Ralph Bacerra’s Exquisite Beauty

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This summer the art news in LA has been about a giant, private collection housed in a sparkly new downtown gallery: The Broad. In the same time frame hundreds, no probably more like thousands, of smaller shows opened across the city and region, befitting the powerhouse that is the LA environs art scene.

I found myself drawn to 2 new exhibits celebrating ceramic history in Los Angeles. A history told through the prism and influence of Master Ceramicist and Teacher, Ralph Bacerra.

Primary is Ralph Bacerra Exquisite Beauty at the Ben Maltz Gallery, on the West LA Otis campus, a retrospective of 90 pieces showcasing the career of the Garden Grove born artist and teacher.

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A faculty member at the Chouinard Art Institute from 1963-71, he headed the ceramics department at Otis College of Art and Design from 1983-96, in a career that spanned 5 decades.

Enrolling at Chouinard in 1957, he studied graphic design, with a view to pursuing a career in Commercial Art. However, one elective seminar with pioneering studio potter, Vivika Heino changed everything and a new pathway emerged.

“I started to get more serious working with the wheel and the clay and the glazes. I said ‘this is for me’.This is where I want to be and I dropped everything and switched my major to Ceramics.”

With his mentors move to the Rhode Island School of Design, Bacerra became head of the Ceramics program.

A lifelong exploration of historic asian ceramics, textile and print designs and finely honed technical expertise became the beautiful vessels and sculptures that comprise the exhibit.

His work represents pursuit of beauty for beauty’s sake. Expressed in all forms, organic, geometric, traditional or sculptural and always a surface replete with pattern, color, composition and design.

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Not for Bacerra the prevailing exploration of the “humble pot”, the creamy earth toned stoneware with brushstroke calligraphy in a nod to Japanese folk art:much approved of in the 50’s and 60’s! Moving forward with glaze technology and drawing upon his earlier background in commercial art, he experimented with raised clay designs on his stoneware and then shifted to porcelain and white ware, where his increasingly complex and overglazed decoration could shine.

“China Painting” as it was referred to, had become the province of Women’s Art Clubs and hobbyists, ironic given the historic gravitas and tradition of similar techniques. A growing movement celebrating color and embellishment and drawing upon these derided techniques influenced and encouraged Bacerra.

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This retrospective shows the move from simple green & white or blue & white graphics to dizzyingly complicated patterns:patterns and techniques drawn from Asian ceramics, persian painting, middle eastern textiles and MC Escher’ designs. Kandinsky, Klee and Klimt all on display at the Pasadena Art Museum were particular favorites.


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He perfected increasingly difficult firing schedules to accommodate  the complex and multilayered combinations of glazes.Curator and Author of Ralph Bacerra Exquisite Beauty, Jo Lauria notes:

“As many as 14 firings were required for a single object and the labor intensive process was fraught with potential for breakages and flaws in the kiln.”  ..a 50% loss rate apparently.

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His tenure at Chouinard and Otis mentored an impressive number of students who follow in his footsteps.

The second exhibit celebrating Los Angeles’s storied clay history is Crossroads in Clay at Chouinard and Otis: The Ralph Bacerra Years, a group exhibition featuring more than thirty former students of the artist.

This exhibit, concurrent with the Ben Maltz show is at the Vincent Price Art Gallery, on the East LA  College campus.

It is an historic review, connecting the skills of the teacher (Bacerra) to the ceramic art of the students he mentored and a rare opportunity to see works created by these heirs of Bacerra’s tutelage. Many are now prominent artists in the field.

He challenged students to critically evaluate and recreate historic glazes and forms as part of their education and believed strongly in technical mastery and craftsmanship.

The show includes more than fifty artworks that demonstrate differing approaches, aesthetics and practice.Some retain a direct relationship to Bacerra and others are headed in alternate and innovative directions.

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A beautiful full-color catalogue, written by Jo Lauria and produced by the Ben Maltz Gallery accompanies Exquisite Beauty. And Crossroads in Clay curator, Christy Johnson has contributed an original essay discussing the lasting impact Bacerra had on his students.

