Santa Fe: Brandon Varela

So much to see and absorb while I’m  doing the amazing Equal Justice Residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute. Feeling very pampered, humbled and grateful to be here, and trying to make the most of every minute.

I’ve seen some wonderful art in the last two weeks, and met many inspiring and bold artists, writers, performers and creative practitioners. Last night I went to the opening of several shows at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in downtown Santa Fe. I got talking to artist Brandon Varela (Pascua Yaqui Tribe) about his work “Sovereignty in Art: An Approach from a Yaqui Artist” which I’ve included below. He is a young, soon-to-graduate, BFA student at the Institute of Native American Indian Arts. He described his beautiful painting in detail, and we shared brief notes on the symbolism of the deer. I’m going with other residents to the Deer Dances at one of the local villages which will be open to the public tomorrow. I know that Brandon’s beautiful painting and his words will be on my mind.

I’m reproducing his bio and statement below and look forward to seeing his future work.

Brandon Varela (Pascua Yaqui Tribe) “Sovereignty in Art: An Approach from a Yaqui Artist” 2016 oil on canvas.

Two large square canvases are turned to be triangles and are joined at their points. Three smaller square canvases, one above the join and two below the join provide more surface for the image. The background is a white brick wall with grey joints, the left and right canvases feature shopping bags with masks in front of them and the top small canvas has an image of an upturned deer head which may be a headdress. The edges of all canvases are painted red.
Brandon Varela (Pascua Yaqui Tribe) “Sovereignty in Art: An Approach from a Yaqui Artist” 2016 oil on canvas.

Artist bio: Brandon Varela was born in Tuscon, AZ and is an enrolled member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Southern Arizona. Varela has always considered himself creative and imaginative, being the youngest child of his generation, he often found solace in art. Varela practices art in multiple mediums that involve traditional and contemporary methods. Varela uses a combination of Yaqui/indigenous imagery and techniques, and graphical commercial art to address concerns and conflicts within Indian Country. He is attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where his practice has evolved to include ceramics, photography, and screen printing, in addition to his paintings. Varela is slated to graduate in May 2018 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts.

Artist statement: You don’t always need to put yourself in my shoes to understand my art. Sometimes you, as the audience, are right where you need to be. What you see or don’t see is exactly how I want the work to be viewed. I am aware that my culture is mine and what I choose to share, and how, is up to me as a sovereign artist. But because this is the culture of all Yaqui people, what you’re looking at is not all mine to share. I do not have the right to discuss everything about my culture with my audience. However, what I do choose to share is a scene from ceremonial Yaqui dances, particularly an intermission where regalia is hung on the walls of the dance arbor. Left to Right there is a Yaqui pahko’ola (Pascola mask) which is made in the form of a javelina (peccary), in the center is the Yaqui maso kova (Deer Dancer Headdress) and finally to the right is a traditional pahko’ola mask depicting a humanoid goat-like mask. Items of regalia pre-date Spanish contact and hold a critical position in Yaqui culture. Without the dances and the songs, people lose their sense of connection with their culture. Since I am nowhere near my home, my connectivity with my culture lies with my art. I am grateful to be able to share my culture with my audience with this work.





Haptic Encounters with Georgina Kleege

On the left a tall white-haired woman stands dressed in black and holding a white cane, to her right a sculpture made of strips of paper and cardboard of a fox like creature, leaning back on its hind legs and one front leg resting behind its body, appearing to laugh, and towering over the woman.
Georgina Kleege and Blame/Thirst, a sculpture inspired by the Golem folk tale by Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor, 2017. Lumber, styrofoam, paint, bed sheets, domestic textiles, paper, 8 x 6 x 7 feet.

One of the many welcome features of the Jewish Folktales Retold exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco are the experimental access and interpretive materials created in collaboration with writer and professor Georgina Kleege.

Georgina is a leading scholar working at the intersection between blindness and visual art.  She is also the blind daughter of two visual artists. A professor of English and Disability Studies at UC Berkeley, Georgina has expanded the field of audio description through her practice.

The exhibition closes on Sunday January 28 and I urge everyone to visit and engage with the varied and magical works in the show, all inspired by one or more stories from Jewish folklore tradition. Folktales often portray the lives of ordinary people and usually feature magical or divine interventions that are often embellished or elaborated upon. While the stories have been re-told for centuries their basic linear form has remained the same. The exhibition casts the artist as storyteller or maggid, and powerful, complex tales are given tangible form and surprising re-interpretations by 16 selected contemporary artists, commissioned by the museum.

