Santa Fe: Stars and Dreams

The chance to do a thousand mile road trip to get to New Mexico for a residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute was an irresistible dream come true. After weeks of planning and considering different routes, plus an hour of last-minute panic mulching to keep the weeds down while I’m away, I set off around 11 am for the first leg of a 1150 mile trip, and an 8 week residency. Aside from the fact that I love driving, I thought it would be a great way to transition from the concerns and habits of life in the bay area to think about what I might do with this opportunity and in the process also get used to the altitude of 7000 feet.

The Road Trip

Day 1 was a grueling 430 mile drive from Berkeley via the I5 and 395, stopping for the night at a tiny place called Yermo, just beyond Barstow. I know the I5 well but had never been through Bakersfield. There’s a very pleasant stretch of hilly driving just beyond the city before the desert landscape begins to unfold. Surprises were everywhere. On Day 2, I headed to Flagstaff, AZ for another long drive of 345 miles through wide open plains and rugged desert landscapes that transform into forest as the road climbs up to 6000 feet. The mountain air is fabulous and all along the way are turn offs for the original route 66, with mid-century motels in bright colors and small towns to explore like Kingman and Seligman.

Flagstaff is home to the University of Northern Arizona and a great base for exploring. On Day 3, I made a visit to the Grand Canyon which is only 75 miles north of Flagstaff, and truly one of the wonders of the world. Words cannot describe its immensity, its complexity and its scale. Along with many tourists I walked along the south rim and stood staring in amazement across a vast space that is often 10 miles wide, towards the north rim. In all directions there are brightly colored layers of rock and stunning formations that never seem to end. The average depth is 1 mile and daring to look straight down into the bottom was an ongoing challenge.

Taking a different route back to Flagstaff through more beautiful and rocky landscapes, I decided to end my ‘rest-day’ with a night of star-gazing at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

Famous for discovering Pluto, Lowell had a ‘live astronomer’ Dr. Ted Dunham available with real-time images of planets, stars, galaxies and other celestial objects displayed on a large television screen outdoors. Staff gave presentations about the nature and size of stars and the characteristics of our own solar system. We gazed through portable telescopes at the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula, we heard the origin stories of some of the constellations and I discovered that many scientists now believe that life must exist in other parts of the universe. By day’s end, my body, mind and soul were completely blown and cleansed of any remaining vestiges of bay area hipsta sensibility. I felt so expanded by everything I encountered that I slept like a baby, dreaming of distant horizons and interstellar travel.

Day 4 was back on the tarmac however, for the last big leg of my road trip and another 375 miles of straight open road, endless deserts and huge flat vistas. I made it to Albuquerque for an early night and a glimpse of the Superbowl.

On Day 5 the hour’s drive to Santa Fe went by in a flash and I was soon settled in with the other residents in this beautiful building designed by Ricardo Legoretta.

All along the way I stayed in cheap motels that were clean and much more comfortable than I expected for my limited budget (thank you especially Budget Inn, Flagstaff and Econolodge, Old Town Albuquerque).

The SFAI is a beautiful building, designed by Ricardo Legoretta
A modern sleek courtyard design with bright blue stucco and the shadow of bare trees on the left wall
View of the Inner Courtyard, Santa Fe Art Institute
The Equal Justice Residency

I’m excited about what is possible here, who I might meet, and what I might learn. The Santa Fe Art Institute has created a powerful residency program for 2018 on the theme of equal justice. More details to come as the program unfolds but for now, all you need to know is that I have a private room (and bathroom) with underfloor heating and patio, 24 hour studio access, a gallery space available for exhibitions and a cohort of fascinating people to work with. Is this another dream and if so when will I wake up?

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.



Community of Practice

Big shout out to local artists Sue Fox from Textile Dream Studio and Corbett OToole for all they do. I’ve just completed a wonderful 12 x 12 challenge with Sue, Corbett and 10 other women artists over the last 12 months. We’ve all traveled together and shared our process, our products and ourselves once a month. Their expertise and wisdom are a dynamic force in the world and we are all so grateful to them.

Much of the Farming Series has been made during this process and as the year drew to a close, the work started to become more sculptural. The gate motif is still making its presence felt and I’m more than ready to do some full on, in your face color. The piece in this photo is also within the 12 x 1 2 inch format, and made of 12, 12 inch square pieces of plastic bubble wrap and re-cycled batting, sewn together to make a cushion. The sculpture makes a crunching sound when pressed, and reminds me of the daily endeavor of reducing the amount of plastic in my life.

Image shows: square white cushion with 8 small red prayer flags sewn to bottom edge. A white gate symbol is stenciled onto a fragment of red silk fabric song with three vertical black lines and hints of blue and yellow paint.
Farming Sculpture No. 1, mixed media (including plastic, paint and silk cloth, 12 x 12 inches

The small red fabric prayer flags are torn rectangles from an old red silk dress. The white gate motif and black vertical lines were applied with a stencil. Image shows: square white cushion with 8 small red prayer flags sewn to bottom edge. A white gate symbol is stenciled onto a fragment of red silk fabric, placed in the middle of the piece with three vertical black lines and hints of blue and yellow paint around the edges.