May 17: 03F-5, "Choosing to Join"
"Well, now. Don't you look nice!"
"The kilt suits you well. And there's something more. Walk differently? Something in your face?"
"Yah. I don't understand it. I do enjoy it. No one knows what a change this is, from clothing as pure utility to wearing something I like partly because I look good in it."
"What's it like walking around that way?"
"Mostly unnoticed. A few laughs, in downtown. Some co-workers don't like it. Most of the people who respond at all like it a lot. But mostly no more noticed than any other time."
"Why the change?"
"I thought I needed something to stand out on a TV program for which I did a sculpture. At the time it seemed very important to do something outstanding so the camera wouldn't crush me. Afterward I started wondering about this; video is made by the editor and no matter what I wear the show is theirs. And why stand out anyway? Maybe it was more of a way to prop myself up: start strong, slap them in the face and just keep going. I don't know. But I won the contest!"
I'd walked to the shop through the cool spring air. Flowers scented the breeze, jasmine and many others. Late rains have kept things blooming.
"Come on by," he said. "I have something for you."
"So, what do you have this time?"
He heads for the back room, talking over his shoulder. "Something made possible by your European connection. The Zandraak Amsterdam Research Bureau." He comes back with a box-type screen. "Notice there's no wire binding the screen on this." He hands it to me.
"Right. Just this black stuff all over."
"That's from Mirjam. MS Polymer. 'Sticks like crazy to anything,' she said, and I believe her. I was going to use wire to reinforce it but as I worked with it I saw no need. Notice what I learned from its predecessors. The handle is depressed so water won't splash over the edge after hitting it. I learned that from the Quick Filter. No complex bends in the hardware cloth, which I learned from the Octascreen. Rectangular plan, to generate turbulence in the water, and that came from the Cercoscreenus along with the return to screening the sides. The adhesive makes the whole thing neater, with fewer sharp ends to gouge the distracted sand sculptor."
"So, take it out there and see if it works. I have confidence in this one."
"Thank you. It's beautiful."
I walk out of the shop and through the throng of people in the plaza. There's a street fair going on and I amble through, kilt swinging against my legs, Rectascreenus at my side and it's not scratching my legs.
Testing it goes awry. The equipment is loaded and I'm ready but other problems come up.
"This is the National Weather Service calling with the forecast for May second and third. There will be rain, occasionally heavy, starting in the afternoon and going until about noon Saturday."
"Oh, come on. This is May. It never rains. Light sprinkles, maybe, but nothing serious. Besides, I'm doing a sculpture Saturday."
"You'd better do the sculpture Friday. Saturday's going to be wet."
"OK. Thanks for the warning, Steve."
"Who's Steve? This is the National Weather Service."
"You sound just like Steve."
"Is that a compliment?"
Rain starts Friday afternoon, and after an hour or two turns serious. Wow. Just pouring down, and it's still going Saturday morning. Light rain alternates with pouring and it doesn't quit until after my tide window has closed. Amazing. I've never had a sculpture cancelled by rain in May; I ride to Manhattan Beach for lunch with Rich and Lorna, and get rained on down there, with a final shower just as I am approaching home after lunch.
All right, then. We still have a schedule to meet. Bert wants a sculpture for his wedding, and they plan to display photos. Now, he could have asked anyone, but he asked me. Maybe it's because he and Stephanie like my work. Maybe it's because I'm cheap to hire. No matter. It's a serious project and I'm running out of time. I can't do it Saturday because of Rich's concert.
"I need to take Friday off, Wayne. Emergency sand sculpture."
"Where is that in the Manual of Policies and Procedures?"
"Page 39, I think, section OU-812."
George comes by Thursday after work.
"I want to go to the gym, or something."
We end up walking to the beach. The loose plan is to do some running, some sculpting and some photography but this is blown away by a howling wind. Sand blasts our legs and salt spray coats my glasses. Impossible for sand sculpture so I just walk south. Lots of the purple-rimmed jelly things litter the sand. Whitecapped waves run into the horizon. This bodes ill for tomorrow.
"Oh, maybe it'll quit by then."
"I hope." But wind like this usually lasts a day or two. Strong out of the west. I awaken the next day to the loud rattle of palm fronds and creaking tree limbs. I walk outside for a better feel and realize I've been shut down again.
Wind is the invisible problem. It can blow parts of the sculpture off. It dries the sculpture rapidly and blows the loose sand into my eyes. More to the point, for this piece that requires high-quality photographs, it blows sand into everything. I send out a message: "Sculpture cancelled." Will I ever get this one off? I've been thinking about it for months. It's time to get it done and move on.
Build number: 03F-5 (lifetime start #273) screened low-tide sand on broad riser base edged by borrow pit
Title: "Choosing to Join: A Singularity for Stephanie and Bert"
Date: May 17
Location: Venice Breakwater, on the flat
Start: 0700; construction time approx 10 hours
Height: 3.5 feet (Latchform); riser height about 8 inches
Base: 1.75 feet nominal diameter
Photo digital: 27 images, Canon Powershot G2
Photo 35mm: none
Photo 6X7: 2 rolls TMX, 67II w/165mm; first roll on tripod, second handheld
Photo volunteer: Rich, w/Canon Z115, complete
Video motion: none (camcorder not brought)
Video still: none
Video volunteer: none
New Equipment: 1. Rectascreenus. 2. Purchased filter funnel for water
"Could you make a sculpture for our wedding ??"
--Bert Adams, Email in early March
"Wow. A request for a wedding sculpture? And I don't have to carve a kneeling groom kissing the hand of his bride? This is what everyone seems to want..." I have gotten requests for this, which I've politely declined. I don't believe in kneeling. For anything or anyone.
"Well you don't think I'd ask you to do one of those !"
I should hope to kiss a pig you wouldn't. "I'd be honored to make such a sculpture. It'd help if you could tell me more about Stephanie, and send me a picture."
Abstract. Non-representational. The truth is there's no good word for the sculpture I make because there are always real things from the world in them. Trees, canyons, wind forms. There have been animals, and a few times even shapes that could be interpreted as people. The problem is in doing on demand.
Previous programmatic sculptures have largely failed. Wanting to make something specific I tried to embody the shape and the idea got left out. This discouraged further excursions away from my usual absolute sculptures, but gradually the idea sneaked back in. The finest expression of this came in 2002, when I did two sculptures for Bob Jeffords. He died in November and I made one sculpture as a private memorial, and then was asked to make another for a public memorial service on the beach. Both of these turned out well.
All right. Hold the idea and let the sculpture look after itself.
"I was thinking of a single sculpture, (not a multiple), that had more or less,
two elements that are intertwined or next to each other some way.
But hey, that's just an idea. Go with what you think is good."
--Bert, Email in mid-March
The logical way to do this would be as a multiple. Two people, two sculptures, right? But that's not the essence of a wedding, which is more about coming together. A single sculpture that somehow represents the meeting and culminates in that single moment of showing the joining.
An absolute sculpture owes nothing to anyone. It's my usual no excuses best attempt at excellence using everything I know. Programmatic sculptures carry more of a burden; at the least, it has to mean something. This one is even more burdened because by the time I make it to the beach I'm out of time for a restrike: if it fails for any reason they won't get their picture.
Distraction was provided by flowers. Rain was late showing up but when it did the wonders it produced were spread throughout the desert. I spent weekends in Lancaster photographing acres of flowers, joining Mauricio on training bike rides, and playing with the kids.
Ideas don't need constant supervision. They simmer like oatmeal in the pot at the back of the fire and you can tell by smell and experience when they're ready for the light of day. The hard part of any creative endeavor is trusting this. We hear all the time about writer's block and artists who get stuck. Creativity is a team effort and some members of the team have to be left alone for a time. It'll get done. Occasionally I'd take a look under the pot's lid and see what was cooking. A little of this, a little of that, an idea from last year, some new things, and get out of here now so you don't choke it to death.
Two months of planning is about all I can stand. Get the idea made. Visions aren't static; they build on each other and I've taken this one about as far as it can go. Visions are no substitute for real expression even if they are much faster. There's no replacement for really making an idea.
Friday evening. Calm, humid, cool. This looks good.
3. Tool Testing
Saturday morning. Calm, humid, cool, overcast. The Chamber of Commerce grumbles. I rejoice and load my equipment.
The plan has a long groove coming across the beach to the sculpture, where it turns vertical to make a strong separation that curves back and forth toward the sculpture's top. A groove implies ridges and this thought predominates. I build a tall, elongated base for the sculpture with this in mind.
It's on a natural headland eroded by the week's high tides. Those tides have also played havoc with the low-tide sand and I walk what feels like a mile trying to find the good stuff. Eventually I realize there isn't any really good sand, but the low-tide sand is still better than what's up at the building site. I find the spot closest and start hauling.
The original Quick Filter had its hardware cloth applied as if it were a box, with flaps that went partway across the bottom. The edges were retained with twists of wire. A bad idea. When I made the Octascreen I made its bottom like an octagonal tray, with raised edges. This was even worse because of the sharp bends, which weakened the material. There were no bends in the Cercoscreenus bottom, which gave it great strength. Its only problem was that it didn't work. The Rectascreenus frame is covered by just two pieces of hardware cloth, each one running down one side, across the bottom and up the opposite side. They cross over the bottom and are glued along the edges. Simple bends and reinforcement in the area where it's needed. I load it with sand and place it in the form.
