Category Archives: hard work

‘Surprises, a story’


Electric Rainbow Jelly: appearances still manage to deceive us

Way back in 2003, I worked at an organic cotton spinning mill in the base of the Iron Triangle in Richmond, CA.  We made organic cotton yarn from naturally colored fiber: Foxfibre®.

During that period I also worked at several teaching jobs and wrote some community service grants. The cotton mill gig was < 30 hours a week, and I was hungry for more work at the time. One of the best jobs I had at the time was teaching home-school kids in mathematics and applied (read:kitchen) science.

Home school kids seem to be part of a special group, at least all the ones I’ve met seemed so. Very bright, very engaged with the world. They want to *know* things. Very exciting students to have.

One of the classes I taught was offered at a private home in West Berkeley, and it didn’t last long,  because I couldn’t keep up with it.

It was two hours or more of preparation for every hour of class time, and usually more. It was assembling a lot of materials and technology and schlepping them all over to someone else’s kitchen and working in an extremely tight space (a beautiful space, but extremely tight) with seven or more brilliant 9-year-olds. This is my favorite age (the age of enthusiasm and inquiry, but the magic is still there), and these were great students. It was a hard class to give up.


One of the great things we did in class was an experiment called Electric Rainbow Jelly. It came out of a book in the library with the same name. Great book. Not a hard experiment, either, except a little tricky to assemble everything.

For instance, did you know that AA batteries have little carbon rods inside them? Well, if you are going to make Electric Rainbow Jelly you need to: you’ve got to hacksaw the end off of one or two of those suckers and pull the rod out with tweezers. You’d like the rod to be intact, so be careful.

Buy the book; you’ll see….

One of the supplies I had to assemble for that experiment was “indicator solution” so that I could prepare gelatin which would react to having various different pH(s) in various places, creating a rainbow. Indicator solution is commonly used in swimming pool test kits, in hydroponic gardens, and in various other places where you need to test the relative acidity, neutrality, or basicity of a solution.

We don’t have a swimming pool supply store handy in West Berkeley, and the hardware store didn’t have it (not the ones I checked anyway), and… oh hey, the Berkeley Indoor Garden Center!  So I went over there to get some after calling to check and see whether they knew what it was I was after and whether it was in stock. Its a few doors down from where I got my very first measles shot at West Berkeley Health Center, but that was back around the early Miocene Era.

It looks like the storefront of the Indoor Garden Center might actually have been a hardware store once, or a feed store (West Berkeley used to have a lot of horses, but not for about a century now), or even a grocery. It is a wooden building with great wood framed windows, a hardwood floor, and a lot of very bright full-spectrum lights in certain places. I’d never been in a Indoor Garden store before and didn’t know what to expect, but I got the solution and took it home and added it to my stack of supplies.

Later that day I was working over at my ex’s house, and he gave me some electrical leads I needed for the experiment too. He used to do a lot of the work on his own car, and didn’t mind loaning them in the interest of science. I told him about getting the pH test solution at the Indoor Center, how I’d never been in a hydroponic garden store before.  I mentioned how odd it was to me to be in that store earlier that day, confusing even. He inquired what exactly I meant. I said:  “Well, everyone working there was really young, extremely white, and they all had…. really long natty dredlocks!”

It is difficult to describe the look he gave me, almost a look which changed pH as it grew on his face. But it went from wonder to disbelief to incredulity, and then he was laughing uncontrollably. At me. He rarely laughs uncontrollably, so I took notice, and thus figured out that I was actually the object of his incredulity and that somehow I had both amused and amazed him.

Then I figured out  _why_ he was laughing at me. Then I started laughing. It was a great moment of connection in our relationship (now a simple friendship), all of it pre-verbal. We understood.

Sometimes I am confused by the Look of Things, is the Moral of the Story. Appearances still mislead, or rather, appearances sometimes cause me to question my assumptions about Everything Else.

So, its interesting that Electric Rainbow Jelly (the experiment, which the kids really loved and was way fun and was the closest I ever came to having the feeling of teaching a team of young Wizards, by the way) — taught me something about myself I hadn’t expected to learn: that I had these assumptions about garden stores and what they sold and why they sold it, and all that, … and that those assumptions were based on nothing very reliable (past experience in garden stores? leading a fairly Rebecca-of-Sunnybrook-Farm lifestyle? whatever!) or useful in certain situations.

Always good to learn something new, even after tripping over a wheelbarrow full of assumptions.

So it is with great humility that I read / remembered some of what happened on Day 2 of the Mosaic Mural Class… a friend had written me and asked how it was going, and this is what I wrote back:

Yesterday Isaiah was talking about the grout “rivers” we are making on the building (using concrete mixed with 3 parts sand and ICI pigment and water), saying how Laurel True (who runs the school we are taking the class in) hates them, hates going over them, buffing them, filling them, using them.
“I don’t want to do it, Daddy. Daddy Isaiah!  I don’t like it!  I don’t want to do it!”

Earlier in the day he said something, quoting himself and his Mosaic Bible and (irony, humility, and self-deprecation all present) saying that the quotation was in the Book of Isaiah, and then we laughed… after I said, “…. you mean its in the Old Testament?  Is that why they call them the Mosaic Laws?  Don’t eat mosaic grout pigment on Sundays? Like that?”

