Monday, July 21, 2014

Welcome to Frazierville: A Conversation with Illustrator and Author Craig Frazier

Craig Frazier: Part One

photo by Kirk Citron

Craig Frazier is an illustrator. Most of his work is by commission. But when you look at his collected work, it feels like the oeuvre of an observant illustrator/writer/artist. You enter what a friend of his calls “Frazierville.” I met Craig at a benefit for Oxbow School and decided immediately that I wanted to find out more about his process. Although I interviewed him shortly thereafter, it took me a while to edit the transcript. But since his work is timeless, I hope the delay isn’t a bad thing. He has a new book coming out entitled “Sketchy.”

Q: I want to talk about this continuum from graphic design—which is generally perceived as a commercial craft—to something called illustration—which is sort of commercial—to art. I interviewed Maira Kalman recently, and she said that she does not call herself an artist. She calls herself an illustrator. In order to work, she needs an assignment.

Craig Frazier: I am not a fine artist; I’m in total agreement with Maira.

Q: But what are you doing up in your studio at Sea Ranch?

CF: I’m upstairs doing the same work I do in my Mill Valley studio (though under very serene conditions), and my wife is downstairs making copperplate etchings. Now, that’s not to say that she won’t let me down there to make prints, but it’s really her studio where she makes her art. I’m a complete novice at printmaking—she, on the other hand, knows what she is doing. I learned about printmaking four years ago up at Oxbow during their summer program. Suz had been doing it for four or five years previous to that.

Copperplate etching is very humbling. I understand the beginning, middle, and end of all my illustration processes, but printmaking is a process that has a mind of its own—and also a beautiful mind if you want to get on board with it and let it take you somewhere. I’m not used to doing that. I’m used to being in charge. And copperplates don’t let you be in charge. The press is going to do what it’s got to do, and the paper’s going to do whatever it wants to do. You might rein that in a little bit, but you better be prepared to accept some errors and some turns in the road. It was in my fourth year that I finally started to surrender to it, and accept mistakes, and appreciate them, and say, “This is OK”—and quit drawing pictures like I do as an illustrator.

The difference between a designer or an illustrator and a fine artist is that a designer or an illustrator has an assignment, and they are supposed to be communicating; they are supposed to be solving a problem for a client within a set of parameters and objectives. That is the job, and the job isn’t done until you’ve done that, and the measure of that job is how well or poorly it communicates.

That’s measurable to some degree, whether you’re branding a company or you’re trying to illustrate an article. Fine artists have personal criteria. They do not have a client. In essence, there are no real assignments. They do whatever they want to do, which I think is a tougher assignment than working against a brief or illustrating a story.

Q: Because the whole world is possible?

CF: When do you know when you’re done? When do you know if you’ve done a good job? How do you know if you like it? With an assignment, I look at it and say, “Well, did I satisfy what I was supposed to do for a client? Did they accept it in the end? Did it go to print.” Job over, done.

You don’t have to sell it later on. It doesn’t have to measure up to public opinion. The hard part of being a designer or an illustrator is getting the assignment. Doing it is just the work that you do. But once you’ve got an assignment, it’s pretty much assured you’re going to get paid. A fine artist does something with no assurance that they’re going to get paid. In terms of a job, that’s a brutal existence. Most of us who have grown up in the working class—we like to get paid for what we do.

I’ve tried to stay clear of using “art” in terms of my definition of what I do. Maybe someday in the end of my life, when these things don’t matter and my income doesn’t matter, I can try to do that. But I think it’s going to be very hard to wring the designer out of me, which is going to make it really hard to be a fine artist, because I am assignment-oriented. The other thing is that I’m really oriented toward communicating. You can always tell an illustrator who has tried to leave that profession to become a fine artist, because you see pictures that look like something. They tend to be expressive.

So in your continuum—the three stages of my career that you were asking about—we’ll go back to the design one. When I was in college, I was studying to be a graphic designer. What I knew about being a graphic designer was that it involved some kind of applied art. I’d drawn all my life, so I thought, maybe I could make a living here.

Q: Where did you go to school?

CF: I went to Chico State, not a fancy art school. I just went up there to go to college and didn’t know what I was going to study.

Q: Did you grow up in the Bay Area?

CF: I was living in Livermore at the time.

Q: So Chico looked good?

CF: Yeah, really good. Unlike my own kids, I chose a college that was pretty close to the town I was living in. I went 200 miles north because many of my friends went there.

In my third year, my mom said, “Hey, have you heard about this thing, graphic design? You’re always drawing.” “No, never even heard of it.” “Well, that’s how logos get made. That’s how brochures are made.” So I took my first class and just fell in love with it. There was an assignment, and it was like something I was trying to fix. My dad was a mechanical engineer in the Air Force, and the one thing that he taught me was how to fix things. I worked on all my bikes, worked on all my cars, and I learned how to fix stuff. He was a designer and designed things he couldn’t really talk about—because he worked for the Department of Defense.

He was always drawing on envelopes and figuring stuff out, and so I probably got a little bit of that genetically, and then it was also just training. It’s like, “Hey, if it’s broken, Craig, we’re not buying a new one. We’re gonna fix it.” If you’re Scottish, you fix, don’t replace!

I declared a graphic design major, and in my second year in the program, I took my first illustration course.

After taking a number of illustration classes, I thought, “I want to be an illustrator. That’s really what I want to do.” I left school with an illustration portfolio. The first two people who looked at my portfolio said, “You shouldn’t be an illustrator. You should be a designer. I said, “Okay.” So I went to Palo Alto. This is 1980. I landed a job right away and was really lucky. Silicon Valley was just starting.

Q: At a graphic design firm?

CF: Yes. I walked in, and the owner said, “We have a position.” They had just started the firm. “The reason I’m going to hire you is because you can draw.” Because in those days, long before we had computers and long before people were swiping stock photos and images, you always drew your prototype designs.

So I became a graphic designer, and learned production, went through the mentoring program. Within two years, I started my own firm, in San Francisco.

Q: Did you have a client?

CF: It was a management consulting firm that launched us. That set us off, and we had an office on Union Square, right across from Neiman Marcus. I started getting work with an ad agency—Saatchi & Saatchi—started to be kind of a ghost designer for them. We eventually moved off to South of Market.

By then Silicon Valley had burst open, and I was driving all the time to Palo Alto or farther to do work for tech companies. I also had the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet as clients. Then we also started doing a lot of work for Steelcase. That got me into the furniture business, and lead to doing work with Herman Miller and with Agnes Bourne.

That was really great work. It was fun because it was design-oriented, and they were smart people. If I could go back to that, I probably would. That was a nice niche. Then we got a lot of technology work. We had this client, Trimble Navigation, which is still around. They were the founders of GPS technology, which was originally developed for the nautical industry. You could get a GPS unit for $3,000. Now it’s on your phone. [Laughter] We took that company public and helped popularize GPS technology.

I was learning how to impact companies and be a part of their communication and help them grow. I was spending most of my time doing proposals, and I’d come back and I’d design at night—and I had four or five employees. But control freak that I am, I always designed everything. I would do sketches, thumbnails, turn them over to an assistant, and she would put it together. I would direct all the photo shoots, and the writing, and do all the selling. I experimented with getting people to help sell for me. It was tough, and that never worked out. They can’t do it. They didn’t care about the same things that I did.

Steelcase Ad

Trimble Ad

Q: It’s got to be the professional. When I talk to architects, I’m always saying, “If you can’t do this, then it’s not gonna work.” Because it comes down to the architect connecting with the client.

CF: Yeah. You’ve got to convince somebody to trust you. Whether they understand what you’re doing or not, they’re going to have to trust you. I kept thinking, “How do I get out of this business? I can’t stand it.” We were doing great work, and had a good reputation, won AIGA Awards and all that stuff. My kids were little, and I’d just come home—I was so tired and cranky, because I was selling all the time. If you have any anxiety—and I do—you go into a meeting and you think, “God, this is going to go one of two ways. It’s going to go really good or it’s going to go really bad.” It never kind of went in between. It’s like, this could explode if the wrong person came in the room.

I remember thinking, “How do I get out of this?” I told my wife, “I’d sure love to be an illustrator. I’d love to work in some little office overlooking a downtown somewhere.” What would that be like, being an illustrator, where you’re just drawing by yourself? You don’t have to do these meetings. You don’t have to put on a suit and tie. So I learned a little more about illustration and who illustrators were. I knew who Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast were, and I had hired a few illustrators.

I was getting burned out in design. I thought, “I need something more personal here.” In those days, with graphic design, you were supposed to be stylistically neutral. You were not supposed to assert a point of view. You could have a point of view about the way you treated a page, but that company’s identity was their identity, not your identity, not your style.

Q: You weren’t really even interpreting it very much, were you?

CF: No. Of course, everybody ends up having their own kind of a thing. Some people are very ornate, and some people only use Helvetica, but you’re supposed to give a client a choice: “We can make things very Swiss, or we can use Garamond.” Those decisions are not just about type, but a company’s image. You owe that to them to try to decide where they land in that spectrum. I always felt like I couldn’t impose myself. Take someone like Michael Vanderbyl, who is a brilliant design stylist, in my opinion. He has marketed his style to companies—much like an illustrator does.

Q: You want it or you don’t.

CF: Exactly. I wasn’t that way as a designer. I look back, and I think I had a great career and did good work. But I didn’t feel that strongly about graphic design. I thought, “Well, how can I get out of this?” I wanted to relieve that stress. The other really important thing was I observed was that whenever we were going to do an annual report, we would hire a photographer, and he would get a lot of the money and the recognition.

I thought, “I want that part of it,” because, in part, I had to sell him. He didn’t have to go to the meetings, I did. “I want to be in those shoes. I want to be sitting in my studio, making my stuff, and people are out there selling me.” So I said, “I’m going to take a swing at this.” And I started doing some drawings in my own projects.

Q: It was for annual reports?

CF: Yes. One was for the Energy Foundation in San Francisco. Another one was for Symantec. And another one was for Oracle. I didn’t tell them who was doing the illustrations.


Energy Foundation

Q: But you put forward the idea that you would do it with illustrations rather than photos?

CF: Exactly. Nobody in the west did that. I was testing the water to see if I could start to make some work. I wanted to eventually get out of the design part of the equation.

So I made a little 16-page booklet of some of my illustrations. Some of it had been published, and some of it was unpublished. I sent out a thousand across the country to designers and to magazines. And the phone began to ring.

Q: Was it a self-published little book?

CF: It cost me $5,000. I got a large project in town for Pac Bell—one of the phone companies. I said, “This is working.” Then I got a cover for Time magazine. Then I got an Atlantic Monthly cover.

So I decided to close the shop down. I felt it could work. It took nine months to make that full transition.

I wrote a letter to my friends in the design community. I said, “Look, no midlife crisis, no divorce, no illness, just changing what I’m doing—no problems here, okay.” I said, “I will be illustrating quietly above Peet’s Coffee in Mill Valley.” It was an enormous relief, to make the change. I really wasn’t that worried about whether it was going to work. I told my wife, “I’m going to make less money.” And she was behind me, because apparently I was pretty cranky at that point! The pressure was clearly killing me.

Just before I closed up shop, one of the first things I did was the Mill Valley Film Festival poster, which was a breakthrough for me. I was asked to do it. I thought, “Okay you’ve got to have a style, Craig, and you’ve got to get known for it.” That’s the name of the game in illustration. It’s all style.

