May 31: 03F-6, "Knock-off"
Summer Long, Summer Symmetric, Summer Stranger
How much of a person's life is spent in getting through things just so he can get to the next thing? "Once I get this done I'll be able to relax and enjoy it." The moment for enjoyment never arrives; work stretches away into the future, a long hot uphill with no shady flat spots to ease the climb.
The shape is elegant. Most art is uncommon, quite deliberately so, but this is a piece that everyone has by the dozen in the refrigerator. Andy Goldsworthy has built them all over the world.
He strains and lifts the heavy stone into place. Up and out the stack builds, layer by stone layer, up and out until it reaches its widest point and then tapers inward. Upward from there, to his height and more. Round seaside cobbles, square quarried radiant Iowa limestone, flat fieldstone flags, sharp-edged shiny black slate. Solid, immersed in the rising tide or hidden by spring grasses. Cattle use them as scratching posts, covering them with coarse ruddy hair.
Simple cairns. Beautiful. His work has always inspired me generally, but now I have a more specific idea. I deal with very tiny stones but they should work for this shape. There is precedent. Can I carry it farther:
Build number: 03F-6 (lifetime start #276) screened low-tide sand on broad riser base
Title: "Shameless" (for Andy Goldsworthy)
Date: May 31
Location: Venice Breakwater, on the flat
Start: 0645; construction time approx 9.5 hours
Height: 4.5 feet (Tall Form); riser height about 12 inches
Base: 1.75 feet nominal diameter
Photo digital: 25 images, Canon Powershot G2
Photo 35mm: none
Photo 6X7: 1 roll TMX, 67II w/165mm, on tripod
Photo volunteer: Rich, w/Canon Z115, complete; builder photos with my G2
Video motion: none (camcorder not brought)
Video still: none
Video volunteer: none
New Equipment: none (repaired Tall Form)
1. Starting Point
It's hidden just beyond the big fig tree by the museum. Late afternoon light causes a glorious glow that contrasts with the shadowed grey buttress roots of the tree.
In the fall of 1996 Andy Goldsworthy helped me out from under a big load. Every person who came by my sculptures on the beach that autumn threw another rock onto the pile: "How can you stand to work on this all day and not keep it?" Basic brainwashing: repeat something often enough, it becomes truth. Then a friend loaned me one of Goldsworthy's books. Temporary beauty. Ice assembled with spit, glowing with the sunlight that will soon be its undoing. Well, isn't all beauty ephemeral? Art done just to see if it can be done, to find out what it will look like, to find the surprise inside the idea. Nay-sayers are always there, stuck and willing to help get others stuck with them. I choose to go on.
As he speaks, my idea grows. He's fascinated by the idea of the cairn as a waypoint for travellers. His shape is more elegant than the usual mountaintop pile of rocks, and some of them are more interesting than others. Three on a mountain in Europe have elongated spaces in their flat sides, spaces people can sit in for shelter from the weather. He's also fascinated by holes. What can come out of them? What's in there? This echoes the Native American Sipapu, where people first came into this world.
"You could make a sculpture like one of his cairns," my mother says. "Call it 'Homage to Andy Goldsworthy.' Most artists have done something like this." I used to be very determined to do things only my way. I know that one way to learn art is to copy others, but how do you learn anything new this way? The idea, I guess, is to learn the technique and then branch out. Many people never seem to get to the branching out part, and I hate the idea of being a wannabee. I'd rather just quit than have no ideas. It further seems that technique and design develop together; learn someone else's technique and you necessarily assume their design also.
But. It's such a lovely shape. Irresistible. OK, how can I make it mine?
A space, of course. This is how I started: sand wrapped around space. A hole in the cairn. An empty hole, however fascinating it might be for Andy, holds no attraction for me. There needs to be something in there. A ball? Yes. But what about light? How will anyone see it? Light it from the back; put the ball on top of an illuminated slot. Then complete it by cutting a circular hole below the bigger space, as counterpoint. Through the next couple of months the idea grows from that glowing start in the dark auditorium filled with Andy's voice, almost real enough to touch.
A look at the tide book shows that I can add one more refinement to the design: water. Put the sculpture in a basin and the afternoon tide will fill it. Sand and water. Magic reflections.
Southern California offers weather more consistent than most places have. Maybe this is why people get so upset when plans fall through because of some weather problem. By early May, however, the weather is over. The weather service just goes on vacation and the newspapers print the same page every day.
"Rain," Steve says. He works in his photo lab and has the TV on. "You'd better do your sculpture Friday."
"Oh, right. Tell me another funny one, Steve."
