Sunday, September 27, 2009

To Have and to Hold

The word vessel has more than one meaning. In this instance I am speaking of vessels that hold things, and not necessarily of the tangible variety. Vessels can hold the elements as in air or water, or they can hold flowers or photographs, jewels or buttons. They can hold memories. Vessels can appear empty when they are full, as the glass that holds water. Things that contain things have always mystified me. Esoterically, we may call ourselves vessels – each of us containing essence, emotion, and intellect, some of us more startling than others.

A classic glass urn I purchased in San Francisco.

I have become a collector of vessels, predominantly glass but also the rare piece of silver, stone or ivory. These pieces occupy places of importance throughout my home and are situated in the best possible places for the best possible viewing. If it’s glass, I want the sun to shine through it, if it’s china, as in my teacups, I want to enjoy their beauty with the ritual of ceremony, if it’s pottery, I want something earthy in it, and so on.

My beautiful coffee cups I bought as a birthday gift to myself.

The more stoic pieces have been strategically placed on important surfaces such as my grandmother’s writing desk or my burl wood cocktail table. I love each and every one of them differently, and with each piece, I can remember in an instant the first time I saw it, purchased it or received it – some from flea markets, and some from shops that have gone by the wayside. Some were acquired at my favorite consignment shop in Connecticut. Many were purchased on travels, once the vessels containing condiments purchased on foreign shores. Following are just a few of my favorites among favorites…

My all time favorite. An Alvar Aalto vase purchased at The Silk Purse in Ridgefield, CT.
A vesssel of old mustard jars for my colored pencils and brushes.

My Mother's Baked Alaska mold.
Evidence of my coffee habit.
A 1960's jar from Joseph Magnin.

Barbara Ashfield

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Does the architecture of new churches still inspire?

Earlier this year a new Catholic church was completed that had a great deal of talk associated with it. Everything I read about it seemed to contradict every other thing. One source said it was “Bold and fascinating…Bravo!”, where another source said “I would be scared to go in” (these are actual quotes from a web site).

The exterior of The Church of Santa Monica in Rivas Spain.

The church in question is the Church of Santa Monica in Rivas Spain near Madrid. The church was designed by Vicens & Ramos Architects, a firm who is well respected and considered innovative. The firm designed the outside as sculpture, using materials that relate to the regional landscape, and the inside is designed as pure serenity.

The interior of the Church of Santa Monica in Rivas Spain.
Reading about this church and looking at the images got me to thinking about the role of religious architecture, specifically Catholic architecture as a means to inspire the faithful. I think new churches can be just as inspirational as their Thirteenth Century counterparts, but perhaps by way of different methods.

A sculpture of the Virgin Mary in the interior of the Church of Santa Monica.

As a student of art and architecture it’s impossible to avoid Catholic churches in one's studies. This is where one gains insight into significant movements of European architecture and the decorative arts, at least prior to Louis XIV. Catholic churches have always been a demonstration in physical inspiration, and of course this is by design. When churches were the center of culture they were designed to be awe inspiring miracles of structure, and literally a piece of heaven on earth. This was achieved, most notably in Gothic churches by baffling scale and the use of light in new and unimaginable ways.

The interior of Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

When going abroad from the time I was young, a stop at a local church or cathedral has always been a must as it provides additional understanding of the local culture and history. When I think of a church that has impressed me the most, I would have to say Sainte Chapelle in Paris (it would probably Sagrada Familia in Barcelona if the building were completed). I remember that it took my breath away and I can imagine how impressive it must have been at the time it was built. The windows at Sainte Chapelle are the most impressive of any church of its kind. You can see how it would be difficult to argue the power of a faith in God when observing such beauty and wonder.
Detail of the windows at Sainte Chapelle.
Fast forward about 800 years and the church of Santa Monica has a similar effect. The outside has a nearly “brutalist” quality, but the manner in which the windows have been designed give the interior a soft, peaceful quality. It seems this quality is exactly what’s called for in our present day. We are too jaded to be impressed by merely massive spaces. We feel like we’ve seen it all. We need the creation of an atmosphere as well.

The interior of the Metropolitan Brasilia Cathedral by Oscar Niemeyer.
Of course Gothic churches took multiple decades to build and were planned in collaboration with the local clergy and master builders. These structures were never going to be “trendy” as most people would never see them completed in their lifetime. Now churches are planned by architects, and congregations struggle to raise money to realize their dreams, but have the same goal as they did hundreds of years ago, to inspire faith and honor in their congregations. A good representation of the modern progression of inspirational churches is Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia Cathedral completed in Brazil in 1960.

The exterior of the Brasilia Cathedral by Oscar Niemeyer.

