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.



The Color of Law with Richard Rothstein

Poster for an event with author Richard Rothstein about his new book The Color of Law, at the Richmond Museum of History
Poster for an event with author Richard Rothstein about his new book The Color of Law, at the Richmond Museum of History

I recently worked on a poster for an upcoming event at the Richmond Museum of History for Richard Rothstein’s book “The Color of Law: a forgotten history of how our government segregated America.” I remember hearing Rothstein interviewed on npr in May when his book came out, and discovering that the most awful policies enforcing segregated housing were really cemented in place under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).  As an intern for the California Historical Society a few years ago, I worked on a curriculum guide about the best aspects of FDR’s New Deal, whilst also finding out about Executive Order 9066 which enforced the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. I could almost hear FDR himself saying again “I’m not a racist but …”

Richard Rothstein’s book shines a bright spotlight on the specific details of the social engineering program that the federal government embarked upon. He explains the details of ‘red-lining’ which were the discriminatory housing policies and their color-coded maps that were used to approve or reject applications for mortgages and insurance by African Americans. The facts are really stark and the policies were not at all hidden. The inequities that these laws formalized still reverberate loudly today. As Rothstein says in his npr interview with Teri Gross “If we can understand this history we might be able to address some of these problems.” The book is a work of dedicated scholarship and full of facts that reveal just how oppressive and tenacious institutionalized racism still is. If you want to hear it from the man himself, save the date of January 20th, 2018 and go along to this free event.

I’m proud to have designed the poster for this FREE event organized by the Richmond Museum of History and Richmond Public Library. The event is on Saturday, January 20th, 2018 from 2–4pm at the City Council Chambers, 440 Civic Center Plaza, Richmond, CA 94804.

For more information contact Catherine Ortiz at, or Melinda McCrary at



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

“White Noise: Black Masks” curated by Marvin K. White

Words are completely inadequate for describing this event but I wrote a few notes in my diary on the day I attended Marvin K. White’s incredible piece “White Noise: Black Masks: how high must we turn up the volume to be heard over the din of oppression?”

White Noise: Black Masks poster









A week or so ago, my artist buddy Pat Hayashi recommended reading “Who We Be” by Jeff Chang. So good, so dense, so page-turning. I ordered more from the library. I went to lots of exhibitions here and there. I picked up Chang’s most recent book “We gon’ be alright” was published in 2016 as Trump’s campaign gathered momentum and highlights the way society at large is the only beneficiary of diversity, which can be traded fro grants and social approval. He goes on to describe what is in effect, the re-segregation of the US. The next day I met with some art friends over coffee. We discussed Trump, our work and Rauschenberg. We went to the Richmond Art Center: saw the wonderful Pogo Park project, life drawings by Joan Brown and an interesting landscape exhibition.  The day was hot and I was so happy to be in Berkeley. I finished Jeff Chang’s book in the afternoon an hour or so before going to the BAMPFA to see White Noise: Black Masks. As the website declares, this is “a sonic stage and environment that includes life-cancelling “white noise” and life-cancelling “white space” while centering marginalized, creative black voices. Local poets (Marvin K. White, Michal MJ Jones, James Cagney, Nancy Johnson, and Arisa White) read their work, surrounded by a circle of loudspeakers emitting white noise. How high must we turn up the volume to be heard over the din of oppression?”

I was blown away by the power of this sonic installation and poetic performance. The event begins with twenty minutes of white noise as the audience assembles and settles. There are five poets fighting against the ever-rising white noise, each becoming more physical and more emphatic in their delivery as the tide of sound envelopes them and us.

The white noise accumulates slowly but surely, and as an audience member you become an active participant, straining and concentrating to hear snatches of words and phrases. While sitting in the hostile space of the white noise we also have snatches of inner space for our own thoughts.

Marvin K. White is someone I love and without question adore. He is a poet and force of nature, and I met him as a fellow member of the ybca Equity cohort for 2017. He embodies the infinite power of a poet.

He stands to begin the performance without ceremony. He delivers what I know are beautifully crafted works, and words that I cannot hear so I can only cling onto snatches here and there. He is serious, the mood is serious. We applaud, the white noise recedes as the next poet stands at the microphone. Michal MJ Jones, a young poet whose work begins with the life-changing experience of being a new parent. In the white noise space I think of my own children and the huge excitement it brought to my life, and how precious each one is. I hear the names Eric Garner and Oscar Grant  and the words “police car” and the white noise is relentlessly drowning out the voice and I want to hold out my hand to all and share my palms full of the words from Jeff Chang’s scholarship. We all know there are countless other names to add to the list. I wonder how many people in the audience are aware that today, September 15, 2017, yet another white policeman has been acquitted of the murder of an African-American man, Anthony Lamar Smith. And straight away another man stands at the microphone. “My name is James Cagney.” he says “And I have a right to be angry.” So true. “And You, You have a right to stand your ground, you have the right … and on he goes with a long index of what I fear to keep hearing but know we must. It’s the hideous list of ‘rights’ that signify white privilege pushing down on any minority. I can’t hear his precise words but I feel that he is so very sickened by it all. And the white noise rises up until he is almost physically drowning and peeping out over the top of the situation, on a day when another white cop faces absolutely no consequence from killing a black man. And he is straining and angry and powerful and we are all rapt. A group of five young blond white women sit off to my right, serious, almost ashen faced. After James Cagney, stands Nancy Johnson whose kind face belies the steel of her words. She moves and animates her words and we hear the odd phrase but the white noise is drowning her out and I want it to stop so that I can hear her soft, kind voice speak her words of white heat. She stands her ground and speaks and performs her poems so tenderly that we want to savor each one but cannot reach.

Finally, Arisa White speaks and again the noise has reduced so that we can hear her begin. Her long poem rises slowly, as the white noise encroaches and she is pushing back, pushing back against it. She speaks and we cannot know the actual words, we focus, we concentrate but the white noise is deafening. She nails the landing, shouting now with rising volume “But you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come!” A perfect ending, to which applause seems a completely inadequate response, though there is much of it.

The Q & A after the performance was equally profound. Each questioner was handed a microphone but before they could deliver their question in full, the white noise re-appeared and overtook them. The five poets answered, often with replies that may or may not address the unheard question. I like to imagine that the youngsters in the audience were not only surprised by this treatment but also changed by the whole experience as we all sat. Five questions and five questioners were drowned out, and then suddenly it was all over and I thought it was the most wonderful and most profound thing I have experienced in a very long time. I really, really hope this is repeated and repeated and repeated because the cultural work and the heavy lifting it performs are urgently needed here and now, again and again until something shifts.