"Did you hear about the two blondes. . ."
"Some other time, please. You think it's really going to rain?"
I still don't believe it. Right up until the rain starts Friday afternoon. It's still carrying on at a great rate the next morning and I call various people.
"No sculpture. Rain." It's hard to carve when shivering. "Recycle the count, and we'll go again in a week."
Too much water, too little water. Humans live in a narrow range. Thursday, George and I go for a walk on the beach. The intent had been to do some informal sculpture and photography, but the wind is howling. Sand pelts us as we walk across the beach. The camera stays safely tucked inside my jacket. My glasses are quickly covered with salt.
"I hope it's not like this tomorrow."
"It won't be."
I'm not so sure. Wind like this usually runs for a couple of days.
Saturday comes up with rattling trees. Windy and dry. I'd spend all my time spraying the sculpture and hoping the parts didn't get blown off. I again make use of the telephone.
The next weekend comes with perfect weather. Good. I'm running out of time. Not for the "Goldsworthy Piece," as I've taken to calling it. No, I have to get Stef and Bert's wedding sculpture done in time to send them photographs. This piece turns out well and the schedule is clear. Except for the holiday weekend. No major sculptures on Memorial Day. Quick hits, in the morning so I can away out before the crowds arrive.
3. Hewing to the Line
The first thing that made Andy Goldsworthy's work stand out to me is his care in making. Each part is placed just so, gradations smooth, lines going where they need to in order to fit the design. Craftsmanship. It's beautiful to see., and looks as if it takes great patience. I've learned something about that. Time passes by the person whose hand is involved.
This sculpture will be symmetric. Well, it's supposed to be. Errors in symmetry are easy to spot and pretty well ruin the desired effect, which is why I very seldom try it. The other problem is that a symmetric sculpture is really only half a sculpture. Carve one side and then duplicate it mirror style. I hate copy work. The cairn idea is strong enough to drive me through that resistance, simple enough to perhaps work.
It's a reunion, of sorts. Larry had borrowed my tall form but now that he's had a copy made he returned mine. I took it apart for repairs, new patch technology provided by Sandragon Toolshop Zandraak division. The new patches and slipsheet work as they're supposed to and the pile is quite solid, a tall column of dark low-tide sand with no cracks nor soft spots.
Making the outside shape of the sculpture takes over three hours, including a pause for snacks. Rich walks up as I'm finishing this part, rubbing the curves by hand to feel where the cusps and facets are. Smooth curves are the objective. Not all of Goldsworthy's cairns are precisely symmetric but this is sand. It needs to be balanced over its small base, where I bring the sides inward.
Most sand sculpture is done as a modified cone. Big base, small top. A decorated pile. Some years ago I got tired of the vertical cylinder and decided to go another step. Make the top bigger than the bottom, or at least cut the lower parts inward, and then taper from the wide point to the top. I tried this for the first time in the summer of 1996 and the resulting sculpture, "Faraway," is still one of my favorites, and the tucked-in, "neat" base is a standard design motif. Usually I do it only for part of the sculpture's lowest section.
This one is different. Tucked in all the way around and then smoothed. Then I have to spend more time in making the belt-line at the same level, not higher on one side than it is on the other. It's a slow process of carving, rubbing and then sighting and mentally comparing the curves on one side to those on the other. Human beings seem to be quite sensitive to symmetry and it's no trick to apply the mental mirror so I can see that the curves match.
What is the reward? Mastering a process develops "muscles," which make it easier to do. Mastery and power bring more options: do it this way, do it that way. They all work. Which way brings joy? Sculpture is a process and today there is time to feel each move, to step back and follow it up with a long look. Usually this all happens at a breakneck pace. Today is long. Feel the sand. Take time. Feel it again. Is it where I want it? Is it where it belongs? Being inside the move is as real in sand sculpture as it is in Ron Kauk's rock climbing described in the Patagonia catalog, but it takes a conscious effort to exit the breakneck and enter the pause. It's summer, Larry, ol' Ralph won't ring down the curtain until he's way over there. This is why you're here. It's not just to get though so you can get on to real life.
The holes must be made in the same way. Carve to approximate shape, curve, location and size, then trim carefully while observing very closely how the hole is fitting with the surrounding sand. I want them just right, not too big nor too little. The design has to balance. I'm not used to working this way. Where is the surprise? I'm hearing myself more than I'm hearing the sand. I guess this is what real sculptors do, but it's not why I'm here.
