For several posts, I share my history of exploring art.
During high school, we ate dinner on TV tray stands while ingesting the nightly news. We rarely discussed it. My parents were conservative and quietly on the verge of divorce. I was on the cusp of exploring life beyond New England. The news frequently showed clips of anti-war speeches and young people with flowers in their hair. The San Francisco area would be my destination.
For several years I was in and out of different colleges in California and Hawaii. After the first year, I was supporting myself and felt free to study whatever interested me. Mostly art and anthropology. Public colleges were pretty cheap in those days. I waited tables and got a preschool certificate. We allowed the children to follow their interests from one environment to another. I came to believe that many older children lose their curiosity by having to conform to a set program of studies.
Eventually I transferred to UC Berkeley. The art department’s teachers were mostly abstract expressionists and didn’t offer much instruction. I focused on drawing the human figure.
I used to eat lunch in the sculpture garden on campus. One day I watched as a huge bronze ball was being lowered onto a platform of mud. Afterwards while orbiting the globe, I encountered a tunnel shot through the middle. At each end, a crack spread across the outer surface. Most of the other sculptures on campus looked like construction beams falling out of formation. I wanted some curves. At least one bold curve. Returning again and again to the garden, I gradually dedicated myself to the sphere.
I was especially interested in the role of art in indigenous tribes. A good example is Navajo sandpainting. A tradition connected with healing rituals, the healer uses colored sand to create a painting. He or she depicts a myth relevant to the situation of the person who’s ill. Then the healer begins to chant as the person sits on it and absorbs the painting’s healing power. On the Navajo reservation, both traditional and western medicine are practiced, acknowledging the need for various kinds of healing.
During an archeology class, my teacher, Charlie Slaymaker took us to visit a dig north of San Francisco. He’d uncovered several layers of oval dance floors. Olompali had been an important ceremonial center where the Miwok Indians danced in gratitude for their many blessings – for good weather, to celebrate a marriage, to pray for the dead. They’d sometimes dance for several days to cure the sick, to celebrate a good harvest or after a war victory. They believed that plants and animals are our relatives. When telling stories, they’d imitate the animals painting themselves in red, black and white. When killing them for food, it was done with respect.
During the following summer, I lived at Olompali in a tent and made technical drawings of the artifacts discovered there. The arrowheads had to be drawn precisely. It was tedious work. One week I presented Charlie with this highly inaccurate image of a healing dance.
Olompoli’s modern era began with the last Miwok chief. He left the Spanish mission to build an adobe home. Later, someone else constructed a mansion over the adobe. It became a Jesuit Retreat center, then the Grateful Dead’s home, and finally, a hippie commune. Most of it burned down in an electrical fire. There were exotic plants and dilapidated fountains as well as owl visitations. Some people claimed to see ghosts.
Eventually the artifacts were sent to a small museum. As with other digs, their ownership has been a contentious issue. And digging up graves is considered a sacred violation to present day Native Americans. After a visit from some of them, Charlie stopped digging in the graveyard.
Periodically, demonstrations against the Vietnam War and other issues ignited the Berkeley campus. I went to them but was uncomfortable being in the midst of an angry crowd. If possible, I’d find a perch and watch from above.
Other events happened there as well. A tiny old man wearing an oversized coat would occasionally enter the plaza carrying two shopping bags full of puppets. Tommy’s ancient eyes beamed as he raised his hand to reveal a puppet disguised as an ice cream cone. He’d push a stick up through the cone and a girl with braids all askew popped out the top, and yelled, “I sc-r-e-a-m!” After a few skits, Tommy would weave through the crowd giving roses to the ladies.
Street theater was flourishing in Berkeley. A red faced man called Holy Hubert was a regular feature on campus. He shouted condemnations at the students passing by. Some of them were on their way to see Swami X, a tall man with a long monologue.Wearing a turban, he would taunt the sacred cows and skewer politicians. Joining him, a wiry woman punctuated his rant with her jazzy moves.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe performed in parks all over the Bay Area. One season I watched “Factwino meets the Moral Majority” several times and made quick sketches of the scenes to create a cartoon. Later, when someone saw an exhibit of my cartoons, he commented that it’s wiser to make fun of a person’s actions than to attack the person himself. I didn’t have a real knack for it.
For a while, I wanted to be a puppeteer and went to a range of performances, especially ones for adults. Balinese shadow plays are based on ancient Hindu texts. Their stories embrace mystery and paradox. The flat puppets appear to the audience as shadows lit from behind a white screen. The single performer sings, narrates, and modulates his
voice as he manipulates the different characters. In Indonesia, he’s considered to be a spiritual leader as well as an artist.
The Bread & Puppet Theater works with larger than life puppets and their performances have generally been held outdoors. Their history began in the 60’s with political satire and later evolved to include circus acts and ceremonial processions through and about the environment.
On campus, there were other kinds of performers as well. I often looked for a particular folksinger. He wore a headband and his lyrics resonated with me. One day I showed up wearing a headband too. We talked on a break and he invited me to a powwow.
Driving to DQ University, he told me that it was a Native American school established to preserve traditional practices like powwows. This would be their first time welcoming non-Natives. After arriving, I sat near the entrance and sketched the wild grasses. An eagle’s head appeared in the drawing. Later, when everyone else was headed to the sweat lodge, I gave in to my group phobia and wandered off. Discovering the site of their sun dances, I began another drawing. A young brave on horseback came and asked me to return with him to the main area. I’d ignored their sign saying, “Sacred Grounds, do not enter.” The art teacher took me to the river and shared his philosophy. He asked me to refrain from copying their symbols, saying it was a kind of stealing. He said, “Find your own roots.”