“I’m going to do this graphic thing,” I told myself, because that’s something I could do. I couldn’t paint—still don’t paint. I was learning how to communicate and how to get an idea inside of an illustration—a singular idea.

I asked myself, “What’s the one notion going on here? How pared down can we get it?” For the Mill Valley Film Festival poster, for instance, I put strips of film over Adam and Eve’s privates. That’s the joke. That’s the whole thing. When I started to get a few of those projects under my belt, I started to understand myself—that that’s what was interesting to me—the tone of that joke, how loud, how quiet—and the timing of it. There is timing on paper, believe it or not.

Q: How many sketches do you show a client?

CF: I show them two or three.

Q: If the client is really sweet.

CF: As a designer, I thought much more absolutely about solutions than now. That was just naiveté. But I liberated myself from that by realizing, “Hey, there’s a bunch of ideas.” It doesn’t mean that you show everything, but what if you have two ideas? What if you have three? We all love the privilege of choice.

But with options come conditions. “Here are the rules. I will give you three sketches for every illustration, but there’s no mixing or matching, and you have to pick one. The actual representation of things is not open for discussion. I’m not making the head bigger. I’m not putting eyes on it. You see what my work looks like, and that’s what it is.” I didn’t want clients directing the style I was trying to create—and they probably would if I asked them.

I submit them the same way I do today. I scan them, but they are just black and white, no tone, no color, because the idea is there and they can see it. They can see how I color. There isn’t any discussion about color, because that’s highly subjective. They have to trust me. But for every three sketches I’d show them, I would do a dozen of my own.

In Part Two, Craig talks more about his process.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Postcard from Nassau

Paradise Lost

When you fly over Nassau, just before you land, you see the most spectacular water. Beautifully clear and a tempting assortment of blue and aqua colors. You only need to swim a short distance offshore in calm warm waters to see schools of fish just beneath the surface. Paradise awaits.

The airport has been recently renovated and lines are short. But there is also the sticky residue of a long history of colonialism. All kinds of colonialism have taken place there, including Americans setting up a plantation economy. The Brits had the longest run. While it is an independent commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth is still its reigning monarch. It appears that the future colonialists may turn out to be Chinese.

There are 700 islands that make up the Bahamas. But Nassau is where most Bahamians live and where most tourists visit. Although it is home to thousands of hotel rooms (concentrated in two areas) and hundreds of cruise ships, Nassau is not a place of great efficiency. Fairly soon after arriving, you realize everything is on “island time.” Online maps don’t work, and many buildings are in a state of decay. Humid weather and storms take their toll. Only the wealthy can afford constant maintenance.

We stayed in a hotel that was most recently a Sheraton. It is now part of the Meliá chain. Nobody cared how long the check-in line was, and nobody was in any hurry to speed up the process. When the client (that word has little meaning there) next to me was hysterical about swapping a room, I thought the manager was going to slap her instead of trying to resolve the problem quietly out of earshot.

Although there was a grand driveway for valet parking, it wasn’t used, and guests had to park their cars at some distance in a temporary lot, which required you to cross a vehicular path. Never mind the fact that the concrete walkways and the plaster around the pool were spalling. While the air conditioner in our room worked fine, there was no HVAC going in the glazed single-loaded corridor. And it was being repainted with all sorts of toxic paint and plaster dust on the carpet. The funniest moment was when my travel companion opened our room door and the housepainter fell in.

Nobody pours a full glass of wine, taxi drivers swindle you, and the tourists seem willing to endure it all for the pretty warm water and the modest room rates at the Meliá (compared to the Disneyesque fantasy island known as Atlantis). Atlantis is a monstrosity resort built by a South African and run by Starwood. If you lose a whole world, you can build it any way you want later.… The Atlantis is probably the largest employer of Bahamians in Nassau. Many people think it is the Bahamas, as they arrive at the airport and are shuttled to the resort and never leave. We did not venture there.

Next door to our rundown former Sheraton was the latest transformation of this quiet island. The newly found/built paradise is called Baha Mar. While they will have a zillion rooms, lots of pools, golf courses, and casinos, they are not going to be quite as fantasy-based as Atlantis. One ingenious design touch at the Meliá was that the hotel frosted the glazing in our corridor so we couldn’t see the construction zone next door. Perhaps it will be a surprise when it opens.

Apparently, the Chinese developers of Baha Mar have created a nature preserve across the street, and other public amenities. This is the reason there is a new road from the airport and a new airport. What is curious is that the construction site is almost entirely Chinese. The sign over the gate is in Chinese, and the construction workers are Chinese. My friend said that the developers said there were not enough trained workers in the Bahamas. No doubt the cost of labor might have something to do with it?

We also heard that the target audience is the newly wealthy formerly Communist Chinese. Baha Mar absorbed an earlier Wyndham development that was also out of scale with the early low-rises on beautiful Cable Beach. When it opens later this year (if you believe the banners), a new kind of colonialism will set in with a new set of tourists. I am not sure I will return to witness it.

I am happy to post signed comments. Anonymous comments will not be posted.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Liam Everett

Untitled (Cahors)

It was hard to stay ahead of artist Liam Everett in our recent conversation at Paulson Bott Press where he was making a series of new intaglio prints. He reached whatever point I wanted to make long before I did. During our extended conversation, he was reluctant to make any conscious link to Buddhism, yet his work is all about practice, about showing up and being present for whatever may or may not come.

Q: What motivates your work?

Liam Everett: I think it’s dangerous to make art out of a blind movement towards making things—out of the need to make things manifest into form, make something beautiful. I don’t have that. For me, the doing is really the key for me. Not what gets done, but the doing. But it’s very hard to create the optimal place and state to make that rise up. It’s like a dinner party. You just never know if it will click. And to make that happen in the studio on a regular basis is excruciating. The times I pat myself on the back are the times when I’ve got the right ingredients, I’ve got the right ambiance, I’ve had a good night’s sleep, it’s a sunny day, and I get out in order to breathe. It’s totally evasive. And it’s a responsibility I find to have. It’s like watering your garden.

Q: Do you throw out a lot of work?

LE: Throwing out is the last resort. I’ll reuse things and reuse things. Sometimes things will start out as tools and then become the art object. And then vice-versa, sometimes I will start working on large paintings, and they become so problematic that I’ll put them down on the floor, and I’ll use them as a drop cloth, and I’ll start painting on top of them. And then sometimes, through a year or a months of being a drop cloth or a blotter, if you will—because I blot some of my paintings, just like prints, and they start absorbing all this residue from all this other work—all of a sudden they come back into the thicket and they are put back up on the wall!

I try and set up mistakes that happen. I have to almost feel like my studio is booby-trapped. I’m building booby-traps for good mistakes, to collect things, whether they turn into a natural art object that goes out into the world or just a reservoir of research. It’s very rare I’ll throw a painting out. But it’s very common that I’ll rework it, or that it’ll get folded and go into a bucket of water and get put to the side and sit there for months. Some large paintings get cut down into these circles. Supports that I use to carry my inked and soaped paintings inside get used for sculptures. Sometimes the buckets themselves get used.

And it’s not because I don’t like throwing things away. It’s not driven by a concept. What I think is interesting is when all the elements that create the reality of the studio are forced to incubate together. I think the denser it becomes, the more interesting it becomes. And when they leave, of course, the reality changes.

Q: Are you sometimes reluctant to let them out?

LE: No. I let things go easily, often as soon as I finish it.


Untitled (Ahnur)

Untitled (Nuxibuxbaase Awadee)

Q: How do you know a piece is done?

LE: As soon as it shows up as a foreign entity, that’s when I’m okay with letting it go—as soon as the dominant content of this object asserts itself. The paintings that almost seem to make themselves, I’m ready to let go of.

Q: So is it like a dance? In the middle of the dance, at some moment, you know it’s over?

LE: Yeah, as soon as it stops being familiar. That’s when I know, “Oh, I can let that go now.” It’s ready to be in the world by itself without my autobiographical thumbprint all over it, and I think that’s the challenge. How to erase the self-self from the painting or the print. Where is that threshold? I think it’s quite difficult to remove all the decision-making, all the contrived patterns, behaviors, habits that are riddled into my psyche, my genetic makeup. It’s not comfortable. If it was comfortable, I wouldn’t want to be here. I find it very disconcerting. When I’m here, I don’t sleep well, and I wake up early in the morning frustrated and freaked out.

Q: Because?

LE: The tradition of print making…. Oh, the studio etiquette, and this kind of scientific ambiance of it, I find very intimidating. Intimidating because I don’t want to let it dictate how the making occurs. So the stress for me is how can I push it and disrupt it enough, create a fission, get my foot in there and make something offbeat. It’s very difficult. My brain hurts.

Q: But you’re not afraid of that?

LE: No, because for me, this is all proof that I’m alive. I need that. If I fear something, it’s complacency.

Rondo I
14" diameter
Rondo II
14" diameter
Rondo III
14" diameter

Q: What about the relationship between this printing work and your painting? Do you care if the prints looks similar to your other work?

LE: We all wanted to stay somewhat similar. We wanted to see if we could create a link to what’s happening in my studio now. There are little ways we did that, by working with materials, folds, transparencies, and similar colors. I follow my action into work. One of the problems that often arises is that you can really move off in a different direction quite easily. I have a very 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday studio practice. I have to create very clear restrictions for myself. I ask the printers, “Please don’t show me too many options, because I’ll take them all.” I’m an adventurer. And often you fall on your face, and it’s embarrassing, and you hurt. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not that I’m brave. It’s that I’m addicted to the adventure, so I’ll do it again and again. And that can be destructive. So I have to restrict myself.

So that’s also why we stayed in tune with what’s happening on the paintings right now in the studio—to create a limitation, a context and cohesion. And it’s a crude limitation, but within that, we can do all sorts of variations and improvisations each time. It’s a system of support to get it funky.

Q: I was going to say because failure is also part of the process here.

LE: Oh yeah.

Q: Some artists come here and try something and just hate it.

LE: How many times I’ve heard, from painter friends, “I did a month-long painting residency, it was a total disaster.” I don’t refuse failure, because I fail all the time in the studio. If I fail, I just want to do it again. Maybe it’s a little masochism. Maybe failure is a primitive reminder, a proof, that I’m here, I’m a thinking, feeling, tasting, hearing entity.

Q: There’s a lot of movement in your work.

LE: Everything involves a lot of movement, a lot of sanding. In the paintings, most of the marks are made from reducing paint, so that means heavy sanding, power sanding, or I’ll take a painting and dunk it in salt water—I use these huge salt lick blocks, these ten-pound blocks. So I’m lifting, dunking, taking the paintings outside, hanging them from poles or fences that I fabricate, and then laying things on top. So it’s crazed, constantly physical. I’m willing to go to great lengths, great physical lengths, to find the opening. And that’s what happens once a piece is successful. There’s an opening, something reveals itself, and what’s revealed is foreign to me. Then I can learn something from it. Then I can let it go.

Untitled (Khonsu)

All images courtesy

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Few Random Notes on Prayer and Love

Most of these blog posts have been about design or art, so it’s time for one that’s more about faith.

In Los Angeles recently, we had a few folks over at our funky rented cottage for a BBQ (sans BBQ, but that’s the challenge of renting through VRBO), and an old friend of Paul’s drove up from Newport Beach. She has platinum blonde hair in an asymmetrical cut, high-heel platforms, beautifully painted toenails, and spray-on jeans. You might think LA actress or costume designer, but no, she’s an Episcopal priest! Another friend is writing a memoir about her rather bizarre upbringing in the shadow of Hollywood. The same day, I read my friend David’s blog post about facing his loathing of sports as a kid (often humiliating for gay boys) as he begins to coach his daughter’s little league. All of that got me thinking about parenting and parenting traditions that were intended, rejected, and then modified. And about faith.

You can always find a lot about your parents’ parenting that didn’t work, but as I was trying to go to sleep in a strange house in Los Angeles, I started thinking about a tradition that didn’t seem to work for most of my life, but ended up becoming useful many decades later, in a much altered form. Our family ate dinner together almost every night, and we said grace before eating. The prayer went like this: “God is good. God is great. We thank him for our food and family. Amen.” My sister thinks she picked it up at a Sunday school she attended briefly.

Often, we rushed through grace because we were hungry. We probably made fun of it. I know we interjected our own variations as we began to question God’s existence. Remembering this ritual caused me to think about how our parents tried to give us an awareness of faith, but without imposing any specific dogma. My mother grew up Lutheran, which was common for Norwegian immigrants and their offspring. Right out of Lake Wobegon (via the plains of Canada). My father grew up Methodist, but according to the family lore that he denied, they were originally Jewish on one side with a failed detour into Mormonism. My parents were not regular churchgoers. Indeed, they were married in my maternal grandparents’ home in Hubbard, Oregon. Nor were any of us kids baptized.

When we were fairly young, we began attending different churches all over the East Bay. A friend of my father’s was instrumental in starting a church in Lafayette where we had to drink communion. We had no idea what that was about. The hymnals were always confusing to me, but I liked the music even though I couldn’t carry a tune. I think we attended mostly Protestant denominations. The most memorable church service was one I attended with my mother and her friend Mary Lee Saxton at Glide Memorial in 1972. It was literally days after Angela Davis had been released from prison on bail. Reverend Cecil Williams introduced her, and the crowd went wild. My mother took off her shoes and stood on her pew to see Davis and clap for her. Now, baby, that was church.


When I was a kid, many of my closest friends were Jewish and I started going to Jewish Youth Group meetings. Some of the houses where we met were quite grand, and the meetings were fun, but finally one of the mothers called my mother to ask her to join Hadassah, and that was their way of saying that I didn’t really belong.

I always more interested in the buildings than any liturgy. Eventually we seemed to settle on the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, a block up the hill from our house. A handsome concrete structure designed by Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons with a central atrium built on land donated by Bernard Maybeck. The church, with its sweeping view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, was home to community theater and lots of benefits for Cesar Chavez’s farm workers and folks trying to stop the war in Vietnam. But we didn’t really go to church much. In fact, once, the minister called because he saw our name and address on the rolls but realized he had never even met us. I went to services as a young teenager because of the political sensibility. There were guests like Malvina Reynolds and Ron Dellums. Later on, that’s where my brother got married and where we held my mother’s memorial.

Sketch of First Unitarian Church

In the 1990s, I was drawn to the aesthetic of the Buddhists and tried two temples in Berkeley. I sat for a while at the Berkeley Zen Center, which is linked to the San Francisco Zen Center and the Soto Zen tradition that Suzuki Roshi brought to San Francisco and the west in 1959 when he was the age I am now. I went to BZC off and on for a while but never felt connected to the community of people. Occasionally, I visit Green Gulch and sit there on a Sunday. Because of the relatively large size of the gathering, I don’t look for community. I try hard to empty the mind, but it is still largely an aesthetic experience. For several years, I went to Tassajara each summer with my pal (from preschool!) Mara and her husband Chris. It was especially comforting in the summer of 1999 just after my mother passed away. Later I brought Paul, but he passed out in the hot mineral water, and we haven’t been back.

Tassajara Zen Mountain Center
Green Gulch Zen Center

When I met Paul, he worked as the musician for the Sunday afternoon service at St. Mary the Virgin, a beautiful small Episcopal church out on Union Street. It was a strange group of folks, most of them quite wealthy, but truly charitable. Paul worked with two priests. The second one was quite open about being gay and a recovering alcoholic and gave a homily about the Bible being a lie. Now I liked her! But she wasn’t a big fan of Paul’s ideas about music.

St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church sanctuary
Courtesy Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects

Several years ago, I had a dream about praying. And I realized praying was like pure art, something that begins only with you. It need not be about a religious figure telling you what to say or think. It is an empty space you fill up or leave empty. This was the lesson of Buddhism that I seemed to have missed when I was sitting. Find the empty place and try to stay there. Over time, my most common prayer was just saying, “Thank you.” And the place I find myself saying it is in the shower. The first thank you is for hot water, something most of us in middle class America take for granted. (One day in a hotel in lower Manhattan, there was no hot water, and instead of letting it go, I was grouchy all day. So even if you remember to be thankful, it doesn’t mean you don’t expect the comfort!) Each morning I also try to be thankful for having found a partnership that is caring, a home that is comfortable (if not quite large enough for the art and books we continue to acquire), friends, food, and not having to scrape to get by. Thankful for finding work that is meaningful and allows me to interact with design as well as with interesting people.

I often forget to get through all that appreciation before it’s time to get out of the shower. So I start my prayer routine, if that’s what you call it, when I am doing my daily swim. But there, instead of being thankful for the miracle of abundant warm water, I try to empty my head out and just breathe in and out and move. The usual chatter fills my head, and I try again, remembering not to chastise myself for being so loud. Later, when I ride BART into the city, I try and remember to close my eyes and empty my head out again. I feel that the combination of these various ways of praying helps me be kinder and more open. Which brings me to a kind of answer to a prayer that I didn’t know I had.

Our pool

Almost two years ago, my friends David Kerr and Jay Stowsky brought two young children, brother and sister, into their lives. They were in foster care at the time, and David and Jay became their foster parents as part of an adoption process. Last September, they formally adopted them.