You draw the line and then cut along it. How the piece looks depends upon how well you drew the line and how skilled you are in the cutting. Start small with the holes. They're easy to enlarge if necessary. I've planned other sculptures and they've been miserable failures. Eventually I understood the problem: a failure of visualization. I could picture the rough shape but not the details.
This was only a problem in making things in the outside world. I grew up keeping things inside; that I am able to make sculptures from sand and put my ideas out in the unlimited light of a May morning is an ongoing miracle. It shouldn't happen. It does.
As with any other miracle, one messes with it at one's peril. Which question, which finger in the works will make it stop working? Thus the current rather uneasy compromise between planning and sculpting. Things have, however, changed. The miracle seems to be fairly robust, even surviving, with Goldsworthy's help, those destructive comments. Planning has entered more and more into the process, starting from George's imploring me to orient the sculpture so the important parts catch the light when the sculpture is finished. Not that I always follow his orders; his idea of what's important varies from mine. Take from anyone's suggestions that which seems worth trying, experiment. From George I accepted the idea of, at least, thinking about how the sculpture is illuminated; after all, it is an abstract of light and shadow.
So, I imagined this piece. Set it on my mind's beach and played with the light, then oriented the holes so they'd be where I wanted them. Now I just have to make the shape real, without adding more than the design can carry.
Simplicity has been a goal for a long time, simplicity with elegance and enough complexity to keep the sculpture, and the sculpting process, interesting. I thought this piece would be quick to make and was wondering what I'd do with the rest of the day, but by the time it's finished I'm just as hammered as if I'd removed twice as much sand from it. Symmetry takes work, cutting and rubbing, then looking at the lines, then rubbing some more.
"It looks simple, but it isn't."
"You're right, Rich."
4. Shaping Space
The outside sculpture is as polished as I have the patience to do, and it looks good. The two big holes are roughed in and made symmetric. That's all in accordance with the plan. Now it's time to make it mine.
I delicately enlarge the upper space, dragging the sand out with various tools. I don't really have the right tool for this kind of job. I need a variable-angle loop tool or a vacuum cleaner. The various Steel Phalanges do the job fairly well.
My hands gauge the thickness of the sculpture's shell. Lightness here won't be seen, but it will reduce the load on the small base. With the interior shape carved it's time for the critical, light-admitting connection from west to east. I want this hole to go through just at the top of the opposing space, at the right angle, so the drilling is slow and careful. I want it to be hidden from casual view, light coming through but no obvious hole. I can feel the vibration of drilling, closer, closer, and then breaking out just about where it should have. I'm always amazed by this: each hand knows where the other is.
Widening the new hole is easy. Sand falls through to the north, down the slope. When it's wider it gives me an exit for the waste sand produced from carving the upper space to its final shape, with two ribs to support the ball. I want the ball to appear as if it's floating. This means I need a ball to test it with.
Sand ball making is somewhat of an art. Bigger ones, as this needs to be, are more difficult. I mix up some waste sand with water and swirl the mixture to de-aerate it. Let it settle, then grab a double handful. Hold it so the excess water drains, then turn it over rapidly, back and forth to keep it roughly spherical. Make sure there are no cracks or big unconsolidated lumps. Then spread dry sand over it to take up the remnant free water and I can feel it becoming less plastic. More dry sand, more, rub smooth. Still too wet. More dry sand, hard to find on this overcast day, but eventually I get it stabilized completely and can rub it smooth., knocking off the high spots while I turn it in my hands. It's heavy. Being coated with the dry, lighter colored high-beach sand, it'll show up nicely in there. I hope. I place it inside the space and another piece of the vision is complete.
It's not getting enough light. I take it out and widen the hole below it, then go around to the other side and work on the entry point. I cut the top of the outer hole to a broad curve so that it exposes more of the light tunnel, and then curve the tunnel's entry down a bit. Yes, that's better, but the light is mostly blocked by the ball.
"I need to move this forward a bit, Rich."
He comes over to watch as I recut the ribs so the curve bottoms out farther away from the back wall. Then I put the ball back in.
"That's better." A gentle glow suffuses the space.
Dark space. Dim ball. Now I need a balance point, so I drill through, all the way, from a point below the ball's space to the big space on the other side. This is circular, to match the ball, and it's very bright with light reflected from the beach. The size is good. I go around to the other side to shape the rest of that space to suit.
Round on one end, triangular on this end.
"That's about as explicit as you've gotten."
"You're right." I soften various lines to reduce the suggestion and enlarge the openings.
The key here is to leave enough sand to support the heavy top. There are significant spreading forces acting here that are resisted only by the sand's tensile strength. This depends on cross-section: you have to have enough sand grains hanging onto each other to keep the walls in place or it will explode.
"OK, Rich, that's it. I've tried to get more light on the ball by bringing it forward a bit, and that helps, but it needs more. Maybe I'll try this again."
"As long as you don't make a habit of it." He wants more holes.
The piece is already mostly cleaned up. What's left is detail work, making sure the sides are smooth and the holes cleanly cut. Brushing brings out the laminae, and they stand out in this sculpture's broad expanses of smooth sand. It's elegant.
6. Vision and Labor
"Now I have to make the reflecting pool." I start to shape the domed base and cut its edges down into the borrow pit. The base is big, the pit small. The more sand I move the more seems to need moving. I need a backhoe, or a team of workers. The worst of it is that all the waste sand would have to be hauled away to keep it from interfering with the pool.
I sit in the borrow pit, legs covered with sand, comparing available energy with required work.
"Forget it." I fill in the borrow pit, smooth it over, and round the base to near symmetry.
Days like today are rare. The tide rose, peaked at a low level in the late morning and then fell again. In the afternoon it started rising and this time would not quit until it was two feet deep over the sculpture site. In the in-between time the sand would have been smooth and wet, a perfect surrounding for the sculpture.
I'm about used up, however. The isthmus is crowded and many of the people are just annoying. The sculpture is finished and I don't want to play guard.
"Long time to high tide, Rich."
"At least an hour and a half, it looks like."
"Yah. Bag it. I'm taking my photos."
One of the objectives was to get some nice photos of the water-surrounded sculpture and send the prints to Goldsworthy. He'll have to settle for more ordinary photographs. I set up the big camera to get the images I need before any one of several available louts runs into the sculpture. I've already had three ask if they can knock it over.
I feel some relief when the black-and-white photography is done. Then I pick up the digital and start shooting my utility images.
"Here comes the cavalry."
I look up. Two LAPD SUVs and three or four ATVs are converging on the beach two hundred feet north of me.
"This looks bad." Various groups of people that had been comfortably arranged on the sand are now leaving with alacrity, and I'd join them if I could. I'm thinking of gunfire. There is no shelter here.
"I saw them all headed south not too long ago."
"I wonder what this is about." The policemen approach a man lying on the beach. He offers no resistance as they handcuff him and pull him to his feet for searching. Some of the cops get back in their vehicles and drive north. My studio isn't as nice as it was during the winter.
"That's it. I'd like to wait for the tide, but I'm simply beat. And it's getting cold." Low clouds are forming just offshore and blowing across the beach. I load up, make a tool check and take a last look at the sculpture, and then we turn away and drag the loads to my bicycle.
I'd really like to wait. Water and sand make beauty, and it would add some movement to this very static and tense piece.
In one way it's a triumph. Never have I been able to carry through a sculpture from hazy image to gritty reality that closely matches the image.
Seen from another point of view, however, the thing is a disaster. In executing this, I abandoned the wild approach to design that has produced, yes, its share of clunkers, but has also produced great beauty. I know there are more wild sculptures out there, ones that I just can't visualize, that can only be made by letting go of tight mental images.
It is elegant. It has a self-contained, strong beauty. People tell me it's something they might see in a gallery. Everyone who sees it is impressed.
But it's too damned neat. No loose ends, no surprises. I feel as if I've sold myself out. Have I spent all these years mastering this process just so I can make something that would fit in on someone's knickknack shelf? Is the comment about belonging in a gallery a compliment, or is it an insult? I don't want to be a maker of safe knickknacks.
And yet, there is a surprise or two. The Earth's stately spin slowly changes the light, and the sculpture's broad sides gain terminating shadows that show the profile's very subtle lack of symmetry. Inside the sculpture are dim hints of complexity.
Can I be proud of this sculpture? I guess so, for simply being able to make it, and giving myself the time and care to make it right. Not too long ago I couldn't have done it, couldn't have spent the time the symmetry takes, couldn't have restrained myself from adding to the design.
Maybe Rich was right. "Nice, but I hope you don't do it very often." Is it another kind of visualization failure, in this case making the sculpture simple enough to visualize entirely and thereby losing some of the lively dialog with the sand itself? Where is the sand in this piece? Very well hidden behind a too-smooth facade?
How odd this is. I respect my ability to make this piece but the sculpture itself elicits mixed feelings: contempt, delight. Which is right? I've never made a sculpture that caused such confusion, even the stinkers of 1995. The big question is what's next?
Written 2003 June 1 (very rough)
Edited and completed June 14
Further editing June 15
Rewritten June 20