wet earth

Time Travel in Monterey

“The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley wrote in his 1953 novel The Go-Between, “they do things differently there.”  Following Hartley’s thought, it is easy to imagine the past as remote, as some other, distant place, far from where we are today.  But what about those moments when we find a window into the past, and look through it, and the years—or centuries—seem to dissolve?  Where are we?  Have we left the present?  Time-traveled to the past?  Or are we somewhere in-between?

Master etcher Justin Ward is a creator of such windows of the in-between, images that play with our sense of the past and present.  His current exhibit at the Monterey Conference Center offers sites and scenes familiar to anyone who has walked around downtown Monterey, yet they are transformed by a mode of artistry that evokes another time.

Etching is a centuries-old technique that is time and labor-intensive, demanding incredible patience.  You can’t rush an etching.  Ward’s exhibit includes an exemplary display of tools, books, and wall text explaining the process of creating an etching, helping visitors understand that etching itself is a deep experience of time: the unhurried time needed to create this uniquely beautiful kind of art.

Clearly inspired by the Old Masters, especially Rembrandt, Ward is working in sets of images.  The current exhibit focuses on Old Monterey, Fisherman’s Wharf, and a set of prints created in homage to Monterey’s own Armin Hansen, who also produced series of fine etchings in the early 20th century.

Ward excels at framing his images: foliage, clouds, and textured skies draw the viewer’s attention into the print.  In “San Carlos Cathedral,” trees seems to part open, as if to reveal the divinity of the structure.  In “Larkin House,” the foliage is positively luxuriant, lending the building a vital, dynamic quality, almost pulsing under a generous oceanic sky.

In “Cooper Molera,” the delicate clouds offer a handsome contrast to the dark graininess of the wooden barn and its densely textured stonework.

Ward’s marine skies are especially dramatic.  “Fisherman’s Wharf Pier (Large)” balances the sweeping movement of clouds with the endless pull of the tides.

Ward uses different techniques and differently-hued papers and inks to achieve a variety of tonal effects, from soft brown or adobe colors to steelier grays, blacks and whites.  In “Adobe Door,” the warm tones of antique paper become a cool, white adobe wall, its darkened door inviting us to imagine what lies on the other side.

I like the way these images play with the imagination, inviting us to visualize Monterey’s landmarks as places of history that traverse the ages, rooted in the past yet still living and breathing today.  And there is another kind of time-travel at work here, as we are also invited to slow down our own rhythms—think of the artist’s patient hand—as we take in each work.  Ward’s finely-detailed prints are windows into the past, and yet this is very much a present-tense exhibit, since the subjects of his attention are right outside the doors of the Conference Center, waiting to be discovered once again.

“Past, Present, Future,” an exhibit of etchings by Justin Ward, at the Monterey Conference Center, 1 Portola Plaza, through April 6.

Find the Love

Yesterday I was at The Works in Pacific Grove to order a book on mindfulness, doing my best to move beyond the bad mood I found myself in.  After placing my order with the clerk, I glanced at the far end of the shop, where a woman and man were hanging some brightly-colored paintings.  I hesitated for a moment, because I knew that if I got close to these paintings I would have to let go of my bad mood—even from a distance I could sense the delight that emanated from them.

I went to look at the paintings.

“Everyone should paint!” the woman said as I approached.

“Are you the artist?” I asked.

The woman said that she was, told me her name was Debbie Tucker, and mentioned that all her paintings contain the word love.

As Tucker and her husband continued their installation, I stepped close to a painting of a field and found “love” tucked into an earthy furrow.  It was fun, then, to go from one canvas to another and find the love.

Tucker’s paintings are vivid and juicy, with a strong sense of design.  There are fruits and flowers and landscapes, and also a jaunty red bicycle set against a dynamic orange background, poised on a beautiful patch of ground as blue as the sea.

This would be a great exhibit to visit with children, giving them the task of finding “love” in all the paintings, with maybe a book purchase as a reward.

My bad mood was no match for so much color and joy.  I had found the love.

Art Is Delicious!

Some years ago, I wrote a piece about finding art that quietly lives in the neighborhood.  I’m still always looking for places that celebrate art without turning it into just one more expensive object to acquire or desire.  It’s been a long time since modern capitalist culture turned artistic expression into “the art world,” a high-priced market-driven ego fetish, severing art from its traditional, mythic function of reflecting and strengthening the bonds of community.  The trend only continues to worsen.  Finding places to experience an authentic encounter with art, one that isn’t mediated by corporate, top-down values, is increasingly rare.

One place where art continues to thrive is Sweet Elena’s, the popular cafe in Sand City.  Many coffeehouses and restaurants display local art, but at Sweet Elena’s there is a palpable commitment to artists and a sheer love of art that sets it apart.

On a recent visit, paintings by Sand City artist Suzanne St. John offered views of the old sand plant, now long gone.  A puzzle-like jumble of industrial architecture transformed by the rich colors of memory, these paintings explore an unlikely source of art and are an invitation to reconsider the meaning of beauty.

In a side room, cafe owner Elena Salsedo-Steele has assembled a personal shrine to art and the creative process.  Small portraits by Johnny Apodaca and Michael Snodgrass present humble fruits and vegetables as worthy artistic subjects; my favorite is the buoyant leek, set against a cheery blue sky background.  Elegant and evocative cut-paper works by Kevin Miller share shelfspace with bits of shell, a downed mobile, stones, ceramics.  A lower shelf features old paintbrushes and two oddly delightful assemblages constructed with blue-painted pieces of wood.

Old paintbrushes also hang over a doorway, fashioning a distinct threshold that reminds visitors they have entered a place where art lives.

Works by Robin Winfield also straddle a threshold: Are they photographs?  Are they paintings?  Winfield mounts photographs onto a wooden board, creating a unique canvas for her paintbrush.  The effect, as in “Chop Suey, Salinas” (at right), is dreamlike, the work’s gently rippled texture almost liquid with ambiguity.

Next month, Sweet Elena’s celebrates its 20th anniversary, and to kick off the celebration, the cafe sponsored a children’s art contest, whose results are currently on display.  The $100-winning piece, a posterboard of cupcakes and other sweet treats made by the children of an art camp in Gonzales, is a grand declaration of the goodness of dessert.  The beautiful ceramic pastries made by Carmel Valley 4th-graders are also a delight.  Postcards featuring the children’s art will be on sale to benefit Hamilton House, an emergency shelter for displaced and battered women.

It is possible that not every patron to Sweet Elena’s will pay attention to the art that fills its corners and covers its Van Gogh-ochre walls.  People may be in a hurry, or be distracted, or be too busy eating, reading, chatting or daydreaming to notice.  At a museum, we drop our outside concerns and turn our eyes and minds to the painting on the wall, the sculpture on the pedestal.  At a cafe, we sit down to eat lunch, our backs to a painting, and we may not notice it.

But another way to think about places like Sweet Elena’s is that these are places where art is in the air, like the aroma of fresh-baked bread.  Simply being in such an art-filled environment may be just as nourishing as the delicious food on the menu.  Even without examining every brushstroke, we feel and absorb the energy of creativity, partake of the sweet ingredients that have made Elena’s a success for twenty years, and are subtly transformed.

Sweet Elena’s Bakery, 465D Olympia Avenue, Sand City.  20th Anniversary Open House Celebration benefiting Hamilton House, Sunday, March 4, 2:00-5:00 pm. (831) 393-2063.