Scanning the Nest: The Art of Ellen Hoverkamp

Technology constantly creates tools, but we seldom explore their full artistic potential. Pioneer Ellen Hoverkamp makes art with a scanner.

Ellen Hoverkamp began making photographic images with her flatbed scanner in 1997, enjoying the dramatic three dimensional look which she has further developed with such elegance. Her images have a very classic feel, often recalling Victorian botanical illustrations. She’s also influenced by Dutch and Flemish still life painters, who captured so beautifully the varied forms, roundnesses and angles of food, flowers and other objects. The marriage of modern technology with romantic form is delightful and full of surprises. Sometimes the pieces contain allegory or humor that is completely disarming. Most are incredibly, lump in the throat beautiful.

Construction © Ellen Hoverkamp Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for educational and analytic purposes.

© Ellen Hoverkamp

Hoverkamp usually brings her subjects to the scanner, but she has been known to set up in the wild. She has been invited by gardeners to pick and photograph their produce and flowers, while others have given her feathers and eggs or lent their shell or nest collections for photographic preservation. The collaborative element of the work is something she finds inspiring and fulfilling. She turned to scanner art at a time in her life when her creativity was frustrated and she felt the need to make things. The artistic community she discovered encouraged her and brought joy to her life. She pays that joy forward to those she encounters on her journey. Both the need to create and the love of artistic community ring a bell here at synkroniciti and make Hoverkamp a very inspirational figure for me.

I found there was a robust community of good people and it is something I can do in the margins of available time. I’m an evangelist for making the art that fits into your life, so if your life changes you may have to change media but never stop making stuff. –Ellen Hoverkamp

So how does Hoverkamp make these stunning images? She uses an Epson Expression 11000XL Graphic Arts Flatbed Scanner. This is a very advanced machine which Epson sells for $2,500. You can see why–the clarity and resolution is outstanding. The folks at Epson probably didn’t imagine bird’s nests, eggs, flowers and produce being subject matter, but I’m sure they are proud of what Hoverkamp does with their product. She makes a sort of collage on the scanner glass. This may require propping up, weighing down or suspending items. She then builds the image composition, making several passes and adjusting the settings on the scanner itself. She makes further adjustments in Photoshop and then prints the images on archival media. The entire process involves a great deal of trial and error. Hoverkamp’s persistence and experimentation provide amazing results.

Berryboat © Ellen Hoverkamp Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for educational and analytic purposes.

© Ellen Hoverkamp 

Eggzotica © Ellen Hoverkamp Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for educational and analytic purposes.

© Ellen Hoverkamp 

So often we use technology in the way prescribed, never stopping to consider other possibilities. I’m so glad Hoverkamp did so.

We’ve chosen to focus on her Nesting Still Life series, but there is so much more. Check out more of her work, including delicious folios of edibles and wonderful flowers, on her website. You can also read an insightful interview here. What an artist!

All images used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for educational and analytic purposes.

Following the Twerge: Incubator by Katherine McDaniel

In the process of making art we can learn so much about ourselves. How does creativity help us understand life?


Yesterday, I took a trip to the craft store with my mother. I wasn’t thinking of making anything, but when I turned onto an aisle with moss and raffia I felt the creative twerge. Yes, twerge. This is something that occurs when my creativity seizes on a path to expression, when a connection or resonance forms. It is part twinge, part urge, sort of a tightening and quickening in my center. My stomach flips; I become breathless.

Blogger Gilles Havik at Sailing on Dreams, who has an enchanting way of making new words, challenged me to coin some words of my own. Twerge is the first of these. It’s impossible to predict what will set off a twerge. A color, a flower may get things going while an exquisite piece of music or art causes no awakening, or vice versa. When I’m writing, a particular set of words will resonate just right, or the layout on the page jumps with electricity, and the twerge appears, as if to say, “over here”. When I’m painting, the blending of color, the creation of texture or an edge or line may reveal the twerge, peeking out from the underbrush. I seek out those twerges and follow them, even if they lead down strange, scary or lonely paths. I have abandoned some creative efforts because they felt twergeless. Sometimes the feeling occurs when I’m not creating, when something fits together in my life. You see, I think the twerge is a divining rod for synchronicity, pointing at meaning that conventional wisdom might miss.


Back to the craft store. I assembled my materials at the insistence of the twerge, quickly realizing that I was about to build a nest. A coconut fiber liner (intended for hanging baskets) would become the foundation. I bought excelsior, a mass of long, thin, curled wooden shavings, in a deep reddish brown to be the core of the nest, along with cream colored raffia, made from palm tree fiber. A bundle of light and malleable twigs, a package of delightful assorted mosses and a strand of speckled wooden beads rounded out my haul.

Once I got everything home, excited to start work, I realized that I had no idea how this was going to go together. The twerge was stubbornly silent on the matter. Knowing that it would not show itself again until I got something interesting together, I began constructing. The coconut fiber liner was a large, floppy bowl. I cut slits in the bowl from the edge toward the center, creating flaps of coconut fiber, and threaded the twigs through the slits, making a framework to hold the bowl up. It was a bit of a pain to find a weaving pattern that would work for the sticks. The twerge thought this smelled like work and kept its distance.

I put some excelsior in the center of the bowl and then spent time trying to wind the raffia around the edge, enamored with the contrast between light and dark. The raffia didn’t want to work that way and the twigs kept falling out. I cut some of the slits a little deeper and one sliced much farther than I intended. This nest was bigger than the image I had in my head and I had serious doubts that it would ever look like anything. I stopped to make lunch, leaving a nasty mess (thanks to the uncooperative raffia)  in the living room. Things were not going well.

Inspiration comes from weird places, like this escarole.

Inspiration comes from weird places, like this escarole.

After lunch, I put away the organic grocery delivery that arrives on Mondays. Totally unremarkable, except that the groceries contained the biggest escarole lettuce I have ever seen in my life. I’m not sure if I processed it at the time, but that escarole has an extremely similar form to my nest. Returning to the project, I took a handful of craft moss, which is quite pretty and has fantastic texture, and glued it to the flaps. In a matter of minutes I was breathless with twerge. Inspired, I took a few individual pieces of raffia and tied them to the support sticks so that they came up through the structure. The deep incision, which had seemed a bit of a disaster earlier, had made one side much lower than the other, giving the nest a pleasing angle when viewed as a centerpiece. The twerge wagged his tail and barked with glee.


After completing the application of copious amounts of moss and a tiny bit of raffia, there was no doubt that the new creation was a nest, but it was missing the most important ingredient. I threaded some speckled beads onto pieces of raffia and tied the raffia to the twig frame, placing ten new eggs into a pit in the excelsior. Stomach jumping, I added a couple of sweet gum seedpods and a few small touches I had been saving to build fairy houses. It was done.


The twerge wasn’t finished yet. As I looked at the nest, I realized that it is the perfect symbol for the early stages of synkroniciti. When I began, I had no idea how it would fit together, and some of my assumptions were not useful and had to be changed. I had to find a foundation, shore up that foundation, and make the nest beautiful and inviting, but that was not enough. The eggs in the center symbolize my most precious assets; the creative souls that come to my nest to experience something new and the creative ideas that lie within them and within me. Some day these will hatch and fly far into the sky, but for today, they enjoy the safety and comfort of synkroniciti’s nest. I call this piece of art Incubator.

The jewels of the nest, the speckled eggs.

The jewels of the nest, the speckled eggs.

Have you ever felt the twerge? Maybe you get goosebumps or have déjà vu? Keep in mind that just because something can be explained by science as a natural process does not mean that it doesn’t have meaning and that the meaning can’t be metaphysical or spiritual. That’s conventional thought speaking.

Maybe you don’t experience twerge at all. That’s okay. It can’t be coerced and it can be extremely fickle. Often it feels a whole lot like fear. You don’t have to be a twerge addict like I am. All I encourage you to do is to be open to it and start creating. Should it appear, follow your twerge!

Animal Images: Inspiration from Nature, Part One

From adorable kittens and puppies to majestic lions and wolves, we love pictures of animals. What need do they fulfill?

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

When I am attracted to the image of animal, be it a painting, a sculpture, a photo or any other representation, it is usually because I’m identifying with the creature’s attributes or abilities. That kitten is so cute, mischievous and lazy; that bird soars through the air, feathers agleam with beauty in the sun. Much of the time the quality or talent I’m attracted to is either something I prize and wish I possessed in greater quantity or something I identify with much to my chagrin. Yes, I’m probably anthropomorphizing more than is logical. Am I alone? I expect not.

My cat, Yuri

My cat, Yuri

Native American and other indigenous peoples live in much closer proximity to wild animals than most city dwellers, although we have our companion pets. These pets are all the more precious to us because they provide a link, however tenuous, to the Earth and Creation outside of ourselves. They make us feel less lonely. But indigenous man is wise about wildness, and usually recognizes the inspirational nature that exists between humans and animals. Sometimes these figures are called totems or spirit animals, creatures that reveal to us what certain traits look like. These can be valuable to city dwellers, too. If you doubt that, go to any social media site and look at the large numbers of posts that share videos and photos of animals we will never meet in our own backyards. At least I hope not!

