Thursday, May 31, 2012

Approaching the finish line!

I don't know how many of my fellow SAMA members are following this, but I've been feeling as if I am leading a mosaic marathon, except that it is a month long and the people working on it are not SAMA members.  Most have never done mosaic before and are not familiar with terms like "andamento."

But, they are dedicated and enthusiastic, and they have stuck with the project all the way to the end - and we are almost there!

Last week, I felt very frustrated.  I mentioned it in a post on facebook, and was surprised how many people were incensed to learn that damage had been done to the work.  The information went a little bit viral, and I was concerned that I had inadvertently created more controversy.  But, I realize now that the result was very positive.  More people came by during this past week just to say thank you, and to express their commitment to protecting the mosaic.  One friend brought a bag of snacks last weekend, and I'm convinced that my volunteers would have run out of steam without that extra boost.  They all stayed until 6:30pm both Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.
It was a party!
Best of all, no one has removed our plastic coverings at night and there has been no tampering at all.  In less than a week, we have nearly finished adhering mosaic on the biggest and last part of the project.

There is nothing particularly innovative or fantastic about this mosaic, as mosaic goes.  It is a simple design: cartoon-like fish and completely random opus-palladianum mishmash background.  It is an onslaught of color and texture, interspersed with found objects and little surprises.  But, it has been the most meaningful project I've ever done.  I had no idea, starting out, how important this would be to the community.  First, I was very moved by the reactions of people at the fish-making event when they learned that they were invited to contribute to something that would become a permanent fixture in the City.  It was surprisingly emotional.

Never before have I allowed anyone else to work on a paid commission with me.  The first day that two volunteers showed up to help, I was scheduled for a photo shoot for a local magazine.  I had to hurry and mix thinset and give basic instructions.  I left Lisandro in charge of supervising and took off with the photographer.  Driving away felt so strange!

Slowly, more people were showing up, and anyone passing by could join us to put on one piece, or work for half the day, as they chose.  There has been so much surprise and delight in this mosaic.

One of the most dedicated volunteers is recovering from very tragic losses in his life.  He is struggling to find work as a graphic designer, but is living on the edge of homelessness.  He says working on this mosaic calms his mind, and he is often waiting in the morning when I arrive.  He mixed some of his girlfriend's ashes into the thinset one day to commemorate her in a permanent way.

Over the next few days, we'll be finishing up the background on the last pillar, and I'll do the last of the grouting.  It will be a huge relief to get back to my studio and garden, but I will also miss working with my lovely volunteers, plus all of the colorful characters who keep me company while I work.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bouncing Back

I hit a wall this week.

Since the beginning of the month, I've been getting up every day at 6am to get my family off to school, then taking care of the farm animals, then driving 40 minutes to Olympia.  Then I set up my canopy, which is not a wimpy job, then unload a few hundred pounds of materials from my car.  I spend the day crouching on concrete, using my hand to nip and grout until it burns with pain, through lunch until my time runs out, then load it all back in the car, take the canopy down, and race back to my job as Farmer Mom.
*Excuse me for bragging, but I would like to mention that the car is a 1988 Toyota Corolla wagon with 342,000 miles on it - and counting.*

Monday and Thursday, I get an extra hour to work before racing home to meet the bus.  Fridays and Saturdays, I work up to 9 hours straight.  Even my volunteers, who work 2-3 days each week for shorter stretches are suffering severe aches and pains.

So, wouldn't you know it, this weekend I could feel a cold coming on.  I was dragging, so I took Monday off and got some rest.  On Tuesday, I wasn't quite recovered, but I was anxious because I had left two forms unfinished, wrapped in plastic.  I planned to do some grouting and to finish filling in one area.

I was frustrated to find that the forms had been unwrapped, and once again, pieces had been pried off.  I'm not sure I wrote last time, when someone bashed some of the stained glass and chipped pieces out.  And I think I just rolled my eyes every time I went to unwrap some earlier work, to find that someone stuck gum in the ungrouted section of the mosaic.  But this time, the pieces had been chipped off and scattered around the parking lot, and I felt so defeated I wanted to cry.

Just one example of damage done to the mosaic after hours.  There was a little glass foot on this fish tail.
Every time pieces are chipped off, I have to carve and scrape the thinset out to fit new pieces in.  Then, I can't grout until those are cured, so it can delay the project a couple of days.

I don't know who would do such a thing.  Most of the people who spend their days in that area are homeless, or living on the fringes, but they are not mean-spirited and I am on friendly terms with most of them.  There is a group of youth who band together and are not friendly toward me.  They occasionally send a messenger over to ask a pointed question such as, "So, who paid for this project?"  When I explain that it was funded by downtown businesses and commissioned by the City, they look very satisfied, but angry, and report back to the group.  In the mornings after damage has taken place, the City's signs asking people to respect the artwork will be torn off and flung to the side, and messages will be scrawled on the walls and the well saying, "Take back the well" and references to "anarchy."  Some of them have mentioned that they think improvements to the well amount to "gentrification."

These are the only clues I have.  It could just be kids on meth attracted to shiny things, in a destructive frame of mind.  But, it was pouring rain, blowing in sideways despite my canopy.  Lisandro and I were on a tarp that had started out dry, but eventually just gathered pools of water.  I was shaking so much from cold I kept dropping my pieces, and everything was sliding and dripping and drooping, including my stamina.

We actually got a lot done that day, but I couldn't bring myself to go back on Wednesday.  And I really had to pull myself up by my bootstraps to go in today, especially since it was raining again.

Lisandro has just finished wrapping the plastic with duck tape, and is ready to go home and drink hot tea.
But, Lisandro had brought duck tape on Tuesday, and the plastic stayed put.  So I put up the canopy and grouted the top of the bench - the part that had received the most abuse.  Once it is grouted, it is less vulnerable and people can comfortably sit on it.  As I worked, the sun came out.  There's a guy who plays guitar and sings a song about the well ("Come to the well and drink freely,  Come to the well, and be free.  Come to the well, and drink freely.  Come to the well and have a nice day!")  He played and sang.  A lot of people came by to thank me and express concern because they had heard about the damage.  Several more people said they would volunteer this weekend.  My cold symptoms disappeared.  Once again, I was excited about the project.

Tomorrow, we will start the final concrete structure - the biggest one.  I'm in the home stretch!  It's going to be a mild, sunny weekend and quite a few people have said they'll be joining me.  I guess I really just needed a couple of days off to get my groove back.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Art, Mosaic, Water and Community

As you know, I've been in progress on the Artesian Well Community Mosaic project for several weeks now.  I spend day after day residing at this amazing natural resource, slowly adhering mosaic fish made during a community mosaic weekend, and filling in around them with a variety of tile, glass, shells, mirror, and found objects donated by local people.

(Product placement: Laticrete donated the very high-quality thinset being used for this project.  Thank you, Laticrete!)

Originally, I planned to fill in the background on my own, to ensure a consistent design and quality application of materials.  However, a tight deadline and experience spending time at the well lead to a change-of-heart.  I began inviting people to sit and apply pieces to the concrete forms and found that it felt more inclusive.  Soon, many more people began to join me on a daily basis, so the project has been moving along at a stronger pace, and the whole aesthetic has changed.  Karen comes almost every day to take her mind off of her ongoing lack of employment after losing a State job.  Thor has become an invaluable member of the "team" as he is also seeking work, along with processing the death of a loved one.  He says the meditation of mosaic is very therapeutic, and he is even smoking less.

Other volunteers include Darla Lynn, from South of Portland, OR - over 2 hours away!  Also Teasy, Robin, Jessie, Kaytrin, and more and more.  Today, a whole family sat down and created a little seascape at one end of a concrete bench.

Meanwhile, I am a sympathetic ear for many of the folks who visit the well.  They tell me how important this untreated water is for them.  Most of these people feel possessive of the space.  Some come from places like Seattle and Tacoma on a weekly or monthly basis, filling enough 5-gallon jugs to last until the next trip.
Carol and Donna discuss the essence of water after a Native American blessing, which takes place on the 11th of each month at noon.
But, every day, homeless youth come to the well to brush their teeth, wash their hair, and sometimes to rinse their clothes, laying them out in the sun to dry.  These folks also feel a sense of propriety, but often, you can feel the disdain when someone of privilege comes to fill jugs, to find a band of young people using the place to clean up.  On one hand, many people of all class levels come to this one place, and most are kind and friendly to each other.  On the other hand, I constantly hear animosity and misinformation in the things people say to each other at the well.

People say that the City only purchased the well to take possession of the parking lot so they could generate more revenue.  Others say they did it so they can police the space and control behavior.  They tell each other that the City painted over the murals.  If I ask where they heard the information, they can't answer.  One man asked me, "Isn't it obvious?"

I understand that disenfranchised people feel a reasonable distrust of authority, but these attitudes are not based on any real information, and they are polarizing.  It is sad to see so many people coming to this place for the same purpose, but looking at each other with suspicion and fear, and spreading paranoid rumors.

I hear people complain that "they took the Olympia out of the well" when they took steps to improve the space, turning it into a mini-park.  I hear others complain that the improvements are so industrial looking that they are an insult to the spirit of the Artesian Well.

As the mosaic has come together, people have been very supportive.  For those who felt the concrete forms were ugly, they are excited to see them covered in sparkling color and design.  For those who felt it was too "yuppified", the inclusivity of the process has made them feel that it is by and for the community, and everyone who has worked on it brings people by to show off their contribution.  So, my hope is that by facilitating this process, I will create a convergence point.  The well is an incredible natural resource, accessible to everyone.  It is a gathering point; a crossroad for people from all stations of life and for all opinions.  Here the twain shall meet: at the well.
It took 2 weeks to complete this section of the project.  I expect to work at least 2 more weeks to cover all of the concrete forms.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Putting the Art in the Artesian Well

That's me in the silly hat, with Darla, who drove from South of Portland to help out.
On Friday, I got to the well early and set up my canopy.  It didn't rain as hard as on Thursday, but the canopy really helped to keep the area dry.  My first visitor that day was a man who was convinced that all of the small mirror pieces contained video surveillance units.  He accused the next visitor of following him, then asked me a lot of questions about my religious beliefs before commenting that I was wielding a sharp implement and moving on.  In fact, I was using a carving tool to get thinset from between tesserae.  This process is pretty easy the morning after I adhere the fish, but I have learned the hard way that it is nearly impossible by the next afternoon.

It was cold on Friday, though not as nippy as Wednesday and not as wet as Thursday.  Darla Lynn arrived at about 10am and it was great to have company all day, and the extra help filling in the space between fish.  At one point, a very sweet woman came along and asked if she could put some pieces on.  Darla helped butter the backs and let her place them.  She put a cluster of green glass tiles on, with some backwards, but she was so happy it made me want to open the whole process up and make it more participatory.  Considering I have only a few weeks to complete the project, inviting the community could help me to meet the deadline.  What I lose in consistent spacing, I gain in speed and connection to the people who use the well.  I told her she can help me again when she finds me there.

The sun came out in the afternoon, so I kept working until 6:45.  I had worked over 9 hours.  I was incredibly sore and drained from interacting with people all day.  I took Saturday off to be with my family, but I returned to the well on Sunday because I was worried about the thinset that had squished up between the fish on Friday.  This is when I discovered that it is vital that I do not apply new fish unless I am able to return the following morning.  (I also discovered that someone had urinated on the plastic covering over the pillar.)  I spent 2 hours carving out very hard thinset, until my hands were aching and a little bit bloody.  By the last fish, the thinset was like concrete and I gave up.  I'm thinking of using a lighter shade of grout so that it won't be too obvious.

Today (Monday), Alan came down to do some filming.  He has been documenting the whole process.  Later, I had two volunteers show up to help fill in the background, plus Lisandro!  We didn't have quite enough tools and containers for everyone to work at once, but I was being whisked away by a photographer from a local magazine, so it was wonderful that I had helpers to continue working in my absence.  I think, with planning, I could accommodate more volunteers and that we could get this project finished very quickly.  Today, it felt like all I could do to keep people supplied with thinset, tools, and materials.  From now on, I'll apply new fish first and start the grouting process while others fill in the negative space.  It is wonderful to have help, and it really increases the fun factor.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Artesian Well Mosaic installation day 2

I returned to the well yesterday with renewed enthusiasm and a thick, wool coat, hat and hooded rain slicker.  It was pouring rain, but at least I was warm to the core.  I assembled a tarp over my work space, unwrapped the post I'm working on, and got started.

Lisandro came down to help, and it was very nice to have two of us digging out yesterday's thinset, making the work faster and less tedious.  Here is a photo of the thinset squished up between tesserae:
The flat spots are where it pushed against the tile tape that held the fish together until they could be set into mortar.
Here is Lisandro, scraping away at thinset with one of my carving tools:
Luckily, the thinset came out very easily.  The gloves were a good idea.  I realized that scraping thinset is just going to be how I start each work day until this is over.  Since the tess are all different sizes, some with slight curvature, in order to ensure full adhesion, I have to put the mortar on in a thick bed, and it is going to squish through.
So, here is the first fish with thinset carved out, so that grout can be applied later.  Ain't it cute?
The rain was incessant yesterday.  Poor Lisandro was soaked and left after lunch to avoid being miserable and getting sick (smart.)  Thanks to our friend Tara, who went to meet Anouk getting home from school, I was able to work until 3pm.  Since the rain blew in at an angle, I worked under the kiosk, on the surface facing the camera.  An overhang and the tarp kept that spot dry, but I had to dry each piece with a towel before putting it into thinset, and rain was getting into everything.  It was a slippery mess.  (But at least my thinset wasn't setting up super fast like the previous day.)

With a brimmed hat and big hood on my head, every single time I went to stand up, I forgot about the metal bar over my head.  Whack!
Furthermore, several times, I walked right into the door of my wagon when I went to get supplies.  I felt like an idiot, and I have multiple bumps on my head today.

Today, a mosaic artist from Oregon is driving up to assist me.  It is pouring rain again, so I'm taking my big canopy.  I find that having an assistant really makes the work go faster, plus it helps to have a buffer from the public.  Most of the steady flow of people filling containers are perfectly sane and sober, offering a jaunty "Good Job!"  or whatever friendly encouragement comes to mind.  But there are also a lot of colorful characters, staggering and slurring, announcing, "I'm here to help with the mosaic!"  When I try to explain that we are all set, thanks, they are offended and either tell me about their bid for City Council or attempt to ride off on their bike in a huff, only to have a shoe come off, fall on the concrete, and complain that I'm not helping.

So, I very much welcome company, if only to explain the project to everyone and help me keep on task.  With only a few hours each day to make progress, every conversation sets me back.  I wouldn't say no to a soy latte, either.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Artesian Well mosaic installation, Day One

I had a late start this morning.  The car needed to be packed with buckets, mixer, thinset, materials, tools, dropcloths, etc.  Then a business matter came up that I needed to take care of, and by the time I got to town, it was 10am.

Luckily, there is a water source right there at the job site.  And I cleared with LOTT (our water treatment center) where I could rinse my buckets, so that is all kosher.

I had this plan: to smear dry grout into the grout lines of the taped fish before applying them to the thinset, so that the thinset would be prevented from squishing up between the tesserae.  This did not work out.  The powder fell out all over as I tipped the fish into the thinset bed, and mixing grout and thinset together just made a mess out of the process.

So, I abandoned that idea right away.  When I used my notched trowel to even out the mortar, it didn't fill some of the odd, curved shapes (like sea glass), so I began laying the mortar on with a spatula.  Thinset is squished all into the grout-lines, quite visible through the clear tile tape.  I have no choice but to go back later and carve it all out.

While it was pretty darn balmy out here in my neck of the woods, it turned out to be cold and windy in Olympia.  I was shaking like a scared rabbit out there, hunched over, dropping my pieces every which way (usually into my thinset bucket.)  The mortar was setting up much faster than usual, probably because of the wind, so I tried to work as fast as possible.  It was a mess.  The lay of the tesserae is much more rudimentary than I would prefer, and there is thinset stuck to all of the surfaces.

My phone alarm was set for 1:30 so that I would have time to clean up and race back to Elma to pick up 3 girl scouts and get them to their meeting on time.  That is a very short, frantic work day.

So, I expect to have quite a fix-it job tomorrow, but I will also be more prepared.  I'll take layers of clothing to be prepared for any weather.  I'll be sure to get a caffeine fix before arriving - something I did not do today.  I'll get an earlier start.  I'll take my knee pads so that I am not in extreme discomfort the whole time.  I'll slow down and take more care with the layout.

I only managed to cover about 2/3 of one side of one pillar, so there is still time and room to turn this around.  On Friday, a mosaic artist from south of Portland is going to drive all the way to Olympia to work along-side me!  It will be very nice to have the help and the company.

Not that I didn't have company; the stream of visitors filling water jugs was nonstop today, and most people wanted to talk.  Predominately, they wanted to know what the heck I was doing to the well?  Some felt compelled to share the history of the well, and one person relayed a detailed description of a new kind of building material he wanted to invent, along with a method of creating free housing for people in need.  If I understood correctly, the structures would be made of corrugated cardboard and the exteriors would be mosaic.

So, it was a day of reckoning of sorts.  I've worked really hard on this project for the past 6 weeks, but it is clear that I am just beginning.  But, when it is done, it will be a really fun place to fill up your jugs.