February 22: 03F-3
Think About This
Long after sunset. A cold wind rattles the tree branches and the moon draws stripes of silver across the buildings.
A low moan comes from ahead. I slow my walk. An answering wail comes from just to my right and then I see two cats faced off, looking daggers across a few feet of pavement. The hair has risen on their backs. They're waiting to see who will back down first. Most of the time no one is damaged in these contests, but sometimes neither will come to his senses and then you get flying fur. These two are young. Don't really know what they're doing, and on the verge of claws and teeth. One step and I could distract them.
I don't have to. A big grey cat appears out of the shadows and it's as if he says to the younger ones, "Knock it off, you idiots. Save your energy for something that counts." The two slink away, and I'd swear the grey one winks at me. Now he looks to be about half as big as before and I follow him to the shop.
"Come on to the back. I'm just cleaning up."
"Who can tell?"
"Oh, don't give me a hard time."
Boneless cats are draped around various objects in the warm shop, eyes half open as they decide a head-scratch from me isn't worth moving for.
"It's not much of a night for walking. I can tell by your hair. What brings you out?"
"I like nights like this. Windy, clear, cool. Most of the time the weather around here lacks drama. This is a nice change. But what I wanted to talk about is sculpture."
"Easy. We should be able to answer all questions in a minute or two, then get on to more difficult things." He laughs.
"The question started out as 'What makes a good multiple sculpture?' I thought it would be easy. After all, good individual sculptures are a matter of feeling and I know when I connect. The multiple . . . it's different . . . "
"Why would you be surprised? Ideally, you'd have several great sculptures that somehow connect."
"Yah. What's the connection?"
"That's not your problem."
"Yes. You spend, what, nine hours making a monolithic sculpture?"
"About that. Depends on the season."
"Daylight, yes. Does Ralph care what kind of sculpture you're making?"
"Sunrise to sunset, one sculpture or four."
"Yah. The idea still appeals to me. The ensemble is interesting, but don't look too closely because each piece is primitive. LIke something I made years ago. I end up with an interesting base and earthworks supporting sculptures that look too familiar."
"Maybe you need to rethink it. Find a new way to simplify the individual sculptures. I'd guess, though, that by the time you've packed all those piles you're too tired to think about design."
"Yah. I've thought about sketching a design beforehand."
"Starting to think like a pro, are we?"
"Bite your tongue. Call it convergent evolution, distasteful as it may seem." We laugh.
Wind whispers in the chimney over the coals. One of the languid cats shows signs of life, sitting up to wash its face and the others look slightly miffed. No one should be showing so much ambition; there's always tomorrow.
The day comes in with offshore breezes, clouds and a low tide. The new big clamshell fits in my pocket and my hand holds three more essential tools. The little offset spatula fits in another pocket. The skateboarding sand sculptor is ready.
Rose Avenue ends at the beach. I have to take a sharp turn north to avoid crowds, making a 180 in an open space to turn south.
The tide is full-moon low, exposing good sand layered with coarser sand, with shells mixed through all of it. Just for a change I build four small piles, close together. Another change is that I don't put any conscious effort into making the sculptures relate to each other because this hasn't helped much. Each sculpture is different, none of them a world-beater, but they do go together nicely and the base turns into the outstanding part. Mirjam, in an Email message, calls it a Hobbit village. As an ensemble it's nice.
The next day I try it again. This time I get one long, low pile and a taller tower-on-base type. The low one ends up being an interesting mix of stretched-out horizontal elements and a more vertical section, with even some microsculpture but the other one is nothing much. Again, the earthworks are the best part. Fun to make, delightfully loose and wandering. I'm surprised by a few hints and go back to strengthen them. Tool problems limited what I could do; I should have brought the whole kit. Even the vertical throw-away sculpture adds something in contrast with the lower one. I skate home, pensive on the quiet skateboard.