Otis has also produced 2 “rolling clay” tours ( October and November) which travel to many of the ceramic artist’s studios featured in the Crossroads exhibit. 

A joy to explore Bacerra’s beauty for beauty’s sake .

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Old friends, Bob and Kanye.

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I moved the “stereo” to a new place.

Tucked under the bar in the entrance to my home.

It works visually, snug on an unused shelf and means the old cabinet in the living room could fill with glasses (I have a thing for glasses).

And in a completely unworthy and serendipitous way I have fallen in love with listening to music again.

Now the sound spreads out the door. Onto the steps where in a similar fit of art direction I placed the most comfortable chair in the house: a leather butterfly chair.

And in a house of chairs, THIS seems the best place to sit, read and listen.

I can hear music in my office, but in a different way then from the computer, and it floods the living room and kitchen and out into the garden. It’s so easy to switch on when I walk past out to grab the papers. Back to the chair on the steps, a nice new routine.

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In the mess that is hundreds of disorganized CDs, cases, blanks and orphans, I find one of the 2 albums I never tire of hearing.

Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.

Released in 1969, I know I’ve owned a copy forever… vinyl, cd, IPOD. Probably even a cassette.

The songs are simple.

To quote Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone
“Nashville Skyline achieves the artistically impossible: a deep, humane and interesting statement about being happy”

The beauty is the absolute simplicity. After albums of multi layered, complicated moving imagery and manipulation, these songs sing of heartfelt joy, aching love, desire and disappointment.

” Why wait any longer for the world to begin. You can have your cake and eat it too.

Why wait any longer for the the one you love, When he’s standing in front of you.”

Critics nailed Dylan for celebrating the banal and cliched, but the album became his best selling to date and many loved his new voice, a soft country croon, the duet with Johnny Cash and the insidiously lovely melodies.

So back on rotation when I’m home alone and just puttering.

“To be alone with you, just you and me. Why don’t ya tell me its true, aint that the way it oughta be?

To hold each other tight, the whole night thru. Everything is alright when I’m alone with you.”

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The other “never tire” album?

Kanye West’s 808’s and Heartbreak.

Described as “provocatively miserable,” I played it over and over when it was released in 2008. So easy when you own a cafe and no one realizes the same music has been on repeat since 8am (sorry noshies!).

Cool minimal electronics, sad sad devastation and exhausted, heartbroken lyrics.

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“I keep it low, keep a secret code / so everyone else don’t have to know,”

“There is no clothes that I could buy

That could turn back the time

There is no vacation spot I could fly

That could bring back a piece of real life”

And like Dylan 30 years before, a whole new voice, albeit surrounded by AUTOTUNE, the digital pitch device, amplifying rather than anesthetizing emotion.

His minimalism reminds me of favorite painters or sculptors: simplistic externals that suggest a complicated interior.

Kanye took a robotic drum machine and autotune and created a deep and beautiful collection of songs.

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I don’t know why I can listen to some albums over and over or read some books again and again.

It’s like the B grade movie, so often more personally relevant, informative and enjoyable than the classic. And the books I repeatedly indulge in and the albums I never tire of hearing, speak to me in a whole different way.

I heard Daniel Levitan, author of “This is your Brain on Music”, speaking on NPR about the interplay of familiarity and novelty, and how listening to music coordinates more disparate parts of the brain than almost anything else.

Maybe that’s the thing… disparate brain parts, heartache and joy, the new and the old all wrapped in lyricism and melody.

PS.Some books I reread:

Daniel Martin by John Fowles

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Some albums I replay:

Alison Krause’s Now that I found You

Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon 2

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             Happiest concert ever: sounds and smiles as he sang the ‘coldest stories ever told’!

Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers

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I was asked why I decided to spend 6 weeks hiking from France to Spain along the famous Camino de Santiago, and was amazed to hear the words ” I’ve never done a big thing and I really wanted to” come out of my mouth.

When I read that Simon Rodia had said much the same when asked about his Watts Towers I recognized the sentiment.

“I wanted to do a big thing and so I did it.”

I first glimpsed the Towers from the Blue Line enroute to downtown LA from Long Beach, but the neighborhood, post 1992 riots  seemed scary. The newspaper photographs from the 1965 unrest flashed through my mind and slowed me from exiting the train. Poetic images of the Towers would appear in magazines, cameos in movies and video games would nudge me to visit, but it took a decade before I finally drove down the tiny streets in Watts to explore.

A big thing in Roddia’s life but almost lost in the suburban megacity that is Los Angeles.

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The triangle block is surrounded by small single story homes, an abandoned trolley line runs close by, there’s a small park and remnants of historic 20’s architecture when Watts was a solidly middle class suburb. A suburb growing because of railway lines and jobs and proximity to downtown LA.

Construction worker and immigrant Rodia moved into Watts and built his unique structures from rebar, his own concrete mixture, railway detritus and broken soda bottles and ceramic seconds. Neighborhood kids earned money by “sourcing” the decorative elements.

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He built in the evenings, after a days work and often walked 20 miles to Wilmington, along the tracks to find materials. He used no electricity or cranes, but constructed each component by hand.

The towers climb 100 feet into the air. And the project took 33 years in all.

I’m drawn to experience these solitary artistic endeavors.The innate sadness versus the fantastical and exuberant, and the physical scale and decades of labor tug like no other art.

I’m reminded of other outsider art constructions: Hermit’s Cave in Griffith, NSW , Forestiere Underground Garden in Fresno and Salvation Mountain near the Salton Sea.

And I think of artists who’s work I love, totally different mediums but very often huge scale and for me, strong emotional impact like James Turrell, Michael Heizer and Christo.

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Rodia left Los Angeles in 1955 never to return. He “quit” the site, apparently exhausted by City threats and permit issues, and after a fire destroyed his bungalow, plans were underway to demolish the towers.

In a serendipitous and magical encounter, an actor and a film editor, having seen the towers and knowing of their abandonment and impending destruction, bought the site from the neighbor and set in process the saving of Rodia’s life work.

To quote Wikipedia : The Watts Towers or “Nuestro Pueblo” are considered one of Southern California’s most culturally significant public artworks.They are one of nine folk art sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. The towers were also designated a California Historical Landmark in 1990.

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The towers are surrounded by a 10ft chain link fence. There is need for continuing restoration but they are not crumbling or in a state of devastation. In fact, on a clear spring day the crazy Gaudiesque towers, ceramic walls, ships and fountain shapes sparkle with seashells and colorful broken china.

Parking and seeing from the street is free but supporting the small Art Center and taking the $7 guided tour is a good thing. Unless you live totally behind gates or in a secluded, perfect and remote place , the neighborhood is fine. A little scruffy in places, but also cheery and cute around the Towers and along the street. Neighbors have decorated in honor and admiration of the art piece they live next to.

This brilliant and unique folk art is visited by 45,000 visitors a year, mostly overseas tourists and school groups.The Watts Towers may be the finest example of LA outsider art AND an international icon but the least visited by people who live locally.

Los Angeles is an art, design and architecture magnet. Full of singular, iconic buildings and neighborhoods and cool places to explore.

Another really big thing to do!

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ps: My personal nudge to revisit, Australian school friend, photographer and fellow Hermit’s Cave devotee. Thanks Cilla.

the Northern Rivers

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We moved around a lot when I was a kid.

Every couple of years it was a new school, new landscapes and new friends.

There was a constant however…. returning each summer holiday to the green and lush northern rivers, home to my mum’s extended family and the place where my dad met my mum.

Otherworldly and slow paced, it’s big rivers, sugarcane farms, little old towns full of verandahed wooden cottages seemed magical to us.

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Flowers and vines grew in profusion, colorful rosellas swooped above our heads, frog and cicada choirs accompanied our dinner and everything was different. Houses had sleep outs, screened and covered porches, where we slept on the hot humid nights, wriggling, tossing and turning on squeaky old iron beds.

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Even the furniture was different. Small cane chairs and tables, ornate wooden dressing tables, picture frames with sea shells and crocheted doilies on every surface, and especially over the milk jug to keep pesky flies and bugs out.

Electric storms would rattle the house.We’d watch lightning strikes and count for the thunderclap, measuring the miles between us and it. Tropical rain would pound the tin roof for hours and we would squeal in fear and excitement.

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The main highway was still 2 lanes, and instead of bridges there were punts, big river ferries that carried cars and trucks across. The punt operators would signal cars on, and then switch on to pull us across the river on submerged iron ropes. At the same time another punt would leave from the other river bank and pass by on its parallel run.It was a 24/7 operation but at Christmas the cars would line up for miles, and us kids would run to count how many were waiting and to tell those at the end of the line just how many were ahead of them! 115 cars one time.

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Now big bridges cross the rivers and there is only one little punt left, on the back road to Grafton, moving traffic from one river island to another. I take my Californian family that way whenever I can, so they can experience the slow down, wait your turn silent crossing ( chanting a soft prayer “please don’t build a bridge, please don’t build a bridge”.)

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The Clarence is the biggest river on the East Coast, and it’s islands are big enough for hamlets and farms. Fishermen plie the entrance for the famous Yamba prawns, everyone tries for flat head and mullet from their tinnys and some pubs have docks. Sunset over the big expanse of river is glorious. north17

Further north is Byron Bay, hipper and quicker and home to new age celebrities and movie stars. A whole industry devoted to beauty and awareness and creativity, and real estate prices to match.Hatted restaurants and music festivals and flights to Sydney and Melbourne several times a day.

Our stretch of coastline is about 100 miles of empty, golden beaches, punctuated by bushy headlands and rivers. The towns at the rivers mouth grow slowly, settled mostly by retirees, always a bowling club and a lot of unattractive brick veneer homes w a boat or caravan and man shed in the back. National parks rule so development is limited.Investors from the city want views, preferably from modern multi story complexes so even cool architecture is in short supply!

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Our town, Iluka is completely surrounded by National Park and a listed rainforest, so the beaches are snug against forest and sometimes we see kangaroos on the beach, once an emu!

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Within the 100 mile swath of Northern Rivers area are big rivers which meander across rich farmland, sugarcane farms near the coast, cattle farms inland and timber getting up in the mountains. Everything grows like crazy, and there is a whole category of country bush foods that everyone grows, cooks and eats: macadamia nuts, finger limes, grammas and chokos, pumpkins and potkins,passion fruits,pawpaws and mangos, lilly pillies and rosellas. Oysters,oysters,oysters .

Retro,hip and artisan all at once!

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Tourists drive through en route to the cities, lots of surfers and backpackers seek out the empty beaches and the little towns swell at weekends with Queenslanders, escaping high rise, overdeveloped coastline and looking to recreate their childhood seaside holidays….walking miles on the beach, bodysurfing and swimming, fishing from an old aluminum tinny in the river and eating fish and chips from the fisherman’s co-op.

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I’m so happy that the northern rivers are once again a constant in my life.

 

Flat whites

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So I live in town where it’s well nigh impossible to get a good coffee.
As a mostly tea drinker, it’s mostly ok, but for meeting a friend I want a coffee.
And when I want to sit and read, or write, or watch and ponder, I need a good flat white in front of me.
( and an atmosphere and ambience that vibes to all of the above)

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Moving to the US was a shock having grown up in the antipodean coffee culture….real espresso served sit down style in a one off, owner operated coffee shop.

“But where do I go to have a coffee?” asks the immigrant bride!

All I could see were brewers and glass pots perched in a diner or breakfast place, and the coffee places in the mall reeked of sweet artificial flavorings and there was no where to sit.

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In Australia,  commercial espresso machines proliferated after WWII and the ensuing influx of European immigrants and most every  cafe had one.Even in small country towns, fabulous n fancy machines dominated the counters at main street “milk bars” and if the actual coffee wasn’t so great, we grew up drinking cappuccinos with our friends and seeing espresso as the basis of any coffee drink.

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Unlike the USA where electric brew pots reigned supreme, most Aussies had percolators, a French press or drip paper system at home. Maybe a stove top espresso, and instant for emergencies! Quality coffee was becoming more and more prevalent and roasters pushed the industry forward with branded sponsored umbrellas, cups and paraphernalia for the coffee bars and cafes.

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In the late 70’s and early 80’s the flat white/short black phenomena exploded, and the terminology continues today.

It was only the arrival of Starbucks that brought paper takeaway cups and “Big Gulp” sizes to Sydney and Melbourne. No surprise to anyone ( except the coffee execs perhaps?) when 2/3rds of the stores closed within a year of opening. Why would anyone reared on great coffee want the McCoffee style experience?

Different here where it’s the benchmark. But beyond a wrenchingly early morning at the airport , or in a drive thru on road trip why?

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Over the past year I have found my way back to my favorite coffee…..the flat white.

It’s 2 shots of espresso and a smaller amount of velvetty, foamy stretched milk.Served in a real cup, 6 to 8oz with a gorgeous merged crema and foam.

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Originating in Australia and New Zealand it’s de rigeur in London, most parts of Asia, Berlin and now available here: notably at my favorite coffee place in LA, Deus ex Machina in Venice.coffee3

Not to be confused with a latte which is bigger and whiter or a cappuccino which floats dryer foam on top of the espresso and milk, the secret of the flat white is the milk/coffee ratio and the micro foamed milk.

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So big coffee news this week.
Starbucks will begin selling the flat white in the USA this Tuesday.

Drippingly ironic as just last year the company officially exited Australia after apparently losing millions of dollars.Completely unsuccessful in the face of an obsessive coffee culture which prizes quality,flavor and technique over ubiquity and mass production.

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So maybe give one a try but I’m not confident that the push button machine, harsh roasts and paper cups will do justice to my favorite .
Better still, seek out a real coffee house where baristas work their magic on a glorious La Marzocco or Nuova Simonelli and sit and savor the best coffee of the day!

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flat white:2 shots of espresso and about 6 ounces of foamy milk.

short black: one or two shots of espresso.

long black: espresso with hot water, an americano.

cappuccino; espresso w an equal amount of steamed milk , topped with a thick layer of foam.

Manitoga

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My first encounter with the industrial designer , Russell Wright came in the form of American Modern dinner ware …covered in dust and grime at an estate sale.

Stylish and organic in shape, the design was inspired by the colors and forms of nature.
Mass produced and affordable , they outsold every other dinnerware and when new colors or shipments arrived the Macy’s stores were mobbed!
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With best selling dinnerware, home goods and textiles, Russell Wright became the first american, celebrity industrial designer.

His 1950’s book ” Guide to Easier Living”, co written with his wife Mary, espoused a simpler, more casual approach to living well: Design as a humanizing and democratic element.

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Decades later Terrence Conran quipped that “everyone can have a great salad bowl”, echoing Wright’s belief that anyone can create an aesthetically pleasing home and life.

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In 1942, Mary and Russell purchased 75 acres of damaged and logged land high above the Hudson River to use as a summer retreat.
For the next decade, they lived in the existing bungalow, studied the seasons and vegetation, and embarked on a 30 year transformation of the site.

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Wright thinned old trees to create views, planted meadows and new forests, created miles of paths, dammed a small creek to create a large pool and waterfall and built a modernist home and studio.

Mary and Russell named it Manitoga, Algonquin for “place of great spirit.”

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The house is modern and geometric, a 2 story of glass and rock. It sits snug into the slope, above the pond with roofs covered in greenery, a tree trunk in the living room and boulders as steps and walls.
It’s harmonious relationship with the ecology and landscape ahead of it’s time.

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Russell Wright died in 1976, and sadly the buildings and landscapes have deteriorated.
It’s now owned by The Russell Wright Design Center, but restoration is slow with most effort focused on the home and studio.
Thankfully now on the World Monument Fund Watchlist, the landscape needs detailed restoration and the visitor experience can be unsettling.
Given the rock star status of Wright, the re-issue of his famous dinnerware and the esteem in which he is held one can only hope that the Design Center can mobilize funding and energy to restore this magical place.

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Just an hour north from New York City in the sublime Hudson River Valley , add it to your must see list.