Its an erudite group. They laughed.

So, when he did this routine about Laurel hating the grout rivers, calling himself Daddy Isaiah, I said:  “Now you sound like a rapper!  Daddy Isaiah! Whoa!  We’re going to have to find you some bling, dude!”

He laughed. All his bling is all over the walls of South Philadelphia, Jingletown, and the world.

Isaiah Zagar:  rapper, mosaic law daddy, prophet in the temple of the pharisees, teacher, visionary, all that…. no question. No assumptions there.

Julia Zagar: daughter of the one of the Disney dream team, visionary, lover of birds, mosaic Momma, traveller, gallery owner, great hearted giver, patient artist, all that. Also no question.

Appearances sometimes still manage to deceive me. Not for long, though. Not for long.

Neptune’s Daughter, Part 1

{ Neptune’s Daughter }

Once upon a time there was a Woman who
wanted her own home. She decided it would be nice
to live on a houseboat. So then she wanted her own
home with a slip attached. Just a small slip. A yacht slip,
if you please.

Men heard about it, when they asked.
They were duly horrified. They claimed that
all of the time they lived in such a place,
they would be worrying about the next time they had to
haul their home out of the water,
to scrape off the barnacles or to paint the Bottom.
Then they began gibbering like frightened
monkeys, asking her had she thought about weather, about
old King Neptune.

The Woman scoffed at such questions, wisely knowing these Men and their ilk would never cohabit with her under any circumstances.  Neither by stealth nor  invitation, neither by insinuation nor brute force. Nope.

Mosaic on Stairwell, Bridgehead studios, Day 2

Neptune's Daughter Thinks Barnacles Are Overrated

Still, she didn’t own a houseboat.
She had a landlord. She also had no live in boyfriends, paramours, nor roommates.
She had a cat.
She had a job.
She worked.
She dreamed.

She also worked with a Lady who wanted to know why this Woman always knew more than everyone else about everything (about 90% of everything, by this Lady’s calculations).
‘Ah,’ cried the Woman, ‘Just because I have lived, because in living I have done many things, and because I have always had to pay some Landlord.’
‘I don’t own any property, and I always have to pay some Landlord, just to live.
You work, you learn things, you pay the Landlord. Lather, Rinse, Repeat. That’s Life.’

Thus she knew a lot about a lot of subjects.
Thus her Teenager despised her company as any good teenager would do, for being a Know it All.
Thus she worked. Thus she struggled.
Thus she soldiered on, alone and Houseboat-less. Over-Educated.
Ah. Well, then!

Since she still knew so little about Houseboats, this Woman felt free to continue dreaming. When she slept, she dreamed.
Ownership, Home, Yacht Slip. That kind of thing.

One day, this Woman got near the end of her Rope.
She was Angry, Fed Up, Tired.  She had a Hissy Fit. It scared her. She cried.
Then the storm passed, the sun came out, the birds sang in the trees again.
All was well. She ate an apple and took a nap, this Woman.

She worked on. She lived. Time passed.
The Storm clouds gathered again, and not on a 28-day cycle, either.
The Woman was concerned.
She found that every time she felt a Storm coming on, she worried more. She fretted.
How could she be So Angry? So Righteously Fed Up? How?
Since she began Worrying More, this Woman stayed far, far away from her Teenager. To preserve things, she said.
Her Boyfriend started giving her short, thoughtful kisses at the door, not demanding much, listening, trying to Be There For Her, bringing small occasional gifts. Tippy-toeing around. Trying extra hard to be affectionate, thoughtful, attentive, patient.

The Woman then suffered from Chronic Insomnia. She wasn’t worried about barnacles, either. She was worried about how to keep her mouth shut.
For really, truly, that is what this World expects from Women. Silence. Discretion.  That rot.
It was not how she was raised, not who she Was, this Silence.
It started to wear on her, this silence, this Insomnia.
She sought medical help, and eventually, medication.
She slept a little, sometimes.
She still worried, felt broken, incomplete.
Something was wrong.

The Woman found that every time the clouds gathered and the pressure built up, she needed to Speak Truth to Power. In fact, to the King.  It was a passion that built up silently, indescribably, and then overcame her. A storm. A crisis. A truth telling. A withdrawal, horrified, to consider Consequences.
It was frightening, really.
She came home sometimes, having saved herself narrowly from this truth speaking, and ranted to her Cat.

Her worries deepened.
She felt like she had her finger in a dike. She could feel the flood building.
Everything about her life, her health, her relationships with family hinged on being continuously and productively employed.
She knew that.
To speak truth to power is to risk destruction. It is the equivalent of raising your face to stare unblinking at the Sun.
She knew that.

The Woman sometimes wondered about the stuff other people fretted about. Neptune. Taxes. Death. Betrayal. Disease. Homelessness. Friendlessness. Barnacles. Old Age. Muggers. Abandonment. Rape.
She’d been through all that, nearly totally, and survived.
She wasn’t fretting about that, only Truth-Telling. Its consequences. Only that.
The Woman realized this one day and then realized she was on a Threshold.
She was about to Do Something.
She had stuff to Do. She was about to Make Changes.
She had very little to lose, but was still afraid, still a bit tentative.
She was like that with new things, this Woman.

The Cat stared, purred, made biscuits on the blankets, and waited for Treats.
She turned and slept. The Woman ranted on paper, on pixels, in thin air, in the bath, out in the yard, in her Dreams.  The Woman began to Worry Deeply. Her insomnia grew. The wheels began regularly to fly off her Little Red Wagon, usually manageably, usually one at a time. She would pause, bend down metaphorically, and put them back on. But still, she worried.

Then the Woman went to work one day and just Let Fly With Truth.
She didn’t know she was about to do it; she didn’t feel it coming.
The King simply asked her what she thought of something one morning.
She paused, drew a breath, and then told him. She told him thoughtfully and
truthfully, but not too Politely. He was a bit taken aback, and then he thanked her. He left. As he was leaving, he said he would get back to her with a Plan. Tomorrow, he said.

Her worry increased.
She wondered if she could get used to it.
It didn’t relieve the Pressure totally. Not all the way.
So she immediately told the Vizier. Then she told the Queen.
All when asked, all when on the same Subject of Which She’d Told Truth.
All the same Truth. All regarding them, their lack of leadership,
all about them making the same error over
and over for 2 years straight, and expecting different results,
and not even Failing Better, what did it prove?
How was it her job to help them patch things up?
What was the reward, where was her duty exactly? Was it part of career development? Where was this leading, anyway?
More and more, on and on, until this set of so-called leaders drew away from the Woman and her truth-telling, weary.

The men around her who heard about the Truth coming down that day… demurred. They said it was not their affair, that they were not sure it was a good idea. That it was in fact, probably something to
Never Do.

The Woman’s Boyfriend was silent, affectionate, thoughtful, attentive. Her Teenager was silent, unaware. Her Cat washed herself, blissfully.

Right after that Truth Telling, the same day, the Woman then went, kneeled down in the earth, and gave fertilizer and water to the King’s tree. He thanked her.  He described the history of the tree. She wondered. She had come, after all, to do this work On Request. He wanted to pay for the fertilizer, the soil, the care, this King. She wondered some more. She said she would accept one dollar. He insisted on giving her ten.

She wondered, this Woman, if it was not time to finally start shopping
for Houseboats. ‘Why Not?’ thought she ‘…. it seems like anything
is Possible…’

Then the Woman went home, ate dinner; she took a bath, she slept. She still wondered.

Storms, when you come, you do not consider Timing. Do you?

Grandpa’s Employment History (before Death of a Salesman)

My Dad once told me that he thought “Death of a Salesman” was one of the saddest plays ever written. Told me that Grandpa had bad luck like Willy Loman; Dad said that he’d cried and left the theater the first time he saw this play (as a young man), that he couldn’t sit through the second act. It reminded him too much of watching his father struggle professionally.

I’ve certainly had my own struggles with reinvention of a professional nature. I can relate to difficulty in watching the struggles of people I love and admire.  While I understand this play is a tragedy, I agree with my cousin Don Luce; older people have a different take on the arc of this story than young people. To young people, it looks like a life wasted. To older people who have struggled more, seen more, fought harder — it looks like a drama of a different kind.  Perhaps the real tragedy is giving up hope, or of not learning from the mistakes of the prior generation, or from your own mistakes.  It may be possible for me to sit through the play without bolting the theater in the manner of my ancestors.

This script may not have aged as well as some of Arthur Miller’s other works.  Perhaps Willy Loman would never have gotten angry or occupied Wall Street. Perhaps he’s lost in a way we no longer understand. But I don’t think watching this will devastate me at this stage of my life, in spite of how raw any ongoing struggle might be for me. Hope dies last. Today is a chance for change, another opportunity to learn and move on from mistakes. If we give that up, what are we left with?

What I understand is that my Grandpa worked hard and wrestled against the odds, much like everyone else did. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  If he ever had one in there, it was because somebody forgot to take it out after the photo opportunity. He had some breaks, and perhaps they didn’t pay off. At some points, the struggle was too overwhelming for one person — and Dad was a witness to some of those times.

My Dad had his own struggles. I’ve got mine. But in these pages, I read resilience, I read curiosity, I read initiative, and I read some double dealing on the part of Fate or other so-called Managers. I don’t think this makes Grandpa’s life a tragedy. Your life is a tragedy if that is all you define it as.

I remember Grandpa as a man who loved to go fishing, and who generously took us along. Kenelm Tracy Winslow was a man who loved buckwheat pancakes; he loved putting Barbasol® on his Christmas tree to simulate snow in winter, and who would play with us on the Slip N’ Slide® in the backyard in summer. Grandpa taught us how to shoot cat food cans off the back fence in his yard until Mom got mad and took the beebee guns away.

Some of the Winslow Tracy Clan, Chico, CA, August, 1960

Tracy Winslow Family members (August, 1960): Chico, CA

He taught us how to be on the road on an adventure, since every time he drove us to Paradise we thought we were actually visiting Heaven.  He taught us how to skip stones, to have fun, to relax. He held us close while he watched a game on the television. What may be tragic is that he didn’t grow wealthy from his hard work; but does that take away the fact that he did the work, that he loved us, and that we got to share in his life?

My Grandpa, Kenelm Tracy Winslow, wrote the following piece probably as part of an application for something sometime after 1944.  I’m not sure what he wrote it for, nor am I sure exactly when. We found the pages of typescript tucked into a scrapbook of my Mom and Dad’s wedding photos. More on that later. Grandpa’s bio / text follows the picture.

Photo of my granddad, KT Winslow

Kenelm Tracy Winslow, circa 1948

Personal History, K. T. Winslow.
30 (b)
1. Worked as a bank clerk with the Tracy Loan and Trust Company, Salt Lake City, Utah. Mr. R.L. Tracy, President of this company, is my uncle and I entered this bank at the wish of my mother and uncle. My salary was $125.00 per month. Resigned because of my desire to work independent of relatives.

Image of a silver spoon from Russel Lord Tracy's bank in Utah

Tracy Loan and Trust 8th Annual Dvidend

2. Worked as clerk in the San Francisco offices of the Reliance Life Insurance Company, where I made $100.00 per month salary. Left this position in an endeavor to better myself.
3. (a) Worked as distributor of kitchen aluminum in the San Francisco Bay Area for the Dilver Aluminum Company of Pittsburgh. This lasted about six months, when a defaulting partner ruined the business.
(b) Worked for Durant Motor Company of California as car order clerk for a few months, at a salary of $100.00 per month.
(c) Left this position to sell automobiles for Durant dealer in San Rafael, California.
(d) When this dealership folded up, I sold real estate and rented houses for the D. L. Jung Company, Berkeley, California. During this period my salary and earnings ran about $1200.00 a year.
4. (a) Started working for the Engineering Sales Company (C.A. Watts) of San Francisco at a salary of $125.00 a month. I was a stenographer. This was about 1926.
(b) Three months later I was handling the sales of this employer who as a manufacturer’s agent, handled such lines as Waukesha Motor Company, Waukesha, Wisconsin; Racine Radiator Company (later the Young Radiator Company and the Perfex Radiator Company) of Racine, Wisconsin; Pick Couplings, and Palmer B. Speed Reducers. My salary was increased to $150.00 per month. At this point I became interested in mechanical engineering, it being necessary to have a good working knowledge of design and performance characteristics of the Waukesha Motor Company’s truck and industrial engines, and to understand proper installation of the Racine Radiator Company’s truck and industrial plant cooling radiators.
(c) After I had been with company a year my salary was increased to $175.00 per month, and I was given a 10% interest in the business. During this period I traveled up and down the Pacific Coast soliciting business and assisting engineering departments in their installations of our products in such concerns as Fageol Motor Company (truck and bus manufacturers) of Oakland, California; the McDonald Truck Manufacturing Company of San Francisco, California; the DeMartini Truck Manufacturing Company of San Francisco, California; the Rix (compressor manufacturing company) of San Francisco, California; and other manufacturing companies in Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. I also assisted in the installation of 300 horsepower engines in the “Yarders” and “Donkeys” for the logging industry of the Pacific Northwest. At the request of the Waukesha Motor Company, I left this position and took a position with them.
5. (a) I started working for the Waukesha Motor Company as an order and production clerk at a salary of $250.00 per month. I had under my direction six clerks. With the assistance and direction of Mr. J. B. Fisher, Chief Engineer, of the Waukesha Motor Company, I did home study on engine design and combustion characteristics.
30 (b) Con’t.
(b) Up to 1932 I alternated in the shop, office and on the road in sales and service work. During the depression years I took whatever salary cuts as were made throughout the plant and at the lowest ebb my salary was reduced 50%.
(c) In 1932 I was one of the five men chosen by the Waukesha Motor Company to assist the Co-operative Fuel research (C. F. R.) committee in research work on a method of determining the Octane number of gasoline. During this time I was constantly in the laboratory, or attending scientific lectures and meetings and at the same time, carrying on private research along these lines. During my association with this committee I wrote several papers on the fuel research work and delivered them before the Society of Automotive Engineers in Chicago, Baltimore, at A.S.T.M. meetings and at various universities throughout the country, including Purdue, Notre Dame, Lehigh University, etc. At Lehigh University Mr. H.V. Cummings, Chief Automotive Power Plant Section, U.S. Department of Commerce, and I were on the same program. We also worked together in C. F. R. work.
(d) At the end of 1932 when the C. F. R. engine design and fuel testing procedure was established, I was placed in charge of this variable compression fuel research unit, which by this time had been adapted to both self ignition (diesel) and spark ignition (gasoline) units. In promoting the sale of this unit I visited and sold the unit to large fuel distributing Companies, fuel refineries, and at each place demonstrated and explained the principles on which the tests were conducted. When the American Society of Testing Materials adopted the C. F. R. unit as a standard, its sale became automatic.
(e) In 1933 I was placed in charge of sales for Waukesha truck and bus, as well as industrial engines in the southern states, headquartering in Birmingham, Alabama. In this capacity I called on such manufacturers as used engines in the products they manufactured. This included pump, truck, shovel, and other manufacturers of construction equipment, boat works, etc. In all of these instances I assisted in the engineering of products which were being manufactured in so far as the engineering problems concerned the proper installation of the engine. I made installation of irrigation systems, drainage systems, and pumping plants, also power plants for creameries, ice cream plants, and stand-by units.
(f) During this time the Waukesha Motor Company developed the Hesselman spark ignition diesel fuel burning engine and I became so familiar with the design of this unit that I was called upon to make installations and to service them, both from a commercial and experimental angle. This gave me a full and detailed knowledge of gasoline, natural gas, and diesel engines. I continued to read and study gasoline and diesel engines under the direction of Mr. J. B. Fisher and Mr. Arthur Pope, Chief and assistant chief engineers of the Waukesha Motor Company.
(g) In 1935 I was asked to teach the design, the care and operation of the Diesel and Hesselman engines which the Waukesha Motor Company were then building. I was given complete charge of this work and carried on classes which were attended by engineers, mechanics, and executives of the various customers of the Waukesha Motor Company. I resigned in 1935 for a better position. At the time of leaving my salary was $250.00 per month.
6(a) I accepted a position as Industrial Branch Sales Manager in the Tractor Division of the Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Company, at Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

30 (b) Con’t.
(b) I was immediately transferred to the Sales Promotion Department. Salary $225.00 per month. (A bonus of ½% went with the Industrial Branch Sales Manager’s position). In this capacity I carried on education work on the design and service and operation of the Spark Ignition Diesel Fuel Burning engine this company was using, and also upon the design and service care of the Tractors, Motor Patrols, and other items of road machinery they manufactured. During this time I visited every branch of the Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Company in the United States, sometimes carrying on classes of instruction to as many as 150 people. I also spoke before other organizations such as the Paving Engineer’s Club, Chicago, Illinois, and the Altoona Engineering Society, Altoona, Pennsylvania. My salary was increased to $275.00.
(c) In 1938 I was made Industrial Sales Manager for the Southwest Division at a salary of $325.00. In this position I had under my supervision, seven industrial Branch house organizations, totaling 50 people, and indirectly I had working for me the dealer’s organization under these branches. Their total personnel were around 300 people.
(d) In 1938 I was made Industrial District Manager for the state of Minnesota and North Dakota. In this capacity I worked directly with dealers in the two states who employed about 30 people. I assisted contractors in estimating their work, recommended proper machinery for the work they had to do, and assisted in setting up repair shops for both the contractors and the dealers where needed; checked parts inventory and service records. I was paid a salary and bonus and earned between $4200.00 and $4400.00 a year. In May 1941, I was discharged, no reason given, and was told I would be given a recommendation and listed as having resigned. Incidentally the company had just come through a severe strike, and their defense orders were such that very little equipment was available to the dealers.
7.(a) In June, 1941 I went to work as an expeditor for the Procurement and Expediting Section of the Zone Construction Quartermaster’s Office, Omaha, Nebraska. I handled construction machinery. I was given this appointment by executive order #3564 of October 8, 1940, and given a rating as Engineer (p-4) Salary $3800.00 per annum.
(b) I was transferred to the Omaha district office of the U.S. Engineers when the Zone Construction Quartermaster’s Office was absorbed by the Engineers, and was made Assistant Chief of the Mechanical Section. Had under my supervision six people.
(c) In March 1942 I took and passed a Civil Service Examination and was given a rating as Senior Engineer (Mechanical) P-5 calling for a salary of $4600 per year.
8.(a) On April 21st, 1942 the 8th Civil Service District, St. Paul, Minnesota wired me that the Office of Emergency Management requested my transfer from the U.S. Engineers. I accepted the transfer and took the position of Administrative Officer in the office of the State Rationing Administrator (Grant McFayden) Lincoln, Nebraska. My civil service classification in this position is an Administrative classification of CAF-12 salary $4600.00.

[ends here]

Day 2 of Visionary Mosaic Murals: show up, load Bubba, schlep everything across Fruitvale Bridge, unload, attach blobs, learn how to stick tile, and then stick all day…

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.

Many a mermaid has slipped away without telling me her name... so tragic!

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)
When I rule the world, everyone will have a nametag... (rant)

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.

Sue Ann and One of the Mermaids of 2516 Blanding Avenue: Day 3

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.

Begin Sticking:

  1. You hold a bucket of mirror under your non-dominant arm, on your hip.  A small bucket.
  2. 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).
  3. With your free hand you reach into the bucket (reach across into the bucket) and get hold of a tile or mirror bit.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Keep breathing.
  8. Be nice to yourself. Just put the tile where it fits, don’t fuss over it. Its not fussy, this technique.
  9. 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.

Mother and Daughter Sticking Mirror: Day 2

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

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 Elementary School, San Diego: before tile

Ross Elementary School, San Diego: during tile

Ross: during tile

Ross Elementary School, before grout: San Diego

Ross Elementary: before grout

Day 2: Skin of 'Mermaid Harbor' going on a 2516 Blanding Avenue

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

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. ]

Day 1 of Visionary Mosaic Murals: get started, cut mirror, break tile, make blobs, get acquainted

For the first session of our Visionary Mosaic Mural class, Isaiah and Julia Zagar met us in the large classroom space of The Institute of Mosaic Art (IMA) in Oakland on March 4, 2009. They were supported by Amber Hill, Isaiah’s assistant, and Laurel True, owner/co-founder of IMA, mosaic artist, and proprietor of True Mosaics Studio. Laurel began the class by calling roll and introducing us to Isaiah, who is her mentor.

Isaiah turned out to be a compact man in a red watch cap, denim pants, a brightly decorated shirt covered with line drawings, a ruddy complexion, and a grin surrounded by neatly trimmed whiskers.

[ Rufus talked to him while visiting the work site last Saturday and found out that Isaiah will be 70 years old this month. His hair is white. Isaiah has to be one of the most photographed men in mosaic history, and I didn’t make any images of him during the class (except one, a cartoon of the proposal for the rest of the mosaic, called the Tilesetter Constellation, which I later gave to Chuck DiGuida). Rufus took one or two pictures, though. More on that later.

I’m glad Isaiah doesn’t color his hair, just his mosaics. Even the Dalai Lama has decided to go natural these days. Why shouldn’t the 4-armed Tilesetter Genius of South Street have white hair? He earned every one of them. ]

Isaiah presided over introductions and instruction, with several helpful additions in content from Julia, Laurel, and Amber. He explained about his theory of the continuous line, of Blobs (“that’s the ‘technical term’…”), of cutting mirror, some things about safety. He also talked about a little of his history in making mosaics. Explaining that he would like to cover the world with mosaics, he said that he would be willing to settle for Philadelphia. He has a dry sense of humor, a ready-to-go attitude. He listened with interest to our self-introductions.

There were 12 of us in the class. Many of my closest seatmates were heavy-hitters in art: art-teachers, collaborators with Josef Norris (another Isaiah protegé in San Francisco), tile-business owners, mosaic makers; others said they had taken several classes at IMA and claimed they could not stop. I am a beginner who has occasionally been bold at gluing things with silicone. I made my first mosaic (an ashtray for my Mama) during a class taught when JFK was still alive and President; not much activity since then. Compared to these people, I am a rank beginner. I didn’t have time to think about that during the five days of class: I was too busy.

Laurel made an important comment during the morning: she was remembering when she first met Isaiah in Philadelphia, about how excited she was to start, about how much material she’d accumulated over time for a big project. She told him about it. His observation at the time was: “You don’t own your materials; your materials own you.”

This is a theme for me: it is sometimes difficult for me to let go of things. I see how stuff (material goods) continuously rules our lives. We have to pay to store it, move it around, and try to take care of it. We could give it away, but we often choose to hold on. I don’t want to die owning a lot of stuff. Like everyone else, though: once there is beauty in my life, I automatically grip it a little tighter. If Rule Number 4 = Let Go of Outcome, then the corollary is: There Will Always Be More Beauty. I have to re-learn this lesson constantly.

Mosaic material is everywhere. You don’t have to accumulate or hold on to it. It will be there when you are ready to collect it and make something. Julia talked about how people would leave old dishes and tile outside their door: they knew.

This isn’t a precious, fussy, color-matching technique. You can use almost any stone or stone-like material at hand for this technique: asphalt, river rock, broken brick, marble, bits of crockery, bathroom tile, plates, glass, marbles, geegaws, sea shells, beads, bottles. You name it, you can mosaic with it.

Josef Norris used some photos on tile in this piece; check it out at the IMA photo gallery

Josef Norris used some photos on tile in this piece; check it out at the IMA photo gallery

Julia made an important comment about giving away work. She said that many of the over 100 murals in the South Street area of Philadelphia (where they live) were donated by Isaiah. Her remark was that you must keep working, you need to do whatever it takes to keep putting the work out. The implication is that if you can’t figure out how to get paid for it, then you need to figure out how to give it away and still keep going.

[ The struggles of living while performing creative mitzvaim are never-ending. ]

Amber helped us with technique; she cut marble/stone with precision over many years and works very fast. She cut large swaths of mirror down into smaller strips for us to learn the mirror-cutting technique.

For a while, the studio was filled with ozone of silent concentration and the plinking of many tiny hammers (the ball-end of the wheeled glass cutters sound like xylophone mallets). Mirrors gave off little flashy lights. It was the least flashy day of all: we were under a skylight, not outside.

Isaiah showed us how to work on a tarp, to get rid of the fragments safely, to position the mirror safely, not to worry about imperfections, to cut small small pieces when needed. Julia helped cut mirror. The buckets filled up fast. Then we all went out to the garden to sort/break tile and to make the Blobs. Part of Isaiah’s design technique revolves around the Theory of Blobs. Sounds like science fiction? Okay, then!

Isaiah has created several mosaic murals in the Jingletown/IMA neighborhood: one is in the garden of the IMA classroom complex. There’s a quotation by Vanessa Bell (Virgina Woolf’s sister) as part of the mosaic on one wall. Its a pretty wild, pop-art experience, working near the garden wall. The color is intense but soft. Rivers of mirror everywhere at slightly different angles, each section reflecting light and color, with black lines flowing in between the rivers of mirror and tile. The old continuous line which would connect each of us eventually, and each of our days of class to the rest of the Universe — that was part of Isaiah’s design. Older than Ancient Mesopotamia, the Ancient Pictish Ones, or the Celts, the art of the continuous line flows on. It connects everything, everywhere.

Think of that  photograph of Pablo Picasso drawing (“line-writing”) with the sparkler:

Photo from

Photo from (see the faces on the plates? Faces were a theme, too.)

It has genius, the spontaneous continuous line.

Merman, continuous line, what a theme!

Merman, continuous line, what a theme!

The Isaiah Mural in the Yard/Garden of IMA

The Isaiah Mural in the Yard/Garden of IMA

We spread the tile out all over the yard of IMA. Everything has to be absolutely dry for this process, and though it rained for about 4 days steadily before the class, we finally had good weather for most of the first day. While it’s good to see the sky in late winter, we needed every drop of this rain after 2.75 years of drought.

Too much of everything is hardly enough. It started to cloud up and rain again after we’d carried about 15 buckets of tile/ceramic shards into the studio to keep dry overnight. So we broke for lunch. Amber and I stopped picking up dry tile and schlepped a few more buckets into the shop while they were still mostly dry. Almost everybody got food Karen ordered earlier from the geniuses at the Voila! Cafe next door.

[ Voila! is still owned by Gary Boland. I’ve know Gary since way back in the 80’s: I worked in downtown Berkeley during the blooming of the gourmet food revolution. Nothing compares to fresh orange juice. During certain parts of the year the Texas oranges are sweeter, but then other times, its the Florida oranges. Perhaps its been a long time since California oranges were king, but lately I’ve been really enjoying the Tom Wilson ones at Andronico’sPark N’ Spend” (as my family Doc calls it), where I shop gladly, since they have both women checkers and Union labor. Nothing wrong with that!]

I ate crackers and peanut butter most of the five days of class. I tried to drink hot tea to stay warm. Its hard for me to eat much when I am this excited. Never mind enjoying food or staying hydrated. Its all a challenge.

While the others ate, I dug into my bags and fished out a cracked teapot, some plates, some broken cups, and some marbles I had brought from home. I smashed them a little more with those fabulous 6 ounce tile-breaking hammers and put them on top of one of the “bling” buckets (bling is what Laurel called the fancy tile, even if broken) in the corner of the shop. Letting go is not a bad thing. My son traded me the marbles for some I had which he really liked. There were some good ones in there: cat’s eyes and aggies. Yummy art materials. Rich!

It stopped raining, so Isaiah took us out in the garden again after lunch and showed us how to mix cement (in Texas where Karen comes from, it’s see-ment, which we all love): Portland Type A. Isaiah likes the plain old white sandbox type of sand. We used what we had: bags of construction grade sand, no whiter than the average Alameda beach community. Red, yellow, black, and brown: stick around!

[ Wear a mask and goggles when you’re mixing this stuff, you don’t want to breathe it, and you don’t want any splashing in your eyes. After the water goes in, you can take your mask off, but keep your hands away from your face until you’ve washed it off. Fresh cement is a bit caustic. Don’t mess with it. ]

Isaiah added pigment from a can by pouring it into the tray after the powder was mixed to a pie crust type consistency with the sand and kind of smoothed out flat: like adding water to the pie crust dry mixture. Pure white sand would make the color more intense; more pigment is only going to do so much to color sand which already has color in it.

[ ICI seems to be the pigment brand, though you can’t use it any more, for some reason you can still buy it at the Borg (Home Depot). Isaiah made me wash my hands after I handled the can and got a lot of it on my skin. You don’t want it on you. I washed them in the water bucket we were going to use to add to the cement mix. He watched me, making sure I didn’t slack on the instruction to get that stuff off my skin. ]

We used a big plastic tray with two sloping sides (think of a 3-D trapezoid) for mixing, and a masonry hoe. A masonry hoe has a hole or two in the blade so the goop can get through. Its an “ooh-ee-oh!” rhythm of — pulling a bit of mixture down from the berm and pulling it toward you (hoeing to mix the material) — only there’s no Wicked Witch watching over you while you mix it up. Just line up on either side of the tray and take your turn hoeing the mix from the berm on the other side of the tray toward you until its all hoed over to your side and the Maestro says S’alright!

First you measure and mix the cement and sand: a 1:3 ratio. Then you add the pigment (not much!), and it starts to look like an ant farm disaster [the first big batch we made was a terracotta brown cement, looking a bit grainy]. Then you begin to add the water: be careful if you start out with wet sand, like we did. Not too much water, just enough to be able to pour the stuff. You want those suckers to cure overnight.

Keep mixing with the hoe until it is all uniform. It looked like a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon cooking disaster (‘Ack! puréed monkey heads, again!’) when it was ready to pour. We decanted it into a smaller bucket from the mixing trough first, then poured the blobs.

Blobs got poured onto plastic-sheeted plywood, looked like 1/4″ sections of it, exterior grade boards. These supports allow them to dry somewhat protected. Plastic sheets protect the work surface and enable you to pick cured blobs up without breaking.  Blobs are fragile even when they are cured. You use a “swimming pool” trowel with four rounded corners to flatten the newly poured blob.