Although I do not consider myself Catholic, I attended a mass last Christmas Eve at a new cathedral in Oakland near Lake Merritt called the Cathedral of Christ the Light which was designed by the architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill. The church has won many awards and accolades and is a perfect local example of how the Catholic Church has incorporated architecture as a way to perhaps appeal to a new audience. The church is beautiful on the inside and definitely inspiring, however I found the acoustics to be a major problem.

The Cathdral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California by Skidmore Owings & Merrill.
Barbara and I were both raised attending Episcopal Church, so the Catholic tradition is not that different, but Episcopal churches take on more of an (obviously) English tradition in their planning, design and approach.

The interior of the cathedral of Christ the Light.

I am happy to see that churches have been able to adapt at least their look to a changing population. I think people need a respite from their fast paced and connected lifestyles. I will continue to check out churches new and old as I believe they remain a connection to the community in which they exist.

David Hansen

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Clipped To Perfection!

“Topiary is Nature Mimicking Art” *

* James T. Mason, Columbus artist and creator of the topiary interpretation of George Seurat’s famous painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte”. The topiary garden is located at the old location of The Deaf School in Columbus, Ohio. It’s the only topiary interpretation of a painting in existence “the landscape of a painting of a landscape”. Installed in 1989, the garden consists of 54 topiary people, 8 boats, 3 dogs, a monkey, a cat and a real pond.

A view of the topiary garden for the old location of the Deaf School in Columbus Ohio.

"A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte" by Georges-Pierre Seurat.
Another view of the topiary garden at the old location of the Deaf School in Columbus Ohio.

Topiary makes my heart sing. In fact, I am currently having a love affair with 4 mini-hedge topiaries in a window box near my abode. I find that I can give myself any excuse to take the “long way” home just to drive by and have a look see at these specimens of botanical joy who stand together, as if family, eagerly awaiting lord and master at the end of the day.

A shot David took in London of a "Boxwood family".
I’ve long been a fan of these magical objects of living sculpture. Upon further investigation I’ve learned an amazing amount. What began as pure delight has actually broadened my scope of all things beautiful.
A wonderful view of Hidcote Gardens, England with delightful topiary birds.
Beautiful Beckley Park topiary in Oxfordshire, England.
On that note… Topiary is defined as “the art of creating sculptures in the medium of clipped trees and shrubs”. And this is education here… “Shrubs considered for topiary are evergreen, have small leaves or needles, produce dense foliage and have compact and/or columnar growth habits. The most common plants used are box, bay laurel, holly, myrtle and yew”. Traditionally they were pruned and/or trained into geometric shapes: balls or cubes, obelisks, pyramids, cones, tapering spirals etc and were made of stone and lead sculptures and depended on patience and a steady hand, much like bonsai. Today, however, shaped wire cages are often used.

Topiaries at Fingask Castle, Scotland.
Topiarius (topiary) dates from Roman times. Cneius Matius Calvena (belonging to the “inner circle” of Julius Caesar) is credited with introducing the first topiary into the atrium of the roman villa. The trend caught on, and over time, the art of garden topiary manifested itself into the parterre gardens and terraces of
aristocratic Europe and England.
Gardens at Villa d'Este at Tivoli, near Rome, Italy.

A typical Roman topiary garden.
Topiary was not only popular in Europe and England but also the Far East, namely Japan and China. In existence for centuries, this art took a different name and overall aesthetic style. It is more familiar to us as Bonsai. Japanese ‘cloud pruning’ may be the closest comparison to the European “topiary”.

"Cloud pruning" in a Japanese Zen garden.
Topiary became popular in the US as early as the early 1800’s at the Walter Hunnewell Arboretum at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts and another classic example in the Colonial Revival gardens and the grand manner of the American Renaissance (1880-1920).
Vintage photo of Walter Hunnewell Arboretum at Wellesley College.

Gardens at Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia.
In 1962, the “American Portable style” topiary was introduced by Walt Disney at Disneyland when he sought to recreate his cartoon characters in landscape shrubbery. This style of topiary is based on a steel wire frame that is either stuffed with sphagnum moss and planted, or a frame that has shrubbery growing from within as a permanent cutting guide. The frame allows the plants to grow into every curve with a built in guide.

"Portable Style" topiaries of Donald Duck and Pluto at Disneyland.

This “portable style” has led to numerous imaginative topiary displays, notably Jeff Koon’s “Puppy”, which has been re-created worldwide and displays at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing China.

Jeff Koons "Puppy" on display in Bilbao, Spain.
Topiaries in the official garden of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.

So here we have it. What was in the beginning of this post, pure adoration for the simply clipped rosemary topiary in my living room has now expanded itself and I am ready to take on the world of box, yew, laurel and myrtle, and hopefully, not just literally.

