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Archive for the ‘Art’ Category


How do you spell STRABISMUS?

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Now that was strange!

When I walked through the garden this morning, it was like walking through a pop-up book.  Everything seemed to be in super 3-d.  The shrubs stood way out against the fence.  The pathway meandered in a way I never saw before.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if a giant bug had lumbered up and bumped me.

And I wasn’t wearing 3-d glasses.

In fact, I’ve tried 3-d glasses and I’ve never understood what all the fuss is about.  Now, I’ll have to try them again.

I had eye surgery a few days ago.  Seems that in my five decades of looking and seeing, I’ve not been seeing quite right.  A nerve that controls a muscle in my right eye wasn’t talking to that muscle the way it should have been.

I was clued into a problem about 15 years ago.  I went for an eye exam and the eye doc spent an inordinately long time asking me to look down and up and all around.  I was wondering what was going on when he stunned me by asking “Do you get seasick?”

Seasick!??  When I was working on my PhD in marine science, I spent weeks at a time out on research cruises (sounds far more glamorous than it was). Everything swam before my eyes. I threw up over and over again. Nothing helped.  Not looking at the horizon, not those purple pills you buy over the counter, not the scopolamine patches (they made me hallucinate).

It was pretty discouraging, not to mention humiliating.

And here, more than a decade later, a doctor was asking me about seasickness.  Why?
The way he explained it, each of my eyes saw in a different plane – one up and one straight ahead.  It wasn’t obvious when you looked at me, and my brain had long ago convinced my eyes that they saw absolutely correctly.  But, they didn’t.

The solution, he said, was a pair of glasses with prisms in the lenses.  Each lens changed my angle of vision slightly to bring them into the same plane.

That was fine until about a year ago, when I realized that I was seeing double when I looked down.  It made walking downstairs a bit challenging – I wasn’t sure exactly where the steps were.  The food on my plate didn’t come into focus very well.  And when I read, I held the book straight out rather than resting it in my lap, and I instinctively closed one eye.  Not real comfortable.

I mentioned my frustration to the ophthalmologist when I went in for my annual check up this year.  He fiddled around with his equipment, fiddled with my eyes, then sent me to a specialist.

The specialist fiddled with his equipment, fiddled with my eyes, then told me that I’d been misdiagnosed.  What I had, he said, sounded like stomboli. Or bismuth.  Or something Latin. As a botanist, I do Latin pretty well but I certainly didn’t understand what he was talking about.  Then he explained the whole nerve/muscle miscommunication thing.  Prismatic glasses are the wrong solution, he said.  He could fix my double vision with a simple (to him), 15 minute surgery!

“How soon can you do it?” I asked.

So, after doing my due diligence, I made an appointment and away we went.  That was last Tuesday.

Doc had warned me (again and again and again) that after the surgery, I would see double for a while – a few days, a few weeks perhaps – but that was part of the process.  Seems that my brain had integrated the mismatch so well for so long, that it would take time for it to unlearn the bad information and re-wire with the good information.
How cool is that!

After the surgery I was pretty wiped out.  The next day was Thanksgiving so I was totally consumed with cooking and company.  The third day, however, I woke with a pretty solid case of vertigo.  That was my brain hard at work trying to figure this whole thing out.
The vertigo was mostly gone by the fourth day, but I noticed that while my double vision had resolved in the near field, I still saw two when I looked into the distance.  “Come for a walk with me,” I said to my husband, “I have to get my eyes and my brain looking far away if I am going ever see straight again.”

I seem to be standing differently, too.  Eye doc told me that I had been tilting my head slightly to the right to compensate for my kooky vision.  “That will change,” he said, “but it will take a while for your neck muscles to readjust.”  Sounded odd, but today, I realized my posture is straighter and taller.  And the muscles at the base of my neck hurt.
Could this be the readjustment he was referring to?

This morning, when I walked down into the garden, I had that 3-d experience.  It was strange, but oddly thrilling.  Makes me wonder how my new vision will change the way I design gardens!

Walking is strange too, though driving is absolutely fine.  I seem to be walking more on the inside of my left foot now. The outer part of that foot feels like it is walking on a pillow. And I have the constant sense that I am listing to port.

Eye doc told me that fixing my eyes would fix other things too. I should no longer be so sensitive to bright lights (that will make my husband happy) and, I should be more photogenic.

That’s all great but I have to wonder –  will I also lose 20 pounds and be able to dance the samba?


Inspired by Flowers

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

One of my greatest honors is to have my work inspire others.  When students email me with stories and photos of their water-wise gardens inspired by one of my classes, for example, I am thrilled.

CAGGcoverMDP:MO cover final

Imagine my delight, then, to discover that my book, California Gardener’s Guide vII inspired a gorgeous mosaic mural!

A few months back, public artist Christie Beniston invited me to the dedication of her tile mural as it was unveiled in its permanent home at the main entrance to  Flower Hill Mall in Del Mar, California.

