I hope so.
They are creating art, life, future . . . and poetry.
Rene Magritte stated in a letter to Sarane Alexandrian: “I conceive of the art of painting as the science of juxtaposing colours in such a way that their actual appearance disappears and lets a poetic image appear . . . There are no ‘subjects,’ no ‘themes’ in my painting. It is a matter of imagining images whose poetry restores to what is known that which is absolutely unknown and unknowable."
And, so, here on a dusty lot in West Oakland artists are working together, collaborating consciously and tangentially to “restore to what is known that which is absolutely unknown and unknowable."
They are working magic and transforming reality. Burlap becomes beauty; Shipping containers canvases.
Haley's Blue Whale swimming in an active sea
Reality is not stable; it cannot be.
Reality is productive activity--green mountains forever walking; a stone woman who bears a child by night--an endless phenomenal flux, and therefore, if an artist wishes to reproduce the ‘real,’ that reproduction is necessarily unstable, in a constant state of revision, layered stroke upon stroke, much like, perhaps, the unfinished but glorious paintings of Albert Pinkham Ryder, a painter much admired by the quintessential modernist painter Jackson Pollack who once defined modern art as “the expression of contemporary aims of the age,” aims that might be described as the physical manifestation of collective desire, the reality of things not as they ‘are,’ but as they are becoming.
Let the noble creatures of the sea live. As we enter this time of actual sea-change, let us awaken our imaginations and see through walrus eyes.
Sea currents change. The whale one day later swims up from a crystal sea.
My Life is a Circus . . . and Hooray for that!! Bring on the Clowns.
To love the world so deeply as to want to recreate as recognizable, beautiful, and as verifiable images that can be preserved is a grand and even graceful ideal, and it is equally marvelous to summon the unknown and allow it to coexist with the known.
To welcome the unknown is to trust that there can be a future and also, to allow that future to be imagined and created.
Bird Talk :-)
George Oppen writes in Being Numerous,
Because the known and the unknown
and as witnesses, we can recover active memory, capable of dialoging with the future. True vision, clear seeing, comes not from recording the limits of things but from hovering outside those limits and noticing what transpires at the border between the known and the unknown, the past and the future.
That shifting border, indescribable and uncontainable, is reality.
Art is that which connects us, as artists and as people. Art is the vibrancy that reminds of our skin, of the borders that separate us, of the love that can penetrate those borders without destroying the subtle communication of distance.
Art need not deny realization, or transcendence if we learn to love and to keep love.
“In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games,” as Emerson writes, “we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.”
That ‘expression,’ barbaric yawp or not, can exist as invitation to each other and to life.
Keep making art. Always.
When the Universe expands, crystals grow
Detail of the Exploding Universe mandala.
Playful pixies have been skipping about town, scooping up armloads of fairy dust, sparkle, and bits of glittery sunshine, and now they're getting ready to open their arms and throw all that light into the air, let it drift down over West Oakland, settling a smile on every face.
Plans are underway to transform a dusty lot in West Oakland to a lively pop-up creative commons, featuring art, performances, and interactive activities. Peralta Junction
, located in pie-shaped lot at West Grand and Peralta St, is scheduled to open October 4 and the organizers hope it will bring joy and wonder to Oakland Residents throughout the fall season. Activities have been scheduled for weekends throughout October, November and early December.
This arts-based gathering space will soon come alive with carnival barkers, sweet talkers, artist harkers, and maybe even a dog or two. Jugglers? Maybe. Clowns? Wait and see.
Come one, come all! Come have fun at Peralta Junction! Experience the magic, the wonder, the dream!
After all, tis the season for magic and witchery, spells and dreamery. There will be Halloweenery! Pumpkins! Gardens! Music!
And laughter , especially laughter.
Take a deep breath and discover how art can create community by creating happiness.
Already this empty lot is being transformed. A steel dandelion gone to seed has sprouted in one corner, towering over pop-up garden beds alive with thriving squash plants and pumpkin vines.
A stage is being built and the existing storage containers are being painted with vibrant murals while the fence ringing the yard has been hung with burlap brightly painted with light-hearted images: playful elephants, singing birds, and wizards winking magic into the air.
Change is happening, and that change is for the good.
May there be more color, more song, more laughter, and acres and acres of joy.
Metamorphosis through art
We can fly!
Below are a few photos snapped today of some of the already completed paintings and the artists who have so kindly and generously offered their creations to the folks of West Oakland. Thank you all!
Sage and her painting of a wise sorcerous. Keepin' the energies alive
Danny and the face of Culture Shock. Keepin' it Real.
Terms and the Wizard.
