Sunday, October 21, 2007

Forest Pumpkins

Each year, a local plant nursery and garden store near Seattle invites children from the Boys and Girls Club to display their pumpkin carvings ( ). The public views the presentation in the evening and donates to the Club, so it’s a fundraiser for the club and a fine community service by the nursery. And it’s a mob scene. Special traffic controls are erected on the highway, and a parking lot a quarter mile a way is commandeered, with a shuttle van from there to the nursery. It’s an extremely popular event. I sneaked through the “Pumpkin Trail” before the official opening, to get a preview of the pumpkin art.

The pumpkin on the right is the Boys and Girls Club logo. Above it a little pumpkin spells out B + G C.

The pumpkins are displayed on stumps and woodpiles along a charming forest trail. It is a very “Northwest” setting.

The one close on the left says "Got Candy?"

Here are some other entries in 2007.

I especially appreciate the "guts" under the plastic knife, and the x's for eyes.

The one on the ground has an American flag cut into it. Is this the American Monarchy? Are these political pumpkins? We can only guess.

Great idea to carve the pumpkin in this orientation and use the stem as a nose.

Pumpkins of the Carribbean, of course.

This being a Northwest forest, and pumpkins being squash, the ground slugs were very happy with the event, and even added to the mood, as with this guy slithering into an eyebrow.

I liked that this one was placed on stones instead of fallen leaves.

It is amazing to see such creativity and artistic talent in such a humble expression.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Philabaum Glass Studio

Tom Philabaum (pictured left) is a glass artist in Tucson. Originally from the Midwest (Illinois, Wisconsin) he has had his own studio in Tucson since 1975. There is a large gallery exhibiting his, and others’ works, and visitors can go right into the studio to watch craftsmen blow glass (they do a lot more than blow into it, actually). His students and assistants use the studio for their own work on the weekends.

It was plenty hot in the glass studio, but what caught my attention more than anything was the lack of safety gear, not even safety glasses. Human flesh sure looks delicate next to a glowing ball of molten glass. These were weekend studio users, not the master himself, of course. I hope they all signed liability waivers.

I was impressed by the glass art objects I saw at the Philabaum gallery. Here in the northwest, glass is omnipresent, but it is usually from Dale Chihuly, the internationally known glass artist from Tacoma, just down the road from Seattle. Chihuly glass is indeed beautiful but it is vastly overexposed here in the Northwest and one becomes inured to it.

Chihuly glass is grand, swirly, and dramatic. His pieces often take organic forms, like the shell-shaped pieces in the ceiling of the “Glass Bridge” at the Chihuly Museum (yes, his own museum), in Tacoma.

My first reaction to many Chihuly pieces is to wonder how they were made. The objects are so spectacular that you are dazzled by the technology and craftsmanship, which is indeed amazing.

But after a while the novelty wears off. You begin to understand that anything that can be done with glass, has been done. It ceases to be glass and becomes just a set of colorful artifacts without context, unconnected to the ancient craft.

The Philabaum work is not spectacular in the same way, just quietly beautiful. It is a different approach. The forms are often simple, elegant, and compact. You can get an appreciation of glass as glass: its texture, color, refraction, transparency, and so on. And because of that, you also appreciate the artist’s craftsmanship and intentionality. The pieces look like they were made by someone who had something in mind, not like they just arrived from Mars.

Not that Philabaum glass isn’t technically sophisticated work. It is. He is known for his “scavo” technique, in which glass chemicals are applied directly to hot glass, which gives the product an ancient, antique look. His work is varied, and to my eyes, refreshing after having seen too much Chihuly.

If the Chihuly museum is the Disneyland of glass art, the Philabaum studio is the MOMA. They’re both good in their own way, but not comparable. Another difference is that you can own a Philabaum piece like the handsome orange vase above for about $700 (see whereas you need many thousands of dollars to even stand near a Chihuly. Small imitations of Chihuly pieces (not even by Chihuly himself) in his museum store are in the thousands. A fair price, perhaps for artifacts from Mars.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Tom Walbank

The 17th Street Market in Tucson is a large, windowless grocery store with a staggering array of Asian foods, and oddly, guitars, and a tiny stage for performers. It was there I found Tom Walbank's trio: Mike Bagesse: Bass, Dimitri Manos: Drums. Walbank is a slender man under 40 from England who plays and sings gritty Delta blues. His repertoire is vast (and all memorized). His voice has the gutty, raspy, emotional intensity of a Louisiana black man. It was startling to hear his English accent when he spoke between tunes.

