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Monday, May 16

GETTY SUCCULENTS






It was an unseasonably warm Los Angeles day in early March, at least compared to the chill rainy week since I had arrived. Phèdre and I cruised aimlessly in the tour van, our day off full of possibilities as long as they were free and outdoors. We settled on the Getty Center after deliberating on a $15 parking fee that would cut into our budget for beer and tacos later that night.

Phèdre - my longtime pals Lee Paradise and Apey Oh - had visited the eccentric hilltop museum before. From the parking lot, we boarded a three-car, cable-pulled hovertrain funicular that transported us up to the campus designed by architect George Meier. We were dropped off at a plaza and strolled through a photography exhibit together before wandering off on our own exploratory meditations.

Emerging into a sprawling courtyard, I headed towards a twisting garden path and found myself drawn through the large central garden designed by Robert Irwin, filled with an incredible assortment of succulents. 

I could spot a separate garden of cactus jutting out from the side of one of the buildings, and it took some investigating to find the way. They were contained within an incredible coned pedestal with a south facing view. I had no idea that most cactus are classified as succulents, simply defined as having thickened, fleshy parts adapted to store water. As the plants and I soaked in the same California sun, I gazed towards the hazy horizon and ruminated on this strange temple of human achievement in visual splendour. 

Henri Fabergé















Thursday, February 4

WATERVLIET SHAKER COMMUNITY



Many years ago, while exploring American highways, I stumbled on a Shaker heritage site that sparked my interest in the organization.  Shakers, also known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, are an offshoot sect of the Quakers, and are famous for their gender equality, communal and celibate lifestyle, and spare yet beautiful architecture and furniture design. While touring the grounds, I was taken with the immaculate interiors, demonstrations of baking and handicrafts by museum interpreters, and the "living farm" atmosphere created by gardens and livestock.

Last fall, when I took a trip to Pennsylvania, I detoured to visit another Shaker site: the Watervliet Shaker Community Historic Site near Albany. I was hoping to once again step back into the gracefully austere lifestyle of the Shakers, but instead, my visit left me depressed at the state of the place.


Watervliet is America's first Shaker settlement, established in 1776, with the movement's most famous founder, Mother Ann Lee, resting in their graveyard.  The site is unfortunately derelict and has only one building open to the public.  Although I appreciated the industry of the Christmas craft fair being held in this building, the goods on offer were out of step with this Shaker maxim:

Don't make something unless it is both made necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don't hesitate to make it beautiful.

Watervliet has an illustrious history as the source of inventions such as flat brooms and vacuum-sealed cans. They also originated the packaged seed industry. At its peak in 1850, the community supported 230 of the 6,000 Shakers across the US, living almost entirely self sufficiently and producing goods for sale across the country.

I appreciate that funding issues can prevent restoration and that just the fact that the site still stands is impressive, considering the adjacent airport and the encroachment of Albany.  I was also there in the off-season and it seems that the The Shaker Heritage Society is making a valiant effort with educational outreach, virtual tours on their website and summer agricultural demonstrations. However, it will take a strong leader to sweep away the caution tape and reverse the effects of time's decay on this once-prosperous community.  Perhaps Mother Ann has rested long enough.
















Friday, October 30

MAZES AND LABYRINTHS, PART IV: MAIZE RUNNING



“...the corn rustled and whispered secretly. It was well pleased.”
“Children of the Corn” by Stephen King

Fall is a magical time for the Toronto maze enthusiast, as every year a bountiful crop of corn mazes arises around the GTA. I try to do at least one annually, and this year we decided to visit the Hanes Corn Maze in Dundas.

The Hanes family has been creating corn mazes for at least 15 years. Their maze, among the largest in Ontario, covers 20 acres and has a different theme each year. This year’s theme was bees. We paid our admission and were handed a map of the maze, showing how the paths had been designed to represent a sun, honeycomb, bees, flowers and a butterfly. Off we set and before long we were chasing one another down the long, branching corridors of corn.

As with most corn mazes, the goal of the Hanes Corn Maze is not just to find your way through from entrance to exit — this task was almost trivial due to the layout — but to locate checkpoints throughout the maze. These checkpoints have codes to help you solve a puzzle on your map, as well as symbols to check off and factoids about bees and honey. Ten of the seventeen checkpoints were marked on the map, and seven were hidden.

This was all very cute and fun but what you realize once you enter the Hanes corn maze, and indeed any corn maze, is that it is fundamentally terrifying to be in a mature cornfield. Part of it is that it feels like you might really get lost and not be able to find your way out. It happens — only last year a little girl wandered into the cornfield on her family farm, and wasn’t found until the next day. (She was fine, but what a night she must have spent.) At Hanes, you can use a few landmarks to help you orient yourself, including the wooden bridge that lets you see the maze from a higher vantage point, where it just looks like an enormous, gently waving sea of gold. But often you feel hopelessly turned around and confused, unsure if you’ve seen this fork or that curve before. It's the sameness and endlessness of the rows and rows of looming stalks. This is spooky enough during the day; I can only imagine how this feeling must be magnified if you try the maze at night. (“Bring your own flashlight,” says the website. I think I'd need a hip flask and a large, unflappable friend, as well.)

Trying to solve a corn maze can take on the quality of a dream in which you run and run but never get anywhere, or in which you keep coming back to the same place no matter where you turn. (We intentionally enhanced this feeling of randomness and futility by letting the five-year-old make the decisions instead of trying to read the map.)

There’s also something about the quiet that is unsettling. There were a number of visitors to the maze when we went, but once you’re inside, the maze is so large that you rarely encounter anyone, and mostly all you hear is the cornstalks rustling as the wind blows through them, which really does sound like whispering. You can get where Stephen King was coming from.

Although we did not encounter any murderous children or red-eyed corn gods in the maze, we did find enough of the checkpoints to solve the riddle. I won’t spoil it in case you decide to go (the maze runs until November 14), but let’s just say it’s thematically consistent and involves a terrible pun. Mini–maze enthusiast was very pleased with his mini–Aero bar prize for getting the right answer.

While we were decoding the riddle, we talked with the young man helping to run the maze. Turns out he’s Hanes the younger and he filled us in on how the maze was made. Although we had read that these days, many people use GPS to plan and execute their designs — even hiring companies to do this for them — Hanes farm does things the old-fashioned way. Dad plants the corn, sowing in both directions so that when the corn is grown it will form opaque walls between the pathways. Next, Mom draws a design on graph paper so that each division on the paper corresponds to a row of corn. Once the corn starts to grow, they go out into the field with little flags and mark out the maze. The final step is to take a lawnmower to the growing corn to make the paths.

From design to finished maze, the process takes about two or three weeks. And then the corn has to grow to its full size, of course.

All the better to eat you alive.

by Sara Goodchild














Monday, June 8

GUN BLUE


I learned about gun blue while working in the wardrobe department.  We used it to tone down the shine of metal buttons and buckles so that they would not glint and gleam on camera. Metals containing iron will turn blue-black when they comes in contact with the gun blue as magnetite (Fe3O4), the black oxide of iron, forms, also creating protection against corrosion and rust.  This is a wonderful trick to use if you're trying to age or dull down hardware.  Be sure to wear gloves and eye protection as this is a toxic product.





I used gun blue recently to tone down the shine of the above links for an installation at Fort York in Toronto.  In retrospect, my labours were probably not necessary as the links were high in the air and not very visible.  However, I always enjoy seeing the instant transformation from bright-shine to ancient-artifact.