Blocks from my house, spanning a long block on Mandela Parkway, is a huge tin-roofed warehouse that houses American Steel Studios
, home to a diverse lively community of working artists who work in individual studios vaguely separated from one another in this wide open space by temporary walls or stacks of raw materials. This magnificent convergence of creativity is managed by an artistic genius, sculptor Karen Cusolito
who works with fellow artist Dan Das Mann to create the graceful yet determined figures (pictured above) that now inhabit the barren yard next to the warehouse but once served as inanimate players on the desert 'stage' of Burning Man
Dandelions stand taller than the tallest man with another taller man balanced on invisible shoulders. A gigantic figure sits cross-legged in meditation while another kneels pensively on the dry earth. Lithe women stand with arms spread wide or with backs bent, arms reaching upward and outward, drawing anyone who follows those curves upward into the blue blue sky. These giants spring from the heart and are rooted to the earth by their quiet prayer-like demeanor and their stunning weight. Each graceful figure has been constructed carefully of scrap metal and each weighs tons not pounds. The tallest is 40' tall and weighs 9 tons.
Whenever I pass these figures, which I do almost every day, I am reassured by their steely presence and simultaneously grateful for their ethereal delicacy, reminded of the importance (and the weight) of feeling and inhabiting my humanity . . . . and of the audacity, grace, and wonder that is required to do just that. These towering figures have skeletal structures unconcealed by the wrap of metal bits that serve as skin; the sky bleeds through. Similarly, may the sky breathe through our days. Human life is fragile -- impermanent on this earth -- but remarkable.
I'm glad these steely figures stand nearby as reminders of wonder, imagination, and creativity. Keeps me real . . . and keeps me happy.
After April ground to a close, after the day of the general strike, as May was just beginning but before El Cinco de Mayo and before the full moon, this mural appeared overnight in West Oakland, stretching across one long fence and the front of a very wide house.
I wish I could tell you more about the artists, but I can't. I don't know their names, their history, or their relationship to the neighborhood. I don't know why they chose to paint these faces at this time.
Is that C.L. Dellums, organizer of the first African American union and Ex-Mayor Ron Dellums' uncle, standing shoulder to shoulder with Esther Mabry, whose jazz club Esther's Orbit Room still stands shuttered on 7th street? Next, that might be Slim Jenkins in his later years; his club on 7th street hosted jazz and blues musicians for four decades, closing in the early 1960s when the building, which he never owned, was sold.
And there, holding the guitar, is that Lowell Fulson whose career began in West Oakland but who also soon flew away? If that's Fulson, where then is the man who pressed his first records and sold them from the trunk of his car, the music promoter and song writer extraordinaire, Bob Geddins, the man who co-wrote on 7th St, only a few blocks away, B.B. King's great hit "The Thrill is Gone"?
Is that Lil' Bobby Hutton looking back, Eldridge Cleaver looking past? Are those the Panthers standing inside all that blue sky, pressed into messages of hope? But the Panthers announced what was wanted, needed, rather than what might be hoped for:
We want freedom to determine our own destiny. . . . we want an end to police brutality. . . . we want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings . . . we want education that exposes true history
Depicting faces belonging to the history of labor, music, and revolutionary politics standing side by side but sandwiched between gaily painted banners of hope, this mural is somehow both more cryptic and simultaneously diffuse. Recalling these histories, there is no escaping the loss, so what are we hoping for?
A conscious awareness of that history? Change? The healing balm of music and art? An end to the insidious and seemingly ever-present gunfire?
Is this then a hope for a wide open embrace of life, the kind of embrace that art and music allow, so that we might hear again the expansive sounds of a loving and harmonious life above and beyond the whine of highways, the rattle of elevated trains?
I have no answers to any of these questions. All I can do is provide you with the image, these boldly painted faces of time, staring quietly out at the Street and its shifting tides.
And hope for Peace.
At the far north end of my street, nearer to Emeryville, further from BART, is a confluence of sorts. The park lands of Mandela Parkway gather speed to leap over Grand Avenue, rivers of traffic pour off and on the freeway, and most recently the ArtIsMobilUs
bus shifted languidly from one side of the street to the other in front of Peralta Studios.I smile every time I pass it. I feel embraced by the ecstatic creativity of these two artists: Ezra Li Eismont and Crayone, grateful for their energy welcoming me to my neighborhood.
Art need not be corralled. It doesn't need to stand still. It can still kick up its heels, carouse in the midst of chaos. Follow ArtIsMobilUs
around town, discover the extent of infinity
, and -- why not -- revise your notions about the 'stability' of art.
Infinite Lion Cobra : Ezra Li Eismont : ArtIsMobilUs : Bay Area, 2012
This 8' x 24' painting is mounted on the side of a bus that happily drives around town. Oh, what a wondrous world it would be if we all were to paint our cars and trucks with such imaginative vision.
Life would be so fine.