Kerr Stowsky adoption

I have been Uncle Kenny to two birth nieces and dozens of children of my friends over the years. (I just found out that two of my friend’s kids thought we were actually blood related!) Sometimes, I performed well, and other times, I was forgetful. But with these two young children, I feel more focused, more present, more open. Their needs are different because their early lives were so unstable and unsettling. I think because of “my practice,” my trying to slow down and be thankful, I am more open not only to giving love but also to hearing someone ask for love without precise language. The other day, we arrived for a quick visit at David and Jay’s, and young Jaden (we call him little Jay) was waiting on the patio because from that vantage point he could see us come up the steps to the back door or hear us open the front gate and walk up the path to the front door. He had us covered. His older sister Shayla (Jaden calls her ShayShay) was waiting inside with her book. When I first met her, she didn’t know how to read, and now she reads me entire books far beyond her grade level. When we were at the Exploratorium last weekend, Jaden focused intently on just a few of the gizmos, but Shayla was drawn to many of the bright new shiny objects. She has learned how to wait patiently for her turn, even though she worries that whatever she wants will be gone by the time she gets to the front of the line. After our science playtime, we were walking to get ice cream, and she complained bitterly about her feet hurting and that it isn’t fair that Jaden gets carried all the time. Shayla is too big (not to mention too old!) to get carried, but what she really needed was someone to hear her complaint and stay next to her. In a few minutes, we got our soft serve ice cream cones and watched the bay. There is still something so comforting about sitting outside on a beautiful day with a good ice cream cone. It washes away the sore feet and injustices of being a big sister.

Jay with the kids at Point Lobos

Watching the kids find their sea legs in a new home and with a new family has been the most powerful emotional experience of the last few years. I can’t close Guantanamo or stop the NSA or any of the many political issues I post articles about every week. But I can hold a trusting little hand during a walk and throw a laughing child up into the air and let them fall into the pool, and they know I will catch them before they go too far under. I really think my home-cooked form of prayer has helped give me the stillness and gratitude to be present with these wondrous kids. I am more open to love, which travels two ways all the time. That is an answered prayer.

The Kerr Stowskys at Disneyland

Friday, February 14, 2014

Google Buses, 8 Washington, One Percent, and Resist!

Courtesy Leslie Dreyer

This post started out as an exploration about recent changes and resistance in the bay area. But now I am finishing it on Valentine's Day. So, it must be about love too.

There has been a lot of talk about Google buses recently. Some demonstrators have held rallies at the bus stops, and in one extreme case, a demonstrator broke a window on a bus. The city of San Francisco has begun charging a small fee for the use of public bus stops. But this anger towards Google is real. Where is it coming from?

I have been remembering the many Occupy camps I visited in 2011. Although those camps are gone, the idea that the one percent are running everything has stuck in the country’s consciousness. That is victory. A foundation was laid.

San Francisco is changing and quickly becoming unaffordable for anybody who makes less than six digits. Some of the resistance to this change has to do with nostalgia, a form of NIMBYism. Some of it has to do with large buses crowding small streets. Some of it has to do with working people being evicted by developers buying small buildings to convert them to TICs (as a friend of ours recently experienced). Some of it probably has to do with envy too! And some of it has to do with Google becoming Big Brother and cozying up to the evil NSA. (“Do no evil” indeed.)

At the same time, a project proposed on the Embarcadero, 8 Washington, was recently voted down at the ballot box. The idea of putting every possible development project up for the ballot is questionable, but there were people whom I respect on both sides of the argument. I am of at least two minds (typical). On the one hand, I am not crazy about another housing project for the one percent. But on the other hand, it is a higher use than a private swim and tennis club that benefits the affluent with little contribution to the city. I have to say, I rather liked SOM’s design too.


But both of these events (and dozens of others, including the development proposals adjacent to Crissy Field) bring up issues about urban development and class warfare, or at least potential class warfare. Right now it’s class conflict. Organizations ranging from the big (SPUR) to the small (Storefront Lab) have been doing a good job talking about density, development, transit, and regional planning. But right now, I am thinking about class conflict turning into class warfare. The Google buses (which provide non-single-occupant-vehicle transportation for well-paid middle class workers, not members of the ruling class—remember, those are the ones with drivers and private jets!) are a symbol, as much as 8 Washington is a symbol. The one percent are taking over the city, much as they have already taken over the society. The difference is that in San Francisco, it has become more visible. At the national level, the elite of the one percent have done a good job of staying hidden.

The underlying conflict here is the one discussed in Robert Reich’s recent writings and his documentary Inequality for All. His main point is that the growing inequality between the very rich and everybody else is destabilizing our democratic society. And he’s right.

I think the choice is clear. We either move towards voluntary redistribution of wealth downwards or risk an involuntary redistribution of wealth accompanied by violence. It is in the long-term interest of the one percent to start reshaping society so that they don’t concentrate so much wealth in their camp. I mean, honestly, how much better can one’s life be after the first few million?

Revolution will come when the aspiring middle classes see their path cut off. And as Reich points out, research all over the country shows this happening. Occasionally, I hear people complain about welfare cheats and Section 8 recipients, and while I don’t condone anybody stealing from the government, what poor people are going to do, legally or illegally, is a drop in the bucket to what we, the middle class, are paying to subsidize the wealthy corporations through direct government transfers and indirect tax breaks. We have a welfare state—it happens to be welfare for the rich. When the government supports the rich, as has done most intensely since 9/11 and the dramatic growth of the military industrial security complex, it is called capitalism. When it redistributes the income so that the poor and middle class can survive the chicanery of the one percent, it is called socialism.

So I don’t mind a street protest that calls out Google for colluding with the government, for concentrating wealth, for creating secrecy instead of transparency, for doing evil when their credo says they won’t. But don’t bust the windows. Don’t stop the middle class workers (albeit the well-paid middle class workers) from going to work. Vote against 8 Washington if you think it’s really going to hurt the city. These are still sideshows to the main event. We have to take to the streets and the airwaves to urge the one percent to support initiatives that give people healthcare, housing, food, and a voice. We need to protest the Koch Brothers, their ilk, and their level of influence! This is the future of Occupy, and it is our children’s future. Let’s restructure capitalism with intentional action rather than violence. Let's remember love as we resist.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Postcard from the UK

Our holiday trip to the UK was cold but beautiful. We mixed a city of earthen tones punctuated by red buses with a countryside full of every shade of green. And good food everywhere we went.

This time Paul booked a late afternoon flight, which meant we arrived in the UK in the afternoon of the next day and only had to power through dinner before we collapsed. It might have worked if we had been in business class and really slept. So although I didn’t crash upon arrival, I was fuzzy for the better part of a week. We took the bus from Heathrow to Victoria Coach Station, which was more fun than the tube because we could see the sights. And it took us right to our hotel, which was at the edge of Belgravia.

The idea of hospitality and service in hotels has not reached down to the midpriced boutique hotels. But in the middle of winter, you are just glad that they left the heat on. Because it gets dark and frigid in December. When you wake up from an afternoon nap, it’s already nighttime. After we unpacked, we strolled the neighborhood and came across a marvelous shop just across the street. It looked fantastic, but we weren’t altogether sure what it sold. Turned out it was the shop of the genius milliner Philip Treacy.

Saatchi Gallery

We wandered over to the Duke of York’s Headquarters (constructed in 1801, it was once a school for the children of soldiers’ widows, and later some German spies were court-martialed there), which was converted to the latest version of the Saatchi Gallery in 2008. It’s a stunning building, but the exhibition entitled Body Language was disappointing. In the exhibition New Order: British Art Today, there was one artist I liked, Sara Barker, whose delicate metal and lightly painted canvas sculptures divided space and invited inspection. And the famous oil installation by Richard Wilson, 20:50, has been reconstructed in the new building. (Photos of all three variations can be seen on the Saatchi website.) I loved watching visitors walk in and try to figure out what they are looking at… Eventually the scent of oil, although not overwhelming, gives you a hint.

Sculpture by Sarah Barker

Richard Wilson's 20:50

We were lucky to find a decent restaurant next door to our hotel, as it had begun to rain. From our vantage point, Christmas was mostly an excuse to meet up with old friends and share a drink or a meal, and not an orgy of bad candy, complex toys, and useless kitchen gadgets. This turned out to be the case among the adults in Paul’s family, if not the kids, which is one reason we like going there so much.

Paul loves taking the bus in London, even if it takes longer than the tube. We got up at a normal time, walked around the corner, and caught the bus to Somerset House. Our young pal Carlos is spending the semester at the Courtauld Institute of Art, which is just across the courtyard. We should have stopped in to see their collection, too.

We were lucky to get on one of the buses designed by Thomas Heatherwick, a brilliant young industrial designer best known for the Olympics torch. Unlike the older double deckers, the new model has two staircases, and everything has been thought through, from the swerve of the wraparound glass to the incised pattern in the rubber floor and staircases. We were doubly lucky because the front seat was open upstairs. As we turned every corner, I was like an eager puppy with every new vista of Westminster or Big Ben or other landmark I’ve only seen from the street. The perception is distorted just enough that you feel like you are going to mow down the errant pedestrian. The streets are tight.

New double-decker bus

Somerset House hosts all kinds of art shows—not that they always make sense together. Upstairs, they hung the famous Sandham Memorial Chapel paintings by Stanley Spencer, which have been removed while the chapel is being renovated. While they are interesting pieces of postwar art, they didn’t have anything to do with the show I wanted to see: Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! Isabella Blow is credited with discovering both Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy. She was born into the end of an aristocracy. Lots of entitlement and no money. Apparently, she bought out McQueen’s entire first collection but didn’t have the money to pay for it, so like the rest of us, she went on the installment plan. The show didn’t reveal a lot about her as a person, but it did show the clothes, hats, and fashion shoots that she had a hand in.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!

In most European cities, we have a pattern of heading out early in the morning after a large breakfast, skipping lunch (or eating very lightly), and then taking a nap before our late afternoon and evening expedition. Scheduling tea during the holidays takes a great deal of planning. Claridges, the Connaught, and the Berkeley were all full, but Paul found a jewel box of a tea room in the Capital Hotel just down from Harrod’s. Maybe slightly less elaborate than a fashion designer-inspired tea we had several years ago at the Berkeley, but sufficient to cover us for lunch and dinner! Paul’s fellow composer pal Cecilia McDowall updated us on her many commissions and performances in the US.

Tea room at Capital Hotel

With a short break, we then departed for St. John’s Smith Square, which is a deconsecrated church from 1728 that was firebombed during the war and restored. It now serves as a performance venue. The Cardinall’s Musick, the group that sang Paul’s premiere in Orkney in 2012, was giving a concert. In addition to hearing the beautiful music, afterwards we got to hang out and share a bottle of wine with director Andrew Carwood and singer Patrick Craig (and his folks). Patrick is one of the funniest choral singers I’ve ever met. He could be a standup comic.

We woke up early the next day and headed out to Borough Market, which is like San Francisco’s Ferry Building but funkier. It’s on the south side of London Bridge and reminds me of an authentic Dickens Christmas Fair. Our destination was the cheese shop, Neal’s Yard Dairy. As they say in the UK, “Oh, that was dear.” But these were some of the best cheeses we’ve ever eaten. For an early lunch, we ducked into a place called Elliot’s, which had a warm proprietor and good food, but suffered from the usual mediocre service.

