Happy Chinese & Lunar New Year, plus greetings from the Tower of Jewels..

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Carved Year of the Goat stamp, purchased in Hong Kong in 1996; Chinese red lanterns.

Along with Lunar New Year and the coming of spring, tomorrow is Chinese New Year (Gong Xi Fa Cai, Gong Hey Fat Choy!) ushering in the Year of the Goat. Here in the US, this celebration represents a union of East and West, a crossing of cultural lines for those who choose to honor the traditions and rituals (e.g. cleaning, ‘sweeping away the bad luck’ for the year, sharing special meals with family and friends, remembering those no longer with us…) Traditionally, on the night before, people also lit firecrackers to scare away evil spirits, keeping their household doors sealed – not to be reopened until the new morning – in a ritual called “opening the door of fortune” … May you take this opportunity to reach into another culture to find deeper connections and import its richness into your own life.

This week also marks the 100th anniversary of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition or World’s Fair. Held in San Francisco from February 20th to December 4th, 1915, it was another celebration of union, between the Atlantic and the Pacific, via the Panama Canal, which had just been completed the summer before. The importance of this feat was immeasurable, with its potential to significantly affect trade routes (historically a predictor of mankind’s ability to raise empires or doom civilizations, as I was recently reminded by my Ancient Civ studying 6th grader) in a time prior to the development of commercial aviation (and small commercial drones, natch Amazon). The great city of San Francisco’s civic celebration – rising again after the devastating 1906 earthquake – was also an international celebration, symbolizing world progress.

The exposition showcased a wide range of magnificent architectural and artistic feats (palaces, courts, sculptures, paintings, murals) but the architectural centerpiece (and tallest building by far at 43 stories) was the Tower of Jewels, covered in upwards of 100,000 faceted cut glass jewels. These jewels were known as ‘Novagems’, mirror-backed beauties in 8 different colors, suspended from individual brass hooks, which covered the entire building.


As described in www.SanFranciscoMemories.com: On a few special occasions, they put on an event known as “Burning the Tower” where (according to Todd’s, The Story of the Exposition), “Concealed ruby lights, and pans of red fire behind the colonnades on the different galleries, seemed to turn the whole gigantic structure into a pyramid of incandescent metal, glowing toward white heat and about to melt. From the great vaulted base to the top of the sphere, it had the unstable effulgence of a charge in a furnace, and yet it did not melt, however much you expected it to, but stood and burned like some sentient thing doomed to eternal torment.”

This particular ‘gem’ detail struck a chord, as the company that created Novagems was located in the Phelan Building – a wonderful old SF Flatiron-style building on Market Street, built by a former mayor of San Francisco who was a passionate supporter of the arts. He rebuilt the Phelan Building – housing numerous jewelers and artisans – immediately following the earthquake disaster of 1906, which had badly damaged the original Phelan Building. Over the past century, it’s remained the home of hundreds of jewelers and a prominent jewelry-making school, Revere Academy.

(The purchase by new owners in 2008 eventually led to the evacuation of the jewelers and the school, so the building is no longer the place of creativity long ago imagined for San Franciscans. You can read more about this unfortunate history in a Ganoksin article by Christine Dhein here.)

Wishing you a peaceful, happy and successful New Year ~

in the City of Light

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BLOG #27 B

Sometimes when listening to music you feel like it’s being hardwired into your system. 

Sometimes you hear a voice ​that’s so pure and beautiful, tears spring to your eyes before you realize – separate fr reason or thought – it’s just ​your body’s natural emotional response.

Get up early London Sunday morning last November, ready for Paris en route from Heathrow. Grab quick bite, bid farewell​ to friends, head ​to airport via Tube​ (having cleverly bought ticket night before ​with last 5 Euros).

​Push through turnstile​, come face to face with sign “NO SUNDAY SERVICE THROUGH TO HEATHROW DUE TO STRIKE”. Hmmm, not so clever after all. No alternative transport, no extra time, jump on the train​, ride train one stop​, jump ​off train, *PANIC*, scrambl​e frantically ​outside, hail cab, drive half hour to Heathrow… Don’t know if you’ve been in a London cab lately, but they’re not the most economical way to get around​ town​ ​l​et alone the English countryside. Hundred painful dollars later ​(+ exchange rate + credit card fees) arrive just in nick of time to 1.) be relieved of ​most costly toiletries by security and 2.) ​be ​whisked off to Paris.

Safely ​land @ Charles de Gaulle, figure out quickest Metro to hotel, set out on last 36 hours of journey ​to City of Light.

Now 4pm​,​ dark and chilly ​winter ​Sunday evening, everything​ about to close. Streets surprisingly barren of people. What to do, what to do…

​Wander my way down Rue ​de Rivoli, find myself standing in front of strange wildly colorful facade​, 2 hipsters sitting out front glance my way.
​’Open to the public​?’

Step inside.

​Spiral staircase​ – ​every imaginable color – leading further and further upward toward maze of psychedelic dens. It’s an artists’ building​: tonight is open studios.
Wander through labrynthine coops taking it all in. Find an open door with gynormous cluster of people crammed in – looks interesting – a band’s setting up. Miraculously find lone empty crate up front to sit on. Performance begins. A trio, Tous Des Heros: whip-thin hipster on bass, cool bespeckled​ & bow-tied fellow on percussion, incongruously clean-cut/bearded/inky guitarist/singer. The set begins. Singer first banters easily with crowd in French – miss most of gist, but clearly folks feel he’s got ‘IT’ charisma. Music flows over the crowd beautifully, energetically; hilarious false start to The Luminaires ‘Ho, Hey’. Later, when requests are called for, in lieu of Madonna they accept Lou Reed, launching into soulful rendition of ‘Take a Walk on the Wild Side’.  Not possible to avoid tearing up – Reed died of liver disease just 3 Sundays earlier. He was only 71.
To anyone wondering ‘What does this have to do with light?’ I offer City of Light, illuminated rooms in the gloaming, The Luminaires, and lastly White Light/White Heat: Lou Reed…
Look for my piece in the 50/50LIGHT project titled In the Gloaming, based on this story.

Modern Galileo

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#26 Burke house
center photo by Prakash Patel

Architects Carrie and Kevin Burke designed their home to be a time-telling observatory. Sunlight [shown above center] is corseted through a 24-inch glass eye suspended just beneath a skylight, making the living room double as a sundial.

It turns out that this incredible house – designed to be a functional time-telling instrument as dictated by patterns of light – was built by friends of ours, both architects, living in Charlottesville, VA. Their home, featured in Dwell magazine back in 2009, is a living laboratory, slowly but steadily marking the passage of time. The italicized excerpts are from the talented writer of the article, Shonquis Moreno.

In Galileo’s day, men counted their pulses to tell time. In 2 A.D., Ptolemy, who understood more about the movements of the sun and the earth than most of us do today, designed a tool called the quadrant that, by measuring heaven and earth, brought the infinite scale of the universe into the palm of the hand. 

The house’s primary mechanism for telling time, however, is an oculus embedded in one side of the roof through which a light beam tracks through the observatory. Forming an indoor sundial, it indicates both the hours of the day and the cycles of the season by alighting on crosshairs and lines marked on the floor with auto detailing tape. Later, the Burkes will fill incisions in the floor with powdered metal to make certain dates permanent: solstices and equinoxes; Carrie and daughter Ava’s August birthdays, when the light licks the edge of the banister; and Kevin’s birthday in January, when the beam rests directly beneath the skylight.

The fascinating article goes on to describe how the layout of the house evolved from them synchronizing their daily cycles with the cycles of the sun, identifying where light would and would not fall, and then situating the building to suit their preferences, depending on the function vs the time of day.

Thinking about the disconnect we feel when the natural cycles of life and light are obstructed and obscured randomly – living in busy cities where an abundance of artificial light glares out on unnatural schedules – it’s no wonder we try to seek relief by ‘getting out of town’ and ‘away from it all’ in order to allow our bodies to regain some sense of their natural rhythms.

I’m incredibly inspired by these folks’ efforts to reclaim a connection to the natural cycles that most of us remain largely unaware of and unattuned to. It’s a wonderful reminder of the importance of connecting deeply to the world around you as often as possible in the course of your daily activities, despite the temptations of ever-expanding technologies which, largely, succeed in merely thwarting our peace of mind.

