Whittling – Part 2

So to conclude my previous post I should tell you a bit about the whittling workshop at the J.B. Blunk estate.

It was with Japanese master whittler Yo Takimoto. Yo-san lives in the US and Japan. He was born in Wakayama and graduated from USC with a degree in Architecture. He subsequently worked for 22 years as a city planner in Tokyo. 16 years ago a friend gave him a ‘kiridashi’ a small Japanese style carving knife, to help him with stress relief from his hectic job and to remind him of his postwar childhood in Kumano; ‘where I played in the forests and swam in the river’. This set a new direction for Yo-san’s life and for many years now he has been running workshops in Japan and the US for children and adults where he shares the experience of what he calls ‘kikezuri’. This is not your regular back porch whittlin’ but a subtle exploration of the connection between your inner processes, your hand, the tool and the small piece of wood you have chosen to work with. Yo-san brings a smorgasbord of different delicious woods from the US and Japan to his workshops and then each participant chooses  a piece which ‘speaks to them’. Then with just a kiridashi, and later some dried horsetail stalks and a tightly bound palm leaf brush for a final polish, each person sits quietly for three hours and slowly brings a shape out of the wood. I chose a knotty little piece of Madrone with its sensuous blood red bark still in place. Yo-san later said that it was his favorite American wood to work with and that old growth, tight-knit redwood from J.B.’s collection was a close runner up.

J.B. Blunk’s home was a perfect setting for this exploration. Sitting under the shade of a live oak in good company letting the conversation flow as each of us was intensely but gently working away. I could imagine J.B. going through the same careful dance – with a chainsaw in his case!!

Yo Takimoto - master whittler. I love the fundamental contradiction in this title.

What's on the menu?

Whittlin', perhaps thinking about the fresh oysters to come.

The final outcome - a worry stick. I've taken to carrying it in my jacket pocket to keep me grounded.

The workshop was a real treat. After 25 years of working with wood I do admit to getting complacent sometimes. Yo-san helped me rediscover the pleasure of tracing grain, letting a form grow, and the feel of a good sharp tool at work. Very satisfying!

Whittling in the shade of J.B. Blunk – Part 1

I have had the privilege of visiting a very special place several times over the last few months, the former home and studio of J.B. Blunk in Inverness. The most recent visit was last weekend to participate in an all day whittling workshop with Yo Takimoto. Let me tell you a little about the place and show you around and then I’ll give you a taste of the workshop.

J.B. Blunk was an astoundingly gifted sculptor who gained a national reputation for his huge but sensitively carved functional sculptures. I have spent many a summer day lounging around in the carved furniture he created at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. They are now imbedded in the Plane trees which have continued to grow up and around these beautifully aged works. You can see his iconic piece ‘Planet’ at the Oakland Museum of California and dine at one of his functional sculptures at Green’s Restaurant at Fort Mason.

Shady seating at Tassajara

Perfect for a snooze.

Nice details

Here is a short slide show of some of J.B.’s sculptures in process (made by Rivkah Beth Medow and Mariah Nielson).

But perhaps the best way to get an inkling of the mind, spirit and process of JB is to visit his home and studio which he began in 1959 and then proceeded to tinker with until his death in 2002. The hand-built house and studio is perched high on the ridge line of Pt. Reyes looking down through the forests to Tomales Bay below.

You can read Glenn Adamson’s overview of J.B.’s life here, and see more of his work at the J.B. Blunk website. Unfortunately, I never met J.B. while he was living. My connection to J.B. comes through his daughter Maria Nielson (who was born in the house – literally!) and now cares for the house and studio and J.B.’s legacy.

Here are some glimpses of the house and studio – a delightful mix of zen minimalism, NorCal transcendentalism and ribald humor.

The house approaching from the studio.

The kitchen, which always seems to be laden with delicious hand-built food!

A wall collaged from exquisitely figured sculptural off-cuts - mostly from 'Planet' I believe.

The bathroom with panoramic views down to Tomales Bay and a richly detailed hand-carved sink. The window is a glass door mounted on its side.

One of many stools - this one threatens personal damage if you're not mindful.

Cubist construction from chainsaw off-cuts.

Every nook and cranny shows the artist's hand.

J.B. studied in Japan in the 50's and you can see the influence everywhere.

Every light switch has a sculptural pull.

Even in the functioning studio everything is thoughtfully arranged.

Tools ready for action.

I love the wooden gutters on the open-air chainsaw studio

Sculptures on the grounds.

Serendipitous ones too.

The quintessence of the 'pastoral'!

More on the whittling workshop in my next post.


Wandering the streets of the Lower Bottoms (LoBo) district of West Oakland every afternoon with my hairy pal Nico I get to see some great street art; both intentional and accidental. Here’s a taste!

All but the last 4 images are of work created by local poet, artist, activist and character, Marcel Diallo. Check out his Black New World site for more on LoBo.

Rumored to be the oldest African american house in LoBo. Recently shifted to this site.

Imagined Construction 1

Imagined Construction 2

Imagined Construction 3

New additions

Nico approves!

Who can fill this seat?

Local deity

"Get the hell on!"

A place we all need to visit from time to time.

And now some less intentional local art – not authored by Mr. Diallo.

The corner scrap-yard.

Jonah in the whale

LoBo Blues

You are now leaving LoBo - in style!


Japanese Earthquake Tsunami rolls up a mile from my home!

This is pretty amazing.

After travelling 5,000 miles and going through the narrow gap of the Golden Gate, there is still a defined wave washing up on the East Bay.

A little ripple with a 5,000 mile radius. Imagine the wave at its source!

There has even been one fatality here – a spectator washed out to sea at Crescent City, NorCal.

YouTube – Japanese Earthquake Tsunami Wave hits Emeryville.

The Paramount Theater

Last Friday, I had the rare and delightful pleasure of attending the Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland for a viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant movie The Birds. The Paramount is a classic Deco movie palace that has been lovingly and painstakingly restored to its former splendor. They now open it up for music performances, classic movie nights and back stage tours. I remember seeing Bjork perform here as well as Mariza – both awesome concerts! My favorite events to enjoy at the Paramount are their classic movie nights. They only have about 10 screenings per year, so its a rare and special event. You can find the schedule here!

It's a treat approaching the Paramount with its bank of colorful neon.

"Walk like an Egyptian"

"Always the best show in town"

You can read a detailed history of the Paramount here. In short, construction was started in 1930 at the height of the Art Deco movement’s international reach and when completed, it was one of the largest movie palaces on the west coast of the US. The designer was the well known San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger who was also responsible for the Castro and Alhambra movie palaces in San Francisco, the Bal Tabarin (now Bimbo’s 365 Club on Columbus Ave.) and was one of the architects on the team which designed the Golden Gate International Exposition (1939-40).

Quoting from the Paramount website –

Timothy Pflueger was credited by one professional journal as “responsible for the work of more sculptors and mural painters in his buildings than any other western architect .” (Architect and Engineer, June 1941, p. 19) He engaged the most famous muralist of the time, the Mexican Diego Rivera (1886-1957), to paint “The Wealth of California” for the San Francisco Stock Exchange, and Rivera later identified Pflueger’s most original concept as his use of the fine arts in his buildings. “The group he gathered about him achieved a success in expressing their individual vision of American Society in a harmony which included the architectonics of the building.” (Rivera, My Art, My Life) Pflueger and Rivera were boon companions during the latter’s stay in San Francisco from 1930 to 1934, and while Rivera was not directly responsible for the facade mosaic of the Paramount Theatre, his influence may be seen in the majestic monumentality of the two figures in it as well as in its use of earth colors.

[Illustration from a detail of Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, San Francisco Art Institute. Rivera is seated on the middle of the scafolding with his back to the viewer and the trio below him includes Paramount Theatre architect Timothy Pflueger.]

The sculpted plaster panels lining the interior of the the theater are exquisite

As is the ceiling lighting system of cookie cutter style sheet metal patterns.

To top of all this architectural sumptuousness, there is the MAIN FEATURE!


Before the main feature there’s the mighty Wurlitzer organ, the glamorous game of luck and chance ‘Dec-O-Win’, with fabulous prizes to be won, the Movietone News, and an original Warner Bros. cartoon with the first ever appearance of Tweetie Bird! (a subtle reference to the main feature and perhaps to that other famous blonde ingenue bird Tippi Hedron (Tippi/Tweetie)).

The fabulous Dec-O-Win

But then finally the titles roll……

All you need is popcorn!

"Tippi, look behind you!!!"

What a great Bayarea event – from beleaguered Bodega Bay to glamorous Oakland!

Human/Nature at the Headlands Center for the Arts.

Last weekend was, theoretically, the closing of Human/Nature at the Headlands Center for the Arts. However, by popular demand and to coincide with the Creative Ecologies event taking place there over the next few weeks, the show has been extended. So you still have a chance to see this interesting exhibition.

Perhaps at the public round table for Creative Ecologies from 1pm on Sunday March 6th, from 1pm.

I got a second chance to wander and contemplate Human/Nature last week when I attended the orientation for the Headland’s Artist in Residence (AIR) program. I have a residency in the Project Space where Human/Nature is showing, in July and August this year. An incredibly exciting (and slightly daunting) prospect. The Project Spaces (there are two) are extraordinarily beautiful spaces with intriguing natural light and panoramic views of the valley heading down to Rodeo Cove. All of the work that is in Human/Nature resonates with the physical environment and does so directly by connecting with the views through the huge windows in the Project Spaces. I’m really enjoying this early ideation stage of getting to know the space and thinking about what might work within the scale of the Project Space, within the context of the larger environment of the Headlands and within my own conceptual framework. Its such a strange (and  yet familiar) dance.

Here’s a, hopefully mouthwatering, sampling from Human/Nature. This is just a taste! See it ‘in the flesh’ soon!

The West Project Space at the Headlands Center for the Arts.

My "Panopticon", in situ.

Andy Vogt's "Built by Destruction".

Jesse Schlesinger's "Elemental Drawing", using salvaged cypress logs from the Headlands,

which connects to a counterpart in the landscape viewed through the adjacent window.

Ben Venom's "Raised by Wolves", made from recycled heavy metal t-shirts.

Nathan Lynch's "They had a way of cleaning everything", ceramic.

Matthew Mullin's "Beetles". Extraordinarily detailed watercolor of something equally as painstaking.

Martin Machado's "Days on the Bay 1".


Youngsuk Suh's "Swans", in situ with the borrowed landscapes and archaeo-tectural detailing of the Project Space.

Bulb Archaeologies

The rain keeps coming down feeding the Sierra snow pack which is great for all of thirsty California and for our own local gardens and wild places. The colors and textures of the  Albany Bulb are always enhanced by the rain and the gray skies. It reminds me strongly of Australia at this time of year when the Broom and the Acacia are in full bloom – Broom is a noxious weed in Australia (and here) and the Bulb boasts at least six different species of Acacia that I have seen – all Australian natives. As far as I know all of the plants on the Bulb are self-sown so that it represents the new ‘native’ flora of NorCal – a mixture of robust natives, remnant die-hard locals, and adventitious immigrants – a bit like the human population of Bayarea!

Wattle in full bloom

Eucalyptus globulus - The Tassie Blue Gum is such an intrinsic part of the California landscape now

They thrive here with no koalas or insects to munch on them.

The storms have dredged the Bay and laid down a rich carpet of red, brown and green algal flotsam.

Alysum abstraction

Klein cooch collaboration

Bulb archaeology

There’s lots of new art popping up around the Bulb but I might keep that for another post!

Lawrence LaBianca – Icon

My colleague (as sculptor, educator and surfer) Lawrence LaBianca invited my CCA graduate CRAFT LAB group to visit his studio last week. We are talking, reading, writing and making around concepts connected to tools and process so Lawrence’s work is particularly relevant to our project.

Lawrence has just returned from an extended residency at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado. He is a prolific and dedicated artist and the quantity, diversity and intensity of the work he produced during his residency was amazing to all of us. His home/studio in the Mission is encrusted with his work, collections and artistic collaborations. Lawrence and I share a love and nostalgia for the great ocean voyages of exploration, and his living space resembles the cabin of a seasoned voyager: neat, efficient and tightly packed with discoveries of a peripatetic life of artistic and physical engagement with the world.

Lawrence explaining his river borne etching machine

No space wasted!

Echoing forms

Walls encrusted with old and new works. Tools for apprehending the natural world

Creative collaborations,

Mysterious artifacts,

Ghostly projections.

Lawrence shared the in-production footage of his weather ballon powered drawing machine completed at the Anderson Ranch.

If you’d like to see more of Lawrence and his work, Regina Connell did a nice interview with him last year on her Handful of Salt blog.

And the Anderson Ranch blog about his residency has some great process shots!

The best bread in the world

Tartine in San Francisco is reputed to make the best bread in the world.

Here is a video about Tartine’s resident baking genius Chad Robertson’s process that shows you why!

I love the surfing reference in this video. The idea that the weather provides the context for excellence in both surfing and baking. Its also a joy to hear the composition of local musical luminaries Tin Hat played by Marié Abe on the soundtrack.

Bread is a mixture
of flour and water
that is transformed
into something through
the course of fermentation,
that transcends
the simplicity of those
basic ingredients.

Chad Robertson

Paul Discoe – Master craftsman – Icon

I took my CCA cabinet-making class to visit with Paul Discoe of Joinery Structures today.

I have the honor of co-teaching this class at CCA this semester with Paul: a woodworker for whom I have immense respect. Paul is an ordained Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshii of the San Francisco Zen Center. He was trained and ordained by Suzuki Roshii and subsequently lived in Japan for 5 years working with builders of traditional wooden building. Paul has enlarged on this unique experience by working on many important projects since his return; including major buildings at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and Green Gultch Farm Zen Center, other traditional building projects around the world and sumptuous private homes created entirely in the immaculate Japanese tradition. His recently published book is a great resource and a joy to browse – available from SF Zen Center. Here is a link to Paul’s lecture at CCA as part of CCA’s Design and Craft Lecture Series in Fall 2009 – available for viewing or downloading for free at iTunesU.

Paul showed all of us around his extraordinary complex tucked away off Grand Ave. in West Oakland – just around the corner from my much more humble studio. Here he has the capacity to accept a wide variety of trees from our Urban Forest, which he then then can mill and dry entirely on site. We started by looking at some of the furniture pieces that Paul’s company Live Edge produces and at some samples of the woods that people bring him to mill, dry and then work with – Monterey Cyprus, Deodar Cedar, Redwood, Black Acacia, Camphor, Elm, Poplar and Port Orford Cedar.

Then we wandered out past several herculean piles of logs sourced from around Bayarea.

Redwood bones piled...

He has the capacity to slice these logs with relative ease on a full bandsaw mill – The Wood-Mizer!!

And has LOTS of equipment to dry, resize and finish the slabs.

Air-drying slabs

Deodar slabs fresh from the kiln.

A small part of Paul's irreplaceable archive


Trestles stacked ready for action

Dollies on rails to move the slabs

Eventually it comes down to handwork. Laying out and cutting joints with finely tuned handtools, assembling, detailing and finishing – all with a craftsman’s carefully honed senses.

One of Paul's master craftsman working with exquisite Port Orford Cedar.

Hand tools arrayed

Paul’s son sharpening Japanese style – using waterstones, on the floor, with great efficiency.

Thanks Paul!! For your time today, for working with us at CCA, and for honoring and maintaining great traditions.

Devil’s Teeth

I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Devil’s Teeth’, a great short film about living, dreaming and aging!

Made by local Bayarea film-maker Roger Teich about Ron Elliot the only urchin diver in the Great White shark infested waters of the Farallon Islands off our coast. Such hard work under such perilous conditions.

The New Year at Steep Ravine

I spent the last two days at my favorite retreat in NorCal, Steep Ravine. I’ve posted about this special place a few times – here and here. Each time I go, its a great mix of the familiar and the totally new. This trip Sandra and I went with our friends Tania and Philip. It was their first time at Steep Ravine and they were enamored.

We caught a delicious sunset as the westering sun snuck out under the last of the weekend’s rain presaging a clear star-filled night of talking around the potbelly stove followed by a  gorgeous sunny Monday of bush-waking and beach strolling. In my other Steep Ravine posts I focussed on the ocean and the cabins themselves, this time I’d like to take you up into the redwood forests in the hills behind the cabins!

Sandra, Philip and Tania soaking up winter sun

Bridge over Steep Ravine

Handrail Wabi Sabi

Ancient weathered redwood log

Banana slug heaven!

Flowing on...