Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lee Bonticou: Channeler With A Welding Torch

Sue was looking at Barbara’s copy of the catalog for Lee Bonticou: A Retrospective (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2003, New York) Tuesday night. I was hosting drawing group, and I put it out to see if Sue would notice. She said she loves Lee Bonticou. Sue runs a gallery in the Corcoran Neighborhood, and a lot of her own work involves fiber or fabric, or drawings of it. Jules, our model for the evening, was not wearing any fiber.

I told Sue that I had seen my first Lee Bonticou at Chicago’s Art Institute, on an Eighth Grade class trip. Actually, it may have been two years later on a Biology Club trip to Chicago. Split the difference and call it 1964. I thought, “That thing is really neat. What is it?”

Bonticou is the woman in the photograph, and the piece I saw was a sculpture, about four feet square, of a kind of kiva-looking thing, made by stitching used canvas onto a frame of welded steel. The thing was lined with black velvet -- no landmarks, no reflections -- making the inside seem infinitely deep: the void.

Here I’m scanning photos of some of Bonticou’s work. This woman draws with a welding torch. No, really. I’m not being hyperbolic, or making some obscure connection between sculpture and drawing. Bonticou (born 1931, Rhode Island, United States) discovered that her torch made soot if the mixture was too rich. She liked it, and started using it to make pictures. I’m also including pictures of Paolo Soleri’s (born 1919, Turin, Italy) Arcosanti, drawings by Roger Dean (the guy who did the Yes album covers, born 1944, Kent, England), a sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy (born 1956, Cheshire, England), and some sketches by Cheech Wizard cartoonist Vaughn Bode (born 1941, New York State). They all seem to share an aesthetic. Barbara says that it’s puncture wounds, and she couldn’t look at any of them when she was pregnant. Maybe. Each one displays an environmentalist theme, and resonates with my own, psychedelically formed, aesthetic. I’m particularly interested in the resonance between Bonticou and the two more commercial artists, Dean and Bode. It seems like Bonticou is channeling something.

Examples by Soleri, Goldsworthy, Bode, and Dean are in the previous post.

Shared Esthetic: Bonticou's Peeps

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Biomimicry: Detox For An Addicted World

I read an interview with Janine Benyus in the September, 2009 Sun. Benyus is a biologist, the author of both the term and book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. The idea of biomimicry has a lot of appeal to me. (Benyus has a website,, where you can ask how nature would accomplish some task, removing salt from water, say, or cleaning an oil spill.)

The Sun is a monthly, nonprofit magazine, published in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Carrie gave me a subscription as a thank you gift for letting her give me the MMPI or some other psychological test when she was working on her PhD. She’s been working in chemical dependency for a dozen years or so, and the selection of the Sun seems apt. It’s about fifty pages thick, and full of stories, poems, and black and white photographs by readers. Maybe you noticed the slogan, “Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-free.” above the name. It’s all those, the political being an environmental-leftist bent, but if I were to choose a word to describe The Sun, it would be “Vulnerable,” and vulnerable in a way that frequently jibes with Alcoholics Anonymous’ “Twelve Steps:”

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

(By way of disclosure, I personally smoked enough pot over twenty-five years to stabilize the state of Michouacan’s trade balance, but the habit seemed to fade on its own. Scotch, bourbon, gin, vodka, and vermouth reside in my cupboard, but they’re usually safe from me.)

The September, 2009, Sun contains, beside the Janine Benyus interview, an essay by the late Passionist priest, Thomas Berry, four personal essays, including one recalling the author’s thoughts the night after learning she had cancer, and that she would be in surgery the next day, three poems, and a short story told, by an urbanized Inuit, about confronting himself among his still-traditional kin. The “Readers Write” monthly feature is a collection of anecdotes from readers, in September about being in “The Middle of Nowhere,” both literaly and metaphorically. A world traveler docks the Flying Dutchman to listen to coyotes in the wilderness; a Vietnamese boat refugee comes to America; a harbor seal guides two divers out of a fog-bound kelp forest; three writers suffer three different kinds of abuse from lovers; a driver finds beauty, broken down on a sparsely traveled road; an American Jew experiences kindness from a gruff Egyptian cabdriver in the Sinai  desert; a stroke victim waits by the hospital door for her ride; a teenager repeatedly runs away to the airport, then returns home to abuse; naive college graduates become counselors at a desert boot camp for juvenile delinquents; two hitch-hikers find a sign announcing the middle of nowhere in the desert; a religious-nut father takes his children into the sticks to await the rapture, then changes his mind; an Alzheimer’s patient has a moment of lucidity; a woman has her first orgasm house-sitting a trailer full of show dogs.