The day is warm but still windy. Everything is dry. I can feel static electricity as the grey cat rubs against my leg.
"Careful there. You'll zap your nose."
Today he's working on some complex piece of wood, taking tiny strokes with a very sharp knife, then sighting along to see how it's going. Light fills the shop.
"What's going on?"
"More experiments in multiples, this time free-piled."
"How'd they go?"
"All right. Yesterday's was the better of the two; one of the sculptures was actually worth looking at for itself."
"How'd you do it?"
"It was low and long. I tunnelled into it and had some long horizontal elements that came out to the beach and ended in earthworks. I also included the second piece but should have cut it off six inches above the base."
"What was wrong with the second one?"
"No. Just that the sculpture was too dry and I was afraid to touch it to do anything else. Needed a sprayer. At least."
"Sounds like you've eliminated some of the problems."
"Yah. But what did I do?"
"Like the one a few weeks ago. The base held it together."
"What a change. The base has gone from being a support to being the major part. The sculptures are incidental."
"Are you sculpting tomorrow?"
"Any idea of what it will be? Multiple or single?"
"I haven't decided." Although recent experience indicates that I'm better off doing free-pile multiples.
"Well, I think it should be a monolith. You make better sculptures as singles."
"I'll think about it, Larry." He and George both have believed this for a few months, and I'm beginning to think they're right. Not only that, but that the multiples have had a bad effect on my singles. Each piece should move the state of the art forward and I don't do that very well when the individual pieces are throwbacks to 1998 or earlier.
The one thing I have learned solidly is that the base counts. Single or multiple, spending some time making a good frame for the sculpture helps. It won't turn a bunch of low-bid sculptures into genius but it will elevate them into something worth looking at. What a base will do for a single is still an open question.
Build number: 03F-3 (lifetime start #269) screened low-tide sand (upper quarter filtered), on large domed base at center of circular borrow pit
Title: "Proudly Single"
Date: February 22
Location: Venice Breakwater, on the flat
Start: 0645; construction time approx 9 hours
Height: 3.4 feet (Latchform); riser height about 10 inches
Base: 1.75 feet nominal diameter
Assistant: Mirjam Boelaars
Photo digital: 48 images, Canon Powershot G2 (includes Rich's)
Photo 35mm: none
Photo 6X7: none
Photo volunteer: Rich, w/G2, process; Larry, w/ Jazz, carving and complete
Video motion: none (camcorder not brought)
Video still: none
Video volunteer: Larry, w/ Elura, process, atmosphere, completion
New Equipment: none
1. Comparing Winters (Draak in the Snow)
Mirjam has been working too hard. Overbearing museum managers, demanding clients. On the other side is winter, her images of Dragon Dancers in the snow interesting but it looks cold to me. Great pressure is applied and the little watermelon seed slips sideways from between and lands in Santa Monica.
Fog obscures the Venice Pier, but it's not solid. I can see mountains to the north. February. Cool, with a slow offshore breeze. No snow in sight and the only dragon is in my imagination. Under the patchy levels of cloud I set up Sand Sculpture Base and go to work.
First step is the base. Simple. No fancy elongated and shaped piles of sand. Here I dig a circular ditch and throw the sand in the center, with the idea that the sculpture's sokkel will be a smooth dome in the middle of the depression. Will it work? Who knows. The form goes on top and I fetch a load of low-tide sand and start filling it.
The one-day beach sand sculptor needs to be fierce. Otherwise all the work won't get done, but the talkative doctor, on a walk south with a friend, is just too much to resist. We talk for about five gallons; he wants to read my info sheet on his radio program.
"Tonight we're talking about diabetes."
Oh, boy. Just what I wanted to hear about.
"Diabetes Mellitus. Sweet pee disease. Old-time doctors used to taste their patients's urine to make the diagnosis."
Then he starts to read the info sheet out loud. I have no idea how this will work into his program but he does it so well. A rolling voice, used to the microphone and the fast thinking it requires. He turns my pedestrian prose into an event. Then he smiles.