What are Haptic Encounters?

The word haptic refers to our sense of touch and these days is often used to describe the vibrating feedback functions on smartphones, touch tablets and virtual reality devices. Here though, we are far from the digital realm. While all other visitors (including those who are blind) may not touch the commissioned artworks, Georgina has engaged with six of the exhibits at length, and captured her experiences as she met each one.

Georgina’s role as maggid 

As a writer, Georgina’s immersion in the practice of story-telling provides us with an extra maggid, a voice directly connecting us to the art. Through her  artful encounters, touching and grappling with the scale and nature of each piece, our own experience is better. Her journey is sensory, enticing and decidedly not visual, and makes us all, as sighted or non-sighted visitors, slow down and spend more time with each art work. Like slow food, slow art is a very satisfying experience that has immense staying power.

Access elements

At six of the clearly marked listening stations with recordings of each folk tale, there are also audio files of these Haptic Encounters by Georgina. Videos, audio and transcripts of the encounters are also available online. Braille booklets of all wall text and artist labels are available at the reception desk, and large print booklets from a dispenser at the entrance of the gallery. Transcripts of all audio material from listening stations are also available, as well as a tactile gallery map developed in partnership with Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

For a taste of the video material please check out: Introduction to Haptic Encounters with Georgina Kleege

One side of The Enchanted, a sculpture featuring a long end of a low wooden table protrudes from a wall in mid air, with several white rubbery looking shapes placed on it, some are lit from within.
The Enchanted, a sculpture by Michael Arcega
The other side of The Enchanted sculpture features a long strip of wooden planking that resembles a boat protruding out from a wall. A man stands to the left and a woman with white hair stands to the right with a cane, holding a white, rubbery object in her right hand
A visitor stands with Georgina Kleege as she introduces The Enchanted, a sculpture by Michael Arcega

An evening at the museum

In December 2017, I spent a wonderful evening at the museum with a crowd of blind, visually impaired and other disabled visitors, led by Georgina and Cecile Puretz, Access and Community Engagement Manager of the of the CJM for a group exploration of Haptic Encounters. Our tour began in the lobby with an invitation to explore the architect’s model of the museum and an introduction by Cecile to the conceptual scope of the exhibition, and the museum’s determination to expand access for blind and visually impaired visitors. My photos of the evening were mostly out of focus so I only have a few to share here but I hope it will be enough to excite you about the work going on at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and the future possibilities for tactile explorations by other museums.

I noticed that while guiding us around the show, Georgina also used the word proprioception to expand our understanding of her process. Proprioception refers to the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.  As Georgina explained, through her physical exploration of these large and varied sculptures, some invited a light, delicate touch, while others seemed to ask for a more vigorous handling. All very useful information for us, as visitors, who are not allowed to touch. The trolley of materials samples used by artists that traveled along with us was very useful and helped to understand the nature of each sculpture as we journeyed through.

Sheets of exquisite and handmade paper with complex textures, pale colors and central holes hang from the ceiling in a row. A tall woman with white hair and white cane holds a piece of paper. A woman to her right holds a pole with a smaller version of the sculpture. In the background a woman reads from a Braille folder and several people holding canes listen to the conversations.
Georgina Kleege and Cecile Puretz describe 200 Year Present, by Julia Goodman, 2017. Discarded and pulped bed sheets and t-shirts 78 x 168 x 44 in.

Why are these encounters valuable for everyone?

These are not stuffy, academic adventures and show how much the disability community can contribute to the field of museum interpretation. Georgina’s voice was that of a curious, playful, informed visitor who also risked making herself vulnerable with honest responses and comments. Similar projects could help many visitors feel welcome and relaxed in their own reactions to new and challenging work.

Within the limits of what is possible, the experience has provoked much thought about who gets to touch and who doesn’t. Only six encounters are on offer and so this is not a full equivalence for blind or visually impaired people, where every element is accessible. Nevertheless it is a welcome step, and left me wondering how to encourage artists to make work that is primarily tactile and robust. Does it really matter if we all touch an artwork that is due to be destroyed anyway?

Let’s keep pushing the boundaries of this kind of work!!!!