Tom plays harp (harmonica) hard, fast, with amazing technique. He's right up there with Junior Wells. I’ve never heard anything like it. His guitar work, especially slide, is skilled. Walbank describes his sound as “John Hammond with a John Lee Hooker obsession,” and I think that’s about right, but he’s more than an imitator. His strongest feature is the way he uses his voice as an instrument. It is thoughtful, artistic, and effective. And I think his voice is actually better than Hammond’s.

I bought a CD he was selling that day, Excalibooty! (2002), a mix of live and studio tracks, many written by him and collaborator Doug Smith (guitar). The collection is a lively footstomper that showcases Walbank’s considerable talents, although the sound quality is not as crisp as one would like – as is often the case with “home-made” CDs. According to his web page he has no record label. He is easily good enough to be a big star, but maybe he hasn’t differentiated himself enough. Why would you want to hear Hooker/Muddy Waters imitations when the real things are available? Walbank is an interpreter, but he needs to capitalize on his fine vocal talent before he gets too old, if he wants to hit the big time (which, of course, not everybody wants to do. I don’t know anything about him personally). Excalibooty! is marked “unavailable” on Amazon, but you can sample his sound there from his album, Mudhook, Vol. 2 (2006). He played some of those tunes at the 17th Street Market. Well worth the price.

(17th Street Market: A tough gig)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

County Fair!

I went to the Clallam County Fair in August, and the much larger Puyallup Fair in September. I had never been to a country fair and was curious, and the opportunity presented itself in both cases.

Clallam county is out on the Olympic Peninsula, in Washington and the fair is near the county seat, Port Angeles. This is a fairly remote part of the state that takes some driving to get to, so the Clallam fair had a very “country” feel.

I enjoyed walking through the barns and seeing all the farm animals. As a city person all my life, I had never actually before seen newborn piglets or a sheep being sheared or a competition among home made jams and jellies. I have never actually seen a cow being milked, let alone a goat. If you grew up on a farm, you might think it second nature to wash, rinse, and vacuum a cow as if you were detailing an automobile. Believe me, it was bizarre behavior to my eyes.

I especially enjoyed the kids, who take their animals very seriously. It’s a world I can only imagine, and not very well. I loved their intensity as they willed their dogs to obey, or sat studying the “Dairy Goat Journal,” a publication whose existence I was not aware of. I loved the painstaking felt-tip drawings of “The Bones In A Horse’s Foot,” and posters of “Diseases of Rabbits,” and “What Ferrets Need.”

The Puyallup Fair was at least five times the size, maybe ten times, of the Clallam fair, and included a professional rodeo. Puyallup (pronounced “pyoo-AL-up”) is a town south and east of Tacoma, Washington. Being near to the urban centers, it draws huge crowds.

This fair was enormous and really cannot be experienced all in one day. Some people were scooting about on Segways and by the end of a long afternoon of walking, I could understand why.

It had the same barns full of prize farm animals, but acres more of them and more diverse kinds as well. There was an enormous midway full of rides, building after building full of vendor and demonstration booths highlighting everything from the latest farm equipment to the county Sheriff’s office. There were more kinds of junk food in the offing than I knew even existed, nearly all of it deep fried.

One amazing display was the “Mutton Bustin” contest, in which any child who weighed 60 pounds or less could pay $10 to ride on the back of a woolly sheep as it ran across a dirt field. Most kids fell off immediately after the animal bolted from the gate, but some survived the required six second ride, to the roar of the large crowd. It was the perfect introduction to rodeo riding for children. I survived my entire childhood without the thought ever crossing my mind that it might be desirable to ride on the back of a sheep. This is a world as foreign to mine as if it were aliens from another planet.

I went to the big rodeo, for which I had to buy rather expensive tickets, and it was an amazing thing to see cowboys ride bucking horses and bulls. The crowd was huge, at least ten thousand. Unfortunately, I did not know that loudspeakers play incredibly loud rock and roll music during the rides. Apparently that is supposed to enhance your enjoyment in some way. I did not bring earplugs so I was forced to leave after less than a half hour to protect my hearing. I would have liked to have seen more. Rodeo is a very strange form of entertainment, so raw, so primitive, so direct. Man vs animal. I felt like I was in the Roman Colosseum of the first century. It seemed like nothing had really changed over all those thousands of years.

I liked the Clallam fair better. It seemed more intimate and real. I talked to the girl pictured here about her prizewinning goats. She was very proud of the ribbons she had won. It did not occur to her that actually the goats had won the ribbons.

I think I have had enough county fairs to hold me for a while.