"That's why I'm a doctor. I like people."
He also likes his own voice. I hardly have to answer any questions because he does it for me.
"Listen tonight. Nine o'clock on KRLA."
I pour in another bucket to make up what the conversation cost as the doctor and his friend walk north. The sand is mediocre and I'm using the Quick Filter to save time. It allows small shell fragments to pass through but no sculpture-breakers. Toward the top of the pile I switch to using the Box Filter because the sculpture's plan calls for very thin legs up here and even a small shell could cause a problem.
Off in the distance a woman waves to me. I wave back. We hug when she arrives.
"Hello, Larry. What can I do to help?"
Jet lag and all, she's ready to go. When she turns around to put her sack on the table I see the sandy print of my hand on her back. Oops. Well, that's what you get for hugging a sand sculptor. All the way from Holland to help with a sand sculpture, and this is her third time. Most people call it quits after one. Now she loads the filter and hands it up to me, which means I don' t have to step back from my precarious foothold beside the form.
A screen is only as good as the user's technique. I've been dumping the detritus out beside the borrow pit and now we're using that spot for loading it. Of course shells stick to the bottom and eventually I remember to rub them off. There are problems ahead but for now the piling is finished.
"How are you? Pretty well over the jet lag?"
"OK. It gets worse after a few days."
The low clouds are breaking up and blowing away, disappearing under the strengthening sun. Our day warms.
"I have sandwiches. Also grapes and some chocolates."
"I brought oranges and the usual Zone bars."
"When do you know to take the form off?"
"I used to dig a hole at the base to assess wetness. Now I just know." We fetch another load of water and by the time I've filled the sprayer the pile is ready. The latches pop open to reveal an evenly-layered block of sand. The lower layers are thicker. When Mirjam got here she loaded less sand into the filter so the layers are thinner. This is good. Thin laminae are stronger because the coarse part of each one is thinner. I wash the form off and get the tool tub off the trailer.
2. Concentration (Why Visit a Sand Sculptor?)
The starting idea is one I've been thinking about for a few weeks. A broadly curved dome with sharp edges, supported by many thin struts. After the struts are carved I intend to carve the dome around their ends, as if the whole thing were canvas being held up by poles.
Initial shaping goes well. I trim the top and undercut the rim, then shape the dome. Mirjam watches.
"I used to just carve the sculpture but a few years ago I became more concerned with the overall shape. What it looks like in silhouette. I wanted something more than just a cylinder, and I've learned that the only way to get that is to carve the overall shape before opening it up."
In this case, it means lots of outside shaping to arrive at a graceful silhouette.
Try harder. Take your time. The day is almost an hour and a half longer than deep winter as we roll toward spring. Notice what you're doing and visualize how a planned cut will affect the sculpture.
When that process is over with I realize there's no room for the planned struts. I'd have about three of them. Well, I still like the shape. Work the spaces into that. Accent points, contrasting areas of smooth sand. Don't just start cutting. Sketch, wipe out and sketch again. Sometimes I even sketch the part on the beach to give me some idea of what it will look like without marking the sculpture.
The lower part was intended to be a stack of curving horizontal elements, rings with spaces between them, but now that I've abandoned the vertical struts the rest of that original plan goes out the window. I proceed in the same subtle fashion, thinking about where to put spaces and how they will affect the rest.
Hunger forces a pause.
"Lunchtime. Can I have a sandwich?"
Mirjam and I picnic there by my table. I'm not much of a conversationalist at any time. Sculpture days are even worse as I think only about the sculpture. I hope she's enjoying the beach.
She seems to be. Passersby stop and Mirjam strikes up conversations with them. When Rudy and Siggy stop, they go on in German with the sculpture as the social nucleus. Interesting.
