The Weird, The Wild, And The Wonderful

I was at a party at John’s house in Sausalito when a woman who was dancing and was very drunk or high, probably both, took off her top, picked up a lamp, took off the lamp shade and held the bulb under her breasts until it cast enormous shadows of her chest on the walls and ceiling. Our host spent much of the event chatting amiably with his guests from the warmth and comfort of his bath tub. On the living room dance floor an elegantly dressed black man who was 6 1/2 feet tall was dancing with a dwarf – It was just another night playing out in life’s rich pageant in Sausalito, in the 1980’s.

The Bath • Alfred Stevens

This bad advice was given to me by my “advisor” at Stanford my freshman year, when I was attempting to register for classes for my second quarter, which he had to sign and approve. I wanted to take a drawing class, a sculpture class and an art history class, seemingly appropriate for someone who planned to major in art. I had met with my advisor only one time previously in September when I first came to Stanford, so I did not know him and he really did not know me.

I did not listen to his advice and took the classes, and eventually went on to make sculptures, drawings, paintings, stained glass, lithographs, etchings, screen prints, photographs, digital art and books and had a career as a graphic designer, book creator and writer. Sadly, my advisor committed suicide before I could meet with him again for spring quarter registration, so perhaps he was the one who was in need of therapy.

The artist Jorge Otero at work

Al Jackson gets artistic advice from his dog

This iconic bit of native Hawaiian Pidgen wisdom was displayed on a large sign outside of a restaurant in Hilo, Hawaii. It is a very common phrase that means, “If it’s possible, then great! But if it’s not possible, well that’s fine, too,” to which one might respond “Eh, hozzit goin bruddah?”

Initially created by Native Hawaiians and Chinese plantation workers who intermarried, Pidgin was further influenced by other immigrant cultures such as the Portuguese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Americans. Today, this islander language is a blend of Polynesian and Asian grammar with a strong English vocabulary.

I had to learn to understand it when I was in Hawaii one summer in the early 1980’s working for an art professor who had grown up on Kauai. On the mainland at his university job, he mostly spoke standard English, while on his Hawaiian home island he spoke only Pidgen, which confused me linguistically until I adapted to the native standards and put the Can back into Can.

Yes you can!

A friend told me this recently, describing his daughter’s change in career paths.

Amazonian Shaman

This was a phrase I heard often from my mother, Sydney Thomson Brown, throughout her long, adventurous and courageous life. It was such a fundamental part of the core of her bedrock values that it is engraved on her gravestone. The side of her monument states “Inclined to Mischief”, an evaluation on her pre-printed grade school report card from her childhood in China that she always hoped would be checked off for her. She was a builder of communities and a tireless warrior for social justice and always strove to have a good time working for the common and greater good.

Sydney Thomson Brown • Heath, Massachusetts • Photo by MMB

Sydney Thomson Brown’s mischievous grave monument • Photo by MMB

We were at San Francisco’s small music and comedy club, The Other Cafe (where Robin Williams got his start) in the early 1980’s. There were several empty seats in the front row where we sat down, thinking that we had the best seats in the house, not knowing that these are the very seats that comedians use to do “crowd work,“ insulting and humiliating audience members when their act is not going well. The comedian asked a couple of people what they did for a living and embarrassed and demeaned them. He then settled in on me and asked me what my name was and what I did for a living. I told him “My name is Zarko Zolo and I teach blind hemophiliacs how to read sharpened cheese graters.” He was momentarily confused and then gave three Nazi style straight armed salutes shouting “Zarko Zolo! Zarko Zolo! Zarko Zolo!” and moved on to his next crowd work comedy victims.

Amanda Eriandsen • Comedian

I was looking at a pair of chest high, rubber fisherman’s waders hanging from a hook on Carol Law’s living room wall. Carol was an art professor and artist and was hosting a critique for myself and the rest of her students in the house she shared with her husband, the composer and musician Charles Amirkhanian. Their house in the East Bay hills had been a Baptist church before they converted it into a home. There was a large 4’ x 6’  turquoise and white concrete tub at the end of the living room which had been a baptismal dunking pool for the newly converted.  There was a pair of chest high, rubber fishing waders hanging on a hook next to the pool which the minister used so he wouldn’t get wet in the baptismal process – It seemed like cheating to me.  John the Baptist would not have approved. Their immersive conversion methods appeared to me to have been spiritually unsound.

I now baptize you my brother in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Caroll Stowe was a machinist, truck driver, wagon master, horseman, storyteller and writer and was a truly unique individual. He grew up on a small family farm in Colrain Massachusetts. For many years he cut our summer hayfields in very rural Heath Massachusetts, keeping the fields clear so they would not revert back into forests. After a day of cutting he would always come into the house where he knew he would be offered a beer in a houseful of friends ready to hear one or usually many of his stories dating from the depression era up to the present day. His stories always involved local towns people that he knew personally. He wore bib overalls and spoke incredibly loudly with a broad Massachusetts accent. His heroes were Winn Warner, a local logger who owned and operated a small sawmill and Howard Thompson, our neighbor and a dairy farmer who was a kind man and a bit of a prankster. Caroll held these two up as paragons of virtue with impeccable character in contrast to his description of this less worthy individual who would first try to steal something that you were attempting to give to him.

Caroll Stowe

Caroll was also the uncle of the magician and illusionist Penn Jilette who grew up in nearby Greenfield Massachusetts, where his father was a prison guard. It was a town that Jilette had no nostalgia for in later life, and was one of the reasons that he settled in Las Vegas, 3,000 miles away, where he and his magician partner Teller have been regularly performing at the Rio Hotel theater since 2001.

As Penn once said, “In music, if you hit a wrong note, people forgive you. In magic when something goes wrong, the entire art is destroyed.”

Penn Jillette • Photo by Gage Skidmore

I was having an art opening of my new, large, very colorful NightBlooms floral art at Xerox PARC in the hills above Palo Alto in 2001, when I was given this piece of unsolicited advice by one of the resident PARC geniuses, who informed me that I should always include a layer of invisible images rendered in invisible ink in all of my prints. He went on and on about this until I finally had to get away from him and wanted him to disappear and suddenly become invisible himself. As a lifelong visual artist, relying on people being able to see my efforts clearly, I could literally not see his point. 

PARC was home to the first copiers, the original mouse, early PC concepts, networking and many original w.w.w. ideas. Steve Jobs went there on a tour & stole many of his conceptual ideas for the first Mac, so I was not averse to being given new and interesting creative ideas from any of the brilliant people who worked there. Using invisible images and invisible ink to portray them were not ideas that I needed to take home with me and implement, whether stolen furtively or given to me freely, although the best things in life, like love, friendship, generosity of spirit and ideas as they are forming, are by nature invisible.

Venetian Migration • MMB • NightBlooms Series

I first heard of this declaration from  W.C. Fields when I was a student in France at the age of 19; and academics, politicians and marketing departments all over the world still rely on its tried and true methods and principles far too often to this day.

W.C. Fields

W.C. Fields and Me

My great grandmother, Margaret Seabury Cook would say this confidence building mantra to herself whenever she felt intimidated about entering a room of strangers.

She was a great athlete and described herself as “the best horsewoman and rifle shot in Raritan County, New Jersey.” She played music, spoke and read Latin, French, German and Spanish, was a painter and enjoyed poetry, so she clearly really was better than most.

Margaret Seabury Cook • My great grandmother

We covered every surface in our living room, dining room and kitchen with burning candles on December 31st, 1999, trying to provide enough light to overcome the widely feared and hyped Y2K problems, falsely predicted to wreak havoc on the personal, digital and financial worlds. 

We had a dozen clocks synchronized in the dining room, proudly led by a gold plated, loudly ticking, ornate clock festooned with angels and cherubs from the Dutch 19th century, ready to herald in the New Millennium. The candles put out a surprising amount of heat and we soon had to open all of the doors and windows to cool the house down and replenish the flame burned oxygen.

Midnight exploded with loud, festive clock bells and alarms, champagne corks, toasts and fireworks in the back yard.

Happy New Millennium • Invitation by MMB

This remark was made to me by Melanie Walker, a photography teacher at San Francisco State University when I was getting a Master’s degree in Printmaking. I had been commenting on the poor, amateur quality of the frayed, stained print on display in a piece of art that a Punked out student had put up on the wall for a critique. This was in 1982, when Punk was in full flower and a lot of the kids at SF State were showing up with full moon tans, ripped clothes, safety pins riddling their flesh and heavy black Doc Martens boots on their feet, full of angry antagonistic attitudes. It was a short lived era when some people believed that anyone could make art or music, and a lot of very bad art and music came out of those beliefs. At the same critique Melanie told me that she was afraid the I would “Get Stuck” in my future art making life because of my old, tired ideas.

Punk it up, until you can feel it!

I was cooling down with my 6 year old son son Jordan, at Raging Waters Water Park in San Jose,  California on a hot summer afternoon, bobbing in a 350,000 gallon wave pool, when where a young Latino man walked by above us on the deck. He had an enormous full body tattoo of Jesus surrounded by God and angels covering his back and chest. 

Normally you have no idea what is hidden under someone’s shirt, but at a water park all that was usually hidden was now revealed. He also had several jail tears tattooed on each side of his eyes, one teardrop for each year that he had been incarcerated, as did many of the patrons on that hot August day.

The Archangel Michael and a Dragon at war on a man’s back

My friend John made this comment as we were sitting atop the highest pinnacle at Pinnacles National Park on a dazzlingly clear spring day, looking out over a magical fairy land of weirdly eroded red spires, soaring raptors, emerald green hills, waterfalls, vast savannahs of grass lands stretching out to the east dotted with carpets of yellow and purple wild flowers, cool breezes softly ruffling and painting the distances, all domed over up to the heavens by a sky so blue and deep that it drank us up.

The Pinnacles is a magical, vortex infused power spot that I have been hiking and exploring since I was an 11 year old Boy Scout, and I have returned there countless times in the intervening 50 years.

Pinnacles and condors • Photo by MMB

Here’s Louis Armstrong singing about what a wonderful world we live in: