June 30, 2018

Eliza1
Costumes for Eliza Doolittle, Pygmalion, Summer 1984 (ink/marker on sketch paper, fabric sample for Eliza, Act IV)
Pygmalion2
Costumes for Pygmalion, Summer 1984 (ink/marker on sketch paper, fabric sample for Mrs. Higgins)

In last week’s post I wrote about Occidental’s summer drama program, where they presented plays in Oxy’s Greek Bowl for more than 50 years. I wrote about working in the costume shop the summer of 1984 and my role in the design and fabrication of costumes for the characters in Pygmalion. That story got me thinking about some sketches I had done. So, I dug through my myriad of portfolios and found some art. I designed and made the ivory-colored ball gown you see here for Eliza (Act IV). I enjoyed making this dress so much that I even lined it with some left over soft peach-colored silk that I had dyed. (It was left over from another project.) The actress who played the part looked stunning in the dress, along with the rented full-length white gloves and sparkling necklace and tiara (made by the Oxy props department). As it turns out I did not make the “men’s suit” inspired dress to the right for her. Well, actually I did make it, but in a bright red-orange fabric that all but glowed in the dark. In fact, it was just too bright and upstaged everything every time she walked out on stage. Oh well. Thank goodness there was a perfectly lovely Victorian period dress that had already been made for the actress playing Eliza (from a previous play—I think it was from “The Importance of Being Earnest”) and we used it instead. The other set of sketches show what I had envisioned for Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering and Henry’s mother. We didn’t make any men’s costumes, as there were so many Victorian period suits we could rent from various costume rental businesses in town. I remember we rented a mid-length black overcoat for Colonel Pickering. And we found a women’s cape made of fur in Oxy’s women’s costume room that I put around the neck and shoulders of that actor. It looked really cool on stage, like a great fur coat a man with great wealth would have worn to the theater in Victorian London in winter. (Of course it was LA in July, so the actor who played Colonel Pickering must have sweltered in his suit and tie, overcoat and fur mantle.) I don’t remember what I made for Henry Higgins’s mother. I know I wanted the cool dress I sketched here, but I think since she wasn’t really a principle character I found something else suitable for her to wear. And if I remember correctly, there just wasn’t enough time to make one more costume from scratch. It was so much fun to research, plan and execute all of the costumes for that play. As I said in last week’s blog, the summer of 1984 was pretty great for me!

Last time I also mentioned that I had taken a costuming class at UCLA extension before that summer. (For a brief time I considered “costuming” as a career. And such a notion started with this class.) A very bubbly blonde taught it and her name was Deirdre Naughton. When I first signed up for the class I didn’t really know anything about “costuming” and I didn’t know who Dierdre was, but I had heard of the TV show “Square Pegs.” (She was the head costumer for that 1982-1983 show.) Just as an aside—a costumer is generally the person who manages/organizes/cleans costumes worn by actors. And generally speaking a costume designer determines what will be worn. Either way, to work on costumes in movies and TV you need to belong to a union, or guild.

Deirdre invited Robert Turturice, a costume designer, to speak at one of our classes. He had so many interesting stories to tell, including his early work at Western Costuming where his job there was to dye shoes. That’s right, all he did was spray men’s and women’s shoes different colors. I don’t remember his exact words on the subject, but I wish I did. They were the kind of words a person should live by. I remember he said that you never knew whom you were “spraying” shoes for—it could have been for a major star or someone who had only one or two scenes in a movie. He admitted that it was pretty monotonous—white to brown, black to lavender, red to metallic gold, two-toned spectators etc. But he said he always did the best job he could for each pair because he never knew who was going to wear those shoes and he wanted that person to be outstanding and shine as they walked on set. I’ve reflected often on this story and truly believe he meant it as a metaphor for life—to do every job you are given the best you can. Of course he followed that one up with stories of his later design work in Las Vegas where he created leather dominatrix costumes for various showgirls. I guess he even wanted those dressed in head to toe leather to shine just like a beautiful pair of shoes. Thinking about the way he told those two stories, one after another, still makes me grin a little. There are of course other words to live by that might be something more like “don’t take yourself too seriously…”