I think you get the idea. My inner Bogart thinks it’s kind of cloying, but probably apt, and any reservations are his own problem. “Yielding is the way of the Tao.”

Biomimicry is the idea that we should borrow design principles from nature to make the things we use. Permaculture, about which I’ve written a lot, is an example: mimic and integrate with the local ecosystem. Examples include adhesives based on the ones mussels uses to anchor themselves to rocks, self-cleaning paints, and ceramics based on abalone shells. Biomimicry has helped scrub smokestacks at cement plants, and reduce the power used to manufacture cement. Benyus says, “People are looking at how we can use solar energy to split hydrogen and oxygen for use in a fuel cell. Every leaf you see is already doing this.”

The word “addiction” doesn’t appear in the interview, but Benyus would probably accept a diagnosis of human addiction to poison, high heat, and pressure. She says she believe that we discovered fossil fuels before “our consciousness had evolved enough to know what to do with all that energy.” We are “mesmerized” by internal combustion, “enthralled” by fire. “People think all we need to fix our predicament is a free source of energy, but I think we need to change our behaviors. More energy would just help us deplete the earth’s lifeblood faster.”

Benyus mentions researchers’ studying how spiders spin their webs. Here’s a little animal that extrudes something with greater tensile strength than steel from its body. In a different part of the interview, Beyus points out the amazing thing about this. “(Chemist Terry Collins) has said that industrial chemistry uses every element in the periodic table...and employs brutish simple means to force these elements together.” She goes on to stress the ecological novelty of these compounds, and the disproportionate waste that comes from their manufacture. “And then you have nature’s chemistry, which, instead of using every element in the periodic table, uses a small, life-friendly subset and employs elegant recipes to combine them. It’s all done with water as a solvent.” And every product of each process is an input in another.

The Elegant recipes are the hitch. Darn it, I wish I hadn’t taken the Stewart Brand book back to the library. I may have the particulars of this example wrong, but the argument is something like this: Nature does indeed do marvelous things using just a fraction of the 92 non-human-made elements. It goes without saying that this is desirable, but it is/would be a monumental engineering achievement, were we to cut our use of the elements back to the ones that the rest of life uses. The spider’s thread, for example (here’s where I’m not sure of the particulars), is a composite, combining strands from three separate organs. Spiders can do what they do, because of countless adaptations over unimaginable lengths of time. The interference of three separate organs to produce the thread, and the chemistry within each of the three, is a puzzle that would tease a lot of researchers for a lot of years.

Which isn’t to say it’s out of reach. Computers routinely whip the John Henrys of the chess world, forty years after it was a commonplace that myriad possibilities would overwhelm a machine at each move.

An article in the May 4, 2009 New Yorker, “Open Channels,” by Jerome Groopman, discusses a promising treatment for cystic fibrosis -- and potentially other genetic disorders -- developed because computers could look for both the responsible gene and the compound that would correct for its mutant disability.

Cystic fibrosis is a fatal genetic disorder, in which the responsible gene fails to produce a protein which channels chloride ions. The sufferer’s internal organs become clogged, preventing nutrition, and limiting respiration.

US and Canadian researchers located the cystic fibrosis gene, in 1985, using a technique called “chromosome jumping.” In 1998, other researchers began to use a robotic technique called “high-throughput screening” to find a way of moving the harmful ions. In 2008, patients showed dramatic improvement in lung function in a test of a drug produced by Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

It seems ironic that we would need computers and robots to mimic nature, but there’s also the problem of an infrastructure that’s adapted to great gobs of energy, and a population of seven billion, headed for eight, that needs to eat. You and I are in touch via a network of who knows how many computers. Benyus, herself, lives out in the sticks where she can apprentice herself to the trees and coyotes, and that takes energy. Of her firm, she says, “It’s a challenge to make sure I...spend time by myself in the natural world. To facilitate this, everybody in our company gets to choose one month each year in which he or she will not travel.” In other words, the author of Biomimicry uses a lot of jet fuel.