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

If you are a creative person, check your artwork for animals that crop up. If you investigate these animals, both from a personal perspective and from the perspective of various cultural traditions, including those unfamiliar to you, you will find themes and attributes running through your work, some of which may be surprising to you because they are completely subconscious. Birds and snakes are all over my poetry and my art, as are insects.

All earthlings, human, animal, even plant, have positive and negative attributes and behaviors, and most of the time that value judgement has more to do with circumstances. When you need to stand up for yourself in a business meeting, the image above may not be the image you need; the image below may be more appropriate. Should you need to make peace with your significant other after an argument, the opposite may be true. If you are drawn to an image or repelled by it, take time to ask yourself why.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at art by artists that have made animals their specialty.

Sharing a Difficult Journey: The Art Installations of Serge Alain Nitegeka

How do we break cycles of violence? Art helps us share painful personal stories and build empathy across cultural lines.

Serge Alain Nitegeka

Serge Alain Nitegeka

Serge Alain Nitegeka was born in 1983 in the African nation of Burundi. When he was eleven years old his homeland erupted into open conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes, violence that devastated Burundi and neighboring Rwanda. The two countries had been a single nation, Ruanda-Urundi, until 1962, and the longstanding animosity between peoples recognized no boundary.

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, and the President of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down. These were not the first assassinations in the region and the backlash was fierce. The Hutu led governments began to execute Tutsis and moderate Hutus in an attempt to secure peace by killing all possible dissenters. Those who did not perish began a shadow existence, unable to move back home or establish a future anywhere else because of the prejudice that dogged them and their lack of legal standing.

Black Subjects, 2013

Black Subjects, 2013
Video available here.

Nitegeka was one of these refugees, fleeing the genocide behind him and trying to eke out a life for himself. As he moved throughout Africa, he constantly had to bow to the conditions set for migrants in different countries, the catch-22 situations that meant he couldn’t relax anywhere. His journey to freedom would take a decade and leave scars and impressions on his internal landscape and imagination. He has found a way to express the darkness and pain of those years of wandering by making art.

Nitegeka's work displayed as part of Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness, 2015

Nitegeka’s work displayed as part of Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness, 2015

Nitegeka, who now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, makes a living as an installation artist, combining sculpture, design, construction, painting and performance art. Most of his pieces feature beams of black wood arranged in such a way that they impede movement. Visitors must find their way through by stooping and stepping over and through obstacles. This is Nitegeka’s way of creating empathy, sharing the feelings he felt as a refugee, remembering a time when he constantly had to modify or retrace his movements in order to survive and hold on to his sanity and humanity.

Performance means that the body is ‘directed’: this installation directs you in a manner that prompts your body to rehearse and perform certain movements, puts you into my position. I’m sharing my story with you, and you’re completing it as a performer. The installation can be interpreted as a stage.

© Jay Caboz used in accordance with fair use Policy

Black Lines, 2012
image © Jay Caboz

It is an obstacle course, intended to express the idea of liminality. It’s is as if I am saying, ‘That is not how you’re going to walk in here, THIS is how you have to walk here’. Avoiding the lengths of wood as one negotiates the space is like an enforced ritual: one’s movements are, to a large extent, broken up into a set of prescribed parts and paths: that is a ritual process.

–Serge Alain Nitegeka, Interview for Artthrob

You may read the entire interview here.

Obstacle 1, 2012

Obstacle 1, 2012

Nitegeka has won numerous awards and has exhibited his work at the Dakar Biennale in Senegal, numerous galleries in South Africa and the Armory Show and Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York City. His work is featured in Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness, an exhibition currently showing at The Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, exploring the impact of colonialism upon identity. This week he will be opening a new solo exhibition, Configuration in Black, at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia.

What a tremendous journey and what a brave and noble means of working through one’s past!

 All photos used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.



What Lies Between: Exploring the Japanese Tea Garden

Transitioning from busy exterior lives to our private lives is difficult. How do we keep a quiet place for ourselves?

Kingston Lacy Japanese Tea  Garden, Dorset, Great Britain © Ray Beer with CCLicense

Kingston Lacy Japanese Tea Garden, Dorset, Great Britain
© Ray Beer with CCLicense

The Japanese tea ceremony, cha-no-yu, and tea garden, roji, evolved from traditions and tea from China. The Buddhist monk Eichū  was the first person acknowledged to celebrate the ceremony in Japan during the 9th Century, after returning from a trip to the mainland, where tea had been known for many centuries. It was seen as an enlightened and civilized practice and developed deep spiritual significance.

The word roji has its origin in characters that mean “path”, “ground” and “dewiness”. It came to be used as a term for the area that lies between the main house and the chashitsu, the room or house where the tea ceremony is performed. Guests do not only pass through the roji, but use the area to prepare their minds, spirits and bodies before the host invites them inside the tea house. Thus the roji is not only a physical path, but a spiritual one.

Yugao-tei  Chashitsu in Kanazawa, Japan © OpenHistory with CCLicense

Yugao-tei Chashitsu in Kanazawa, Japan
© OpenHistory with CCLicense

Green Gulch Zen Temple, San Francisco, CA, USA © kafka4prez with CCLicense

Green Gulch Zen Temple, San Francisco, CA, USA
© kafka4prez with CCLicense

Over time, the roji became a garden. Ideally, it provides an elegant and yet simple scene, a backdrop to a ceremony of solemnity and beauty. The roji includes a tsukubai, or ablution basin, where visitors wash away the dust of the outside world by performing a ritual hand washing and rinsing of the mouth.

Tsukubai at Ryōan-ji temple in Kyoto. The inscription reads, "I only know plenty." © Michael Maggs with CCLicense

Tsukubai at Ryōan-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan. The inscription reads, “I only know plenty.”
© Michael Maggs with CCLicense

Tsukubai at Tofukuji (Tofuku Temple), Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan © Totorin with CCLicense

Tsukubai at Tofukuji (Tofuku Temple), Kyoto
© Totorin with CCLicense

Tsukubai at Rengeji, Kyoto

Tsukubai at Rengeji, Kyoto
© KWR with CCLicense

tōrō, or lantern, stands in the garden. Stepping stones, tob-ishi, lead to the tea house, which is often behind a wicket gate. The stones are laid out in a simple and naturalistic manner, sometimes alternating right and left to facilitate walking.

Tōrō at Shukkei-en Garden, Hiroshima Public Domain Image

Tōrō at Shukkei-en Garden, Hiroshima
Public Domain Image

Tea House at Roji at the Adachi Museum of Art, Yasugi, Japan © Bjoernord with CCLicense

Tea House and Roji at the Adachi Museum of Art, Yasugi, Japan, featuring a lovely path of tob-ishi, or floating stones and simple gate.
© Bjoernord with CCLicense

Some roji feature ginshanada, areas of gravel or white sand that, among other things, symbolize openness to experience and the changeable nature of life. These “empty” spaces may be raked into patterns made during contemplation or left pristine. Typically the tob-ishi path will cross through the ginshanada. The raked patterns often recall water ripples, just as the ginshanada are reminiscent of lakes or streams. This style is known as karesansui, or rock gardening, but many westerners refer to it as Zen gardening, pointing to its origins in Buddhist meditative practice.

Harima ankokuji, Kato, Japan  © Jnn with CCLicense

Harima ankokuji, Kato, Japan
© Jnn with CCLicense

Zuiho-in Temple, Kyoto was founded in 1535 by Otomo Sorin (Otomo Yoshishige, 1530-1587), who was later baptized and became one of a few Christian lords in Japan.

Roji at Zuiho-in Temple, Kyoto, founded 1535 by Otomo Sorin, who later converted to Christianity.
Public Domain Image

Garden plantings are simple and emphasize form and texture rather than color, most often eschewing flowers for evergreens, mosses and grasses. Ume, plum trees, and maples may be included and do provide some color. As opposed to many western gardens, where plants are trimmed to produce blooms, plants here are cultivated for healthy foliage and beautiful shape. The goal is to achieve a sculpted and yet natural look that does not draw attention to itself, but encourages the contemplation of good things.

Pureland Japanese Garden, North Clifton, UK © Richard Croft with CCLicense

Pureland Japanese Garden, North Clifton, UK
© Richard Croft with CCLicense

When I enter a space like the roji, my mind rests from “being productive” or flowering. I become aware of the invaluable beauty of health and enjoy simply being present. I can also appreciate the work that must be done to keep the space orderly and functional. We don’t all have space or time for physical gardens, but we do require some open space in ourselves for quietness and preparation in order to keep our inner selves from being suffocated. In that sense we are all gardeners. What is it that you cultivate in your life?