The Candle

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The candle

One of my absolute favorite projects that I’ve been working on for the upcoming show is called “The Candle” – an encaustic piece over a photograph, inspired by a meal I had in London last November on my ‘speed dating Europe’ trip. I found myself with 100,000 soon-to-expire frequent flyer miles and a raging case of wanderlust, so I booked my itinerary for a whirlwind 5 day tour of Chicago, London, and Paris. My plan was to sprint through London for just 1 full day, and I’d hoped to include the most spectacular meal I could get my hands on while there. I figured if I planned a lunch instead of dinner I could probably maximize my budget to be able to afford somewhere a bit nicer. So I google’d ‘Most amazing lunch in London’ and up popped Restaurant Story.

My lunch at Restaurant Story was a life altering meal, one of the most amazing culinary experiences I’ve ever had.

OK, I know – ‘food’s food, and even really fantastic food is still just food’ – but for anyone who proudly identifies with ‘lives to eat’ vs ‘eats to live’, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Food is not just food. Throughout the history of mankind, common to all cultures around the world, food is the glue that holds society together. It’s the fabric our social lives get pieced together from, the basis for how we come together when we come together to celebrate, mourn, discuss, debate, commiserate, nourish, or simply to meet our daily needs. It can be utterly simple or incredibly complex, both can be good; truly, both can be amazing… But as I tell my young daughter, the most important lesson in life (after be kind) is You are what you eat, and while when I say that I’m speaking in a more metaphorical sense, its truth begins in the literal sense.

Over the past year I’ve told anyone and everyone who would listen about my incredible meal (seriously, I’ve spent innumerable hours extolling the endless virtues of Restaurant Story), and so it was with overwhelming joy that I happened to catch this closing sentence the other day on PRI, “English chef Tom Sellers told his story to producer Alex Gallafent…” (quickly followed by my silently screamed nooooooooo…!) Whew, thank god for podcasts. Don’t you dare not listen!

As it turns out, Restaurant Story is the brainchild of 26 yr. old wunderkind chef Tom Sellers (acolyte of Thomas Keller at French Laundry & Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, to name two). In reading up on the place, it had mentioned bringing a book to leave for their collection. In my mind’s eye, I imagined a thumb-worn, dusty space with books everywhere. I was surprised to arrive and find the place a study in clean modernity, clever touches of the interesting & peculiar dotted about, but barely a book in sight. An old-fashioned candle was placed on the table upon arrival, before the procession of delectables began arriving. The 6 course lunch that followed (which in truth turned out to be more like 12) was an unbelievable 3 hour succession of the most ingenious culinary feats I’ve ever experienced. Not the least of which was the bread offering. It turns out the meal’s focal point evolved around a sleight of hand of sorts. Midway through the meal, the waiter placed a lovely wooden board with warm bread and a small bowl of relish on it. He explained that the seemingly innocuous candle that had been burning for the past half hour was in fact a candle made from rendered animal fat, meant to dip your bread into.

It’s difficult to describe the peculiar pleasure of being surprised by something that has been sitting right there in front of you, staring you in the face. When an ordinary object all of a sudden appears to transform into the extraordinary. Being able to achieve this using the most humble course in the meal makes it that much more effective.

I could happily go on for hours describing each surprising course; an airy cloud of riced potato floating atop a pool of coal (yes, edible coal oil); whole flash-crisped tiny shrimps; a savory Oreo with smoked eel mousse; grilled onions in gin; wrapped leeks & candied lovage twigs; almond ice cream with dill snow, which tasted like eating Winter itself… Sigh. And the stories, remarkable stories that they only told you if you happened to ask, ‘why are the forks upside down?’ which led to the tale of a cultivated Spanish princess marrying a brutish prince whose boorish table manners – even with the addition of utensils – still necessitated the tines only touch the table in order to mitigate the filth… the fabulous bee insignia on the knives… on & on.

I hope to capture the eternal appeal of an artist transforming the mundane into the sublime.


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moon jellyfish

Bioluminescence is simply light produced by a chemical reaction within a living organism. These chemicals (called luciferin and luciferase) react with oxygen, causing light. Primarily it’s a marine phenomena, and is the main source of light in the ocean. (Because it occurs in so many different species, we assume it must serve many functions – like luring prey or mating – but we do know it can serve as both defensive and offensive tactics within the same organism.)

It can also occur on land, namely in fungi and bacteria, but also in fireflies.

It has been speculated that the 16th century Baroque painter Caravaggio used modern darkroom techniques to create his masterpieces more than 200 years before the invention of the camera. He may have prepared his canvases with a luminescent powder of dried fireflies to create a photosensitive surface on which he projected the image to be painted. He would then use white lead, mixed with chemicals such as mercury, to outline the image in greater clarity.

Caravaggio Calling of St Matthew
The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, painted 1599-1600

This hypothesis, by art teacher Roberta Lapucci who teaches at the Studio Art Centers International in Florence, Italy, was made in collaboration with research by British artist David Hockney, who wrote in his 2001 book “Secret Knowledge” that many old masters used optical instruments to compose their paintings.

In the spring of 1985, while a sophomore in college, I saw the Caravaggio show at the Met in NYC. It left an indelible impression on me, what with his incredibly effective combination of boldly intense subject matter and dramatic chiaroscuro contrasting light.

I look forward to sharing works of art in the upcoming 5050LIGHT show that are based on bioluminescence and also on artist David Hockney’s work. 

Giardino Dei Tarocchi or ‘Tarot Garden’

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Last summer, on the suggestion of a friend who had heard we would be travelling through Tuscany, we visited Il Giardino dei Tarocchi or ‘Tarot Garden’ by French sculptor, painter, and film maker, Niki de Saint Phalle. The garden – fantastic, in every sense of the word – was an explosion of mosaic-filled light and wonder. It reminded me of another incredible park we had visited 10 years earlier, Parco Dei Mostri in Bomarzo, Italy – built in the 16th century and, as it turns out, one of the inspirations for this garden.

Some history about the artist: born in 1930 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, Niki de Saint Phalle initially rejects the conservative values of her family which dictated domestic positions for wives and strict rules of conduct. After marrying young and becoming a mother, however, she finds herself living exactly the bourgeois lifestyle she had hoped to avoid. This internal conflict causes her to suffer a nervous breakdown and, as a form of therapy, she is urged to pursue her painting. Further encouraged by the American painter Hugh Weiss, who becomes both friend and mentor, she does continue painting in her self-taught style, subsequently moving to Deià on the island of Mallorca, Spain. There she read the works of Proust, visits Madrid and Barcelona, and becomes deeply affected by the work of Antonio Gaudí. Gaudí’s influence opens many previously unimagined possibilities for Saint Phalle, especially regarding the use of unusual materials and objets-trouvés as structural elements in sculpture and architecture. Saint Phalle is strongly influenced by Gaudi´s Parc Güell in Barcelona, as well as Parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo, the Palais Idéal by Ferdinand Cheval, and Watts Towers by Simon Rodia. She decides she wants to make a monumental sculpture park, too: the first to be created by a woman. In 1979, she acquires several acres of land in Garavicchio, Tuscany, and sets about creating her garden, which would eventually contain a series of 22 fantastical and monumental mosaic-covered sculptures, each a representation of 22 of the mysteries of the Tarot, in addition to numerous other sculptures.

After nearly 20 years Giardino Dei Tarocchi finally opened in 1998, and 16 years later it remains a remarkable wonder for both the eyes and the spirit.

droplets, drips, waves, & streams

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PHouk plates

After 13 years away, I recently had the good fortune to be back in Boston, and was able to spend time with one of my 5050LIGHT collaborators Peter Houk – a fantastically creative glass artist – who also happens to run the MIT Glass Lab. I became a fan of Peter’s work back in the late 80’s while volunteering at The Society of Art & Crafts in Boston and commissioned him to make a set of etched glass plates (who doesn’t love geckos?). A few years later, we collaborated on a grouping of vases with etched copper tubing lengths which became the necks which he blew the glass through. We discussed plans for our upcoming collaboration which, hopefully, will include a splinter study of a light installation he did based on the Rayleigh instability.

droplet wave illustration

In a nutshell, the Rayleigh instability is part of a greater branch of fluid dynamics which explains why and how a falling stream of fluid breaks up into smaller packets with the same volume but less surface area. The driving force is that liquids, by virtue of their surface tensions, tend to minimize their surface area. The resulting effects offer some compelling visual possibilities for artistic pursuits. (Coincidentally, on a more mundane note, I’ve noticed numerous recent examples of the Rayleigh instability featured in the opening title sequences of films and in other popular media.) 

You can read Rayleigh’s original research here, or another fascinating MIT research paper on the physics of surface tension here.