Useful links:

Haptic Encounters within Jewish Folktales Catalog

Jewish Folktales retold: The Artist as Maggid at the CJM

Digital Catalog for Jewish Folktales Exhibition

VIDEO: Introduction to Haptic Encounters with Georgina Kleege

Georgina has a new book out called “More than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art” available on Amazon and all good booksellers.



Bay Area Clay at Arts Benicia

Matt clay faces with a folk art and political flavor carved into a tall column, pale colors and dark shadows in the revices
Detail of “Cliffhanger”, 2017 by Mark Messenger

The ceramics show at Arts Benicia closes on November 19 and features many notable pieces worthy of a trip, for those who will travel over bridges. The center is open Wednesday–Sunday 12 noon – 5pm and the show is called “Bay Area Clay: A Legacy of Social Consciousness.”

The exhibition features well-known local artists and some wonderful work by: Robert Arneson, Stephen De Staebler, Viola Frey, Arthur Gonzalez, Michelle Gregor, Marc Lancet, Mark Messenger, Richard Notkin, Lisa Reinertson, Richard Shaw, Ehren Tool, Monica Van den Dool, Stan Welsh, and Wanxin Zhang.

I’ve always loved the work of Ehren Tool and this show features a wall of his cups on the left wall once inside the gallery. Two of my favorites include one with a quote by environmental campaigner and scientist Dr. Vidana Shiva, and there are several great ones featuring Trump imagery.

Matt cup with text impressed in We are either going to have a future where women lead the way to make peace with the earth or we are not going to have a future at all."
Cup by Ehren Tool


A detail of 8 cups on simple wooden shelves. One features an image of Trump holding a severed head of the Statue of Liberty, another a screaming Trump face. The other cups are subdued and have images of war impressed into them
Cups by Ehren Tool


I am new to the work of  Mark Messenger and loved the large central column by him that anchors the show. All pieces are worthy of spending some slow art time to absorb the rich imagery, appreciate the technical skill and enjoy the beautiful compositions and satisfying ideas on view.

Visitors engaging with the column by Mark Messenger


Visit the Arts Benicia website for more information. The center is located at 991 Tyler Street, STE. 114, Benicia CA. and is free but as usual, donations are welcome for this artist run space. Telephone: 707-747-0131, email is

Earth, Wind and so much Fire

A series of screens that enclose the viewer in a 'u' shaped space have video projections of a forest fire
Walk Into WildFire, video projection by Ethan Turpin and Jonathan Smith

A few weeks ago Ethan Turpin and Jonathan Smith had a video projection within the Visions of the Wild Festival in Vallejo. Their installation called “Walk Into Wild Fire” features footage of a fairly short controlled burn of a section of forest, shot by a video camera encased in a fireproof housing. The speed of the fire’s progress was immense and overwhelming. I remember talking with my buddies about how terrifying the experience must be, and we talked about whether there would be any serious ones this year.

Words are pretty useless for describing the gravity of the current fires in California and the unfolding events for many people. We know that there is huge devastation and destruction everywhere, and that many people have lost their lives, their homes and in some ways their history.  Some of them are artists.

As the blanket of smoke was beginning to clear over the east bay on Saturday afternoon, a tangible atmosphere of doom and sorrow shaped the small crowd present for the artists’ talk at the Richmond Art Center. The current exhibition “Earth, Wind and Fire” seems so incredibly prescient and somehow so trivial all at the same time. We all knew that one of the participating artists Clifford Rainey, has lost home, studio and work in the ongoing Napa fire. We also learned that another participating artist, Chester Arnold has been evacuated.

The subject of the show is climate change and I’ve visited it twice before. Given the events of last week, the work was resonating with a much more direct power yesterday. I noticed the recurring images of fire in Chester Arnold’s work that I had not really seen before. I felt much more connected to a work by Clifford Rainey called White Bison  which one of my previous exhibit-going companions had particularly enjoyed. We had spent a long time looking at the piece and had gone back to it several times. We had both gazed at the deep blue of the backdrop and the charred wood pedestal in front. My heart was heavy, sensing how prophetic his work has become.

The fires have arrived after five years of drought and a year of climate change deniers in power. As human beings, we seem to be heading for a future environmental catastrophe that we cannot stop. I imagine that we were all sitting in that exhibition space with our own personal knowledge of the stark reality of what is happening to our beautiful environment, and struggling with what to think about the cruel and selfish political denial that is making it worse. It seems at once outrageous, monstrous and impossible. We are all groping for a way through the event and wondering what artists can do in the face of all the lying and corruption in high places. How do we continue? How does it shape our work and how do we practice the kind of self-care and activism that will keep us potent and sane?