How about that. It works. Very well. No hassle, no problems. The rectangular plan increases the turbulence in the water, but it's not really necessary. The sand comes out easily even with just side-to-side motion. It's not perfect; there are still some sharp edges that catch on my shirt. It's still the best of the Quick Filter family, and it ends this construction session looking just as good as when I started. It gets the highest accolade I can give: it's a good tool.
Another tool, picked up casually at Albertson's, also proves its worth even before the function for which it was bought takes place. Any time there's floating junk on the water it gets into the form. This can be a problem if I set the filter down on top of it, forcing the stuff into the sand. The plastic funnel with a fine-mesh stainless steel screen inside works well for catching these floaters because the water can run out. I'll have to see if I can get one for Larry.
4. NOW is the Time!
And we finally get to the moment. Forget everything else. The buckets are all full, the sprayer is loaded, the form is off and cleaned up. My tools are at hand. Pull the pot off the stove remove the lid. Let's find out what's in there in the only way possible. Pick up the Sand Knife.
Any idea is only partial. Call upon experience and need to flesh it out. The sculpture is round, the vision flat. A curving facet drops from the top, then cuts in to a curve that runs down and out to the bottom. I use the waste sand to build up a smooth transition curve.
It's a good thing the idea is partial. Serendipity comes in the sudden movement or sight of light on an unexpected curve. There is no recipe for beauty. Challenge and surprise and engineering make a fascinating combination.
Recent practice has led to orienting the sculpture with its major openings toward the setting sun. This piece will need sunlight in just the right place so its subtle dividing line will be shown by shadow. That dictates the sculpture's orientation on its base but once placed there's room for holes. After all, it may be for Bert but Rich , if he's able to come, will have every right to expect holes.
Light in and light out. Reflection, shade, shape and the light comes out here. Put a few kinks in the dividing groove to show that not everything goes smoothly. Put some connections across because a relationship, even in the early stages, needs something to hold it together. Toward the top the slot subtly narrows. It crosses the top as a single scarp, then descends the west side as a shallow V groove. It ends in a last teardrop hole below which is smooth merged sand. That's the core. The rest is details and as the afternoon goes on I make these to suit my taste. It turns out to be a powerful piece. I even work some pleats from Bert's wedding kilt into it. Nicely curved, but subtle. I wonder if he'll notice. Details.
He's a lifeguard I've not seen before.
"This looks good. Too bad you can't take it home."
"Oh, I enjoy the making."
"I think I saw another guy down here doing this."
"Larry Dudock, probably."
"He had this big grid laid out, and was making things on that."
"Not Larry. I don't know who that was." (I learned later that this indeed was Larry's project.)
"How many people are there who do this?"
"A few. I'm the only one who does it like this, one day on the beach, to enjoy the making. Most of them do sand sculpture as a job."
"What do you mean?"
"They only do a sand sculpture for a commercial outfit. Malls, that sort of thing. They want to be paid."
"What's the good in that?" he says. "How do you get better? Only if you enjoy it and do it all the time. That's the only way to get the old ideas out of the way, so you can do something new."
Here's someone who really does understand. "Well, that's what I think. Practice, but it doesn't feel like practice." This reminds me of what Bert has written about loving even the drudgery of art: pounding sand, stretching canvas, wedging clay.
"No real art in those others. I'm a classical guitarist, so I know about practice." His radio brings in a call. "Sorry. I have to go."
"Hi, Sal. I haven't seen you for a while."
"Well, you should be seeing more of me. My house problems are solved. I've moved up into the Hollywood Hills, with the rich folks."
"How did that happen?" The last I knew the man was destitute and looking for a place to live.
"I just fell into this deal. The parents of a friend. They're in their 80s now and he can't drive. The kids don't have time. So I live with them."
"And drive them where they need to go?"
"Right. And I get to use the car, a 1988 Mercedes-Benz, any time I want. And she says to turn in receipts for all the gas I use!"
"Think you can find me a deal like that?" We laugh.
"The car is old, and has a few problems."
"Who cares? It gets you where you want to be, and it's paid for."
"Right! All these people thinking about style and keeping up, that's expensive. A car is just a tool for getting around."
"That's why I have an old Honda Accord. No style, but reliable."