Borough market

The train to Rugby (where Paul was born and near where the family still lives) takes just over an hour from Euston Station. After we got off the escalator at the train station, Paul pointed out a bench and said, “That’s the spot where I once spent the night when I missed the last train when I was a teenager.” One day it will have one of those blue ceramic plaques: “Composer Paul Crabtree slept here.” Euston is one of those modern monstrosities of the postwar era. It looks like something from the USSR’s modern bureaucrat period. Our tendency is to arrive early for planes and trains. But there is hardly anyplace to sit, and the cafés couldn’t be any more dreary. There is a growing movement to save modernist buildings in the UK, but I hope they tear this one down.

Paul sprung for first class, which would have been fine, but some interlopers snuck into our section, which brought out my usual class conflicts. I wanted them thrown out! Within a minute of coming downstairs into the new waiting area at Rugby Station, we saw Aunt Jenny’s beaming face and were whisked back to Orchards.

Graham and Jenny’s house has two hearts. One is the garden where Graham can be found almost every day except for the rainiest days of winter, and the other is the kitchen, where the heat is always on and something is always being planned, prepared, or “tidied up.”

The big change in the kitchen is a new range top that is electric but works like gas. Instant heat, and it turns off when you remove a pot so the grandkids don’t get burned. There have been a few changes in the garden since our last visit. But the biggest change is in the view of the garden. Graham had a ribbon window installed along one side of the lounge. It’s so big that it required a new steel beam and steel posts. When he first suggested this, I thought it might be too much view all of the time, but I was wrong. It is especially useful in the winter, when it’s so cold that most visitors don’t want to spend more than a few minutes outside. The orchard has been trimmed and a few birches around the pond removed. There is also a mound to create more of a middle-ground view. In the immediate foreground is a canal or moat around the living room windows. Like a circular water feature, this offers an upside-down view of the tall trees.

The new window at Orchards.

Peace was quickly disrupted by all of the cousins in what they call a GnT flash mob. This is the only family I’ve ever spent time with that resembles a rolling party, with members from every age group. After one cocktail, we all had to rush off to church for a caroling service. In this case, church was a 15th-century stone structure just a mile away in Kimcote. Right out of a British mystery, complete with bell ringers and their furry ropes. This congregation installed beer garden–type heaters to keep the faithful warm. We all joked that it was like the TV show Midsomer Murders and that we should find a body just as we were leaving.

Christmas singing at Kimcote

The next day, our pals Joanna and Tony from Wales came by for lunch. There were tales of Greece (and why it was a mistake for it to join the EU) and Joanna’s family burning down a campsite. Joanna also brought Paul’s beautiful Christmas present, a slender porcelain tower, which took some doing to sneak into the house!

Christmas gift: vase by Joanna Howells

The next few days were spent eating, drinking, singing, and opening presents at cousin Jane’s. Her husband, Paul, has become quite the cook. The entire family gathered for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We sang, ate, laughed, and teased with the affection that closeness brings. It was as Christmas should be.

Paul Collins in his dream apron with emergency beer supply helmet.

Dominic Collins with his Christmas cap on.

Cozy Christmas

Following a relatively quiet Boxing Day, we ventured to Stoke Goldington to see James and Emily Chua and their wonderful daughters and cousins. James is a retired architect who has built a large private garden defined in large part by stone walls that he made by hand. He fells dead trees in a neighboring farmer’s wood and then hand-saws them into specific lengths to heat his home. In the middle of summer, the sun and the small efficient fireplaces heats the entire former barn. One of their daughters is an architect and the other a musician. So there was a lot to talk about. This year it didn’t rain, so we got to see the garden at leisure. A perfect day in the country.

The Chua Garden in Stoke Goldington

When we returned to London, we stayed in Belsize Park, a neighborhood known to fans of Elizabeth George as the home of Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers. It’s a bit more upmarket than it used to be, but it ain’t Belgravia. However, it is home to the actor Sir Derek Jacobi (remember Claudius?), who sat a few seats away from us at the theater. We had to stand in line only a few minutes at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square to get fifth-row seats to Ibsen’s Ghosts, which was some of the best theater either had us in seen in a long time. The set designer uses invisible walls to give the illusion of a manor house on the narrow stage.

Our hotel in Belsize Park

We also had a good long visit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where we focused on modern ceramics. Found some by Robin Welch, a potter whose work I bought on a whim 20 years ago. The highlight was seeing the work of potter Lucie Rie and her reconstructed studio. The gift shop revitalized my interest in the Festival of Britain and all it did for modern British design. I feel another post coming on…

Lucie Ries reconstructed studio in the V&A

When Paul started to get crabby and threatened to get a sandwich from Marks & Spencer, I went into high gear and quickly secured a table at a Lebanese restaurant on Brompton Road. Looking at the prices, I figured the small plates would be, well, small. The servers must have thought, “Those grotesque Americans,” as we ordered more falafel than the table could hold. It was embarrassing. Later in the day, we ventured down to Battersea to have dinner with Paul’s pal Paul Hughes. Another new neighborhood. We had to walk through a public housing project to get there, but we found out it wasn’t dangerous at all.

If anything is going to get me to live in England (well, part-time in the summer, anyway), it might be a cottage in the countryside. On our last full day, we took the train from Victoria (which feels like a proper train station, unlike Euston) down to Kent to visit Alasdair and David’s new home in Faversham, Rose Cottage. If I understood correctly, the cottage was originally built for one of the gardeners on the local estate. For various reasons, Alasdair and David ended up with an acre of land that spreads out from their dwelling. They already have a tractor to mow the lawn! We are excited to come back in the summer for one of those lengthy, boozy picnics the Brits have to celebrate the brief appearance of the sun. David has a talent for sourcing great home design products that are both cottagey and contemporary. They have given us a tea towel from Lush Designs, and if I had a cottage, I would have their fabrics and lampshades everywhere.

The sky from Faversham, Kent

Hope to return in the spring and see everybody again at the Bath Festival!

More info can be found at: