Archive for category: Artistic Tendencies

The Grass is Greener Over at My Place

08 Aug 2004
August 8, 2004

Sometimes suburbia so mundane.

I grew up in a tract house in the epitome of a 1960s suburb: LA’s San Fernando Valley. Oh, over the years I’ve rebelled. Homesteading in Baltimore’s inner city had its charm for a while. I remember my stepmother being scared to death to come to my place the night before my wedding. After their visit I escorted she and my father to a waiting taxi, hoping they’d be in attendance at the nuptials the next day.

Los Angeles is segregated enough so that one need never encounter less-than-stellar neighborhoods. Three thousand pounds of automobile protects Angelenos should they ever have to venture down questionable streets.

Baltimore was where I learned not hesitate calling the police should I see anything suspicious. Suburban children can grow up to be so complacent. My training served me well over the years, even in my present circumstance.

A few years ago I was reading on my couch late one night. We have a reeded glass window that faces our porch. It lets in some beautiful light and I can see figures approach but they can’t see me. Suddenly, just such a figure knocked on our door. It was way too late for a door-to-door cable salesman or a Jehovah’s Witness. I froze and watched. He knocked again. Silence. He left.

I immediately went to a window only to see a man dressed in a suit running down our street. Odd. Very odd. This was a quiet suburban neighborhood. Was he in trouble? I woke my wife. She told me to stay inside and not answer the door.

A man in a suit running down our street at 11:30 at night. I immediately called the police. They came to the door for details. I went to bed, though, with the atypical excitement, it was hard to fall asleep. An hour later there was another knock at the door (I could make out the policeman’s uniform through our special suburban one-way glass).

As it turns out, they had found the man wandering down another street. His family had reported him missing earlier that evening. He had stopped taking his lithium and was majorly confused and distressed. I’m glad my inner city training finally paid off.

But things aren’t usually so exciting around here. Weekends are spent taking our children on a long list of errands and to birthday parties (I have to take my youngest darling to Chuck E. Cheese next weekend –pray for me).

What’s a creative guy to do?

Lawn sculpture before mowing

Figure 1

Why lawn art of course. My own Stonehenge. No, better yet, my own spiral jetty. Circumstances being what they are, I’ve become an Earth artist.

I’ve never worked in “natural” 3D before (unless you count my leaf blowing). But given my time constraints these days (with a full time job and full time family) I try to use the tools and environments closest to me. I can only be creative with what I’ve got. And this is it.

I wanted to do this a few years ago but my wife nixed it. What would the neighbors say? She’s also an artist so ultimately I appealed to her creative side. She understood. She, too, has had to limit her artmaking to tend to our family’s needs.

So this year, at the start of the mowing season I started two pieces. On one side of our lawn, right at the street I started not mowing in undulating strips. That is, I would mow a line, then move over a bit and mow another wavy line, leaving the space in between to nature. I think it’s beautiful, now that the strips have had many months to grow and especially right after I’ve mowed.

Lawn sculpture after mowing

Figure 2

The second piece is a patch of four squares. I call it “Playing Four Square” as an ode to the schoolyard game I used to play long ago. Our lawn is typically full of all kinds of green. It’s far from pristine. We’ve got lots of trees so there is never much light. We don’t fertilize nor preen. Except for the bimonthly “haircut” we leave it to nature. This year some type of carpet-like plant has invaded our plot. This was just perfect for this particular conceptual endeavor.

Figure 1 was taken just before I mowed yesterday. You can see little mounds, reminiscent of far older cultures that previously populated this land. Figure 2 was taken after my mow. An artifact of my suburban experience. Each has its charms.

We wonder what the neighbors think. I hope they notice (and I secretly hope they think I’m just a little bit odd). A businessman off his meds running down a suburban street. A homeowner making patterns in his grass. It all adds up.

No Pains, But a Lot of Kisses

02 Nov 2003
November 2, 2003

We’re having Indian Summer in our nation’s capital. Yesterday the temperature rose to 80 degrees (27 C). Today will be the same. It is a day when not riding your bike in padded Lycra® bicycle shorts should be a capital crime. I’m in a warm mood.

This is perfect timing. It coincides with one of my favorite days of the year, El Día de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. While death is more of a taboo subject in this country, it’s treated much differently in Mexico.

Right after graduate school I took my first job in East Los Angeles as part of the Barrio Mobile Art Studio. BMAS was part of a larger community arts program, Self-Help Graphics. Using a van, four artists went to schools and adult centers in the area where we conducted workshops in painting, sculpture, puppetry and photography. Using the inside of the vehicle as a darkroom I taught children and seniors photography. I was also the only Anglo in the program.

In a way, the community felt very comfortable to me. In the 30s and 40s East LA was a mixture of Jews, Latinos, and African Americans. My mother grew up there. And in the 60s I lived in Pacoima, in the East San Fernando Valley. Home to Ritchie Valens, Latino culture was prominent in Pacoima back then.

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Such a Match!

30 May 2003
May 30, 2003

September 15, 1990

It was a match made in an art gallery. I was there to support Maryland Art Place in its annual bid to keep its head above water. She had a piece in the benefit show. It was the best piece there: a glass book.

My art making philosophy is simple: A + B = C. That is, put one incongruous idea next to another and, hopefully, it will yield something new and thought provoking. A glass book fit the bill perfectly. Ten minutes later I met her. She was with another man, her date. He introduced us. We started talking as he wandered away. His loss.

She left a message on my machine saying she was going out of town for a couple weeks and would give me a call upon her return. She never did. She recounts today that she had just about given up on meeting that special someone even though she thought of me every day. I had to do some serious sleuthing before I found her.

January 26, 1991

Our first date. I was living in Baltimore but was coming into DC for the anti-war rally on the National Mall (you remember Gulf War I). I was staying with friends and she and I agreed to talk after the rally to set up the specifics.

The phone rang and the machine picked up before my friends answered. Unbeknownst to either of us they listened as we negotiated our first date dance. The audiotape recorded our overly polite posturing for posterity. We only found out about this when they played it for us on our first anniversary.

We ate Ethiopian for our first dinner and found out we both collected cacti. It was a match made in the Southwest desert. I was happy we recognized each other after the four months since our first meeting.

June 1992

We dated for a quite a while before deciding to take the big leap: a trip together. I was giving a talk in London. She was organizing a show of her work in Hamburg.

The very first argument of our lives together occurred in Kasel where we went to see Documenta. We were staying out in the Kaselian suburbs and had to catch an early train for Cologne —she had an appointment to show her work to a museum. I spoke German, she didn’t.

While I was busy dragging our luggage to the street, I suggested she find the concierge and ask her to call us taxi. It was going to be impossible to hail one in that quiet neighborhood. As I stood there she came out and said she couldn’t find her.

She came out too fast. I knew she hadn’t even tried to talk to her. It was the first time I had caught her in one of those tiny white lies I’ve learned to love. We were late and were about to miss our train for her appointment.

“You didn’t even try, did you?!” The tips of her mouth moved imperceptibly. But I could tell. She had obviously never been caught before. “We’re going to miss the train if you don’t find her.” “But I don’t speak German.” I put my fingers to my ear and mouth. In my best early morning imitation of a phone receiver I mouthed the words Telephone and Taxi. “It’s the same in any language.” I said. She turned around and went back in.

When she returned she was beaming, as if she’d just climbed Mt. Everest. She recounted her ascent. “I knocked on her apartment door and she answered, her hair in curlers. I gave her your message and she understood immediately [See!]. She was very apologetic. I think she said she should have known. The taxi’s on its way.” Relief.

We just made the train and laughed about our tête à tête on our way west. Hmmm. Laughing after an argument. That was a new and very surprising sensation.

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Domestic Tranquility: My Spotted Record

11 May 2003
May 11, 2003

I, the fashion maven that I am, have declared the 1960s are back! In particular that oh-so-special tie dye look.

Well, ok, I messed up. But it really wasn’t my fault. I followed my wife’s point-by-point instructions for removing spots from my girls’ tops and now I have, sitting in front of me, a pile of clothes with all these wonderful patterns.

I’ve convinced the girls they look cool and I’m reading them bedtime stories about flower children. I’ve got their interest but I will have to work a bit harder to convince my wife.

Here’s what happened: I washed the tops in the regular fashion to see if that would get rid of the catsup and other assorted food trails. When that didn’t work it was on to Step Two: fill the washer with warm water. Add 1/8 of a cup of bleach and agitate before putting in said spotted outerwear in to Autosoak (a 30 minute soaking before the regular cycle began). I followed my wife’s instructions to the letter. I set the dial to Autosoak, closed the top, and went to bed.

The next morning I awoke with much anticipation. I couldn’t wait to view my first solo spot-removing success. I opened the washer and there they were: still soaking in that bleach-infested tank. I’d forgotten to pull the washing machine dial OUT to start the cycle. The clothes had been stewing in that broth all night long. Well most of the clothes.

When I pulled them out, the parts that had been above water were the way they were before I’d put them in: bright and colorful. However, the rest of the garments were just a tad lighter than the night before.

The girls voiced a loud “AH OH” in unison. I pulled the tops apart and began looking closely at each. One, a yellow frock with blue sleeves actually looked pretty good. Really. The tie dye effect only occurred on the sleeves. The main yellow section apparently had been completely submerged and showed no pattern. I showed the girls how the mottles were like clouds. Yeah, like clouds: if you looked very closely you could make out animal and other shapes. I found a rhinoceros and they found a star and a pair of sunglasses. The other shirts were completely ruined.

What would I tell my wife? Well, I didn’t have to. When she made her nightly phone call, the girls immediately did it for me. “Dad wrecked our clothes but it’s really neat. We can see all sorts of shapes!” When it was my turn to talk she quietly asked if I had consciously made that mistake. “Did I consciously tie dye their shirts?” I replied. Did she think I tried to remove the spots in my sleep? Did she actually think I did it on purpose? Or was she being facetious: toying with my sense of manhood.

Sure, she could smirk. There she was in the mountains above Seattle being a “real” artist at a famous art school. Was she looking down on my domestic pastiche? I explained what had happened. It was an honest mistake (as are many artistic breakthroughs).

“Call my mother and let her take a look,” she pleaded. I think I’ll just put on some Jimi Hendix instead.

Happy Mother’s Day, dear. We’re doing just fine (although we miss you terribly). And don’t worry. I’ll make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Posters for Peace

13 Mar 2003
March 13, 2003

Make Jobs Not WarAnother Poster for Peace is a group of designers who are commited to the peaceful and just resolution of the current crises in the Middle East. Our goal is to help create a grassroots campaign for patriotic dissent as a counter to the onslaught of fear and warmongering currently in the media. If enough of us voice our dissent, we can raise the level of public engagement and concern to a point at which politicians will have to sit up and pay attention. If enough of us voice our dissent, we will be heard.”

All posters are downloadable, copyright free (you can use them however you want), and come in various sizes. This one by Steve Mehallo is my favorite as it points to a possible solution if we start thinking in terms of a long-term foreign policy. If one offers a person opportunity, fanaticism becomes less of an imperative. (via

Turning Over a Few New Leaves: The Backstory

23 Nov 2002
November 23, 2002

I have always been interested in the social aspects of technology: that is, how new ideas brought on by technological development seep into the everyday lives of regular folk. In the last few months I’ve been contacted with greater frequency by subjects of my writing or from those who have been alerted to my stories in the process of a doing a web search. Googling is becoming a natural process. And the interactions I’m having because of it add to my sense of the enlarging net community.


In September I began my 9/11 story with a quote by Jenna Jacobs, wife of Ari Jacobs one of the people who died in the World Trade Center. A few days later Jenna�s mother contacted me and we corresponded about what it’s like to be the mother of a young widow. In October I wrote of Irina Han, an intern at our museum who was murdered on her way home one night. A few days later I received a comment on my post from a family friend. A relative of Irina’s husband also posted a few comments. We exchanged emails, both of us wondering how this tragedy could have happened.

Last week Washington Post writer, Darragh Johnson, found me. She posted a comment to one of my two stories on my annual bout with autumn foliage. She was writing an article on “man verses leaves” and wondered if she could interview me. Since it was that time of the year again, we made arrangements to meet in the middle of my “crop” this past weekend.

• • •

While last year the conditions for clearing my lawn were perfect (warm and dry weather), this year has been anything but. Timing is critical in this process. With a full time job I only have my days off to do this laborious task. Most years I’m usually able prolong the actual leaf abatement process by mowing my lawn one last time. This mulches the initial thin layer of dead stock. Good for the lawn and good for my back (which, whether I rake or blow, is always at risk).

The leaves start dropping in mid October and by Thanksgiving the ordeal is usually over. This gives me approximately three to four weekends to work. But it’s critical to get the early crop blown to the street to make way for later droppings. If you don’t, the push from the back of the yard to the curb becomes difficult. The pile gets bigger and bigger as you push forward. And more unwieldy.

This year conditions have conspired against me. While it was the most spectacular year for the fall colors I’ve seen in a while, my nature duties were overshadowed by family obligations and the weather.

Two weekends ago would have been a perfect time to work. It was dry and the leaves were, well, fluffy. But Saturday we had to attend my youngest daughter’s ballet class—once a semester parents are allowed to watch. Then we had to go to a birthday party in the afternoon. On Sunday we had to go to the outlet mall to buy shoes for both girls (half price over regular stores and worth the 120 mile round trip considering we got five pairs for $115!). The daylight hours were completely booked. Of course I wasn’t avoiding this chore. No way. Uh uh.

I had to balance these activities. And now I’m paying for it. Last weekend a Nor’easter was forecast (a front coming up the east coast). Saturday was sure to be wet and indeed it was. The leaves now completely covering my lawn are soggy and heavy (wet leaves act like cement when trying to rake or blow them). While this boded very poorly for me, it was perfect for the Post article idea. The artist in me started to visualize the whole affair. We artists have to constantly adjust to changing conditions, seeing opportunity in adversity. I started to get excited.

• • •

We scheduled to meet “in the field” at high noon. The staff photographer, Robert Reeder arrived first. He had been in contact with his editor and both were sure the weather would prevent any good photos. I had other ideas. “You’re not going to blow leaves today are you?” he queried. “Of course not,” I stated. “But this is perfect! Man verses the elements” And I was quite content to lose this battle if it meant a great idea could develop.

His editor had already given him another assignment. There had been a parking garage collapse the day before and they were still looking for a missing construction worker. He felt a need to get over there as soon as possible. I convinced him to stay at least until the writer arrived.

When she did, it was clear she too was pleased with the meteorological conditions. Rain and leafy cement. It was perfect. Robert started to understand. I grabbed my blowing paraphernalia (my Toro 850 electric blower, a huge reel of industrial strength orange extension cord, goggles, dust mask, and ear protectors). I was ready. My wife warned me not to plug in the thing for fear of electrocution in the cold rain. Robert took off, scouting for the right vantage point. I could see his mind beginning click. He was getting into this. Good.

Jeff verses his leaves

It was a picture perfect day! He had me stand at the base of a leaf-infested embankment. He grabbed a picnic bench and had Darragh dry off handfuls of leaves. He asked her to stand on the bench and just at the right moment drop them in front of the camera to simulate a leaf downpour in front of me. He used a fisheye lens. Completely covered in my uniform, I lost all interest in my soon-to-be public persona. No one would know it was me. We were quite a sight. Darragh interviewed me as Robert photographed. I imagined being on the red carpet of the Academy Awards. The paparazzi, the reporters, the leaves.

Cars driving by slowed down to watch. My neighbor, Peter, walked up, his curiosity getting the best of him. Like a true “happening” he became part of the event. We compared leaf herding styles. I admonished him for not loaning me his very efficient leaf tractor. I told stories of past years. Robert began to shoot both of us with a smile while Darragh got it all down in print. Behind my mask I could barely contain my glee.

• • •

This morning I walked outside to retrieve our Saturday paper. Luckily, my wife had taken 3 1/2 hours this past week to blow a quarter of our yard so I could find the thing. And there, on the front page of the Metro section was the headline: Let the Ground Wars Begin (PDF, 448K). I rushed inside to make the announcement.

Darragh had done her homework. She interviewed other weekend leaf men to discover their implements of choice (blowers verses rakes, the classic debate). She included statistics: a Tulip Poplar tree sheds, on the average, 25 pounds of leaves per season. Multiply that by the 35 Tulip Poplars we have on our lot and you get a total of 875 pounds of leaves! Add to that the other assorted trees (a total of 75 on our 1/2 acre lot) and that’s a lot of leaves. The next time I declare “I’ve got a ton of leaves to blow” (that’s 1000 lbs.), don’t laugh.

And what would an article on this subject be without an historical perspective (“Legend has it that Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare, invented the rake…”) as well as a revealing statement from Jerry Herron, an academic expert:

“The American studies professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University dubs bringing in the leaves a ‘highly significant phenomenon’—particularly since the advent of the leaf blower. ‘It allows men to buy expensive and noisy equipment,’ he notes, ‘and then demonstrate their prowess in front of the whole neighborhood.’ Lawn mowing can’t compare: ‘Everybody does that.’ he says. And snow blowing is a waste: ‘The weather is too cold to allow much audience admiration.'”

The article states I heartily concur. “He hoists his Toro and shouts, ‘I’ve got this phallic power thing! I mean, look at this thing. Is this power, or what?”

Well, yes, I did say that. But it was part of the theater of the moment, meant to be a postmodern ironic statement. Personally, I could care less what the neighbors think (other than, “Oh my gawd, we’re the last ones on the block to clear our leaves”). My wife is the mechanical one in the family. She’s the one who gets excited about band saws and diamond-tipped drill bits.

And now the gods have conspired to thwart my efforts once again. It’s sunny and crisp right now. Perfect leaf blowing weather. But yesterday I came down with a bad cold and the thought of swinging that phallic instrument around for the benefit of my neighbors holds no interest, even in the name of Art.

We artists are a curious lot. The strangest things make us utterly happy. Somehow I felt responsible for bringing together the lot of us into this tableau. Oh wait, perhaps I should bow to Mother Nature on this one.

Related Stories:
Spores, Spores, and More Spores (October 28, 2001)
Moving Forward on a Number of Fronts (December 10, 2001)
Leaving: The Movie, an independent short film documenting our last International Leaf Festival (Quicktime 2.2 MB)
Let the Ground Wars Begin, Washington Post article by Darragh Johnson (November 23, 2002)

Photo courtesy of Robert A. Reeder, The Washington Post, © 2002

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074