And then Mr. Turturice got to his more current work, where he described doing costumes for the 1983 TV movie, “Blood Feud” (story of Bobby Kennedy trying to take down Jimmy Hoffa). That was so interesting as he described how the lawmakers/politician’s wore rumpled and ill-fitting shirts and suits. Whereas, the teamsters (lead by Jimmy Hoffa) were impeccably dressed with expensive suits, tie pins and cufflinks. He talked of setting up a kind of warehouse of suits, ties and shoes of different sizes and shapes for the various actors to try on before they made the movie at 20th Century Fox. He talked about using tea to dye the dress shirts to be a bit off white as a pristine white shirt was just too bright and would appear to almost vibrate when on camera. He also talked about something called Picrin, an all-purpose dry stain remover. Both he and Deirdre discussed this miracle product as well as going to “all night” dry cleaners in town. (I guess the armpit area of shirts and suit jackets can get pretty stained and stinky. It was explained clearly to us that it was the costumer’s job to get armloads of clothing cleaned before the next day’s “shoot.”) After Mr. Turturice finished describing what he did for “Blood Feud” he talked about working with Cybill Shepherd. Over the years he had become her “go to” designer and was about to start working on costumes for her in a new show (at the time) called “Moonlighting.” He didn’t have anything to do with Bruce Willis’s suits, but Robert Turturice designed every piece of clothing worn by Ms. Shepherd from March 1985 to May 1989. (In 1987 he won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Costuming for a Series for Moonlighting. And when I got married that summer, I tried to make my hair look like her character on the show. It looked great for about 15 minutes…maybe that was my 15 minutes of fame…)

But the final costuming story this one California girl wants to tell is about Ms. Naughton. She was wonderful and so generous with her ideas and suggestions. She talked endlessly about her job, even how she and Mr. Turturice had both participated in the Emmy Awards voting for people in the costume design and costumer categories. Deirdre also talked about how to break into the business, including how to get into the costumer’s union. In fact, on the second to last class she asked a couple of us if we wanted to do some last minute “in the trenches” costuming for a movie that was on it’s third unit. Of course I said, “Yeah!” And I threw myself into that project “with both feet and my hat off.” (That means with my usual gusto.) It was fun, but when the summer of 1984 ended I decided that I wasn’t really interested in pursuing “costuming” as a career. It seemed to me there was so much uncertainty about when, or if, you would have regular work, even if the work were a blast. But very late one night in early fall; I got a call from Dierdre. She wanted to be sure I had really considered becoming a costumer or costume designer. She was very encouraging and thought I would be really good at it. I appreciated the call and the words of encouragement, but didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t think it really was for me. It was so very thoughtful of her to make the effort.

Sadly, both Dierdre Naughton and Robert Turturice each have passed away. I found that out as I looked on the Internet for additional information to round out this post. It was fun to be prompted to recall and learn of her costuming credits, pre- and post summer 1984. For example, her costuming career started with “All in the Family.” And after she finished “Square Pegs” in 1983 she did costumes for a couple TV shows—“Head of the Class” and “A Different World.” It was clear that both Dierdre and Robert were each very creative and had a great passion for what they did—passing much of that enthusiasm along to me. I only met Mr. Turturice the one time and did not keep in touch with Deirdre after her late night call in late 1984. But I always liked the idea that such creative people were out there in the world doing cool things and pursuing a life in the “arts.” It’s hard to make a consistent living doing that. Maybe California still has wonderful and creative things that can be done under the sun for those of us who are square pegs that don’t fit into round holes or are the ultimate master at spraying shoes different colors. I know that if you are reading this, and have the soul of an artist like me, you know exactly what I am talking about and why we do it. Right?

Happy Birthday Deirdre Naughton, July 13, 1951

And Happy Birthday to my brother Brian, June 29

June 22, 2018

1Greek Bowl, Oxy art
Greek Bowl, Occidental College, June 13, 2018 (plein air, mixed media on watercolor paper)
2Greek Bowl
Greek Bowl, Occidental College, June 19, 2018 (watercolor, pen and ink on watercolor paper)

I went to Occidental College in Eagle Rock the other morning. At the top of the campus is the Greek Bowl. I climbed the concrete steps to the very back of this outdoor stage and sat pretty far to the right. Is that stage left? Or do those stage directions apply if you are not actually on the stage? While sitting there I painted the first piece you see. But when I finished it, I realized it was too close up and the viewer might not get the sense of the details and scope of this type of theater. I wasn’t sure if the three vertical ivy “wings” on either side of the rectangular lawn looked like anything other than just more greenery. I also wondered if I “scrubbed” some of the “plant” sections too much…and it was “overworked.” So when I got home I did the second one, from a photo I had taken. I like that it includes more details like the stairs and the round patch of lawn—not really sure why that’s there. Maybe it had originally been some kind of pond or fountain that was later filled in with dirt and grass seed. I understand that in ancient Rome they used to fill the Coliseum with water and have “mock” sea battles. Maybe Oxy students in ancient times had tiny “mock” sea battles there.

Starting in 1960 Occidental College began presenting plays (summer drama festival) in the Greek Bowl—adding a proper stage over the circular lawn and steps on either side for the run of the festival. Omar Paxson, an Oxy theater arts professor, started the festival and he ran it for some 26 years. And it was only a couple years ago Occidental stopped the program. (I remember hearing a local story about its last summer, but don’t remember when that was. But I can safely say that the summer drama festival ran for over 50 years.) Each summer they produced 5 plays, which included a Shakespeare, a Shaw, a Gilbert and Sullivan, and two other dramas. In the summer of 1984, I helped with costumes for that season. Earlier in the year I had taken a “costuming” class at UCLA extension and was looking to design and make costumes for plays, movies or TV. That summer they produced “Midsummer’s Night Dream,” “Iolanthe,” “Pygmalion,” “Our Town” and “Guys and Dolls.” I was in charge of costumes for Pygmalion, but helped make costumes for all the other plays as well. Most of the performers were theater arts students and they each had parts in all 5 plays. But the program had a unique learning/teaching component as each student was also assigned “behind the scenes” jobs besides their “on stage” roles. Some were assigned to be directors or stage managers. And some were assigned to help with lighting, sound, props or help us with various jobs in the costume room. The theater department was down the hill from the Greek Bowl, in Thorne Hall. Once rehearsals (in Thorne Hall) had begun for “Guys and Dolls,” the students and crew (like me) loaded everything we would need for the five different plays in a large truck and drove it up the hill to the Bowl. Once we got the sewing machines, sergers and worktables into the Treehouse, a small narrow building just below the bowl, we went to work. I immediately set up meetings for discussions with the director, scheduled measurement sessions for the actors and did sketches for costumes for Pygmalion. Our day-to-day crew, like me, and the student helpers worked really hard and got a lot done. The head costume designer for the summer program said we were all going to start looking like Quasimodo because we spent so many hours hunched over a sewing machine, or leaning over tables to cut out fabric. It was pretty warm in Eagle Rock that summer and it was pretty warm in the costume room we lovingly called the “sweatshop.” I had a blast! It was wonderful!

As the head designer for Pygmalion I designed quite a few costumes for women, especially for Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins’s mother. I also helped make countless long white and aqua tulle ballerina skirts for the many fairies of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. We went to local fabric shops in downtown LA to get a lot of the fabric we needed for such costumes. However, we didn’t fabricate all the costumes. We didn’t make men’s clothing, like suits or shirts for Henry Higgins or Colonel Pickering. Most of what was used for them was rented. As you might imagine, there are a number costume rental businesses here in LA. One of the big rental companies at the time was Western Costume Co. We got a few things from there, but most men’s clothing I got for Pygmalion (hats, ties, suits, overcoats etc) was from a costume shop in Glendale, called The Costume Shop. If you have never been to a theatrical costume shop it can be overwhelming. Just imagine a huge warehouse with floor to ceiling racks and racks of clothing and accessories. Huge places like this are divided up into sections such as western wear, Victorian, vintage 60s or 70s, circus clowns, suits for aliens, costumes for children and so on and so on. You can almost get lost in a place like that. But we found suitable suits and hats for the men in Pygmalion as well as Guys and Dolls.

Not only did we make costumes on the spot and rent them nearby, but we also used costumes from the huge store of costumes in the theater arts department at Thorne Hall. OK, probably the best part of this story, at least for me, is the women and men’s costume rooms that were connected to Thorne Hall at the time. First, to get to the women’s costume room you first entered the theater arts office, through another door and then ducked down a bit to enter a cavernous windowless room that was filled floor to ceiling with women’s costumes and accessories. It was not as large as The Costume Shop or Western Costuming, but it was big and also divided into sections much like the costume businesses in the area. Oh, and this room had only the women’s clothing. To get to the men’s costumes, it was a bit more harrowing. On the far side of this room was a ladder that went up about 15 or 20 feet. First you climbed up the ladder, and then crawled on a horizontal ladder that went lengthwise across the very tiptop of the Thorne Hall stage. Oh, and it was pitch black up there and you made this journey by feeling your way along the ladder. (Would have been great to have a miner’s headlamp.) Then when you got to the other side you climbed down (again in complete darkness). Finally, you went through a door into the men’s costume room. Fortunately there was a light in that room, so at least you weren’t looking for men’s coats, hats, shirts and shoes in the dark. And as you might imagine, eventually you would found what you were looking for and had to repeat the dark journey back to the women’s room—only this time you usually had only one hand to hold on as you were carrying whatever you had found in the other one. A number of times I could hear the actors rehearsing on the stage below me. I thought of making some ghost-like sounds to help me with the eerie feeling I had up there. But, you know that heat rises, right? And it was stifling up there and it was all I could do to talk to myself in my head and get to the light of the women’s costume room on the other side. Quite a story, right? When I was on the Occidental College campus the other day I looked for that outside door to the theater arts office that would have lead to the women’s costume room, but couldn’t find it. Looks like all of those buildings have since been remodeled. Actually, I can’t imagine it is still set up like that. But who knows!

In the summer of 1984 I was living in Long Beach and I drove to Occidental College each afternoon. It was also the summer of the Olympics, which was held in LA. Needless to say, it was pretty crazy all over town. Most evenings we worked in the costume shop until 2 or 3 in the morning and then I would drive on the “empty” LA freeways home. I would get up late the next morning and be back at Oxy by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. (The freeways were pretty jammed at that time of the day—quite a departure from my early morning drives.) Many of the actors in Occidental’s summer plays performed at the opening ceremony at the LA Memorial Coliseum the evening of July 28th. I can’t remember where we all sat and watched that on TV, as there sure wasn’t a television in the costume room, and there wasn’t any spare surface for anything. But we did watch it, hoping we would see some of the people who were performing that summer. Pretty cool.

So, that’s how it was that summer—hot, fast and furious. But maybe there is one more 1984 “costume” story left to tell. The wrestling events for the summer Olympics were held in Long Beach. My aunt was a volunteer for the venue. She got a really cute and colorful uniform to wear. So, that Halloween I went to a cool party in Laguna with a friend. She went as a cheerleader and I borrowed my aunt’s outfit and covered the business end of a toilet plunger with foil and went as an Olympic torchbearer. There I was, again surrounded by people in costumes. But this was a very different group of people and there was to be a very different evening of drama. Besides the usual vampires, witches and the lone wholesome Olympic torch bearer and her cheerleader friend there were quite a few men in drag, someone wearing a mask on the back of his head and huge fake genitalia attached to the back of the costume (it was his party) and a clown that had cut out a hole at the back of his costume, so his bare butt was showing. Oh, but we weren’t yet done. My cheerleader friend and I had had enough and were about to leave when one of the party goers, dressed as a nurse, turned on some music and started taking off her clothes. The guy who hosted the party (the fake genitalia guy) had hired a stripper. That was our cue to leave. And that means it is now my cue to end this LA story.

Oh, first day of summer was just yesterday. Hope you have a nice summer!

June 16, 2018

Paramount Ranch
Church at Paramount Ranch, June 9, 2018 (watercolor and Inktense pencil on watercolor paper)

I belong to a “Meet Up” sketching group. Last Sunday we went to Paramount Ranch to sketch/paint. I’d never even heard of the place, let alone been there. So, here is what I discovered while the wonders and mystery of my GPS showed me a map and the way to Paramount Ranch. It’s in the Santa Monica Mountains, between the hills of Agoura and Point Dume, Malibu. It’s a lovely, hilly area with lots of huge coast live oaks. There wasn’t much traffic on the 101 that morning so I was in good spirits when I arrived. And once I saw the countless oak trees at the visitor center, a particular favorite of mine, I was certain being there for a couple hours would be fabulous. While a waited for some of my painting buddies to show up I ate some yoghurt. Behind me there were a couple fire fighters washing a fire truck. (Always glad to see fire fighters out in such a place, as this area will be very dry and hot in a few weeks.) I wasn’t exactly sure what I was in for, but pretty soon a guy with a huge horse trailer pulled up. He jumped out of the truck and systematically began to unload 8 horses from the trailer, tying each one off at the side. I was starting to get the picture that Paramount Ranch and these horses were somehow going to be joined at some point.

A Background Paragraph on Paramount Ranch

This seems an opportune moment to provide a little background. (I looked all this up on the Internet when I got home later that day.) In 1927, Paramount Pictures bought the land and built some western town movie sets. Paramount used the sets for westerns they made for about 25 years. Then in 1953, they sold the property to a new owner and it became an independent movie ranch. At that time the new owners expanded the size of the Western Town set so the many production companies that were making westerns for television in the 1950s could use it. In the 80’s, the National Parks Service bought most of the land (including the Western Town) and now they rent it out to various production companies who are in need of a ready-made western set. Such production companies are allowed to make alterations to the buildings, but the western town theme is to stay in tact. Based on the photos I saw on the Internet it looks like Western Town can also be rented out for weddings too.

So, once I had finished my snack and my friends had arrived we started into Western Town. On our way in a friend noticed that what appeared to be wooden siding on an old building was actually a sheet of metal siding that had been fabricated and painted to look like a wall of huge wooden beams. But as we both realized, nothing would be as it seemed in this fake western town and I’m sure no one would notice such a fake wall when watching a TV western that might include that building. As we turned the corner I saw quite a few artist posses on each street corner. They had already set up their supplies and were already painting. None of these artists were wearing cowboy hats or western boots, but rather had on sensible sun hats and shorts. It was such a great juxtaposition of yesterday compared with today, real versus fake. And almost as if on cue, the real came along side the unreal when a huge group of people on 21st century bicycles zoomed past us—past the general store, with Dry Goods, Groceries and Clothing, the Hotel Mud Bug and the Great Bend Jail and Sheriff’s office. It was about that time I figured out that the guy with the horses had a plan. And it was about this time that I realized once again the craziness of the California dream, with entrepreneur opportunities galore. It was great!

I wandered around the town a bit and found a great shady spot under a huge coast live oak tree. (Last week’s blog was all about California’s oak woodland and the history behind those magnificent and important trees.) For this adventure I was delighted to find a nice spot, in the shade, under such an oak. It must have been at least 300 years old. I wondered who else might have sat under that tree to cool off. Episodes of the TV show Gunsmoke were filmed here. Maybe the marshal or a bad guy sat under the tree with his or her horse tied off nearby. To my right was a wooden wagon that looked to be at least 100 years old (probably another fake) and directly in front of me was the old church you see here. Of course it’s part of this western town and a fake as well. It was only recently added to the property and used for the HBO show Westworld. If you look it up you can see how it was a white church with a pretty tall steeple and faux graveyard to the right. It was pretty nice to peacefully sit there and imagine days gone by with wagons and horses. But of course the 21st century was clearly still here as directly behind me a group of Eagle Scouts was engaged in some kind of project. Near as I could tell, they were shoveling large amounts of leaves and dried acorns into wheelbarrows. Then they looked for places to distribute all these trimmings to other places on the property. Of course one of the spots they chose to dump the yard waste was only a couple yards away from me. These 13 and 14-year old boys seemed to be having only a minimal amount of fun, kind of complaining about the work they were doing and talking. Most of the conversation I heard was about school and that the grade F for sure meant Fail, but that you could earn an E if you were Emotional. Pretty funny and emotional if you ask me.

We had a throw down on one of the streets in Western Town after a bit. A throw down is when we gather together and place our sketchpads side by side and we talk about our art. For this one, we lined up our art on the wooden sidewalk up against a fake old building. And as I had guessed, the horse entrepreneur had rented horses for people to ride around Western Town as some of the artists had captured just that. Most artists had painted the various buildings, with and without horses. Others had painted the same church, but of course their interpretation of the old looking building was completely different from mine. It was all really great to see. We talked quite a bit about who we were, the art and materials we used. I am always amazed with the people who come to these events—animators, architects, graphic artists and then just regular folks like me.

After we finished the plan was to eat lunch under some trees. I had planned to do that and had my customary peanut butter and jelly sandwich prepared. But I knew the traffic on 101 would just be getting worse as the afternoon went on. Reality was creeping into the wonderful unreality of the morning. So, I ate my peanut butter sandwich and pretzels in the car on the ride home. And yah, the traffic was awful. But I have this little piece of art I can look at to remind me of the old days—the old days of today and long ago. It is a bit confusing at times, but that’s LA for you! Gotta love it!

June 9, 2018

River Road Oak
River Road Oak Tree, San Miguel, CA spring 2001 (watercolor and colored pencil on cold press illustration board)

This is actually a photocopy of a piece of art I had framed and gave to a friend. She was born in Paso Robles (very near San Miguel) and I think she probably loves oak trees as much as I do. But there is more to this piece of art than meets the eye as the amazing wall of clouds I painted here was not the actual backdrop of the hill with oak trees on that particular day. Here’s what I actually mean. I took the photo of the golden-looking oak trees on River Road in early spring 2001, but I photographed those clouds the previous fall (on that same stretch of River Road), after a wonderful bit of rain. As is the prerogative of a painter, I can do that. I can mix and match what I want. I can add or take away what pleases me. I remember thinking that the golden spring oak leaves I had set against the perfect sky of white clouds and pristine clean blue sky would look amazing. I think I also remember wondering about the color of the spring leaves on those trees as they were not green, but rather a golden color. So, I cannot be sure what kind of oak this is, but I am fairly certain it is not a live oak—a common evergreen oak tree we have here. But whatever kind of oaks I saw that day (and later painted), those sparkling golden leaves look pretty spectacular here.

I have always been enchanted by the oak trees (in oak woodlands) we have here in California. They have such a nice sturdy shape, they produce these cool-looking edible acorns (if you rinse and rinse out the natural bitter taste from the acorn flour), they are often very slow growing and tend to live a long time. For example, a coast live oak can live to be more than 250 years old. And since they live so long, you just get used to having them around. For me they are somehow a constant in an ever changing California world. I have written about the many changes we’ve seen since the missions were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. San Miguel has a mission that was founded in 1797, but burned down in 1806. It was rebuilt and complete in 1821. I like to imagine there were mature oak trees near the mission at that time. Maybe they are not the same ones you might see today, but I am sure they were welcome shade for the people who rebuilt that mission. When I was young I fondly remember seeing far away rolling golden hillsides of oaks from my Paso Robles friend’s kitchen window. Of course lots of houses have filled the spaces between the trees since the early 2000s. And neighboring hillsides of Paso oaks are now also filled with vineyards. I believe mature oak trees are considered an asset to a homeowner who is lucky enough to have one on the property. And I know I have heard that a house will sell for more money if there are such trees on the land.

I wrote about working at Addison Wesley Publishing Co, in Menlo Park (right next to Palo Alto) last time and that the building on Sand Hill Road was part of what is known as “Stanford land.” Not sure what actually means, but I think people who have businesses there don’t get to really own the land…somehow. Anyway, in the courtyard outside the two story office where I worked was a huge oak tree that towered over the top of that building. (I remember a couple of the guys who worked in the design department liked to sit under the tree and smoke cigars. Hmmm…) Next to us was a second Addison Wesley two-story building and towering oak on the property as well. Those trees were at least 200 years old and probably more like 250 years old. I worked there from about 1991 to 1994. That meant the trees may have been saplings in the 1750s, right? And that was way before Leland Stanford built Stanford (1891) and there was no such notion of “Stanford land.” Native Americans were definitely living near there when those trees were young. (A Native American man who worked with us in the editorial department said that Native American artifacts had been found when they put in the linear accelerator (SLAC—Stanford Linear Collider) and Stanford Shopping Center right next door to Addison Wesley. Pretty cool, huh?

Of course if you really want to get a sense of old trees here in CA, I have to mention the CA redwood. A typical lifespan of a CA redwood is 500 to 700 years, with some living to be 2000 years old. They don’t produce anything that we can eat, like an acorn, but you have to marvel at the changes that have occurred since some of those old trees were seedlings. If they could only talk and tell us what it was like…

Speaking of edible acorns

In the fall of 1993 I went on a hike with other like-minded tree huggers on trails through amazing groves of redwoods and oaks at Castle Rock State Park. Castle Rock State Park is on the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains and is not only a great place for hiking, but also a great place to go rock climbing. Anyway, the person who took us on the hike talked quite a bit about the oak trees on the trails. She described at great length about the tanoak and the tanoak acorn. It seems that the tanoak isn’t really a true oak at all, but a kind of cross between an oak and a chestnut tree. Native American groups in the coastal ranges of California relied on the tanoak acorns for food. And it seems a single tanoak can produce 200 pounds of acorn per year and it has been estimated that CA tribes would harvest 500 to 2000 pounds of acorns per family per year. Yikes, that’s just mind blowing to me.

An acorn has a very unique appearance. Each one has a little cap that fits snuggly to a small nut that is shaped like a football. As a kid I remember collecting acorns and acorn caps that were under oak trees. This happened during the time of year when the tree naturally dropped the nuts (seeds) in hopes that a new oak tree would sprout and grow into another oak. But also usually at this time the caps and nuts were not together anymore, and there would be hundreds of such acorns and caps spread around under each tree. I would painstakingly try to match the exact cap that went to the exact nut. And when I found one that was still together, I was in heaven. It always seemed like such a prize. I had learned in school that Native Americans ground up the nut part of the acorn into flour and then made bread. What a lot of work! I remembering my mom telling us kids that there were acorn grinding bowls carved into the huge granite boulders near the “swimmin’ hole” on their property in Mariposa. She said there were even smaller granite stones in the bowls that the local Native Americans had used to grind the acorns into flour. At some point I guess the grinding stones disappeared. If I ever saw the bowl impressions in the rock, I don’t remember. I was very little when my mother’s family sold that property.

As I said, I learned about how California Native Americans made bread flour from acorns, and I guess they had done just that (probably for generations) near my mom’s house in Mariposa. But I also remember thinking that after all the work of pulverizing hundreds and hundreds of acorns, you weren’t even close to being ready to make bread. I have never tasted acorn flour that had just been milled, but I understand it is really bitter and inedible. So, there is yet one more step of rinsing and rinsing (called leaching) the flour to rinse out the bitter taste. Then the acorn meal is dried and bread dough can be made and baked. So, there are a couple things I have always wondered about eating acorn meal. First, who thought such a hard nut could be ground up and eaten? (I read that they used to suck on them if they had a sore throat.) Second, who thought of rinsing and rinsing the flour to make it edible? (Probably why the Mariposa grinding bowls were so close to swimmin’ hole.) And third, how many years (generations) did it take to carve out a grinding bowl for acorns in granite? (Granite is one of the hardest rocks around, right?) And finally, didn’t that probably mean you were eating granite dust in your bread? I wonder if your teeth would grind down from years of chewing on granite dust. I wonder about these things…, don’t you?

June 2, 2018

Henry's sunflower
Stanford sunflowers, summer 1994 (acrylic on canvas, (18″ by 24″)

It’s early June, 1994. I am about 5 months pregnant with my one and only child and I am working as a book editor at Addison Wesley, Publishing Co in Menlo Park. I live in Santa Clara and commute to Addison Wesley every day. Each morning I squish myself, with my ever expanding belly, behind the wheel of the Acura and try to think of new ways to avoid the traffic and see something new on my way to work. Sometimes I take surface streets, like El Camino, where I go past Stanford University. Then I hang a left through a short parking lot attached to the Stanford Shopping Center and that brings me quickly to Sand Hill Road. (Addison Wesley used to be on Sand Hill Road.). One day I took a different left turn (before the Stanford Shopping Center) and drove around behind it past the back parking lots. As I sat at a light back there I looked to my right and noticed a mass planting of sunflowers on a corner of one of the parking lots. I was transfixed. And my life was forever changed by the enormous and beautiful display of every kind of sunflower imaginable. I wanted to pull over then and there, but I was about to be late to work and decided I would stop on my way home. And that’s what I did. It was a warm afternoon, but I stopped by that very parking lot that very afternoon and I inspected every inch of that sunflower wonder. There were rows of tall single head sunflowers, medium-sized single head sunflowers, and short squat sunflower bushes that were covered with flowers. Some flowers were dark yellow, some light yellow, some were the color of amber, some were a dark red and some were the color of crème. It was so densely packed with thick and thin green stems and leaves, and colorful flowers that no soil was visible. As I said, I was forever changed, as this would be the theme of the child I was waiting for, my sunflower baby. I drove past this vision every morning and every afternoon after that, noticing that the flower heads were in different positions as they followed the sun across the sky throughout the day. And I was acutely aware that the dark brown flower centers were getting larger and larger (much like my belly), while the flower petals were getting smaller and thinner. Because if you know anything about sunflowers, they don’t last very long in this beautiful “full flower” state as the whole point to the flower’s existence is to produce large seeds. Pretty soon the flower heads were starting to droop. But the people at the Stanford Shopping Center hadn’t noticed that a pregnant lady stopped by every day to appreciate, study and look at this vision and one day they were all gone. Just like that. All that was left was a large patch of dirt. (Maybe they had noticed the sweaty pregnant lady getting out and into the front seat of a blue Acura every weekday afternoon and it was just too much to watch anymore.)