The day progresses. Design decisions have to be made. With just one sculpture to make I pour myself into it, staying the carving hand until I'm sure that the cut will add more than it takes away. The last F sculpture had a septum between the top's two halves, and it didn't do much. This one's divider gets some small holes to lend it definition. You can't see something until it has holes in it.
Rich comes by shortly after lunch.
"There's a cookie shortage in Manhattan Beach."
"I forgot to buy some last Thursday, but Mirjam saved me with sandwiches. I'll give you holes anyway, on credit."
Surfers work the low waves.
"A pelican. Northbound."
I look up. Lone pelicans are rare and this one soars, wingtip to wave, on the displaced air. It's a perfect day for sand sculpture, cool, a mild onshore breeze under thin clouds that make the light gracefully soft.
"What would you have in your life if it weren't sand sculpture?"
That one's not on the FAQ. Larry has been watching with Rich and Mirjam. "Good question. I have bicycling, hiking, various other activities, but nothing creative like this." I think some more, tool paused on the side of the sculpture. "I really don't know. In one sense, sand sculpture saved my life; if I hadn't had this some years ago, I might have simply quit. Pulled the plug." This is greeted with complete silence, reinforcing my idea that sand is a very thin shield against meaningless life. What do you do when someone tells you that, but for sand sculpture, he'd quite likely have ended his own life? Not a great conversational opener.
There is some truth to it. There are many distractions available but sand sculpture is more than distraction. It's something worth doing for its own sake, something that has become a priority. Deprived of sand--say, by a bad back or some other physical problem--could I move these feelings to another material? Well, answer no question before its time. My tool starts moving again, and sand gently peels away and falls to the beach.
Where else could you simply throw yourself into one thing for one day and then have it over with? Other projects just go on and on until they bring no more joy. Sand sculpture comes in self-limiting manageable bites. One sculpture, one man, one day.
This one is looking good. It has an interesting interior that has people standing on tiptoes to look at, or crouching. With Mirjam's sandwiches and the longer day I've been able to maintain enough concentration to get past many of the default designs. This one sings in a new voice that obviously contains themes from prior work. I wonder what three or four like this one would look like together. Yah, you and what army.
3. Back to Basics (In and Out of the Pits)
"Well, that's about it. Time for clean-up. And I don't know how I'm going to do it. I thought microsculpture was hard to clean up, but this one has sand-catchers everywhere." And many parts that have been left rough so that I could work on another part that fitted with it.
All it wants is patience, and we do have time.
"Three o'clock. You have daylight."
"Mommy, he has a pile of sand in there. Tell him!"
"But he needs to clean that out!"
"I have to start at the top. If I don't, that place will just fill in again." And it does, even with starting at the top. All the holes connect to each other and sand moves around with a will of its own.
"Are you going to carve the base of this one?"
"Yes, Larry. It's going to be fairly simple, however."
Stone simple. I drag the waste sand out of the ring-shaped borrow pit and deposit it on the edge. Once the sokkel is shaped into a dome, I scatter loose sand all over it.
"I'm surprised. It's almost symmetric!"
"Yah. I had to start that way, but that's just the overall shape. The holes aren't symmetric."
"I didn't mean the sculpture. I meant the base!"
"Oh. Yes. I want a base, but not one with a strong opinion. Symmetry just fades into the background.. The only voice here is that of the sculpture."
Around the base I smooth out the sand into slope that goes slightly above grade, then slants back down until it meets the beach.
"I thought you didn't like having sculptures on top of a pimple that's about to pop."
"This doesn't really look like a pimple."
It looks more like a meteor crater whose central peak is more fanciful. I've tried other base designs: ridges, headlands, more complex shapes. None of them worked well.
It's growing on me. The crater's rim acts as a frame, and the sokkel lifts the sculpture out of the crater so it can be seen. Simplify. The mistake I was making in 1984 when I first tried extensive bases was making them too complicated. I tried to continue the sculpture's lines into the base and the complexity set up an argument with the sculpture. This is different. Strong presence, but the base is just where it should be: a supporting role.