"That's it. Well, I'm going to shoot another round." I met Sal on the last day of 1995, when I was doing the first two experiments in what would soon turn into the Small Sculpture Revolution, and his bouncy video walkarounds are the only record I have of one of the pieces. After that I saw him in association with Terry, who made the pyramids.
"Last year, I was going to Terry's funeral..."
"Terry died?" I knew he was having problems with diabetes but hadn't heard anything else.
"Oh, yes. Last May. I was going on a trip when I found out."
"Well, I'm sorry. I still miss him, walking up from the parking lot with his blue jacket and white sailor hat."
"Yeah. One of these days I'll come down here and make a pyramid in his memory." He packs the camera away. "Well, I'm going to wander on. Have fun!"
"What is it?" Many passersby ask. Today I experiment.
"It's a shape. Mainly supposed to be beautiful. This one is, however, for a friend. He's getting married and wanted me to do a sculpture for them. They'll have photographs at the ceremony. It's supposed to represent them meeting, growing closer and joining, while remaining individuals. There are kinks and twists in there because all relationships have occasional problems and difficulties."
"I can see that."
I hope I wasn't leading the witness. More than one gave this kind of response, however, and some of them didn't need much leading.
"This is remarkable."
I look up. A man, clean-shaven open face, camcorder in hand. "Thank you." Something about him draws me farther out of the sand than usual. I've gotten pretty good at identifying which people are truly interested in what I'm doing.
"I work with kids at home. We try to help them be creative."
This whole deal has "church" written all over it, but this man seems honest.
"They're good kids. Sometimes they come over to our house just to hang out, see what's going on."
I look at him. He's crouched on the sand beside the borrow pit where I'm seated, tool in hand. "You know, that's one thing I miss about being an adult. Kids will get together just to enjoy each other's company, but adults don't do that."
"It has to be scheduled. Everyone's too busy." He holds up his camcorder. "Would you mind if I asked you a few questions? We're trying to present various views on creativity."
I look at the sculpture, then at the sun behind its thin veil of high clouds. It's way above the horizon. "No problem. There's plenty of time. I can even get out of the sculpture for a few minutes and really think." I rearrange myself into a more comfortable position. "Fire away."
"Do you think there's some kind of creative spirit that your ideas come from? Where do you feel the ideas originate?"
I laugh. "That's a good one, and I don't have a good answer. I've been trying to figure it out for years. I don't really know. All I know is that I live for creativity. I couldn't live without the ability and the opportunity."
He becomes diffident. "Do you think there's a possibility that the spirit of creativity, the desire to make things, comes from God?"
"That's as good an explanation as anything else. I don't really believe in God, but then I don't not believe in God either. I simply don't know."
"You don't know. Thanks for being honest."
What I don't tell him is that I believe a bad answer is worse than no answer, and, to me, God is a bad answer. He obviously derives something from the belief. All I have is sand.
"I'm here for a conference about creativity and the church."
"One reason I have nothing to do with churches is their lack of creativity. After all, who cares about all these rules? If God made the Universe, I have a hard time believing he could care about whether someone is wearing just the right hat in church." Beware of the working sand sculptor: the censors are off-duty. There's nothing to check the word-mill once it starts.
"This church is different. It's called 'Mosaic.' They have artists performing while the speaking is going on. Dancers, singers, painters."
This gets my attention. A church that respects these things, that doesn't force them into acceptable formats?
"They meet in Pasadena. Tomorrow."
"Too bad. I'll do the city a favor and stay out from behind the wheel of my car. After a sand sculpture you don't want me on the highway."
We shake hands and he walks away, back toward Indiana.
A familiar face takes his place. "Hi, Rich. I wasn't sure you'd be able to come."
"Hi, Larry. And you remember MIchael O'Kane, don't you?"
"Yes. How was the singing?"
"Loud. If you can hear the singer next to you, you're not singing loud enough."
"Is Fa-Sol-La the same as Shape-note?"
"Yes. They only use four notes."
Something about this doesn't sound right, but I have my own problems right now and can't concentrate on music.
5. A Problem of Support
While all this has been going on I've been working on the sculpture's base. I can't finish the clean-up until the base is at least roughly shaped.
The problem is that what I've done isn't working. I keep going, forcing the idea into the sand. I need those two long ridges leading up to the split panel on the sculpture's east side. And I need the single broad ridge leading away from the other side, where the two join. The Plan Demands It. I shape and shape, move sand, carve. It just gets worse.
"Oh, my. I guess I should have taken pictures."
"Too late. It's out of here." I've picked up the Vertical Roadgrader, my mass sand removal tool of choice and started hacking. Chunks of sand fall away from the sculpture's lower parts.
"Be careful there!"