Icons of Irony: The Grinning Faces of Yue Minjun

What remains when our faith in the institutions around us is shattered? Chinese artist Yue Minjun’s work gives an answer.

Yue Minjun, Image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Yue Minjun, Image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Yue Minjun was born in the town of Daqing, China in 1962. His parents were nomadic oil field workers and he seemed destined to follow in their footsteps, but a brush with art during his high school years planted a seed in his soul. Minjun, like many others of his generation, was working hard to survive. He became an electrician at an oil firm while a teenager and later took a job drilling for oil on deep sea rigs, all the while indulging in his passion for painting. He would go for days without sleep, balancing his career with his calling. It wasn’t an easy time for anyone in China; at least his art gave him a creative outlet for his angst.

In April 1989, the former Communist Party General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, died. He had been a liberal voice against hardliners controlling the government, a champion of young people fed up with inflation, corruption and limited opportunities. Students gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to mourn him and to call for the freedoms for which he stood. Over the course of the next seven weeks, around a million people assembled, drawing the attention of the international community. Panicked at the prospect of losing control and at smaller protests breaking out across the country, the Chinese government declared martial law. The world watched in horror as 300,000 troops with assault rifles and tanks killed unarmed civilians. Images streamed over western television of young men and women standing bravely before tanks that rolled mercilessly over them, crushing their bodies and the hopes of Chinese youth. But that spirit is far more resilient than anyone expected.

Yue Minjun, Execution, 1995 Inspired by the events at Tiananmen Square, but not a depiction of that horrible day.

Yue Minjun, Execution, 1995
Inspired by the events at Tiananmen Square, but not a depiction of that horrible day.
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Minjun had grown up relying on police and the state for a sense of order and protection, but the Tiananmen Square Massacre and subsequent crackdowns shattered his faith in the government, as well as the idea that he could continue his former lifestyle. In 1990, he quit his job and moved to Hongmiao, an artist’s collective in Beijing, where he began to paint and sculpt with a vengeance. Most of his output consists of images or figures of himself laughing, wide-mouthed, toothy, grinning at the edge of madness. The biting irony of this smiling figure who holds pain in his heart has great resonance in China and beyond, making Minjun an artistic and commercial success.

Amaze-ing Laughter, Yue Minjun image © Wee Sen Goh with CCLicense

Part of A-Maze-ing Laughter, Yue Minjun, Vancouver
image © Wee Sen Goh
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© Cameron Norman with CCLicense

A-Maze-ing Laughter, Vancouver © Cameron Norman with CCLicense

The meaning of his grin is intentionally vague. Is it frivolous escapism or is it a confrontational espousal of emotion from a man trained at a young age to mask his feelings? Minjun has been labelled a leader of the Cynical Realism movement, a group of Chinese artists who mock themselves and society to make a point. He does not accept the label. Doubtless there is an element of ridicule and mockery in his work, and he certainly attacks convention and social norms, but, I think that, rather than depicting insincerity or even cynicism, Minjun’s figures depict a taunting resilience. It’s as if he is saying, “I’m still here and I’m still laughing,” the artistic equivalent of thumbing the nose or flipping the bird. I admire his boldness immensely.

Image via Chinese Contemporary Art Gallery  Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Image via Chinese Contemporary Art Gallery
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Untitled, 2005 via the Saatchi Gallery  Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Untitled, 2005
via the Saatchi Gallery
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Despite his fame, Minjun keeps a relatively low profile, living in the Songzhuang art colony, the most famous and largest artistic community in Beijing. He has shown work all over the globe, from Singapore and China to London, Vancouver and the United States.

He’s still laughing.


Image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Water from the Air: The Miracles of Warka Water

Billions of people lack access to clean water and adequate sanitation. Is there anything creative people can do to help?

Girls in Tigray, Ethiopia © Rod Waddington with CCLicense

Girls in Tigray, Ethiopia
© Rod Waddington with CCLicense

The picturesque and rugged high plateau region of northeast Ethiopia is a difficult land to settle. Most rivers in the north of the country flow west, finding themselves part of the Nile, while the few streams flowing through the northeast often dry up in the summer months. Villages here send their women and children to find and carry home water from shallow, unprotected ponds. These people walk for miles to procure scanty water that is frequently contaminated by animal and human waste, parasites and disease, knowing that their success or failure is the life or death of their family and community. It’s a heavy burden, physically and emotionally, and leaves little to no room for realizing individual potential or creative endeavors. The struggle for survival is everything.

