Day 2 started bright and early, I got up with the birds and did my routine and sort of could move normally. I shambled in to the school at 9:40 a.m. There was a lot of activity in the garden. Bubba was also parked in the garden, loaded up to the gills when I arrived.
Somehow I missed the memo on getting there at 9:30 a.m. I was not alone! Nobody wore name tags consistently after Day 1, so it was a bit stumbly asking questions. Everyone was pumped with adrenalin, either from loading Bubba or from just missing the fun.
In the land of Mosaic, people you are trying to talk to are frequently hunched over something, loading/unloading something, trying to cut / break / lift / glue / wiggle something, looking for something, or otherwise distracted. They aren’t totally ignoring you, in fact usually at least one of their ears is pointed in your direction, but they aren’t looking at you, either. They are working! Its that obsessive-compulsive thing at work, or the mastic is gonna dry, or the mortar, or the sun is going down, or something.
[ Any hope of eye contact with any of these tile geniuses was futile after Day 1. Name tags on our backs would have helped me, at least. Its hard to get someone’s attention when you don’t know their name unless you get up in their face. Perhaps the next class requirement should be to name tag each other with tape on the back between the shoulder blades with whatever name you want to be called by that day, first off each morning. ]
We all knew Isaiah, Julia, Amber, and Laurel’s names by then. The dog is Jack. We knew Celeste: she’d registered all of us for class. That was almost it for me for names, and all I drank after class the night before was mint tea!
Our crew for the next five days (not including Chuck DiGuida, the property owner of 2516 Blanding, and the men he hired to help put up the scaffolds) included:
- Karen Byars (Texas/Mendocino/Oakland);
- Nancy Kint Cook (Arizona/Bay Area);
- Anha Fender (Sausalito, and Kristin’s cousin),
- Jamie Joffe (Lafayette; Nancy Cook’s daughter);
- Nancy Keating (Indianapolis),
- Kristin Olsen (Berkeley, Anha’s cousin);
- SueAnn Bettison Sher (Petaluma);
- Sherry Tobin (San Francisco);
- Rob Tobin (San Diego, no relation to Sherry);
- Judy Toupin (San Francisco);
- Monika Tucker (Sausalito/Berkeley, a calabash cousin of Anha’s/Kristin’s);
- Lynda Winslow (you-know-who)
We had to chill while Laurel got everything else ready for her departure for a few hours, as she needed to do the formalities of getting us started at the work site. We went in the IMA library and the kitchen and drank coffee / tea and hung around and tried not to fret. It was 10 a.m. It was a beautiful day. We were about to make a bodacious mosaic. What could be bad?
Meanwhile, Laurel was getting ready, loading buckets, mortar boards, mastic, more mirror, drop cloths, and other things which were not going to fit in Bubba. She iced her sciatica. We all took deep breaths. Then we all caravan-ed over to 2516 Blanding Avenue: our work site for the next 4 days.
I rode over with SueAnn Sher in Stella (my trusty old truck). You can see SueAnn on the lower left corner of this photo I took of her on Day 3… she’s working on a Mermaid’s Belly.
See the 4-Armed Tile Setter (the nose of the Mermaid)?
When we arrived, we found a nicely painted grey cinder block building with a giant roll-up door, a row of corrugated fiberglass sheeting over that and a row of windows over that (all on the right), and 3 windows on the left (one down, two up), separated by a little vestibule / stairway leading up to the inside in the middle. Its industrial, all right!
Isaiah’s line design (the cartoon) was painted all over the building in black latex paint. There was a delighted person (Chuck) alternately hovering and running around the site.
[ One of Chuck’s buddies, Gary from Acorn Elevator (yes?) was there helping too. Gary helped us out of a few tight spots in the early mornings over the ensuing days. He’s not experiencing an economic downturn right now, and was working each day at a real, paying job. I wish I knew how to fix elevators! ]
SueAnn and I brought some more bling in a small box and our bags and stashed them under Ed’s Monster Truck, which was parked in front of the building. Its big enough to mosaic, that thing. (Go get em, Amber!)
[ Ed is Amber’s sweetheart (is that his name? Maybe I don’t have his name), and he does seem to be a sweetheart, too. On day 4 we also met her Grandma, who is an artist. The monster truck took Ed off later, to go surfing, I think. ]
Isaiah let us look around a few minutes while he and Laurel and Chuck did some choreography / logistics. Then he and Rob went into this furious flamenco dance with the ladders and the power screwdrivers and started attaching blobs everywhere with masonry and sheet rock screws. There was much moving of vehicles parked near the site.
[ I love power screwdrivers. Save your wrists for flamenco: get one and use it when you can. ]
Julia helped unload and set up a table. She’d seen this kind of insanity before. Nancy and Jamie worked on getting most of the stuff out of Bubba, and we put some of it in the roll-up door area. I missed the tour (where the head was, etc.) because SueAnn and I had to park a ways away and walk on over.
More images of our insanity here….
[ Up until that point we’d all been calling Chuck by the name only his Grandma was allowed to use, and he corrected Isaiah gently but publicly so we’d all learn he didn’t like that. Laurel explained that some lady paying her rent had used it in front of them, that was why we’d used it, and apologized.
He almost blushed when she told him that they’d heard one of his tenants (“that lady!”) calling him Chuckie. Client relations…. names are so important. If he wanted to be called Il Padrone, I’m sure we could have arranged it. ]
After most of the blobs were up, Isaiah gathered us up and showed us how to stick mirror.
Prepare Your Stance:
Stand at an acute angle to the wall to start sticking, not parallel. You need to be able to see where you’re putting tile (sliding it into place), but not stand in right front of it. You’ll get carpal tunnel if you do that, from cocking your wrist and pushing on tile all day. Don’t do that.
- You hold a bucket of mirror under your non-dominant arm, on your hip. A small bucket.
- You hold a mortar-board in that same hand (your elbow bent through the bucket handle, if you like, for safety), and it has a bunch of white library-paste-goop on it (mastic).
- With your free hand you reach into the bucket (reach across into the bucket) and get hold of a tile or mirror bit.
- Holding the mirror with your thumb on top (the side meant to face away from the wall, the shiny side) you scrape down from the blob of mastic, you scrape across the board, and lift up. You’ve just scooped up some mastic-dip onto your bit of mirror.
- Assuming you got only a little bit of mastic along one edge, and only on the back side, put the side of the mirror (the long side, usually) down onto the wall close to where you want it finally … sort of parallel to the lines in our case, and then push it down, across, and wiggle it into position next to the line. Now the back of the tile with the goop smeared all over it has good sticky contact, and it is pasted in place. You are only trying to hold it there till you grout. Its sort of like tacking it up there. You don’t need a lot of mastic.
- Wiggling is crucial to positioning. You don’t press down on the mirror and put it in place; you wiggle it into position so that the mastic gets smeared across the whole block of mirror. If you need to move tiles over a little and fit one more in, you can wiggle them all around while the mastic is still drying.
- Keep breathing.
- Be nice to yourself. Just put the tile where it fits, don’t fuss over it. Its not fussy, this technique.
- Go back to step 1.
“Now, ” he said, “Get busy! Stick mirror on both sides of all the black lines! You’re going to have problems; come and see me. If you need little pieces, or crooked pieces, here are the glass cutters!”
So we did. It was like a spell was suddenly cast on everyone, and they were all sticking tile madly on the wall, and I was standing in deer – in – the – headlights mode, lined up for mastic, wondering what-all I missed. Agh.
Black lines were everywhere, with people hovering over them. There were several mermaids, some men in hats, a hand, some ships, but it was hard to see it all, mirror was going up on the wall so fast, with at least 10 or more people bellied up to it — sticking tile.
I went into the vestibule down low and tried to stick mirror in some of the Mermaid’s tail. I had no idea what I was doing. Mastic got all over everything. Everyone who wanted to get in the building for one reason or another (and that was everyone) needed to squeeze by. There wasn’t a lot of room on the stairs. But there was no logical other open place to work, so I went in there.
It took me about a whole day of trying this technique to master a well-stuck, clean-faced tile, with just the right amount of mastic stuck on the back of it, in the right place. Isaiah had to give me another demo just so I could really figure out what I was doing wrong. Then another. The penny finally dropped on the morning of the next day, Day 3 — I’d been sticking tile for at least 6 hours by then. I’m slow to catch on, but once I’ve got something, that’s it.
Anha worked nearby. I think she was on a ladder already. She was on a ladder in that vestibule for what seemed like over 50% of the job, working on this section, making it pop.
Kristin came in later and buffed some of my messy mirrors. She, Monika, and Anha had all collaborated on a tile mermaid (a giant black one) on a Sausalito houseboat earlier this year: they bonded over that Mermaid Queen. She had more experience than I, and knew it would be too much work to get the mastic off once it was dry. I wondered if she was getting fussy on me.
Laurel did warn me not to freak out if Isaiah came by and said it was all wrong. But nobody stopped and took time to show me exactly what I didn’t get; they were all obsessed with their own thing.
[ Actually what he said was more along the lines of: “You know what you’re doing wrong n-o-w?” Laurel came by right after him, laughing, and repeated it. I was still struggling along on the stairs, moving out of the way every 30 seconds.
Apparently you need your thumb on the outward facing bit of tile, or you’re never going to have a clean swipe at it. “Where is your thumb now?” Remember that, kiddo. ]
But by then, I had nothing to buff with, I was entirely covered with mastic (my apron, some of my jeans, etc.). I couldn’t get anyone’s attention, either. They were all obsessed. They all had 4 arms.
Jamie, Nancy Cook, and Monika, Sticking Mirror: Day 2. The blob near Monica's head is stuck up there with masonry screws, temporarily. Grout will hold it in there later, and you can remove those.
We ran out of mirror, and they started in with tile in certain spots while waiting for more mirror to come.
Laurel had to go rustle us up some new mirror. We had been cutting recycled mirror before. SueAnn cut mirror for a few hours that afternoon. Julia cut tile and mirror and handed out mastic and tried to remind us not to leave the cover off of the bucket. Isaiah stuck mirror, walked around, told stories, and planned. Amber worked like a demon; so fast!
I eventually left the stairwell, looking for a less cramped workspace and some help after my first bucket of mirror ran out. Almost like a race: it seemed like they were going to have the whole building covered if I just got a cup of tea and watched. I needed hot tea, though. It was a cold, breezy day. Isaiah stood by, watching it all. We talked some story.
Anha Sticking Tile: Day 2
We heard the story about Isaiah’s Mom sitting with him in the tideline while the waves on Coney Island were coming in, supporting him so he wouldn’t be scared. This happened when he was so little. (Somewhere near Mermaid Avenue?)
We heard some of the stories about how not everyone likes Isaiah’s art, but a lot of people do. (Chuck is one).
He said that Jeremiah’s movie (In a Dream) was coming out April 17th (at the Roxie in San Francisco), so we can see it.
He told a story about taking care of his dying Mom … a story which ended with “You were such a beautiful baby!” I told the dying Mom story to Rufus and Daniel that night. We all grinned. Moms are the same everywhere. Isaiah is still beautiful, but not in the way his Mom wanted to remember, apparently. We heard some more stories from the Book of Isaiah. Never mind the movie, we had the living text (Julia, Isaiah, Laurel, Amber) with us.
I told some stories about my Dad’s way of answering certain questions, about the whoppers he used to tell us. How you can’t have a chocolate sundae on any day but Sunday: restaurants won’t serve them.
[ My Mom told us soy sauce was bad for us b/c it was made out of bugs, that’s what made it black. She called it bug juice. She loved soy sauce, but thought it was bad for us. Even though she smoked cigarettes at the table, we were not encouraged to have any soy sauce. ]
My Dad told us the Easter Bunny kept his eggs in those natural gas tanks in the Richmond / Martinez hills, the ones that used to be painted entirely in pastel colors.
SueAnn remarked that my Dad had a real imagination. Yes he did. I would never have arrived on Earth otherwise. Him having tremendous charm helped, too. SueAnn later told me one or two whoppers she told her kids when they were growing up. One of them sounded handy; I wish I could remember it now.
[ I didn’t get to tell them the one about watching for the chipmunk who was supposed to be following our 1949 Chevrolet through Santa Clara Valley to my cousin’s farm in Carmel Valley. Another time.
My parents would have loved Isaiah and Julia. I am sad they can’t be around to see what we made under their guidance. My Father would take one look at the building and say: “Wow! These are MY PEOPLE! Ahh!” Some of the things he and my Mom gave me are now glued / grouted onto that building. He might love that, too. ]
I went around the corner where there were appliqués of tile going up, and worked there. I got on okay. Not great. I tried not to listen to Radio KFKD, which is what plays in my head almost any time I’m trying a new technique but am still way outside the bounds of simple mastery. It was work.
“If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.” –Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Julia was over there working on the appliqués, sticking tile. She seemed happy. I would see that tile-setting grin on every face at various times in the ensuing 4 days.
Beginner’s mind was an important place for me to hang out; I tried to notice all the beauty, tried to notice things I had never seen. There was a lot of it on site.
Karen was over there, also sticking on the appliqués. Besides having my sister’s first name, she also has a great laugh, a great spirit (like both my sisters), a Texas accent, and a durable idea of what is supposed to be really going on. We started to get acquainted with each other and with Judy, who works as an art teacher and is pretty quiet when concentrating, and who concentrates hard a lot of the time. So learning about who she was tended to take longer. She did come out of her concentration-coma a few times to tease Karen about Texas pronunciations, so we knew she was listening to us, though.
[ I found out Karen was from the Molly Ivins school of activism in Texas. Cut from the same cloth. How great. Then I found out she’s worked with Redwood action for years. My late-lamented pal David Nadel did a lot of advocacy work with them when Headwaters Forest Action really started to heat up.
I tried to explain to Anha later that day which activism school Karen was from, but she didn’t know who Molly Ivins was. I tried to find out if Karen had read Florence King, another Southern Belle / larrikin who originally charmed / inspired Molly. She hasn’t read her (yet). Context is everything. ]
It was a long day.
I had some fish plates from home, a honeycomb pitcher made in occupied Japan I was dying to smash and add in, and brass keys to the city for Isaiah, but he said that they all needed to go into blobs first. He didn’t seem eager to make more blobs. He’s a straight-line-to-the-future-kind-of-guy, sometimes, it seems. This was that type of day. He was also starting to look a little shocky when we talked, before lunch. I don’t blame him. I can’t eat lunch at 2 or 3, not when I get up at 6. He and Julia were still on East Coast time.
[ I gave the fish plates to Rob. He’s building a 2-story mosaic this week. I gave him some small ship’s prisms, too. All on a nautical theme. ]
Ross Elementary School, San Diego: before tile
Ross: during tile
Ross Elementary: before grout
Day 2: Skin of 'Mermaid Harbor' going on at 2516 Blanding Ave., Alameda. Karen searching for mirror/mastic, stage right.
After a very fancy lunch (They broke sometime after 2, but Chef DiGuida was running around doing errands for absolutely everyone all morning, and his grill and kitchen are pretty far apart from each other), we stuck more mirror and tile. I tried staying away from the vestibule. I gave Kristin and Anha some bling to put in there: sparkly things, a purse, some rocks, abalone bits. All from home.
Anha spent at least an hour on the mermaid’s lips, another hour on her eyes/face. All on a ladder.
That mermaid’s face had only been painted that morning, when Isaiah and Rob were up in there on ladders, sheet-rock screwing into the wall holding up the blobs which would be her breasts. She had no head when we arrived that morning. Isaiah painted her head and face when they were up there on the ladders. He works remarkably fast.
Later that afternoon, the appliqué side of the building was in the sun. The street-facing side was in the shade, and colder, so I worked on the appliqué side.
Before lunch, Judy went and got Isaiah and asked him to paint a few more appliqués on the wall; we had time to do them and it was right. It seemed to take him 5 minutes. He painted everything at least to the right of the man releasing the bird that day. She worked on them.
Julia helped, Karen helped. I worked on filling in the others with small tiles. Julia broke more tile and handed it out, handed out mastic.
Applique Wall Mid-Section, Day 4
We started to break things down after 4 pm. People went across the street to look at the walls, to get a better view. The (retired) owners of the Pitchometer Propeller building stopped by that day. There were a huge number of people in cars slowing down, honking, pulling over, walking up, walking by to see. Several group photos were taken with several cameras. Chuck is a photographer; he did most of the honors.
SueAnn and I poured ourselves back into Stella and drove across the Fruitvale Bridge that afternoon when class ended; much of the tile was up — covering much of the mural, lots of places still needed to be filled in with smaller bits. We were pretty tired. She drove home to Petaluma from IMA that afternoon; she was commuting each day, a long ride.
I tried doing an errand on the way home at Long’s that evening and found my fingers wouldn’t really curl properly to get change out of my wallet. I am nothing if not mortal.
[ Rufus called me later that evening after he and Daniel got home from baseball practice. They had gone by Pitchometer Propeller on the way home. He asked how much of the tile we’d put up that day, and I told him all of it. We tranformed it in a single day. He could hardly believe it. I made some sexist remark, not knowing what else to say…. but there were 14 women on the team… and then corrected myself after he balked at my making it a big deal … and then we finished our conversation and I went to bed at 7:30 pm. Honest. I was cooked. ]