There’s no more important human task before us, than mimicking and integrating with nature. We may, just, be able to do it. It’s a priority, and we can’t turn up our noses at any tool.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Whole Earth Discipline

I finished Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatism Manifesto three or four weeks ago, and put off writing about it. I enjoyed reading it, and it challenged me. Brand says that his opinions are loosely held and forcefully stated, and his Four Environmental Heresies talk is a pretty fair outline of the book. I wrote forcefully about that talk in late July, and I find myself wanting to eat my words, but not entirely convinced.

Maybe what is happening in my skull is not that I’m unconvinced, but think that conversion to Brand’s program is too easy and would betray fickleness on my part. Brand’s thesis is that human-caused global warming is genuine and civilization is at stake. He says that Gaia can take care of herself, and that environmentalists are coming to see, and should see, our business, not as protecting the environment, but preserving civilization. Brand’s program includes urbanization, replacing coal with nuclear power, genetically modifying seed to increase yield in starving parts of the world (and to keep carbon in the soil), and adding sulfur dioxide and water vapor to the atmosphere to increase its albedo.

Urbanization has already happened, but Brand speaks primarily about the slums in the global south. This is the best part of Brand’s TED talk, and the initiative and ingenuity we see in his slides show why the slums that house a sixth of the world’s people appeal to the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand says that there is a better livelihood for the slum immigrants than there was in the countryside, and writes, in the book, at some length about commerce, education, and quality of life. What the slum dwellers need from us is safe legal electricity, clean water, public safety, and security of tenure. He also would make sure that power and cell phone service reach the countryside.

Coal is the major culprit in changing the climate. We depend on it for baseload power, power that we can count on 24/7/365. Wind, sun, tide, etc. are dispersed unevenly over space and time. We can’t count on them to power a world of seven billion and more. A gigawatt year of nuclear power yields twenty tons of waste, about two casks worth; the same amount of coal power broadcasts 8 million tons of waste. The nuclear waste is where we can watch it; the coal waste is out of control, in the atmosphere where it can cause mischief.

People have starved because environmentalists interfered with the delivery of genetically modified seed. We can take genes that provide desirable qualities in foods without those qualities -- say, vitamins or the ability to grow in drought or flood -- and add them to those foods. (Another kind of genetic engineering allows us to hang onto our soil, and keep carbon in the ground, by breeding crops -- “Roundup ready” -- that survive herbicides, allowing no-till ag. Genetic trading happens frequently in the microbial world, and we ourselves are colonies of symbionts in our cells. Groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have lobbied in their own countries and in developing countries to restrict access to genetically modified plants. In Mozambique, seed was kept from starving people because officials believed that genetic engineering was a genocidal colonial plot. One fear I have about genetic engineering has nothing to do with health: genetically modified seed is identified with a few large companies, and will concentrate wealth. The technology is accessible enough for serious hobbyists. For about a thousand dollars and a few weeks time, you too can engineer E. coli that smells like strawberries. It’s been done, and that means genetic engineering is a genie that’s out of the bottle, and not the property of a few big corporations.

Geo-engineering is Brand’s least forcefully held or stated heresy. In 1992, Phillipine Mount Pinatubo put 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, resulting in the planet’s cooling half a degree, increasing Arctic ice and the polar bear population. It’s cheap enough that Bill Gates, for instance, could take matters into his own hands to stop global warming. The trick is coordinating a global effort to restrict the ultraviolet radiation penetrating the atmosphere. Brand, himself, says that this strategy’s chief weakness is that efforts to limit warming by changing the atmosphere’s albedo would make us complacent about fixing the problem at its root, our production of greenhouse gases.

Throughout the book, Brand backs conservation, organic agriculture (he buys organic), and permaculture, but believes that these by themselves are not enough, and will be more productive combined with the heretical technologies.

I had planned on including Brands recommended reading list, but that, and his footnotes are at this address

Today’s illustration is a portrait of Harold “Stoney” Stone, from Monday’s drawing co-op. I’m getting back into charcoal after a half-year hiatus (I was spooked). I took a picture of the drawing -- on 18”x24” paper -- because it wouldn’t fit on my scanner.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Revolution: Coming To A Crossroad Near You

We had our weekly Transition Town meeting at Joe’s house. We’re getting ready for an open fair on February 27, and it’s taking longer than we’d thought. Organizing the fair itself will go pretty smoothly, but it’s who we are and what we’re talking about that’s hard. We were going to have a January 30 meeting that would include the vendors and organizers we’re inviting to the fair, but that seems premature, and we couldn’t come up with an agenda. It looks like the meeting on the thirtieth will be for us, and facilitated. We will probably approach the invited presenters personally.

I had written a piece for the Corcoran Neighborhood News, that describes the affair we’re planning. Here it is:

Corcoran neighbors are coming together to support each other’s efforts towards prosperity in changing times. “Trends like global warming and more expensive fuel don’t have to seem quite so threatening,” said Joe Hesla, one of the organizers. “There’s only so much that politicians or businesses can do to fix things, but we can be there for each other in our efforts to feed and shelter ourselves well, and have fun.”

A growing core group has met weekly since a chilly, October 17, get together at the Midtown Farmers’ Market, in response to a News article, by Hesla.

Now that group has a name, “Corcoran GROWS” (Grass Roots Opens Ways of Sustainability), and is planning a free and open Sustainability Fair, for February 27, 10:00 AM until 2:00 PM, at the Corcoran Park Building, 3334 20th Avenue South. The Fair will have information about community garden spaces, food production and edible landscaping (this would be especially appropriate for households that are receiving arsenic abatement this season), urban-rural communication and the Midtown Farmers’ Market, canning and other food preservation methods, composting, solar energy, chickens, bees, tool and skill sharing, home-grown fun, and open-source communications technology. There will be snacks and fun child care.

During the meeting, Sean Gosiewski, who is organizing a March 12 and 13 conference for the entire Twin Cities area, had the slides from his keynote speaker’s presentation showing on his laptop. I had bumped into Sean a week earlier at the presenter, Portland, Oregon architect, Mark Lakeman’s presentation at the May Day Bookstore, and had seen the slides and heard the talk.

Lakeman’s main thesis is that the “Roman Grid,”  the way that we lay out our streets, destroys community by appropriating community space for transport and commerce. He asks, “How can you have freedom of assembly when there’s no place to assemble?” and contrasts a city map with an arial photo of a Dogon village, the village laid out to create spaces between buildings and fences. Intersections have traditionally been places where people meet. His European example is the Piazza del Campo in Siena, where roads from northern Italian cities merged on the way to Roma.

In Portland, Lakeman has been active in what he calls “city repair,” and “intersection repair.” The point of the exercise being to bring people together. Neighbors come together, and brainstorm about how they’d like to live, and design modifications to an intersection to begin the change. These seem to all include painting some kind of mandala where the streets cross, and have been accompanied by permaculture plantings and the construction of various sculptures and small structures, including benches and teahouses. Initially, this was an outlaw, ask-forgiveness-not-permission enterprise, but the city has come to support the effort, and every neighborhood in Portland has at least one repaired intersection.

Similar efforts have occurred in other cities, including St. Paul. Portland’s city repair has grown beyond intersection repair, to include the Tea Horse and Tea Pony, truck-mounted tea houses that look like things from Roger Dean album covers, multi-story cob and straw bale cat clubhouses, full of catnip stuffed pillows, and Dignity Village, an area of small cabins for homeless people.

Has the revolution begun?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Critical Thinking In A Free Society

We were talking on break at the Monday drawing co-op. Somebody mentioned conspiracy theories, and that turned into people who make a cult out of the Book of Revelations, or the Mayan calendar. Somebody else said he thought that those movements happen because we’re all doing a kind of intuitive calculus that shows us at a great, and maybe catastrophic moment in human history. None of us has a vocabulary that can describe it perfectly, but the moment -- with its apparently paradoxical explanations -- staggers some, and the enormity of our situation seems to demand religious explanation.

Jesus must be about to return, or Mayans in flying saucers will arrive, two years hence, to save us from ourselves.

Think of the craziest notion you can, google it, and you’ll find somebody organizing to support it. The Copernican Universe as a Jewish plot? Got you covered.

(The theory anyway, not the universe itself.)

After the devastating Haitian earthquake, Pat Robertson used his television show, not to explain how deforestation and an already feeble infrastructure made the havoc worse, but to say that the Haitians had made a pact with the devil in 1804, to free themselves from slavery.

It isn’t just the religious right that’s to blame. There have been stories recently in The Nation (a very left-wing monthly) and the New York Times (the country’s “paper of record”) about wrongdoing on the part of U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials (secret and illegal detention centers, and abuse of prisoners, followed by cover-up). Democracy Now (left-wing radio show) followed up on these stories with interviews and discussions. It was apparent, without the disestablishmentarian spin, that the ICE officials might as well have been Nazis, but the presentation by the commentators was disingenuous, as well, papering over a government’s legitimate interest in regulating immigration.