I have done many paintings and drawings of sunflowers since first seeing them those fateful few weeks in Menlo Park, June 1994. In fact, I did a drawing of a couple sunflowers I’d seen there, adding a photo of my son’s “hours old” head popping out of a sunflower bud. Then I hand colored each one and sent them as birth announcements—my sunflower baby. I was just now remembering that was born at the Stanford Children’s Hospital just around the corner from there—pretty funny and somehow part of my cosmic sunflower obsession and journey. I was extremely obnoxious with that sunflower theme for many months after my son was born. In fact his first birthday had a sunflower theme, complete with a sunflower cake and yellow balloons on tall green ribbons everywhere.

What you see here is an example of just one of my sunflower paintings/sketches. I think this one has a kind of cosmic look, if you notice the background. When I rehung it in my house the other day (I am constantly moving my art from room to room, wall to wall.) I noticed another single sunflower on the back. I had forgotten I had painted that one first. But when it was done I decided I didn’t like it that much and re stretched the sunflower canvas so I could paint on the other side, creating the single sunflower stem and flower you see here.

In my blog last week I droned on and on about seeing art at your leisure and not being bothered by people getting in your way when you want to view a special painting. And I actually made a remark that I wanted to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre someday, but it’s pretty small (30 inches by 21 inches) and is probably hard to get a really good view of it without people being in the way. Well, my 24 inch by 18 inch sunflower painting (slightly smaller) could be easily viewed from far away without any trouble I think. That’s probably because the image is simple with great colors that provide such a contrast. If you really want to get the full cosmic sunflower affect of this one though, you would need to be up a little closer. But you know, I don’t really need to look at it anymore, because all I have to do is close my eyes and I can still picture that huge display of sunflowers in my mind. That picture will always be way better than any painting I could make. Besides I just planted a bunch of different kinds of sunflowers (Van Gogh, Garnet Star and Sundancer) in my front yard and I’m just waiting for them to bloom, kind of like I am waiting again for my baby to be born. So in a week or so I can look out my front window and get a real view to match with that memory. Gotta love that!

Gardens/plantings that should not be missed in Palo Alto and/or Woodside

The plantings at the Stanford Shopping Center are pretty special year round. There have been many times I have gone there just to see what had been planted. But going shopping there can be fun too, although it’s pretty expensive. When I was a girl my mom would take me to buy school clothes at the Stanford Shopping Center Emporium Department Store every fall. That was always a special treat. The Emporium has been gone a long time (like many of the department stores that were around when I was young), but the fountains and flowers are still going strong. I look forward to times in the future I can see what’s  blooming there again.

Another garden I love to go to in Palo Alto is in an old neighborhood there. It’s called the Gamble Garden and a great place to wander through, imaging a lovely glass of ice tea at the Stanford Shopping center when you are done. In fact, I copied part of that garden in the front yard of our house in Grass Valley. We had a couple lovely mature weeping cherry trees with a few roses and mostly lawn. The Gamble Garden also had several mature weeping cherry trees, but instead of turf, they had vinca as a ground cover surrounding the trees. All around that vision of pink cherry blossoms was a lavender-colored vinca carpet, with roses and boxwood. I didn’t put in the boxwood, but I did take out the lawn and added the vinca ground cover. And all around this lovely “Gamble Garden” inspired corner yard in Grass Valley I added countless roses. Oh, and I forgot to add that our garden had a huge 10 foot tall hedge of English Laurel, that mimicked the Gamble Garden’s charming woven fences (painted green) that lined the garden on the street. In spring, our house looked like a giant painted Easter egg! When we sold the house I told the new owner of the inspiration for the front yard garden—weeping cherry trees, vinca ground cover, green lined hedge/fencing and roses. One of the first things she did after they moved in was to take down the hedge and remove the vinca–adding back the lawn. I think she left the roses alone. Yikes and oh well! No accounting for taste. I haven’t been back to Grass Valley since the house sold and I don’t think I could stand to drive by to see the garden as it looks now. But I do have plans to go back to the Gamble Garden one of these days and paint those very trees, the ground cover and roses. That’s the memory of our house and the Gamble Garden I want to have.

Finally, there is a garden just a bit north of Palo Alto (Woodside) that shouldn’t be missed. It’s called Filoli. The house and gardens there have a connection to Grass Valley as the original owner of the Empire Mine in Grass Valley also owned Filoli. I am not mentioning any of this because of my Grass Valley garden angst, but rather to say that the gardens there are amazing and worth going to see. If you are old enough to have watched the TV show “Dynasty,” then you might remember the house they show in the credits. That’s it! That’s the very house on the Filoli estate. Not sure I care that much about the house, but my memory of those gardens is pretty special. As I have said in previous posts about California, it’s a pretty strange and yet amazing place.