"No problem. That's all sand that I banked up against the sculpture to provide the transition. I should have learned long ago. This stuff never works. Never." I hack away, moving the hundreds of pounds of sand that I carefully put there and tamped.
There's nothing like doing the base over again.
"Any sand worth moving is worth moving three times, right?"
Rich and Mike laugh. I shovel sand away from the ridges, shortening them and making the slope into the borrow pit steeper.
"Now it looks like the Creature from Too Many Fathoms."
"I can't fathom why you'd say that. It's just too deep for me." And even those truncated ridges don't work so I pick up the shovel. It's time to get serious.
I fill in all the carved pockets and remove all of the ridges. The base becomes the simple broad dome that has worked so well for years. Off to the east I build up a low curving wall to provide an edge. On the west, down the slope of the natural headland, I just smooth out the sand.
"Boy, am I tired. But at least now it works."
"Yah. The only time you've made bases like that work is on free-piled sculptures."
"Something about the scale. Also the sand. It's impossible to get the base sand to really stick to a formed pile. With free-pile it's all the same."
Now the sculpture has support. It's up there and nothing distracts. And it's strong enough not to need all that extra fiddle-faddle. It tells the story all by itself.
6. Winding it Up
A few more brush strokes, a little trimming. "That's it." I make a signature pad and press my hands into it. Whew. It's still standing, it tells the story, and it looks good.
"It's a good one."
Afternoon sun floods the beach. Long day. Close to summer, the sun well north over mountains invisible in the vaporous air that blows slowly past.
"An old-fashioned film camera?"
"And I'll bet you're shooting black and white!"
"You got it." It's the 6X7's first outing in a long time. Digital has just about displaced it, but for this purpose only black and white will do. Bert wants prints and I'm old-fashioned. Nothing beats a well-made silver print. I shoot the views I want with the camera on a tripod so my sculptor's palsy won't affect it.
With the critical shots in the can, I get out the digital camera and start making utility shots.
"Mike and I are going to leave now."
"What? The party's just beginning. The band will be here in half an hour."
"We were waiting for the dancing girls."
"Sorry. They had to cancel."
"If we'd known that, we wouldn't have come!"
"Thanks a lot."
I finish my photography and start to come apart. Time to pack up. I'm not in condition for these long summer days. Then I decide to get an insurance roll with the 6X7 with it set for auto exposure, but after I load the film I can't remember how to set up this mode. So I just shoot with it manual spot metering. The light is soft and Steve will be able to correct it in post-production.
Enough. I pack the load, splitting it between cart and trailer because this is easier to haul than having everything on the trailer. I've just started my long walk when the lifeguard drives past.
"I want to get another look."
"Enjoy!" I continue the walk, stopping to rest now and then. There must be a better way. Hired hands, maybe? The LAPD quad whose tracks are giving me such trouble right now?
The lifeguard drives up just as I reach the hard-packed dirt where my bicycle is.
"Man, that's amazing! Don't you work in more permanent materials? It's beautiful!"
"Sand inspires me."
"Well, you've inspired me. Thank you for doing this." He shakes my hand, arm projecting from the truck's window.
"You're welcome. I'm glad you liked it."
He drives away, leaving a warm glow that matches the sun through the evening haze. It only takes me three or four tries to get everything loaded so that it won't fall off.
"Larry! Larry! Larry!
I love that beautiful thing! It's fabulous, it's fantastic! It's
beautiful and wonderful and I can't wait to get the photos up at our
wedding. It will really help to make our day unique and special. I
can't thank you enough.
Thanks so much, Stef
I can see the separate, joining to one.
Thanks again for "Taking the Commission".
Look forward to seeing the photos. (You probably mentioned that we need
to choose size and such in the other Email).
--Email from Stephanie and Bert, May 18
It worked. The clients are pleased. I've produced what was necessary.
The result is more angular than the original vision, less subtle. Still, it is musical and balanced. Strong. Proud. I had to overcome rain, wind and bad decisions in order to make it, and change course a couple of times. This is what really makes a professional: coming through with the product no matter what. No excuses, no apologies.
Here there is nothing to apologize for, not even the professionalism. I like the piece; it is only slightly compromised by the necessity to still be standing at the end of the day. It has shapes I've never made before, and is interesting. I really like the long curve on the west balancing the shorter, overhanging parts on the east.
It has strong presence, which I'd say is a good harbinger for the event it celebrates in advance. Bert, Stephanie, make it go.
Written 2003 May 18
Edited May 19, June 1
Further editing and reformatting, 2013 December 10
Toolmaker story #10 (Rectascreenus A, original version with hardware cloth)