Isaiah decorated the first several blobs as a demo and we gathered around watching. He told us we were making propellers. I tried to maintain a distance from my natural tendency toward disbelief; maybe a propeller is brown if you stare into it long enough, or if its rusty, or painted.

I couldn’t wait to get home and ask Rufus what he knew about the installation site. Bridgehead Studios is the name of it now. I don’t make calls when I’m in class except for emergencies, so I practiced the Principle of Delayed Gratification (which I’m a master at) for the time being.

[ The site we were going to do the mural at was an old propeller factory at one time (Pitchometer Propeller). It still has a working chain hoist and a big T-shaped opening in the front of the building. It is a large cinder-block storefront, 2 stories tall. Rufus has gone to the factory many times on Coast Guard business, but not while they still had a working cupola and foundry. Think _big_old_propellers_ and lots-o-bronze. An industrial site. They closed the whole factory about 10 years ago. He’s worked for the CG quite a bit longer than that.

If anyone can mess up a propeller in the line of duty, its the Renegade Navy. Rufus is a naval architect; lately he’s been working on their 378s. Just being on the bridge of one of those things makes you feel like you’ve entered a science fiction movie, something like a cross between Captain Nemo, Star Wars, and Big, depending on the age and mission of the vessel. Maximum respect for the work that Coast Guard enlisted/civilians do; it’s hard work with little glory, 24/7.]

Isaiah used a bucket of bullnose tile and mirror and then marbles and then started to just whip pieces of tile (Amber seemed to be feeding him tile just about as fast as he could use it) out of the bucket without really examining them, laying them onto the surface of the blobs. He created a kind of “outline”  structure for the blob using the big pieces, and then filled in using the little pieces. He showed us how to use a screw and a washer to make a place or two to attach the blob to the mosaic wall.  He stepped back. He made a few comments on what he was doing: making a mandala.  Then he said: “Now, go for it!”

So in we jumped, with he and Rob pouring more blobs (Rob Tobin was the only male student, and I’m afraid he got asked to do more of the heavier work b/c of his gender, but he never complained) out on the table, and then it was: Avast with the Waiting, Go Forth and Make Ye Some Blobs, Me Hearties!

The Tobin 'Cousins' Tile Sticking Team, up on the scaffold.

The Tobin 'Cousins' Tile Sticking Team, up on the scaffold. See the blobs on the right, down by Rob's knees? Propellers? Mermaid belly-buttons? Wait and see...

We only took breaks to make more cement and get tiny bits of brightly colored bling tile and marbles for certain places in the Blob-world. Several people were working on two or three blobs together; some of us just flitted from blob to blob, putting a piece in here or there. Sometimes a bit of bright colored tile showing in a dark, plain background seems like a comment, a joke, a whimsical thought.

Then we made green blobs, sort of a forest green. They were faces. Isaiah carried out some special tile he’d brought in the belly of the plane from Philadelphia. Face components: eyes, noses, mouths. He talked about being myopic, about being a baby and only seeing parts of faces as people moved in close to say “Hi!” He doesn’t seem to wear glasses much. He’s got a 3rd eye too, or so it seems. The faces turned out pretty Cubist; more shades of Picasso.

These were white tiles he had gathered and intentionally painted with glaze and re-fired, making components for the faces in this project.  An eye on one, a nose on another, a pair of lips, an ear. Marbles went into the faces, so did the mirror, bits of our teapot (the spout and the handle), and other tile shards. Isaiah used some fancy curly bling tile for the hair. He used a tile he had painted with a silhouette of himself, almost a pictograph of how to lay tile combined with the dance step of tile-laying (he has 4 arms in the silhouette, with dotty lines showing the motion) for a nose on one of the faces.

[ A green face, a dance step for a nose. Get behind me, disbelief! ]

Then he asked us to step in and finish everything. The blobs filled up. We were out of room. We had a total of 16 blobs. Some of them were rather large. We left them in the ramada out in the garden to cure undisturbed overnight.

With only a half hour of class left in the day, we broke and cleaned up. Isaiah, Julia, and Laurel went over to the work site so that he could paint some design lines on the wall. We went home. Before I left I took a few photos of the outside of IMA. Even though it is unfinished, it sure is beautiful. I guess all our beauty is a work-in-progress, hey?

We were told to report to the school the next day, to help load “Bubba” (one of the students had a big truck she was loaning us the next day) with tile and materials to haul to the site. The time was a little unclear. The class started a 10 a.m.  I decided a little early couldn’t hurt, and moved out to get some rest.

I hurt all over and my brain felt fuzzy. I guess that’s from all the concentrating and being tense around strangers. Pretty exciting to meet one of your heroes, but always a big fear for me that somehow I’ll kludge the whole thing up. I wish Isaiah knew what a gift he was giving us all; perhaps he does, really.

Day 1, IMA Mural on Chapman Street

Day 1, IMA Mural on Chapman Street

Unfinished IMA Mural, but still the Casbah!

Unfinished IMA Mural, but still the Casbah!