The two artists present were salve indeed on the collective wound. Kim Anno and Jenny Odell shared their work and their process with calm generosity and honesty. They also gave us a greater insight into their practice and current projects than can ever be made known in an exhibition. Kim Anno is an artist, activist and educator and also executive director of which “collaborates with communities worldwide through fearless art, film and performance productions to inspire resiliency in the face of adversity.” She has moved away from painting into more collaborative video projects that explore environmental realities. She spoke with great power about the “unspeakable future” we are leaving our children.  Jenny Odell talked of the two common responses to our environmental crisis that she has noticed: the impulse to archive, and the creation of impossible and visionary futures. For immediate balm for your soul, I can highly recommend diving into her long-form piece on Medium called “How to do Nothing.”  Together they shifted our collective experience to one of community and fellowship.

I’m so glad I went again, and I encourage everyone to visit because there is also beautiful work by Harry ClewansAbel Rodriguez, Alison Saar, and Joshua Solis. I had not seen any of their work before and there is much to appreciate and spend time with. The show is on until November 11 and entry is FREE.

My favorite piece is a counter narrative of fire as destroyer. In a joyful expression of the beauty and mystery of nature, I discovered that “Ice Makes Fire” in a video work by Paul Koss1974–2004.

In a snow environment, a small twig fire is started with a piece of ice focusing the sun's rays onto kindling.
Still from video work, “Ice Makes Fire” by Paul Kos, 1974–2004

“Patient No More” at the San Francisco Public Library

Last chance

“Patient No More” has been at the San Francisco Public Library for the last few months and will end its run there on September 3rd. The mural remains in place at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, the project website has all the content from the exhibit, and the traveling version is continuing to make its way around the country.

On Thursday August 24, Cathy Kudlick, director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability hosted a tour for blind and visually impaired visitors, several board members from Cultural Connections and old friends from the Museum Studies Department of SF State University. Cathy spoke of the many access features like Braille, captioned and audio described videos and text specifically written for the disability community that were built-in to the exhibit from the beginning. She also introduced Dennis Billups, a blind 504 protester who was there during the whole “504 occupation” in 1977, and who recounted the close bonds and interdependence that developed between protesters while they occupied the government offices for 26 days. Forty years ago, the many people with disabilities and their allies who took over the federal building in San Francisco to pressure the government to sign the regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act took a stand against indifference and discrimination. Their individual stories still resonate and inform us all today.  As we toured the exhibit, I was reminded of how little I knew about accessibility when I began working on this project, how much I have learned from the Longmore Institute, and how lucky I am to have had an opportunity to work on an exhibit with, for and about people with disabilities, as curator and also as graphic designer.

A view of the Rotunda at the Ed Roberts Campus with mural in the background
A view of “Patient No More” at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, California.

Visitor comments

Some new comments in the visitor book were wonderful and I thought it would be great to share them here, as the exhibit comes to a close next weekend.

August 9, 2017

“– On August 9, 2017, a group of about 30 federal employees who work for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission visited the “Patient No More” exhibit. Your hard work truly shines with your presentation. Everything was beautiful. Thank you for educating our staff and the public at large. The struggle continues … (EEOC staff member)”

August 13, 2017

“Awesome work! Keep it going. PS Loved the payphone :)”

“I lived here from 1965–1983, 1987–2000 but had no idea about the issues presented here. Thank you! (JT)”

“Great exhibit! Thanks for displaying this history for all people to see. I believe this is an amazing display on a major part of our history and events. Thanks. (DLP)”

“This exhibit brought me to tears. Thank you for illuminating this amazing event.”

August 24, 2017

“Fantastic exhibit – captures the spirit and essence of the 504 struggle. I was there – my office was across the plaza and I participated when and how I could. Remarkable how much information has been presented in a format so easy to understand. Thank you each and everyone who helped to make this possible. (WC)”

Traveling exhibit moves to new locations outside the Bay Area, 2018

The traveling version of “Patient No More” is currently at the California Museum in Sacramento until November 8, and will then travel to the Southwestern College Library in Chula Vista from January 28–March 25 2018 and will be at the Arkansas State Capital, Little Rock & University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, from August 26 – October 21, 2018.