4. Glow (Coming Together)
The four of us sit on the sand, casting long shadows past the sculpture.
"It's a good one."
It does ring.
"I like it. In particular I like the fact that some design elements I've been trying to get to work for months have finally happened. Like that strong horizontal piece there. I've done that before but it has never worked. Here it adds to the piece."
"I like the part farther around."
"Yah. Nice holes back there, and I love the way they're collecting light.
This is a good one. Remember it in the dark days ahead when the sculpture sits like a silent leaden ingot on the beach. What it takes? Keep working at it, but don't do too much. Be aware. No wonder the multiples haven't been satisfying. They're unattended orphans sacrificed to the idea of family. This one has had my complete attention for nine hours and has grown up to be a sturdy and beautiful offspring of my mind in conjugation with something else.
We sit, conversing. I look at the sculpture, rising from its dome base. The proportions are good. I wonder what would happen if I flattened the ringwall out and graded it down to the bottom of the sculpture's sokkel? Groaning, I get up, stagger over to the tool tub and get the Vertical Roadgrader.
"When do you quit?"
"Still have some energy left? You obviously didn't work hard enough."
"Too much daylight for you to resist?"
Scoffers. You Only Become Great If You Try. I don't dignify their catcalls with any response. I quit after smoothing out about 80 degrees of the ringwall, and sit back down with my friends.
"I like the ring better."
"I think you're right." I don't want to, but am unable to resist after a few minutes of rest. Back to work, rebuilding the ringwall. Then I work my way around the whole piece, evening out the ring's edge. Then I go get the big brush and smooth it all out, rounding the ringwall's edge while I'm at it. Then I sit down again.
"Yes. That's better."
The difference isn't great, but the ring has been softened so it calls less attention to itself. I can see that this calls for balance, somewhere between the ring distracting and not defining the space strongly enough. The current compromise is good enough. I put the tools away.
What makes a good sculpture? Why do all of my companions like this one so much? I feel it, ringing in my tired bones. I feel good and can't help looking back as we stagger away from the worksite with our various loads.
5. Plug (I'm Not Gonna Stay Awake For This!)
Mirjam gave me the last sandwich for dinner. I made some broccoli-fortified tomato soup to go with it, which was just right. Thanks to her I arrived home in something other than an advanced state of starvation. After I wash the sand off I feel almost human.
Bedtime coincides with nine o'clock.
"This is KRLA. Next we have Healthline."
The first part is an advertisement for a hospital, for which the doctor coincidentally works. Then he starts talking about diabetes. "If you're concerned about this, talk to your doctor. If you don't have a doctor, call my hospital. I think they're the best." What a surprise. I'd rather sleep. Click.
6. The Drudge and the Sparks
Bert has enough enthusiasm for four ordinary people. Today his project is to bring a different kind of sculpture to the Venice Boardwalk and I skate down, somewhat wobbly in my post-sculptural state.
"We've already been yelled at by the bludge. 'Hey, man, what you doing? You can't build there.' So, we moved. No problem." He's smiling. The usual parade passes just a few feet away. Some of them pause to watch as Bert works on a human face. Larry Safady is a few feet north, working on two fingers spread in the peace sign.
"You gotta come to Mazatlan next year. We had the Mexican Army there to do pound-ups. You tell them what to pack and they pack it! It was great. Hotel, food that's OK, what more could you want?"
I trot out my usual argument about it being so simple to do what I want to do right here: make sand sculpture. But, an army? Wow. And three days? A real multiple? For the price of an airplane ticket.
I head on to the Breakwater. Last night's tide utterly removed my sculpture. I'm tempted to start something now; the clean beach is inviting. That's fatigue speaking. No real need. Yesterday's sculpture still rings in my mind.
Written 2003 February 23, 24
Updated 2017 November 17 to lose Photobucket