The images in Christie Beniston's mosaic mural are based on photos from California Gardener's Guide vII

The images in Christie Beniston's mosaic mural are based on photos from California Gardener's Guide vII

Christie’s 5′ x 9′ mural features oversized flowers and critters in fantastic colors.  She designed it and assembled it with the assistance, she tells me, of many hands “The mural was created by members of the community” she says, “under (my) design for ‘Arts in Bloom 2009‘ sponsored by the Solana Beach Art Association and Flower Hill Mall.”

Book Works, one of our finest local independent bookstores, invited me to speak at the event, but for some reason, I didn’t get a chance to see the mural that day.

Later, Christie told me that she’d used my book as a reference guide for the flowers.  “The flowers pictured are meant to represent verbena, cape mallow,  California fuschia, matilija poppy, penstemon, and marigold” she explained, “I took some artistic liberties along the way but your book was the guide, it is a beautiful resource.”

How thrilling!

The mural is both colorful and whimsical

The mural is both colorful and whimsical

I asked Christie how the piece came together.  She said, “Teen Korps volunteers helped supervise and break tiles.  I painted a cartoon outline on the cement substrate to help guide the placement of the broken tiles. We used commercial tile and some handmade tiles from my studio.  The tiles went on with thinset.  I then grouted (with some help from friends!) and the sign company that works with Flower Hill (Mall) donated the frame and helped with the permanent installation.”

Several months back, I had seen the mural in-progress when I visited   the Center for a Healthy Lifestyle at Solana Beach Boys and Girls Club.  Our mutual friend, garden designer Katie Pelisek, who runs the center,  had generously allowed Christie to use her facility to assemble the mural.

At the time, I had no idea that there was any connection to my book.  I just admired its whimsical, colorful, oversized flowers.

The mural’s beauty is the result of Christie’s magical touch, just as she has a magical touch with all the art pieces she creates.  And she creates alot of art!   Murals, sculptures, garden art, and more.

Christie Beniston by her installation "Time Interwoven"

Take a look at her on-line galleries!  Recently, the San Diego International Airport held a dedication for Christie’s installation “Time Interwoven.”  (It also won a coveted “Orchid” award from the San Diego Architectural Foundation’s Orchids and Onions Awards).

Christie Beniston by her installation “Time Interwoven”

I’ve always been fascinated by mosaics, though I’ve yet to try my hand at making any (anyone want to invite me to a mural making session?  I’d like to learn!).

I’d love to have one of Christie’s pieces in my own garden, but for the moment, I’ll have to live with having my garden in her art instead!

Visit Christie’s Beniston’s mural at the main entrance to the lower level of Flower Hill Mall , 2720 Via De La Valle, Del Mar, CA 92014-1923


The Fabric of Survival

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

I’ve read dozens of books, visited museums, seen countless exhibits, heard many many stories about the Holocaust.

Still, each time I encounter the realities of what the Nazis did to millions of innocent people just like me, a deep pit develops in my gut, along with feelings of anger, horror, and angst.

Those feelings visited me again this afternoon when I toured Fabric of Survival at the Oceanside Musem of Art.  The exhibit is the nexus of primitive art and native Holocaust story telling.

Fabric of Survival is a series of 36 fabric art scenes from the life of Polish Jew, Esther Nisenthal Krinitz (1927 – 2001) who, with her younger sister Mania, were the only members of her family of six to survive the holocaust.

Krinitz used mostly embroidery and applique to depict snapshot memories of her life, starting in Mniszek, a small village in Poland around 1937.   Twelve year old Esther lived with her parents, three sisters, and brother on her family’s farm.

Esther Krinitz's family farm in Mniszek, Poland early 1930s

Esther Krinitz's family farm in Mniszek, Poland early 1930s

First in the exhibit, is a group of scenes documenting what life was like for Esther and her family – tending to  crops, caring for cows and geese, swimming in the nearby river, celebrating Jewish holidays with their neighbors.

One notable image shows community Matzoh-making at the village shoemaker’s home.   Esther’s mother mixes the dough while a tableful of women roll it out into rounds.  The shoemaker perforates the rounds on their way to his son who tends the oven.

How different from today’s experience of strolling into the supermarket to buy a box of square, factory produced Matzoh!

Community matzoh making

Community matzoh making

The rich, close life of Esther’s family and their community is depicted in other ways.  A scene shows her grandfather and a neighbor, the community patriarchs, leading high holiday services.  The men are draped in pure white prayer shawls that frame their salt and pepper colored beards.  Her grandfather holds a shofar, the ram’s horn that he would blow to announce the new year.

Behind them is the ark, home of the community’s Torah, a table with a wash basin, a important part of the holiday, and a grandfather’s clock.  The latter has no religious value but makes it clear that they are praying in a home, not a synagogue.  The town was too small for a proper synagogue.

The image is all blue and red, with a sense of three dimensions created by the timbers that support the roof over the mens’ heads.

Esther’s grandfather appears again in a scene that portends the future.  It is 1939.  Esther and her friends run to the road as the first Nazis arrive in their village.  Clearly, they have no idea what the men’s mission is.  But when the soldiers drag Esther’s revered grandfather from his home, rough him up, and cut off his beard (a symbol of his position as a respected elder in the community), it is quite clear that these are not friendly strangers.

Nazis rough up Esther's revered grandfather, 1939

Nazis rough up Esther's revered grandfather, 1939

From that point on, the scenes become more and more disturbing, more and more poignant. The Nazis continue to terrorize the town.  They construct “labor” camps in their nearby forests.  Life generally becomes more and more difficult.

And then….

October 15, 1942.  The Nazis ordered all the village Jews to the train by 10 am.  They are being relocated.    Any Jew found left in the village will be shot.

There is an scene of the family gathering in tears on the last night in their home, and one from the morning as they and their neighbors board horse carts for a ride to the train station from where, we know, they will ride to their deaths.

Esther describes how she desperately begged her parents to allow her to flee and take her younger sister Mania with her.  Isn’t there anyone, she asks, who would take us in?

Her father responds “Maybe Stefan,” a gentile farmer friend who lives in a different town.  Esther and Mania’s mother hires a woman to escort them to Stefan’s.  Esther remembers her mother’s last words to them, “Goodbye my dear children.  Perhaps you will survive.”

Those words stopped me in my tracks.  Clearly, Esther’s mother feared her fate, along with the fate of her husband, other children, siblings, extended family, neighbors, the entire community that made up her life.

She also understood that she would never again see her daughters, whether or not they survived.

As a mother, I tried to imagine saying that to my own children.  As I did, my heart felt as if it would burst.  Could I let some children go, flee as Esther and Mania were doing, to some unknown fate?  Or would I want to keep my family together, even knowing that it likely meant their deaths?

And what would it have been like to be in that line of horse carts, an entire community of people being carted off to die.  Would I be scared? Angry? Hopeful that it was all a big mistake? Wanting to believe the Nazis’ promise of food and comfort at the end of the trip?

Or would I have shut down, terrified of what had happened to that point and even more terrified of what was to come?

Questions that we all hope we never to have to answer.

As you probably realize by now, Esther and Mania do survive, thanks to their determination, some clever thinking, and plain old fate.

They find Stefan but it is too dangerous to stay with his family for the long term.

Cast out on their own, they travel to a community where they are not known, and masquerade as Catholic school girls separated from their families.  There, they are taken on as domestics and work, though not without incident,  until the Russians liberate Poland

Finally free, Esther goes back to search out the fate of her family.  She finds the camp she believes they were taken to.  Tragically, there is no trace of them, just piles of worn shoes amid the “showers,” crematoria, and giant cabbages growing in piles of human ashes.

Esther searches for her family's fate

Esther searches for her family's fate

Esther joins the Polish and Russian Armies to help with the liberation. One scene shows truckloads of Russian soldiers (Esther’s battalion) passing down a road where a battle was recently fought.  On one side, bodies of Nazi soldiers lie helter skelter in a field.  On the other side of the road, bodies of Nazi officers dangle from the trees.  It is a chilling scene in all respects.

When the war ends, Mania and Esther go to a displaced persons’ camp where each meets her future husband.  Esther and her husband Max move to America.  Mania and hers go to Israel first, to America several years later.

The last group of scenes are of life in America.  The final one struck me as the most touching and hopeful.  A tiny, blond haired girl explores the bark of a tree in a park.  In the caption, Esther addresses her granddaughter using a Yiddish term of adoration, “Mami Sheine,” beautiful little girl.

Esther's grandaughter, a free, safe generation in America

Esther's grandaughter, a free, safe generation in America

It wasn’t until 1977 when Esther, then 50,  created her first amazing fabric picture.  Over the next 20 plus years, she stitched and painted to create the touching narrative that hangs on walls of museums across the country today.

Interestingly, the sequence in which the scenes were created is different from the sequence in which each event occurred.  It made me wonder whether Esther created each one at the time she remembered it, or whether she had a grand scheme for what she would create and when she would create it.

And since Esther was not a trained artist, her technique developed over time.  I quickly came to connect each image to the era in which it was created, simply by noting its style.    Those Esther created first, for example, were more like tapestries  where she primarily used yarn and intricate embroidery.  Over time, she relied more and more on applique, eventually, creating fabric collages by paying attention not just to the color of each fabric, but also to its pattern.

In one scene, for example, flowers are depicted as giant pansy blooms, each cut from a pansy patterned fabric and appliqued whole onto the background.  Eventually, Esther incorporated fabric paint to darken skies and establish mood.

At the same time, Esther’s characters became more refined.  She focused on creating expressive faces, and action through the positions of arms and legs and bodies in space.  She also learned to create perspective and dimensions.

There is a 13 minute video of Esther and Mania recalling the past.  Unfortunately, I only caught the end of it at the museum, but I found it online at Art and Remembrance, the organization that Esther’s daughters created “that seeks to change people’s hearts and minds by illuminating the experience of war, oppression, and injustice through the power and passion of personal narrative in art.”art-and-remembrance-home1

The site also includes a gallery of all 36 fabric art pieces, along with audio narrative of Esther’s daughters describing their mother,  background to the events depicted, how Esther created her art, and more.

The online exhibition is well worth visiting

But, there is nothing like seeing Esther’s creations in person.