An international team of architects, artists, sociologists, filmmakers and designers called Architecture and Vision, based in Italy, has come together with a plan to help harvest water from the air, freeing women and children for new pursuits and making the future of these communities more secure. The project is called “Warka Water”, named after a giant species of Ficus tree that provides gathering spaces for villages in the region. People meet under the Warka to learn, to make decisions, to share and to celebrate civic and religious events. The Warka is a symbol of village life, and this symbol itself is in danger. Ethiopia has lost 60% of its woodlands over the last 40 years.

By studying desert animals and plants the team has identified shapes, surfaces, materials and coatings that will help condense water from the air. The natural water collecting systems of cacti, the properties of spider webs, beetle shells and lotus flowers have come together with the structure of termite hives, as well as local architecture and basket weaving to produce the Warka Tower, a sustainable and relatively inexpensive means of collecting water.

Warka 1 on exhibition © Domenico with CCLicense

Warka 1 on exhibition in Venice, Italy
© Domenico with CCLicense

The tower consists of a bamboo exoskeleton for support, a mesh textile that collects moisture and a water tank for storage. The newest version, Warka 3.1, also includes a canopy around the structure that provides shade and shelter from wind, increasing stability and humidity. Rotating mirrors have been added on thin, flexible antennae on top of the structure. Aesthetically, these reflect sunlight and moonlight and dance in the wind. Functionally, the mirrors discourage birds from flocking to the tower, where they would foul and drink the water produced there.

Warka 3.1, made principally of bamboo, hemp and bio-plastic, is projected to cost near $1,000 American dollars per tower and is designed to be built with simple tools by a team of four or five people. It is easily maintained without advanced and expensive machinery and leaves little to no footprint on the planet. Lovely, culturally relevant and useful, a single Warka Tower can provide up to 100 liters (over 26 gallons) per day. The structure weighs 60 kg (over 132 lbs) and is 10 m (over 32 feet) tall. You can read more about the design here.

It is inspiring to see what can happen when people pool their creativity together to benefit the community. Is there anything you can do where you are?

I Don’t Know How to Thank You: Synkroniciti’s Second Open Mic Soars

Spirits soared at last week’s Open Mic. Would you like to be part of the community we are building?

photo 14

Some of the offerings at synkroniciti’s Open Mic: Gratitude

Last Sunday, synkroniciti hosted our second Open Mic, exploring the theme of gratitude. I was so grateful for our first experience in September, and November is a traditional time to express thankfulness, so it seemed an appropriate choice. That didn’t make it an easy one. It can be hard to feel grateful when we feel cold, unhappy or lonely. Those are the very moments when gratitude can make the most difference, when we can inspire one another to live more deeply. As we came together, some of us had more difficulty with gratitude than others, admittedly grumpy and uncomfortable to a point that we had struggled putting together our pieces or committing to being there. And yet, here we were, ten of us–eleven if you count Lisa the cat, who listened attentively to more than half of the presentations, despite the fact that we started them at her dinner time–about to open ourselves up in unexpected ways.

After mingling and getting to know one another a little better over snacks, we began our exploration. I read a poem which I wrote several years ago for a program sponsored by Houston Grand Opera called Houston Artists Respond. People from community centers in Houston shared their stories in videos which were presented to artists, musicians and poets who were asked to respond. I wove the stories of three Latin American women who had immigrated to the United States with my feelings to make three poems. The one I read here is called Nubia’s Shoes, and tells the story of a woman who grew up in Nicaragua and received her first pair of shoes at the age of sixteen, when her mother’s employer gave her a used pair of baby blue plastic shoes. They were several sizes too small, but Nubia wore them proudly because they made her feel like a normal person. You can read the poem here. From the beginning of our evening, Nubia assured us that we can be grateful for a life which pinches and blisters us.

This was followed by a beautiful piece of silent performance art by Orion Lowy entitled Politeness. Orion presented us with what appeared to our eyes to be an empty box. After he tapped it soundly, the box revealed small slips of paper. Each of us took one and shared it with the others. Mine read, “I don’t know how to thank you”. They all contained particularly humble and lovely expressions of gratitude, from “You shouldn’t have” to “Well, this was unexpected”. A gentle work of subtle humor and simplicity, it was delightful and really explored the wonderful and yet awkward nature of gratefulness.

photo 16In Find Yourself…Give Thanks, Laura Bourdo used a combination of collage and poetry to find imagery of gratitude. The process involved cutting out images from magazines which drew her eye, pasting them together on to cards and then attempting to find what it was that had drawn her to those particular pictures and what story they told together. If you want insight into how you think and how you experience life, this is a particularly rich exercise that makes beautiful art. We passed the images around as Laura read each poem twice, each one beginning with “Find yourself” and ending with “give thanks”. Sitting at the end of the line, I found it wonderful to imagine what would be on the card coming toward me. It was always a wonderful surprise.

photo 15Ofelia Adame read a beautiful testimony to the nurturing power and love of her family and friends, a journal entry entitled Supporting Hands. She acknowledged the presence of an outstretched hand helping her through every day of her life, present even when she lacks the ability to see it. “The hands change throughout your life, from your parents, to your siblings, to friends, to lovers, to teachers, to coworkers, to bosses. They change and don’t at the same time, as these participants in your life don’t leave or disappear, but just take turns in providing that helpful hand.” Her sincerity and vulnerability drew us all in.

Speaking of sincerity and vulnerability, Jane Lowy graced us with a song from her Dickensian style novel, Wobbly Barstool. We heard a reading from Wobbly back in September which was hilarious, but this was a treat in quite a different way. In the novel, Wobbly sings this song to the fiddle accompaniment of his friend, Fewan Farbetween, in praise of his sweetheart Prunella. Jane sang it for us to a pre-recorded accompaniment with obvious reference to her husband, David. “If cats should bark and dogs meow, and horses start to moo-o-o, I’d think it just their usual row, for I’m head over heels for you.” We all felt glad to be included in the love.

photo 17

This was followed by the presentation of David’s new piece of music, Supersonic: The New Peace Victory March. First, we heard a whimsical recording in which he whistled the tune, which gets rather high at the very end. So high that Jane once called it supersonic and the name stuck. (You might not know that it was David who named Jane’s novel, Wobbly Barstool.) David has an excellent ear and composed this piece in the style of marches by John Philip Sousa. I helped him transcribe it before the Open Mic so that Neil could play it on trumpet and we could sing it. Everyone had such a great time singing together that we took an unplanned intermission because we were all so energized by the experience. Such is to be expected with a good march, and having a trumpet player and three unpretentious members of the Houston Grand Opera Chorus present didn’t hurt either. It was a lovely meeting of inspiration, talent and expertise that made everyone feel welcome and part of the action. Synkroniciti anticipates being able to help David expand Supersonic in the future. It’s a good tune and quite an ear worm.

After a bout of lively conversation, Laura returned with Quiet Time, a dreamy poem that recalls the depth of a fictional relationship between a grandpa and grandchild. This is a kind of relationship that we all long for but rarely experience, in which words and feelings unspoken are understood more thoroughly than those expressed in conversation. Knowing that such moments are possible in life is enough to generate gratitude and to remind us to savor and nurture the relationships we have, even if they don’t resemble the ideal friendships of our 6

Finally, I presented my painting, Seductive Fruit, which depicts a strange fruit hanging from a tree, entwined with the tail of a snake. Picking this fruit will surely result in a bite from the dark serpent. It recalls the story of Adam and Eve and reminds us that knowledge comes with a price. As we live, experience brings us satisfying and painful moments, which we cannot completely separate from one another. Gratitude embraces both. You can read about Seductive Fruit here.

As Kahlil Gibran wrote, “When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” So our night of gratitude embraced both the bright and the dark, dreams and reality, pain and pleasure, the easy and the difficult, the technical and the inspired. The creative energy present was contagious and electric.

Sean, Betty, Orion, Jane and David, Laura, Ofelia and Charles and Neil, I don’t know how to thank you. I only hope we will come together again to share stories and thoughts.

Synkroniciti’s third Open Mic will happen in February 2015. Will we see you there?

Creatures of the Wind: Theo Jansen’s Strandbeesten

We are born with the urge to build and make things. What does this creativity tell us about our origins?

Strandbeest by Theo Jansen Public Domain Image by Axel Hindemith

Strandbeest by Theo Jansen
Public Domain Image by Axel Hindemith

Since 1990, Dutch artist Theo Jansen has been designing animals from PVC pipe and walking them up and down the beach. His search to create new forms of life has many sources of inspiration, from Biblical creation stories to Darwin’s evolutionary theory, but chiefly springs from his delight and surprise at his own existence. Nature calls him to imitate and be co-creative with the forces that shaped the world.

Jansen’s kinetic (moving) sculptures are called Strandbeesten, or beach beasts. They don’t require food or gasoline, but are propelled by the wind, harnessing impressive energy. The first Strandbeest had to be dragged into the wind by hand and would then shamble back up the beach in the opposite direction. Later versions had propellers, and then, finally, wings which are attached to a central segmented crankshaft that moves the feet. The beasts have no electronic parts and are remarkably ingenious and beautiful feats of engineering. Some, like Animaris Percipiere (Jansen has given them all Latin Scientific names) have “stomachs” made from bottles that store air pumped to high pressure by the wind and a system of bicycle pumps. Once the bottles are uncapped, motion is guided by “muscles”, lengths of pipe that extend. The Strandbeesten roam the beach like immense skeletons, responding to the air that fills their sails. Delightful!

Some find Jansen’s imitation of nature uncanny. The Strandbeesten blur the lines between art and engineering as well as those between artistic creation and offspring. The word animal comes from a Latin word that means “having breath”. The use of wind power recalls the breath of life God gave to Adam in the garden of Eden. Jansen has likened the measurements of the PVC segments to genetic code (DNA). Does Jansen have a god complex or is he simply responding to the creative impulse? This question is valid for artists of all disciplines. The answer has often led to the banning of creative pursuits that make traditionalists uncomfortable.

What I found about this experience of making new forms of life is that you discover all  the problems which the real creator must have had creating this world.

–Theo Jansen

Wouldn’t you like to know how the world was made? If you could participate in adding to that world, wouldn’t you do so, no matter how much you failed in the execution? Imitation can be a sincere form of homage. Jansen knows he will never be able to understand the source of life, but that doesn’t prevent him from exploring and celebrating it.

Ventosa Siamensis image © David Smith with CCLicense

Ventosa Siamensis
image © David Smith with CCLicense

Perhaps the most exciting part of his process is that it inspires others to take care of the Strandbeesten. If we can learn to take care of these simple constructions who are incapable of thought, then that gives hope that we will may become more protective and aware of the natural creatures that are so much greater than anything we can make with our hands.

Art and Agriculture: Sam van Aken and the Tree of Forty Fruit

Art often grants insight, but can it provide solutions? Creativity meets agriculture in the work of artist Sam van Aken.

© Sam van Aken, Tree of Forty Fruit used in accordance with Fair Use Policies

© Sam van Aken, Tree of Forty Fruit used in accordance with Fair Use Policies

Sam van Aken is head of the Sculpture Program at Syracuse University, and perhaps sculpture is the backbone of his creative endeavors, but the body of that work integrates technology, art, imagination and skill in surprising combinations. He’s explored popular culture through oh my god, a wall of stereo speakers that emit recordings of that phrase ranging from the ecstatic to the terrified, and Multiple Deaths of Willem Dafoe, thirteen old style television sets playing an array of death scenes featuring the actor and incorporated into a funeral arrangement. He’s also done performance art, recreating the journey of Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in Becoming Roy Neary and the confusion resulting from the 1939 broadcast of War of the Worlds in i am here today…. Over the years he has developed a surprisingly practical, as well as artistic, interest in plant hybridization.

This trend began with a relatively traditional sculptural project called Hybrids. Van Aken made fanciful artificial fruit, such as an apple fused with a strawberry and an orange fused with lemons, and displayed them on shelves mounted to poles designed to imitate the form of DNA helix. The intention was to spoof the whims of modern humanity, especially when it comes to the reshaping of our own food. Eden was the next step, inspired by various literary sources, including the Bible, Frankenstein, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. This experiment involved the grafting of actual plants, in this case vegetables and fruits. Eggplants were produced on tomato vines,  tomatoes on pepper plants, and cucumbers from watermelons. New Edens was a similar experiment, featuring fruit trees and orchids. The centerpiece of New Edens is the Tree of Forty Fruit, a grafted fruit tree producing forty kinds of stone fruit, or fruit with a pit, including cherries, peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines.

Video via TEDx Talks on YouTube

In sculpting this amazing tree through chip grafting, van Aken learned that he could produce something that was not only beautiful, but useful. He was able to preserve native, heirloom, hybrid and antique varieties that are no longer in production. Our agricultural system emphasizes ease of preservation, size, beauty and uniformity over taste, and many worthwhile cultivars are dying out because they aren’t a commercial success. Due to the popularity of New Edens, van Aken is sculpting trees for locations around the country. It is a detailed and labor intensive process that takes years. The design requires knowledge of blooming time and local growth zones so that the tree will thrive in its new home.

Yes, the almonds were a success and are featured on newer trees.

What an amazing testament to the power of art to change the world around us!