Sunday, February 2, 2014

Seeking Winter Texture: Guadalupe River Gardens, Late December 2013.



 

Cold winter morning at the park, lots of interesting layers and winter colors.  Heritage fruit tree orchard.


The Heritage Rose Garden





Lines.


California winter color.

Fallen leaves.





Lots of bright California light to use or contend with. 

A bit of BW; rose thorns & shadow.


Last leaves.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ogier Ponds: Birding with SCVAS

Ogier Ponds, south of San Jose along 101, are former sand & gravel quarries.  They have an interlocking history with Coyote Creek and currently are the place to do a bit of fishing or birding on a late summer or early fall day.  Highlights today are American bittern, Red-necked phalarope, Green heron, Wood duck, and tons of Bushtits.

SCVAS fieldtrips are great because everyone is friendly and several experts with spotting scopes are generous with their knowledge and equipment.  The light was wonderfully golden this morning.


Late summer colors were subtly vibrant.  One of my favorite California landscapes is our rolling hills, whether green in spring or golden in summer.  



Sunday, January 29, 2012

Rick Mahaffey: Offerings from the Spirit



Rick Mahaffey is an Art Instructor and Head of the Ceramics program at Tacoma Community College in the greater Seattle area. He has work in museums in the United Kingdom, Kenya, China, Japan, Turkey, Korea and Mexico. He has also taught workshops in Europe, Africa, and Asia. As you read this interview, you will be astonished by Rick’s varied interests, all connected by his humanitarian and artistic world view. He and I go far back, all the way to elementary school, and have recently reconnected on FB. When I began this interview series, I knew that Rick would be one of my must-haves.


tp: Please tell us about your own ceramic work, your style and what is inspiring you now.


RM: I am a potter; I make most of my work on the potter's wheel. My main inspiration comes from the work of potters done during the Momoyama period in Japan (the late 16th century). I find the work that is used for Chanoyu, Japanese Tea Ceremony, to be very interesting to me. It has been said that a good tea bowl (Chawan) can contain an entire universe.
 The aestheic of the Wabi tea as done by Sen no Rikyu is one of natural beauty as opposed to a mechanical perfection and one that I find to have lasting interest to me. The concepts of being completely present in the practice of tea: being aware of your surroundings, of others in the room with you and of the seasons, is something that we have gotten away from in modern life. What with texts, cell phones, being connected to the web and being insulated from the seasons, these are all things that make it harder to be in the "present" and aware of our surroundings in a complete way.
Tea Bowl




I do most of my firing in wood fueled kilns. I am part owner of an Anagama kiln which is a large single chamber kiln of ancient Japanese origin. An Anagama is not efficient with the use of fuel but it does give the opportunity for the fire to have a large say in how the work comes out. The firing over 5 to 6 days puts lots of fly ash onto the ware in the kiln and it combines with the clay to create a glaze or to alter a glaze that I have applied. This process requires 24 hour-a-day tending as well as lots of wood splitting and stacking prior to the firing. We usually have about 7 to 9 people on the crew. It requires that we work together and in a sense live together for the duration of the firing. We become a family for the time of the firing. Many of us are working other jobs so we end up putting in double shifts.


 6 cords of wood went into this firing over 5.5 days. We then waited a week for it to cool before we returned to see what the results were.
I like the fact that the firing and the actions of the crew contribute to the final outcome (unless someone breaks a piece while throwing wood into the kiln, but that too is part of the process) and that each piece is unique because of the type of wood, the weather, how the firing went, and so on. The fly ash can be heavy near the areas where we stoke the wood and lighter in other areas.  


tp: What else do you like about working with students?


RM: I love the fact that students from Turkiye feel comfortable asking me a question by email and that I have the freedom that their own professors don't have for various reasons. I am also honored that my colleagues overseas are comfortable with me giving advice and information to their students. I am very pleased that some of the students I helped over the last 15 years are now teachers themselves, sharing what they have learned from their teachers.


Huatulco, Oaxaca
At a community college a large part of what I do is help to build confidence in my students and help them see what they have done well and find ways to get to where they want to go. In my lecture class I try to help them become an "expert" in a small area of art hoping that they will carry that confidence with them into other classes. 


tp: You co-founded the International Society for Ceramic Art Education and Exchange which is based in Tokyo. Was that the beginning of your travels?


RM: Let me begin a bit earlier than that, with some background. I first went to Japan in 1982 with my wife and her grandmother who was returning to Tokyo after an extended visit. We were in Japan for three weeks on that trip and we spent 8 days visiting pottery sites and other sites like Kyoto (my wife tolerated so much clay stuff with good humor most of the time). It was a great adventure and I thought a once in a lifetime trip. Later in 1989 or 90 I was part of hosting summer workshops at the University of Puget Sound, where I was a part- time instructor, presented by the former First Lady of Japan, Miki Mutsuko san. Miki san invited the head of the ceramics department to do a project in Japan for one year. He decided that a full year was too much time away so he asked if I wanted to do the second half of the project -of course I said yes- that was in 1995. So Ken Stevens went to Japan to work at Naruto Education University in May of 1995. I went to Japan in December of that year and stayed until June 30. During the first month of living in Japan I was invited by Professor Shimada of Tokyo National University of Art to participate in a firing at the Tokyo U satellite campus in Ibaraki ken. It was during the three days of firing and spending time together that Professor Shimada
Crusty Jar
    asked about bringing students to Tacoma Community College where I was also teaching part-time for two or three weeks so that his students could experience the "open, American way of thinking about clay". I was all for that, having my students work alongside his for a couple of weeks influencing eachother and sharing so I emailed the Art Department Chair, Frank Dippolito and my dean Gael Tower who were both enthusiastic about the idea so we put it together for the following August.  




While hosting Tokyo U of art the second summer in a row I said that my students would like to come to Japan and work in a program like the one were to doing with Tokyo U some time. Professor Shimada said, "OK next summer you will come to Tokyo". I was stunned but recovered quickly enough to say yes. While in Tokyo in 1998 with my students Professor Zheng Ning of the Central Academy of Art in Beijing was there doing a summer residency and he joined with the Tokyo students and my students. He invited all of us to meet in Beijing the following year. Again I said yes. As our program was coming to an end Professor Zehra Cobanli and President Engin Atac of Anadolu University in Eskisehir, Turkey arrived and saw what we were doing and wanted to join us in Beijing. That was the start of what is now called the International Society for Ceramic Art Education and Exchange or the ISCAEE. 




    I am now the International Vice President of the ISCAEE. We have member schools on five contenents and at our last meeting in Tokyo we had some 280 attendeess. Member institutions come from Japan, Korea, China, Turkey, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, the UK, Australia, Mexico, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, and the USA. All of the institutions are Universities with one community college _Tacoma Communuty College (my school).  We host lectures, exhibitions of faculty and student work, have specific activities for students, and demonstrations by the faculty.


tp: What meaning does this travel bring to your life?
RM: My opportunities to travel have been beyond my dreams as a kid growing up in the Upper Noe valley of San Francisco. I never had the idea that I would get to travel overseas let alone live in a foreign country and have the chance to make true friends in other countries. 


Potter in Sorkun, Turkey



The more I travel the more I realize that we have much more in common than we may think we do. I once talked to someone at a conference who had to walk for 24 hours to catch a bus for another day-long journey to get to that conference. That made me reconsider the difficulty I had getting from the Pacific Northwest to Nairobi. That same individual who needed 48 hours to travel from Tanzania to Kenya gave me a chance to share something that I could easily get (my pottery tools) with her - she acted like those tools were the most precious things she could have been given - and perhaps those tools would help her make more and better art and will allow her to take better care of her child. I always look to give my tools to the host school or to a student or two, hoping that they will make a difference in their work.


tp: Speaking of tools, you also like to work on old motorcycles and cars. What are some memorable experiences?


RM: Memorable experiences.......making an old vehicle come back to life after some time of dormancy, hearing it run and seeing it move again are some of the best parts. Also, learning about the engineering solutions that were devised and seeing what can be improved without changing the character of appearance of a vehicle. In a way I sometimes feel that by working on an old bike or car I am communicating with the designers and builders of the vehicle. Going to club events driving an old car or bike, sharing that interest with some great people. The sharing of knowledge and ideas is quite stimulating for me. Taking friends for a ride in an old car is like sharing a view to the past. The children of a friend were excited because when they were riding in one of my cars, if they waved, people would wave back at them. That was fun.


1946 Model 18 Norton. It is a pre-war bike made just after WWII was over with the tooling left from 1938 or 1939
With these old machines  I feel the need to preserve them and make sure that who ever is their care taker has something of history to work with. Since I started out in college in engineering I like to apply some of the things I learned in the engineering classes that I took before I changed majors to art in my senior year.


tp: You have so many strong interests: ceramics, teaching & working with students, and travel. Does one stand out, do they complement and strengthen each other, and how do you have the time and energy for them all?


RM: I always see lots of connections (that are not necessarily linear ) in my life and in the things that interest me. I like to be a connector, someone who helps others make connections and see things in a different way. I like sharing knowledge and love when I find a fact or story that helps me make connections in teaching my students. I really don't see my interests in ceramics, teaching, travel, and old motorcycles and cars as separate interests. It is about learning and sharing. Of course I try to learn while working with clay every time I set to make some things and then when I really understand something I can share it with my students.


I have great respect for my teachers in Ceramics and value what they taught me. I like that I can pass on what they shared with students and in a small way I am keeping their teaching and them alive by sharing the things that they taught and adding the things that I have discovered along the way. It is the same with travel and working on old machines. Sharing what I have been shown and what I have learned ensures that those ideas do not disappear.
Working in clay has taught me a patience and calmness that I bring to bear when I am in a foreign country or trying to figure out what made the car or motorcycle stop running. I am not always successful with the machines when it comes to patience. I am however better at using my patience overseas.  
Flower Vase
    While living in Japan my mantra became: "Everything will become apparent in the fullness of time" because I could not speak much Japanese and could not read it at all other than a few words and numbers so I had to be prepared to find out about things with only 15 or 20 minutes before they happened or I was to go somewhere. One example is when one of the people in the International section said are you ready to go to dinner with the University President? I asked when and he said in 20 or 30 minutes. I was covered in clay at the time so I had to stop what I was doing and rush to my apartment and change and get back to school. I was only 4 minutes late.


The time and energy part is the tough one. I use my breaks to work on making art and working on the other interests in my life. most of the time the motivation comes from small successes along the way but it often comes in the form of a deadline. With teaching I have tried to make sure that any work I do outside of class has a meaningful result for my students.


tp: This has been fun, both catching up and learning about the different parts of your committed life. Any last thoughts?


RM: Recently I read an article in the Washington Post  about a potter, Malcolm Davis, who said:  “What we do with the clay, what we create with our hands, what we offer from our spirits may not end racism or stop injustice, but it may just help keep our culture human.” 


Saggar Pot

In Art and in many other areas of our lives the things that are most precious are those that are most fragile. Usually people place painting at the top of the Art heap, in part because it is fragile and must be cared for but also because it is a visual representation of an idea or story. I think that ideas are our most precious commodity and I know that ideas are very fragile if we don't share them and make sure that other people learn about our knowledge.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Joe Peterson: All Aboard!

When Joe Peterson becomes interested in something, he rolls up his sleeves and gets involved. He’s a methodical and hands-on  kind of guy and loves to include his family and friends in his pursuits. I’ve known Joe all my life; he’s my cousin!   Here, he describes his passion for trains which started at an impressionable age.

tp: I know that you love trains; would you please describe when and how that started?

JP: Like many things we like and do, when the light went on is usually lost in a time fog! But, here's a photo of me at 10 months, sitting by the Christmas tree with some kind of toy train next to me.

Obviously, the seeds were sown at that time ;-) The next photo of me with a train is at Christmas when I was two years old. This was a wind-up metal train and I can actually remember it! From then on, it just grew and blossomed to the fanatical obsession that I currently have.






tp: How have your railroading activities changed over the years?


JP: I received a progression of toy trains at various Christmases until the arrival of the LIONEL TRAIN SET (I hope you heard the deep, resonant announcers voice there). Now I had an electric train that I could set-up on my bedroom floor and do all sorts of things with and to. And, someone gave this young kid a cannon that shot rubber tipped shells and the trains made great moving targets.


In the late '50's I was introduced to HO model trains because Dad built his own train set and was getting Model Railroader magazine. An especially great read on rainy nights with an active imagination. I even started building a layout but that ended quickly when we moved from San Francisco to Sunnyvale.


For high school and college years, model trains took a back seat to "normal" teenage life. During college I met some other fellows with an interest in trains and once we were graduated and earning money, we would drive to and photograph nearby working railroads.


tp: Did you travel around, chasing trains?


JP: One friend, John Whitmore, had a motorcycle so, in 1968, he and I rode our bikes on a two week pilgrimage to see steam railways still in operation in California. Since that trip, there have been many more with a core group of five who have recorded railroad operations on the west coast.  


In the late '70's, I learned about the Pacific Locomotive Association (PLA) and their Castro Point Railway. Many times we would go to Molate Beach, just north of the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, and ride and film the operation. At one point, when they were about to close, they had five steam engines up and running at the same time! Quite an achievement for a volunteer group.


They lost their lease in the early '80's but, at the same time, the Southern Pacific Railroad was pulling out of Niles Canyon and gave their land to Alameda County. The PLA was able to lease the old right-of-way from the county and the Niles Canyon Railway was born. Eventually, they re-laid the track from Niles to Sunol and began running trains for the public.


tp: Aren’t you involved in the Niles Canyon Railway Train-of-Lights?


JP: In the '90's, I came across the Niles operation and finally became a member. My first experiences were as a docent for the regular Sunday trains. I thought that this was a great way to learn about the railroad, it's equipment and environment. The next step was to study, pass the test and become a brakeman. Now I could actually help make the trains go and work with the public more directly.


At Christmas time, I joined the group of workers helping to decorate all the cars for use in the yearly Train-of-Lights and this operation is high in Christmas spirit. Look here, Niles Canyon Railway Train-of-Lights and you'll get to see some great videos. Each car is decorated inside and out with lights, garlands, presents and more.


Even Santa comes down from the North Pole to check things out.  


 If you would like to enjoy riding this train, keep an eye on the ncry.org website starting October 1st to see when tickets go on sale. They have sold out rather quickly in years past.


tp: Where are your current railroading activities taking you?


JP: About four or five years ago, I joined the Maintenance of Way group and started learning what it takes to keep the trains rolling along. Since then, I have learned about a variety of equipment and tools used to replace joint bars and old ties, lay new track, keep sight lines open and a lot about maintaining that very same equipment.



Now and then, with supervision, I have even run some of the larger locomotives and someday I will progress from brakeman to conductor and then into the cab as fireman and engineer.


I still go out and photograph and videotape other railroad operations but they are becoming fewer with each year that passes. It is nice to have the Niles Canyon Railway in "our back yard" so it is easy to work on and enjoy. In fact, every Wednesday, a small group of us get together to do some light track work to aid the railroad and the larger Saturday work party. Great experience, exercise and fun.

On another level, I get to share my love with my great nieces, Peyton and Daveigh, who just turned seven and show an interest in railroads both big and small. We've enjoyed the model railroad display of the Golden Gate Model Railroad Museum in the Josephine P. Randall, Jr. Museum in San Francisco and this photo is of us on the steps of the 1423 diesel locomotive run by the Niles Canyon Railroad. The birth of another spark?





So you can see that it has been a many year, multi-level love affair that continues to this day. Only now, I get to play with the real thing ;-)
All Aboard!!!


tp: Thank you cousin for telling us just how you became a railroading enthusiast; it sounds like you just can't help it!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Jessica Pryde: Her Life of Music

Jessica Pryde lives in Washington D.C. and sings with The Washington Chorus. I met Jessica when she worked in SJSU Library as she was completing her Masters’ degree in Library and Information Science. She was also one of my wonderful first interns. I was lucky enough to see her sing with Symphony Silicon Valley Singers, a madrigal chamber group based out of Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale. Jessica is currently a high school librarian in the District of Columbia. 


tp: Please tell us about your early singing experiences.


JP: I honestly have no idea when I started singing. Growing up (even before beginning school), both my grandmother and mother exposed me to numerous movie musicals, so much so that I probably knew the words to "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music before I knew the alphabet. I joined Glee Club the first moment I could (in third grade) and never turned back. I started taking piano around that time as well, and the girls that I went to lessons with taught me all the gospel songs of the time. So here I was, learning classical and gospel piano, and learning gospel songs. I knew a bit about classical singing, due to my grandmother--while my mother was a big Rodgers and Hammerstein girl, my grandmother had me watching Mario Lanza and Jeannette MacDonald from the age of four on--but I didn't get the same kind of exposure to it that I did gospel music. I also grew up going to church with my grandmother, which had a very musical atmosphere.


Fast forward three years. In fifth grade, my music teacher saw musical potential in me, and put me in sight singing lessons after school. Two years later, she suggested me for the District of Columbia All-City Honors Chorus and this began my extreme exposure to classical music. From there on it was chorus, opera (I got to sing a smallish part in Britten's Noye's Fludde in eighth grade), masterclasses, more chorus, etc., straight through college and on through adulthood.


tp: When you are singing and can see the audience, do you pay attention to your listeners? Do you ever make up stories about individuals in the audience?


The Washington Chorus' Candlelight Christmas, December 2010
Actually, seeing the faces of my listeners makes me really nervous, which makes my heart rate speed up and my singing choppy. So I try not to look at them. Since I am pretty much exclusively chorus, I try to keep my focus on the hands of my conductor. If I have to look at the audience for some reason (we're encouraged to be engaging when we do sing-alongs for Christmas and the like), I pick a few directions to look and occasionally meet someone's gaze. I just smile and keep moving. I never really make up stories about individuals, but sometimes, before or after concerts, or when the lights come up for a sing-along, I try to pick out who's actually happy to be there vs. who got dragged to the Symphony by their parents/date/other loved ones trying to get more culture in their lives. 


tp: What makes a good choral director and/or voice teacher?


JP: Hmm...what makes a good choral director or voice teacher? The most important part is engagement with their charges. If they act like they won't want to be there, none of us will want to be there either. My current choral director goes back and forth between New York and DC (and used to also work at McGill) every week, but he never makes us feel like the ugly stepchild. He's always engaged with us and with the music as well. He also pushes us towards more challenging music, and encourages us to make the effort to successfully present that music. It doesn't hurt that he's a musical genius and will make connections between two works or composers that none of us ever would have considered, let alone seen in in the music.


tp: What have you learned about singing that surprised you?


JP: I think the biggest thing that surprised me about my own singing, is that I'm still getting better at it. When my last choral conductor in San Jose told me at my audition (at age 22) that my voice was still maturing, I had no idea what that meant. But with every director, teacher, or even work of music, I can feel all of the things I've learned in the past come together and improve my sound (and I can hear my voice maturing--go figure!). And the funny thing is that no matter what their age, everyone can improve their sound. I also discovered that English is the easiest language to oversing in--you're not thinking about shaping your words, like you would be with a second or third language. So if I'm singing in English and start to feel scratchy-throat, I know to back off. It's really hard when you're excited about what you're singing, though. Or singing really high. 
Altos and Tenors of TWC, Candlelight Christmas, December 2010



tp: Jessica, who are your musical inspirations?


JP: My musical inspirations are so all over the place that I can't name all of them, but I can pinpoint exactly the moment I knew I wanted to be singing for the rest of my life.


When I was eight years old, my school was invited to a “Look In” with The Washington Opera. They were doing Carmen and Denyse Graves was singing the title role. I watched her move across the stage and listened to her sing the Habanera, and knew immediately I wanted to be her when I grew up. A few years later I discovered I had horrible stage fright, of course, so the opera career was out. I still pretend when I'm all by myself in my apartment, though.


tp: What kind of music do you listen to today? What embarrassing songs might we find on your MP3 player?


JP: Today, I listen to all kinds of music. If you were to look at my most played in iTunes, they're likely all choral songs, because I use professional recordings to help memorize music as I prepare for concerts. But beyond that, you'll find classical, jazz, standards, R&B from the 90s and 2000s, some Rock & Roll from all eras, movie soundtracks, broadway cast recordings, pop, a cappella, gospel, go-go (a local favorite), and probably a few things that don't have categories. So my shuffle might go from Rachmaninoff to Beyonce to Pirates of the Caribbean to the Beatles.


I'm not sure which is more embarrassing: the Looney Tunes "Kill the Wabbit" song or Britney Spears' "Email My Heart". I know all the words to both.


tp: What are you working on now and where can we hear you sing in 2011?


JP: I will be doing Mozart's Great Mass this Fall, along with the annual Candlelight Christmas Concert, and both are held in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in DC.


tp: Thank you Jessica for letting us get to know you and your singing life much better.  Here's to the Habanera, Jeannette MacDonald, the Beatles and to you!

Monday, August 8, 2011

James Murray: Seeing in the Moment

 James Murray walks through the world with his eyes wide open, seeing light, color, pattern, and mystery.  His photos take the breath away.  For someone with such a distinct and clear visual message, he is pretty handy with spoken language too.  I know James as an inspiring colleague and as a photographer to emulate.  Come to MLK Library in September to see a showing of James' work in the Library's fourth floor gallery; it's not to be missed.  If you can't wait, visit his blog, Saguaro Wanderings and his primary photography website.


tp: I was taking a look at the photographs on your blog and I’m drawn to the textures and colors and moods that you capture. Can you talk about your creative process for photographing patterns?

JM: One of my driving motivations when seeking subjects is to capture an aspect of which reveals a bit more than initially seems apparent, in order to evoke surprise and a sense of discovery from the viewer.
My philosophy has long been than most of us pass through life taking precious little genuine notice of our surroundings -- the richness of detail, the myriad of facets inherent in the physical environment in which we’re immersed from cradle to grave. Pausing to really examine the sophistication of both the organic and inorganic background to our daily lives can reveal surprising beauties and breathtaking awareness.
The first consideration regarding textures is, “what time of day am I shooting?” I prefer the “seeing” available during the hours of early morning or late afternoon, when the Sun floods the scene with light arriving at low, sharp angles. The rays brushing across subjects at acute angles frequently bring out a startling amount of surface texture not so apparent during the relatively flat light of midday. The complexities and richness of these revealed details often serve as a key element of surprise to the viewer, thus providing an extra layer of interest to my subjects.
An additional consideration which arises from choosing to photograph early or late in the day is the overall tonal quality of the light at such times. Generally the light will be more golden hued in the fresh mornings, and redder towards sunset; photographic imagery awash with such tones certainly evokes emotional responses quite different from high-noon scenes which tend to be comparatively biased toward blues.
Naturally my choices in all of these cases are frequently driven by my own mood as I set out with my camera .


tp: Many of your photographs reveal a mystery for the viewer to hold in awe or try to solve. What are your ideas around mystery?

JM: As a child I experienced mystery in different ways: there was the terror and horror of space aliens invading Earth and trolls, ogres and Billy Goat Gruff – never encountered any of them, but I feared the possibilities.

Then there were other unknowns that not only piqued my curiosity but also served to nurture a healthy imagination: How did dinosaurs really behave and what did they look like when alive? The first humans – how did they live and what were their surroundings like? What was it like to be in Pompeii on its last day? What are other galaxies like? How do cells work? Does the Sun make sound? Subjects along these lines (and many others) lead me to appreciate and deeply enjoy the essence of not quite knowing – because it allows room for creative speculation.

Thus my relationship to mystery gradually transformed from childhood resistance into adult inquiry, and the epiphany that the more we know the more mystery remains to be plumbed.
Much of my photography is informed by my own delight in the experience of the Ah Ha! moment -- that instant when recognition clicks into sharp awareness. These are of course intensely personal realizations, being steeped in the observer’s own background.

Whether the viewer suddenly finds a clear and specific “message”, or instead is moved to consider the composition as having hidden meanings, makes no difference: what counts that the image establishes an emotional/spiritual connection – subtle or overt. A sense of mystery, when present, allows an active interaction to take place between the inanimate print and the sentient observer. Such is the holy grail of any artist’s work, I believe.




tp: What kind of mode do you go into—how do you feel--- when photographing a concept or idea you are passionate about?

JM: This question goes to the heart of what for me is an interesting aspect of my artistic process – that being a co-extant duality to my approach.
The vast majority of my imagery is the result of extemporaneous encounters with my surroundings as I wander by, camera in hand. Often I set out with a general notion of what I am seeking on any given exploration: perhaps my muse for the moment leans towards macro subject matter such as rust, textured surfaces, organic translucence (leaves are a favorite), and the like. Consequently I am usually operating with an agenda – albeit a flexible one – and so go forth properly equipped (macro lens, monopod or tripod) and channel my attention more acutely to what is beneath my feet, on the fa├žades of walls, plant life bathed in combinations of shadow and direct lighting, etc.

Here I must emphasize the fruits of being open-minded to whatever visual choreography the universe offers up in the face of my own intent; many of my favorite images come from those “ah ha!” unexpected revelations (if you like) when something catches my eye a bit beyond the scope of my momentary “plan” . . . and when peering through the lens I suddenly know “I really have something here!” Or,“so this is what I was seeking!” A visceral, childlike thrill comes at such times – and such photographic encounters are the primary fuel which keeps my artistic pilot light not only on but often glowing brightly . . . I feel an eagerness to pursue more such imagery as a result.


A smaller volume of my work falls into the domain of premeditated constructions, usually taking the form of still-life subjects. For much of my journey in photography I lacked a degree of confidence (and thus comfortableness) in this milieu; in recent years however I’ve expanded my horizons considerably in this form. Unexpectedly (for me), one outcome is that I find myself directing increasing energy into formulating thematic possibilities requiring a great deal more forethought than does my normal shoot-it-as-you-find-it methodology.
These deliberate efforts can still take me by surprise and reveal ways of seeing that were in a spiritual or emotional sense just beyond my peripheral vision. Perhaps the best example of this in my portfolio is Eggs #3834 (Version II). I had sat on the idea of randomly arranging a group of plain eggs on a white plate, with perhaps all but one peeled (or vice-versa). My original goal was to use quite subtle differences in the texture of the eggs’ surfaces to provide a reward for the viewers who choose to linger long enough over such an apparently mundane subject to discover the surprise. Not all is necessarily as it seems, even in an ostensibly homogenous setting. Yet the joke was on me! When gathering up my subjects I noticed that my mom was preparing brunch using brown eggs . . . thus an entirely new way of visualizing the original idea was hatched!
Eggs #3834 (Version II) 
 Details: July 4, 2009; Canon 20D; f/11 @ 1/800 sec; -2/3 EV; ISO 100; Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS @ 41mm.  ©2010, 2011 James W. Murray, all rights reserved.


The act of abrupt emotional recalibration - a significant shift in my way of seeing, was thrilling in no small part because I felt this would be a far more engaging portrait. Such a sharp change in the script was – and often is – the source of unexpected relief: attempting to manifest in perfectionist precision a physical photograph which has endured a lengthy mental gestation usually carries considerable stress. Spontaneously altering the vision provides instant permission to let go of hardened mental criteria.

tp: Can you tell us about a photography project that you’ve felt strongly connected to?

JM: A couple of years ago my brother Eric asked me to photograph him and his band-mate Aaron for use in publicizing upcoming appearances by their band Pegasus. I chose the Rosicrucian Museum as the shoot venue; a single image was selected and found its way to the entertainment section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Spending the afternoon with my brother entrusting me with creating an image to represent something deeply important to him was very cool. To see a creation of my own published was very gratifying. (An aside here: one of the best images I’ve ever created came out of this: after we finished the formal shoot we grabbed dinner at the burrito eatery Iguanas just off of campus. As we ate the late afternoon sun was streaming in and flooding a very long, highly textured wall in the joint . . . Iguana Room #1971 resulted. After seeing the photograph posted on my blog Eric called me and remarked , “Yet again I understand why you spent so much time photographing a wall.”
Iguana Room 1971  
Details: December 6, 2008; Canon 20D; f/6.3 @ 1/60 sec; ± 0 EV; ISO 200; Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS @ 30mm   ©2010, 2011 James W. Murray, all rights reserved.

Several years ago I was asked to record an intimate memorial service at a private home, held to honor the passing of my wife’s brother who’d died several years prior. As you might imagine it was a deeply emotional gathering, and it was my task to find a balance between photographing meaningfully while not interfering with the vulnerable emotions at hand. It went well, and it was deeply moving to be a part of that process.
Recently I was asked to photograph a Buddhist meditation group, also for publicity. The whole notion of injecting a camera (complete with flash) into a meditative atmosphere provokes an incongruous mixture of emotion – my fervent desire was to be as respectful an unobtrusive as possible. It was a real honor to be entrusted with such a sacred event.

tp: What is your background in photography?

JM: I actually got into photography very much against my will!

When signing up for classes in my high school freshman year I interpreted Graphic Arts and Printing to mean a class on calligraphy. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that printing presses, silk-screening and, yes, darkroom work was the real plan.

The photography bit began after the Christmas vacation break, and I made some effort to get out of having to take it, to no avail. Up to this point I’d never given any consideration to photography as a subject of interest. I had some limited curiosity as to how photographs emerged from those tiny 35mm film canisters without being badly wrinkled and creased (really!) . . . the entire concept of negatives leading to prints via enlargement was utterly beyond my knowledge.

I quietly seethed in class for the first day or two, until it came to pass that the teacher – Mr. Dawson – led the entire group of us into the darkroom with its odd lighting, peculiar and utterly unique smells wafting up from stainless steel trays, and those odd hulking machines, the enlargers, arrayed like silent sentinels in the darker recesses of the room. I remained bored and unimpressed as Mr. Dawson put a negative in the enlarger and then shone light through it onto a sheet of ostensibly plain white paper . . . putting the still blank white paper into the first of the fluid-filled trays didn’t do much for me either.

Somewhere between 45 and 60 seconds later, however, I experienced my first Miracle: up from the mystery of nothingness suddenly emerged a black-and-white image onto the surface of what had been an unremarkable and wet sheet of paper. It was a profound epiphany, and far and away the best magic trick I’d ever witnessed. From that very instant I was helplessly smitten, in love with, and hooked by photography.
That freshman High School photography class is the only one I’ve ever taken for credit; I’ve enrolled in two others simply for darkroom access; otherwise I’ve been self-taught through books, museum visits, and a great deal of shooting.


tp: What advice do you give to novice photographers?

JM: The photographic universe has undergone a profound transformation since I first started: dark rooms and wet processing has been replaced by bright monitors and pixel manipulation.

While digital photography has the upside of providing instant feedback (no more waiting breathlessly for your prints to come back from the lab in order to see how well those shots of vacation places you’ll never visit again came out), it also imposes far greater challenges, in my opinion, for the novice to understand how to take the raw material of a so-so “negative” and transform it into a powerful, compelling image. This is entirely due to the general complexity of photo processing software. Having a solid proficiency in these applications is central to gaining the rewards of creating results which go beyond ordinary snap-shots. The learning curve can be substantial and a bit daunting.


Nonetheless, photography is a beautiful and richly rewarding hobby, and the gratification felt by the act of creating something uniquely seen by you, the photographer (yes, even if it’s the billionth picture of the Golden Gate Bridge or Half Dome) must be experienced to be truly appreciated and understood. Experiencing deeply internal pleasure of this type is well worth paying the price of time and energy to acquire the necessary skills to realize the fruits of your efforts.

Thus my advice is really quite simple (despite appearing long):
  • Learn how to use your camera fully – experiment! The more you master your equipment the more control you have in getting the results you seek.
  • Learn as much as you can about controlling exposure using f/stops and shutter speed; do not exclusively rely on your camera’s Auto mode.
  • Study composition – learn the basic rules – then learn how and when to break them!
  • Enroll in at least two or three photo classes, emphasizing how to process the images produced by your camera.
  • Learn a photo processing program well. Adobe Photoshop is the untouchable Gold Standard but is complex and expensive; Adobe Lightroom is an excellent alternative (I use both).
  • Visit as many museums, art galleries, craft festivals and websites as you can; exposure to others’ work is a legitimate and informative path by which you will find your own variations and vision.
  • Remember there is NO perfect camera; equipment helps but the critical element is the human (Tiger Wood’s golf clubs wouldn’t help me in the least!)
  • Shoot, shoot, shoot, and keep on shooting! Have fun, enjoy the creative process, and take great pleasure when the occasional photo is really sweet.
Lastly, and most important: believe in yourself and your vision.

There was only one Ansel Adams, one Edward Weston, one Diane Arbus . . . and one you. I wasted three decades under the self-imposed belief that if I couldn’t attain the statue of such artistic giants I couldn’t be considered talented in my own right. I’m busy making up for lost time now, and having tremendous pleasure doing so!

In the end, all that counts is that your own creative vision brings YOU pleasure.

tp: Thank you James, it warms my heart to read your words; what a clear picture you give us of your experience, evolution, and objectives as a photographer. I am, as always, inspired!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Elena Seto: the Aloha Spirit

 Elena Seto is a dear colleague who always inspires me to love life and follow my own passions.  Her smile radiates the Aloha spirit and invites conversation.  I have seen her photos of lomilomi and lei hulu on FB and was eager to learn more.   



tp: I see you cite “Live your life!” on your FaceBook page:  who is more appropriately a model of someone who lives her life passionately than you!  Although it must be hard to choose only one of your passions to talk about in this interview, please tell us about some of your activities that give you a sense of fulfillment.  

ES:  The "Live your life!" quote was from a close friend whose husband had a malignant tumor surgically removed from the left frontal lobe of his brain last month.  He's doing extremely well and finished his radiation treatment.  His sparkly personality is back and he's back to gardening and telling jokes.  The close call was a good reminder to enjoy life and all that it has to offer.

I'd like to have this conversation focus on Hawaii.  

As a very young child, my mother used to send me on the airplane by myself to Honolulu to spend the summers there with my grandparents.  When my younger brother was older, he also would accompany me to Hawaii to visit my grandparents.

Even though I enjoyed spending time with my grandparents, aunties, and uncles, I didn't fully appreciate being in Hawaii during those childhood summers.  I loved going to the beach, eating shaved ice, and having weekly picnic dinners at the Honolulu Zoo for their Wednesday night evening programs...but I felt isolated from summertime fun with my friends in California.

Once I started college and my career, I stopped going to Hawaii for the summers.


tp:  How did you return to your Hawaiian roots?

ES:  I don’t have any Hawaiian ancestry.  I’m tied to Hawaii by place as my grandmother was born on Kaua’i and my mother was born on Oahu.  My mother met my father in Honolulu, but she gave birth to me in California.  I had probably been away from Hawaii for 8 years or so, when a class catalog arrived in the mail from a university in San Francisco.  One of the weekend workshops that really jumped out at me was an introduction to Hawaiian lomilomi massage taught by a kumu (teacher) from the Big Island.  Without having any kind of instructional background in massage therapy, I found myself in class where it seemed like the majority of people already had advanced knowledge of massage therapy.  I was incredibly intrigued and wanted to know more.  It may have been because I stumbled upon a part of Hawaii that my mother and my grandmother knew nothing about.  I took more and more classes over the next few years and became 'adopted' by a group of lomilomi instructors.

Although I've taken several lomilomi classes, I am not a licensed, certified massage therapist.  I practice what I've learned on friends and family.  I'm not even sure that I'm even really a good student.  If my teachers ever really grilled me on certain aspects, I'm not sure that I would have correct answers for them.  It started out that I took classes for informational curiosity and for fun...but I feel that lomilomi has helped me to find a deeper and more powerful connection to the Aloha Spirit of love, acceptance, and healing that I didn't fully understand as a child.
                                       Lomilomi: Elena and Maka                                                         

tp:  Please tell us more about Hawaiian lomilomi massage.  
ES: There are so many different techniques and styles of lomilomi massage that vary from island to island, from family to family....including but not limited to long and flowing massage strokes to deep compression work to stretching movements to increase circulation and relaxation.  There is a sacred, spiritual, prayerful, and respectful aspect to lomilomi that includes that Aloha Spirit of love, acceptance, and healing...and draws upon the strength of the energies of the earth, heavens, and the breath...allowing something bigger than myself to bring about relief and relaxation to the person that I'm working on.  

I've also been taking some beginning qi gong classes (based in traditional Chinese medicine) and I've found it interesting that qi gong exercises also draw upon the energies of the earth, heavens, and breath to clear stagnant energy out of the body and cultivate replenishing energy within the body.  


tp:  That sounds deeply peaceful  What other Hawaiian traditions do you practice?

ES:  Through lomilomi, I also have gotten started in lei hulu featherwork.  While I was working in a lomilomi booth at a San Francisco Aloha Festival, one of my teachers introduced me to a kumu lei hulu (a feather lei teacher).  I had only intended to be polite and visit his feather lei class...with no intention of adding his class to my life, as I already was pretty busy.

When I showed up to my first class, I discovered that his class was closed to new students, but he was making an exception to let me in. He asked me what I wanted to learn to make.  I told him that I only wanted to make a single flower out of feathers, as there were so many beautiful ones all around the classroom.  Well...he wouldn't let me start on so simple a project, so he recommended that I start with a hatband.  It took me nearly a year to finish my first project and I found myself part of his regular class.  The lei hulu class is always lively with laughing, quarreling, gossip, food and fun.


Cata and leis                                                                                            
tp:  We’d like to know more about lei hulu.  

ES: Lei hulu is the art of working with feathers...originally to make leis, helmets, capes, kahili (standards) for the Hawaiian royal family.  Only the Hawaiian royal family were allowed to wear feathered adornments.  There were special birdcatchers that would catch native Hawaiian birds, pull a few feathers, and release the birds to be caught again another day.  Birds were associated with the heavens and the feathered adornments that were created for the royal family were sacred and protective.  Today, students tie or sew a variety of feathers (goose, chicken, peacock, and pheasant) to create works of art that can be worn by anyone.

tp:  What else would you like to tell us?

ES:  I consider myself very lucky to have been accepted and embraced into the lomilomi and lei hulu groups, as I'm not really a local Hawaiian.  Sometimes my classmates have to explain/translate certain phrases or discussions for me because I don't always know what's going on.

Last September was the first time I had returned to Hawaii after being away for maybe 15 years.  I saw Hawaii through new eyes, more appreciative eyes.  I found a Hawaii that I can relate to...that's different than my mother's Hawaii and my grandmother's Hawaii.


tp:  Where can we find out more about lomilomi massage and lei hulu?

ES:  Here are two articles about lomilomi and lei hulu that give more information:
Lomi Lomi: Traditional vs Contemporary
Hawaii’s Feather Leis


tp: Thank you Elena; this was so much fun!