You do get into some relativistic territory here. Bolivian President Evo Morales has said that you can’t impoverish Latin countries, and then punish those who come to your country seeking livelihoods. It’s almost enough to make you start looking for Space Mayans, but we can understand what’s going on, if we pay attention, and burn a few calories thinking.

I’d thought about situation ethics for a long time in terms of the Playboy Philosophy, and not much more. In other words, I thought that morality derived from conditions in the real world was basically libertarian. Don’t rob banks, but enrich yourself; no rape, but have a good time. In fact, the responsibility is greater, because the harm we do can happen in that vast but foreshortened territory beyond the horizon.

Here in the U. S., we have taken the notion that our charter documents give us the unalienable right to believe any tomfool notion we want. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for the redress of grievances,” and there are people who go to church to sacrifice chickens or handle rattlesnakes, so I guess it’s true.

But it ain’t necessarily responsible. Staying informed and thinking critically about events is a responsibility of citizenship. You get to be wrong, but there’s no unalienable right to stay that way.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Declaration Of Independence And The War on Terror

We were supposed to evacuate the Guantanamo Prison this month. We won’t. The new president, Barack Obama, made an issue of this and vowed to shut it down by January 23, giving ammunition to hawkish opponents. On December 15, Obama signed an order that the remaining prisoners will be transferred to the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois. Some Yemeni prisoners have sued to remain in Gitmo, since the Illinois prison is more, well, prison-like. Over 400 of a total of 775 prisoners have been released without trial, 215 remain, and the government expects to prosecute 60-80.

Without rehashing the dubious case for some of the individuals’ imprisonment, commenting on conditions and treatment (I don’t know), or on the possibility of exacerbating the terrorist threat against the United States by depriving innocent bystanders of liberty, let me offer my take on this affair, and on comments like that of retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who told Fox News that 18-28 year old Muslim males should be routinely strip searched at airports.

The United States Constitution, in its Amendments, particularly the first ten, the Bill of Rights, guarantees citizens

* Freedom of religion speech and assembly,

* The right to bear arms,

* The right not to be obliged to house soldiers,
* Privacy of houses persons papers and effects without a warrant sworn that there is probably cause for believing we have committed crimes or are concealing evidence of a crime,

* Freedom from arbitrary arrest and trial, to not be tried twice for the same crime, from testifying against ourselves, and from losing property for public use without just compensation,

* Rights to know what we accused of if arrested, face our accusers, subpoena witnesses, have counsel, and have a speedy and local trial, the right to a jury trial for civil suits,

* Freedom from excessive bail and excessive fines, and cruel and inhuman punishment,

* Rights other than those enumerated,

* Powers not delegated to the federal government.

Later Amendments made slaves citizens and enfranchised women.

The Preamble to the Constitution states that it is written to “ the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” In other words, the above rights are sort of a premium for citizenship, but another of our foundation documents, which does not have the force of law, gives a clue to the soul of the nation that the founders envisioned.

The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, beginning the period when the United States “assume(d) its place among the powers of the world.” There had been armed skirmishes between American colonists and British armed forces, and Samuel Adams, brother to future president John, asked, “Is not America already independent? Then why not declare it?” Richard Henry Lee, an uncle or cousin of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, said “These United Colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and independent states.” A committee that included future presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration.

There is a lot of what you might call “boilerplate” in the Declaration, documenting injustices on the part of English King George III, but the meat says something about the rights of Man, and their universality:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation of such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Friday, January 8, 2010

Upon Giving Jason a Picassoid Drawing

I gave this drawing to Barbara’s business partner, Jason, who had admired it. I drew it about a year ago for a group show of art based on the human figure. The characters of the Minotaur and Sculptor came from a Picasso etching of a Bacchanal done in 1933. I find the Picasso picture appalling, and to my chagrin, arousing.

I’m not a great draftsman, but a lot of the virtue in my drawing I owe to Picasso. If you think that Picasso was taking shortcuts to avoid the hard work of getting a likeness, disabuse yourself of that notion (Ken). The failings of Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Cipriano Santisima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso lay in other directions. There are abundant examples of Picasso’s stunning conventional representation, and anecdotes about his faking other artists’ styles to put critics. who preferred their art, in their places. For me, it was seeing Georges Cluzot’s The Mystery of Picasso that made me realize how skilled my man Pablito was. So free, so expressive. I kept saying, “I didn’t know you could do that.”

Cluzot directed Mystery in the summer of 1954, with Claude Renoir -- son of the painter, Pierre-Auguste -- operating the camera. In the film, Picasso draws with inks that bleed through paper stretched on a special easel. This allows us to see the drawings appear as if by magic (later in the film, editing allows us essentially the same experience, as paintings appear on canvas). Toreros, bulls, models, artists, clowns, and acrobats assemble in scene after meaningful scene. One critic commented that the film was a gift, “generous,” and I certainly was glad to watch the master at work.

Exchanges between the artist and director, a certain mimed tension on Cluzot’s part, and the incongruity of a little subplot about running out of film, in a picture that couldn’t have happened without an editing suite, tip the film makers’ hands that this is a bit of modernist hagiography. The septuagenarian hero creating in his underpants, his comments that he doesn’t mind being tired, and that he wants to “go deeper,” Picasso’s discarding a large painting of a Mediterranean resort, after countless revisions, only to replace it with another revision on a second canvas, all play to the image Mr. P. and his sycophants wanted to leave behind.

The Bacchanal has the Minotaur and Sculptor toasting each other, apparently after having worn out two sprawled and nude models. Picasso was a libertine and a sadist, though not a sadist in the consensual, top-bottom sense of modern fantasy play. There really are no minotaurs, so both male characters are alter egos for the artist himself, and the models’ names are Dora and Marie-Therese. Both were Picasso’s mistresses, and their tenures overlapped. Marie-Therese was the earlier of the two, a very young woman when Picasso approached her on the street, an athlete, and not, reportedly, profound. She was the mother to Picasso’s daughter Maya. Dora was an artist, photographer, and poet, muse to the surrealists. She documented the production of the anti-war, anti-fascist mural Guernica, and was rumored to have produced some of the studies for it. Picasso may have discovered the pleasure of dominating others earlier, but it grew with the much younger and submissive Marie-Therese, and came to full flower with the chance to practice on Dora, the stronger ego. The game was to charm the mistress, convincing her that it was she alone whom he loved, and then arrange for her to catch him with the other and to snub her. There were two other women on the scene at the time, estranged wife Olga, who was too much of a nudge to be any fun, and Francoise, who came close to losing her soul, but survived. Picasso once put a cigarette out on Francoise’s cheek.

If ever a painter needed a loving kick in the shorts, it was Picasso.

Picasso died at great age, leaving behind a shamble of confused exes and offspring. Marie-Therese, second wife Jacqueline, and grandson Pablito committed suicide. Son by Olga, Paulo, died at 54 of cirrhosis of the liver.

Picasso, with Georges Braque, was co-inventor of Cubism, which means modern art. Cubism began in 1907, and lasted until after the First World War. In Cubism, the subject of a painting is represented from multiple points of view, and the resulting picture is a shallow, flickering pattern, usually in limited value and color. Before Cubism, there was a half-century of experimentation with representation, beginning with the Realists and Impressionists, and erupting with the Post-Impressionists, at the turn of the century. Cubism liberated artists from narrative and anecdote, but wasn’t inane: paintings continued to be about something. The problem was that what a painter could say about reality wasn’t nice -- was incomplete. This probably seemed apt for a century in which humanity seemed to have slipped its religious moorings, and upon which was visited such abundant pain.

In her biography of the great man, Picasso Creator and Destroyer, Arianna Huffington wrote, “With prodigious skill, complete mastery of the language of painting, inexhaustible versatility and monumental virtuosity, ingenuity and imagination, Picasso showed us the mud in our frog pond, and the night over it.”

In my drawing, the Sculptor rebukes the now sheepish Minotaur, too late for Picasso but not for the Picasso in each of us.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thanks To LETS South

Yesterday's Chris Alexander post turned up in Goosebreeder/Von's blog, LETS South - Barter Group for Fleurieu Peninsula, illustrated by a lovely piece of backyard design. I don't recognize the species, but I don't think those are guinea fowl on the steps. Look at the size of the water tank and the mature tree above it, and think about how nicely the household uses the site.

