A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, June 23, 2016


                                   (Photo credit: Sticky Art Lab)
For years there's been a vacant lot in my neighborhood in Berkeley, at the corner of McGee and University. Delancey Street uses it every holiday season to sell Christmas trees, but the rest of the year it's just an eyesore surrounded by a chain link fence.
But when I walked by on May 16 I noticed something different: six enormous sunflower plants blooming along the University side of the fence. On closer inspection, they turned out not to be plants at all. They were images of sunflowers knitted with wool yarn. There was even a knitted ladybug on one of the leaves.
The artist's name, I found out, is Dawn Kathryn. Seven years ago she took a knitting class at the Oakland Library and got the bug (pun intended). This is her second knitted public art project. The first was a sweater she knitted for a tree in West Oakland in front of Kilobolt Coffee shop.
Alas, it's not there anymore. A vandal tore it down, which is frustrating because she works as much as six months on each project. And two weeks ago the same fate also befell the sunflowers. Somebody cut their heads off.
"After putting in that much time on a project, it can be a little nerve wracking hoping nobody takes it down," she says. "It doesn't matter how many people like it, one mean person can screw it up for everybody who enjoys it."
But that's not the end of the story. The lot is only a couple of doors down the street from Sticky Art Lab, a great, only-in-Berkeley art studio for kids where they can experiment with scrap materials and create unique, handmade works of art.
The next day, the kids from Sticky Art Lab were out there restoring the sunflowers (including the ladybug) to their former glory. I spoke with two of them: Sasha, 8, and Emma, 10.
"With no sunflowers, the fence looked really sad," says Sasha. "All Dawn was trying to do was make the world a prettier place, although there's beauty in everything, I think."
"And if it isn't as beautiful as it could be, you can always try to make it better," Emma adds.
They worked in teams: One kid holding each flower or leaf in place while the other tied it to the fence with matching-color yarn.
"We started with the flowers, and after that we worked on each separate petal," Emma explains.
Now the sunflowers look better than ever, bringing a smile to everyone who sees them.
"It was really fun," says Sasha. "I felt really good after we did it."
"It makes me proud to admire my work every time every time I pass by," says Emma.
As for Dawn, she's already at work on another public knitting project: a sweater for a signpost around the corner from Discount Fabrics on Ashby and San Pablo.
"I don't have a timeline; I do it when I can and when I feel like it," she says. "But the post isn't very large, so I don't think it will take long."
And she's grateful to the folks at Sticky Art Lab.
"It's a wonderful place, with great afterschool programs and summer camps. And they are wonderful people, as attested to by the fact that they repaired my flowers."

Garden of Memory

(Above: Luciano Chessa playing the musical saw at  the 2012 Garden of Memory)

One day 20 years ago, Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill, one of the best known exponents of New Music, took a break from performing to write a newspaper story about the most exotic restrooms in the East Bay. One of the places she checked out was the Chapel of the Chimes in North Oakland. It's a columbarium, a repository for the ashes of the dead, including bluesman John Lee Hooker, baseball star Dick "Rowdy Richard" Bartell, and Raiders boss Al Davis.
The restroom turned out to be nothing special, but the rest of the building – oh my! It was designed by Julia Morgan, and if you've ever seen Hearst Castle, you know that Morgan was in love with Gothic architecture. The Chapel of the Chimes features pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, fountains, gardens and – above all – stained glass everywhere. The result is a magical ballet of ever-shifting patterns of light and color.
"To hear the rippling of the water in the fountains, smell the blooming gardenias, see the glow of warm light coming through the stained glass windows and skylights - it's a place where you enter and you can't help but start exploring because it's a real wonderland that beckons you inwards," says Cahill.
Then she got a brilliant idea: What a great place this would make for a concert! Or, rather, 45 different concerts going on simultaneously. She put a different musician in each room and invited people to take in as much (or as little) of each performance as they like, then move on to the next room and a completely different experience.
And here's the most brilliant part: She decided to hold the concert on the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, to take advantage of all the sunlight.
It was an immediate hit, and 20 years later the event, called Garden of Memory, is going stronger than ever. This year's concert will be on June 21 and will feature 45 different performances ranging from quirky to bizarre. It's musicians at play, having fun doing what they do best – making music.
Among this year's lineup:
·                     In the Garden of St. Mark: Mills College music professor Maggi Payne playing theremins (think of the end of "Good Vibrations") and inviting kids in the audience to join in.
·                     In The Chapel of Patience: Henry Kaiser (grandson of industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, who is buried next door at Mountain View Cemetery) and Norwegian guitarist Knut Reiersrud playing electric guitars while Kaiser's wife Brandi Gale, a synesthete (meaning she sees vivid colors in her mind when she hears music), makes spontaneous paintings as she listens to them play.
·                     And in The Sanctuary: 25-year-old composer Dylan Mattingly, who began attending these concerts with his parents when he was a little kid, playing improvisations influenced by bluegrass and the microtonal choral music of Polynesia with his old friends from Berkeley High, violinists Eli Wirtschafter and Alex Fager.
The Chapel of the Chimes is at 4499 Piedmont Avenue. The music starts at 5 p.m. and will go on until the last of the light filters through the windows at 9. Tickets are $15 general, $10 for students and seniors, and $5 for kids. It's the coolest concert of the year, a Black & White Ball for Bohemians. Be there or be square.