Barbara Ashfield

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Local Treasure Part 2: Creativity Explored

As a designer I am always on the lookout for ways to stimulate my creativity. It’s not often you find an organization that not only promotes creativity, but helps the community, and Creativity Explored has been doing just that for over 25 years.

"Yellow and Orange Abstract" by artist Taneya Lovelace for the Avalon at Mission Bay project.

Creativity Explored is a non-profit arts organization in San Francisco where artists with developmental disabilities create, exhibit and sell their art. This is a simple concept with high impact implications. This remarkable organization was founded by Florence and Elias Katz in 1983 (the year I graduated from high school). They saw the potential for a program where individual artists are encouraged to express themselves while providing the community with a new understanding of what art means.

Artist Walter Kresnik makes a larger version of a smaller art piece in the Creativity Explored studio.

My relationship to Creativity Explored goes back many years. Back in the early 90’s I lived in the neighborhood around the corner from the original and present studio space on 16th Street. I used to pass by the building on my way to the BART station and admire the art in the windows as I passed by. This was in the days prior to program having a wonderful gallery space (which officially opened in 2001) so I never took the time to stop in and see the art in any depth, but always admired the spirit in which the pieces were done.

The entrance to the Creativity Explored gallery and studio on 16th Street in San Francisco.

Inside the Creativity Explored studio on 16th Street.
My awareness of Creativity Explored changed considerably in about the year 2000. I was at a friend’s house who was an avid art collector. He had wonderful pieces of (mostly) photography from all the notable galleries in San Francisco. He had an incredible eye for art and I had always admired his vast collection. On one my visits to his place I saw that he had an amazing piece (not photography) hung on the wall in his hallway. It was done in bright orange and cobalt blue and had been painted on the back of a piece of Lucite and depicted two hands. I can remember having a visceral reaction to seeing something so special and distinctive. Of course I had to know where it came from and he said it was from Creativity Explored.
"Chinatown" by artist Kevin Roach.
Artist Evelyn Reyes working in the studio on one of her "Carrots" pieces.

"Red Carrots" by artist Evelyn Reyes.
I was sold, and knew I had to take a closer look at this incredible organization. I attended a couple of openings and loved what I saw, but in 2008 when business slowed I decided to volunteer my time and started helping with the gallery show openings. The shows which happen about every other month are curated by studio staff and usually have a theme which highlights the work of a few artists. I always leave these openings full of delight and inspiration.

Artwork used to promote the "Repetitions" show by artist John Patrick McKenzie, who uses words as his medium.

An image for the upcoming show entitled "Science" Fiction by artist Douglas Sheran.
"Utensils" by artist Steven Geeter used as the image for a food themed show entitled "Tasty".

In 26 years Creativity Explored has managed to propel itself into the twenty first century, while becoming a San Francisco institution. Their web site is an amazing source of information and features profiles on most, if not all of the studio artists and shows multiple examples of their work. The site also fully outlines the many events that Creativity Explored partakes in to promote its program and artists.

Artist Diane Scaccalosi in front of one of her large scale works to be used at the Avalon Mission Bay project.

Here in San Francisco, Creativity Explored has become well known through a series of collaborations. Some of the more notable and recent collaborations are with a local chocolatier, a national retailer and a new luxury rental project.

CB2 chairs transformed by Creativity Exlored artists.

For three years running now, local chocolate legend Michael Recchiuti has featured art by Creativity Explored artists on a series of chocolate tiles, with proceeds assisting the Creativity Explored studio program. This year’s artist was Vincent Jackson, whose graphic images work brilliantly in this capacity.

Recchiuti chocolate tiles for 2009 with the artwork of Creativity Explored artist Vincent Jackson.
A few months back CB2, the off-shoot of national housewares retailer Crate & Barrel, introduced a limited edition (2700 pieces) tote bag adorned with illustrations of San Francisco houses by Creativity Explored studio artist Antonio Benjamin. Some of the studio artists also painted limited edition CB2 chairs as well.

Limited edition canvas tote by CB2 with San Francisco houses artwork by artist Antonio Benjamin.

A notable commission for Creativity Explored artists was proposed by a developer of a group of properties on King Street in the Mission Bay neighborhood, near the new ballpark. The artworks were commissioned for the luxury housing project called “Avalon at Mission Bay ”. The artist’s work, which was primarily larger scale pieces were framed and hung throughout the property.

A lobby at Avalon at Mission Bay showing artwork by Creativity Explored artists. Photograph by David Wakely.

I look forward to my own collaboration with Creativity Explored in the future. Barbara and I have talked about using some of the artists work in some of our projects, and we will certainly let you know when we do. In the meantime, I will continue to support and cheer on this amazing organization. I hope you will take some time to check out their web site, or if you are in town attend one of their openings, and see for yourself a true exploration in creativity.

Creativity Explored is located at 3245 16th Street San Francisco.

David Hansen