It looks like summer, and Fleurieu is around 35 degrees south, about equivalent to northern Alabama. The buildings aren't parallel, but I'm going to guess that the house faces the cardinal compass points. I thought I could figure out which direction we were looking, but it was tougher than I thought. A good Junior Woodchuck ought to be able to. I'll guess that we're looking a little south of east.

Mutual Self Reliance Proposal

Our neighborhood mutual self-reliance group is planning a public meeting and conference for February 27. We are also forming an alliance with the official neighborhood organization, CNO. CNO is the group that is responsible for the Midtown Farmer’s Market, whose vendors and customers made it the fourth most popular market in the country in 2009.

I volunteered to write the proposal to the CNO Board. No doubt the proposal will change before we send it to CNO. In fact, I put the administrative stuff at the end together carelessly, throwing parts off the top of my head, and taking some from the CNO website. What matters is my thinking about the economic situation in the developed world, and how citizens need to proceed.

Proposal for Forming a Corcoran Neighborhood Organization Mutual Self-Reliance Task Force:

Several Corcoran Park neighbors are concerned about various trends we believe point to a contracting economy for the foreseeable future. We are organizing to support ourselves and other Corcoran Park neighbors in efforts to create abundance, as resources become scarcer.

Trends that are leading to a contracting economy include:

* Decline in worldwide oil production, subsequent to current or recent peak production;

* Global warming, consensus that warming is industrially caused, and the economic consequences of both;

* An aging population;

* More competitive bidding for resources due to Asian industrialization;

* Past and ongoing off-shoring;

* Superior organization to control resources on the part of concentrated wealth.

Initial work (2010) will be two-fold. Firstly, the Task Force will host an open neighborhood conference on February 27, introducing ourselves and a number of possible projects; there will be a neighborhood-wide spring (2010) project, possibly a group fruit tree purchase and planting or a rain garden design charette and planting bee. Secondly, the Task Force will write what is known as an Energy Descent Action Plan (EAP) for the Corcoran Park Neighborhood.

Energy Descent Action Plans are tools that have come out of the international Transition Towns movement. In producing an EAP, the Task Force will survey the neighborhood’s actual and potential resource consumption, and create a vision for a thriving Corcoran Park in 2030, proposing steps for accomplishing that vision using best estimates of (probably diminishing) available resources. The Task Force will publish and promote these steps and vision, and begin implementing them.

To make it easier to imagine what the Task Force has in mind, but without prejudicing our EAP, we offer these examples from our brainstorming sessions:

* Group purchases of tools, fruit trees, rain gardens, weatherization, and photovoltaics;

* A barter network or local currency (Ithaca Dollars)

* A neighborhood tool inventory or tool library;

* A library of manuals useful to our feeding and sheltering ourselves in a becoming manner, and to
providing ourselves with meaning;

* An inventory of neighborhood expertise;

* Canning bees;

* Socials and entertainment events.

Similar groups are forming in other Minneapolis neighborhoods and internationally. The Task Force will ally with them when there is a mutual advantage.

The Task Force will continue indefinitely.

The Task Force will function as a CNO committee, and be initially co-chaired (for example) by Joe and Anne. Subsequent chairs will be elected by a simple majority of Task Force members, and shall be subject to the approval by the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization Board of Directors.

The Task Force shall include at least five members. Interested Corcoran Neighborhood residents may attend meetings, and vote on resolutions after having attended two meetings within the last half year.

Members of the Task Force must be Corcoran Park Neighborhood residents, more than sixteen years of age.

Task Force meetings will occur on the first Monday of each month, or more frequently as decided by the Task Force at a regular meeting.

CNO staff or board liaison to be decided.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Permaculture Principles

The Permaculture Principles:

1. Observe and interact;
2. Catch and store energy;
3. Obtain a yield;
4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback;
5. Use and value renewable resources and services;
6. Produce no waste;
7. Design from patterns to details;
8. Integrate rather than segregate;
9. Use small and slow solutions;
10. Use and value diversity;
11. Use edges and value the marginal;
12. Creatively use and respond to change.

Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language & Pattern Languages

The Whole Earth Catalog called Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language “possibly the most important book we’ve ever reviewed.” One of my teachers had studied with Alexander at the University of Oregon, and said that he communed with the gods of space.

The book is a collection of 253 “patterns” for designing human habitation, ranging from regional design (“Wherever possible, work toward the evolution of independent regions of the world; each with a population between two and ten million people; each with its own natural and geographic boundaries; each with its own economy; each one autonomous and self-governing; each with a seat in a world government, without the intervening power of larger states or countries.”), to the detail of home decor (“Do not be tricked into believing that modern decor must be slick or psychedelic, or “natural” or “modern art,” or “plants” or anything else that current taste-makers claim. It is most beautiful when it comes from your life -- the things you care for, the things that tell your story.”) Alexander (with colleagues) presents the patterns as hypotheses -- statements of possible truth needing testing, and possibly, refinement -- ranked by a system of asterisks, two for patterns in which Alexander is very confident, one for patterns in which his confidence is qualified, and no asterisks for patterns which solve problems that might be solved otherwise. (The first pattern above sports two asterisks, the second, one.)

My favorite pattern is Number 106 (two asterisks), “Give each (space surrounding a building) some degree of enclosure; surround each space with wings of buildings, trees, hedges, fences, arcades, and trellised walks, until it becomes an entity with a positive quality and does not spill out indefinitely around corners.” The idea is that we enjoy a sense of space, but don’t recognize spaces until they’re defined. Barbara made a beautiful little secret garden, with a pond, brick walk, and bench, in the slot between our shed and a corner in the cyclone fence around our lot. Early on, we’d planted bittersweet on the fence, making a hedge. Bittersweet is tough and pretty aggressive, and started popping up everywhere. I dug out the bittersweet, and the garden lost its charm. We’ve replace the bittersweet with less assertive species, but it’s taking time to get the nice sense of space back.

The idea is to involve everybody in design, by publishing a complete design “language.” Having the language, we aren’t bound to rely on authorities like architects and bosses for the infrastructure in which we live. (An individual project wouldn’t require coordinating the entire 253-pattern language, any more than an individual statement takes the entire English dictionary, and Alexander says that we can use the pattern language for poetry or prose.)

Alexander calls his book a pattern language, implying that there are others, or that others might evolve. These could be competitive with his 253 patterns, or they could be languages used in other kinds of design. I’ve noticed a number of patterns in my drawing, including “gauge the size of details against larger, unmoving masses,” and “use blacks to lighten darks by comparison.”

Permaculture is a pattern language, although nobody seems to have organized it this way yet. Some of the permaculture principles could be classified as patterns, but they might be a little broad, grammar than vocabulary. Certainly, though, “Obtain a yield by combining species to support each other,” “Arrange your plantations in zones in which those used more frequently or needing more frequent attention are nearest,” and “Trellis fruiting vines on fruit or nut trees” would be included in the vocabulary.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Slowly Getting Back Off The Dime

On New Year’s Day, we took down the Christmas tree. This year’s tree was a balsam, thinned from a sustainable plantation, and bought at Urban Earth. Urban Earth is a cooperative florist and garden shop in Minneapolis’ Uptown Neighborhood. We had a good time with the woman who was staffing the store, tying it to the top of the car, and liked it’s spare, nineteenth century look. It reminded us of the tree on Spode Christmas china, and we decorated it less opulently than usual -- fewer lights, and only smaller, more old fashioned ornaments. I was in house slippers, and the snow was deep and cold, so I heaved the tree unceremoniously out the door to await further attention...

...thinking, as I did so, of Kakuzo’s comments about master flower arrangers in The Book of Tea. Flowers that have acquitted themselves as nobly as our tree shouldn’t be discarded casually. A master will cremate wilted flowers, or cast them upon the current of a clear brook. We prune our old trees. The needles mulch strawberries, and the trunks become trellises for clematis or beans. Until then, the poor bastard’s gonna have to freeze in the snow.

The blog has been on hold over the holidays. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve become less sure of my opinions about the course the world is on, and what kind of strategy we need to go forward. The world has enough naive idiots who are adamant about some complicated theory or other. I think I’d go to hell if I joined that army.

Besides contributing labor to Barbara and Jason’s booming cottage industry, I spent recent days cranking out fifty-plus unique, drawn and collaged holiday cards. I scanned one for a recent post, and here are three more. The colored paper is standard copy paper -- three cards per sheet --and the art paper is a 500 pound hot-pressed watercolor paper. It’s all held together with glue-stick glue, so it’s hardly archival, but these cards are the largest -- maybe the only -- actual series I’ve ever done, in which I’ve tried to see how many variations I could get from limited materials and imagery.