King Con

It Takes All Kinds

I spent most of yesterday being someone I’m not. Sort of a vacation from myself. I wasn’t alone.

At the Seattle Convention Center, the Emerald City Comicon was swarming with thousands of devotees of fantasy, sci-fi and general all-purpose make-believe. My kind of people.

The Littlest Iron Man

I had always wanted to attend one of these things, but, lacking willing companions, held back, not wanting to be the lone pathetic geezer in the mosh pit, so to speak. But when one of my daughters urged me to go with her group, I ended up playing a role with which I am all too familiar: the “ironic housewife” from a sort of interactive online comic called “Homestuck.”

I know almost nothing about computer games. I’m in awe of their complexity, the speed with which the younger generation masters them, and the level of artistry in their world building and character design. However, “Homestuck” isn’t quite like any of the usual shoot ’em up, find the talisman type games. It’s kind of an existential ironic riff on the limitations of human experience and computer programming. With monsters.

Fantasy fuels all romance.

I played along because, really, my main motivation for attending this particular con was that Spike was going to be there. If you don’t know who Spike is, what can I say? There’s too much back-story to cover, but, in short, he was a character on the iconic television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, for my money, he was the most charismatic vampire ever. Bar none. Over the course of six seasons his character continually evolved. He went from your basic blood-sucking demon, to a kind of neutered comic relief bad guy, who gradually developed a crush on his worst enemy,  and ultimately, through intense personal suffering, became a heroic figure who literally saved the world. Not bad for a bleached blond creature of the night.

So, when I learned that James Marsters, the actor who played Spike, would be at this year’s con I knew I wanted to go, even though I had reservations. It can be a rude awakening to encounter one’s heroes in the harsh light of reality. Sometimes they seem a lot shorter, shallower, less heroic.

As I  waited in the dark auditorium with six or seven hundred fellow enthusiasts, I  hoped James wouldn’t let me down. He didn’t. As part of a three-member panel of former Buffy actors, he shone with self-effacing wit, humor and intelligence. I didn’t even mind that he spoke in his normal voice, rather than the pseudo-Cockney accent which was part of Spike’s enduring charm. I left the auditorium feeling soothed and uplifted. Not only because James didn’t disappoint, but because the entire event reminded me of why I love my counter-culture.

Aaron Diaz, one of the many gifted artists whose imaginations expand our world.

There were representatives from all corners of the universe at this thing. They came in all ages, all sizes, all genders, and embracing a vastly diverse spectrum of belief systems. And the mood among the thousands of fans was one of mutual admiration, tolerance and respect. Sort of like the way we used to think democracy would turn out.

I realize that sci-fi fans and fantasy geeks are still in the minority in this country. But I think what they bring to the table has value far beyond the box-office. The idea that humans have room for improvement, the hope that other worlds might know a few things we could stand to learn, the hope that we can all someday just learn to get along with each other. Yeah. Maybe that’s too far-fetched. What can I say? I’ll believe anything.

Honk If You Love Books

Always pack a paperback.
Always pack a paperback.

Not everyone does, you know.

If you believe the statistics commonly tossed around on the Internet, 80 percent of Americans didn’t read or buy a book last year.

Yet at the same time, the statistic munchers also assert that 80 percent of Americans claim they’d like to write a book. Picture the Venn diagram.

Well, we all know numbers lie. And words can too. But for my money, words deceive with more grace and wit and style. Thus, I number myself among the 80 percent with authorial ambitions. I’m a consumer of books, a lifelong lover of libraries and a connoisseur of book stores.

If you like bookstores, you’ll love Powell’s.

We visited Portland for the first time this week. I had a number of touristic objectives. We strolled through the famous Japanese Garden, admired the amazing blooms at the International Rose Test Garden, and marveled at the elegant beauty of Lan Su Yuan, the classical Chinese garden in downtown Portland. We stood in line for Voodoo Doughnuts, savored Stumptown Coffee and took in a Bite of Oregon. We heard some blues, some cool jazz, and a lot of high energy street music.

But of all the pleasures of Portland, the only one that made my heart beat faster was the city within the city: Powell’s City of Books.

I’ve been to The Strand in New York City. I’ve been to Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. I had high hopes that Powell’s would be their equal. It’s more. Much more. It’s a world of wonders, staffed by acolytes of the written word who not only guide customers through the labyrinth of volumes, but also seem to care about books.

Strong free-spirited independent book stores are a dying breed in this country. Portland is blessed to have Powell’s. Visit if you can.

The Artful Cat

Attitude Is Everything
Attitude Is Everything

Some people like cats for their frisky playfulness. Others admire their sleek style, or their affectionate natures (where applicable). And of course some people loathe cats. You know who you are. Get out now while the getting’s good. Because today’s topic is the way art imitates cats, and vice versa.

I have worked for a succession of various cats over the years. Some were loveable. Some not so much. But in one area they were all equally endowed. For those of us who are susceptible to it, cats possess a degree of glamour unmatched in the human sphere except in the case of babies and super-models. But while most babies eventually lose their charm, and even super-models fade with time, cats retain their decorative quality for years.

I’m a sucker for the way cats fit themselves into the landscape. To me, a garden without a cat lacks something fundamental. Not everyone looks at the world through this furcentric lens, but some artists seem to share my view.

In the months leading up to our move out here, we visited the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia, and there I saw an oil painting that spoke to me on every level. Painted by William Raphael in 1908, the work , titled “Hollyhocks,” captures the lovely untidiness and happy colors of a flower which has always reminded me of the rural Virginia countryside where I first saw it bloom. But what made the painting irresistible for me was the understated presence of a cat, lurking on a fence above the blooms.

Hollyhocks, 1908, William Raphael
Hollyhocks, 1908, William Raphael

Well, I knew I could never own the painting, but I thought maybe someday I could recreate the image and photograph it. After all, I had a cat. All I had to do was grow some hollyhocks and wait, right?

So it’s been almost five years since I got that bright idea, and I’ve come to accept that it’s much easier for art to imitate life than for life to imitate art. Because, while I have managed to grow some pretty swell hollyhocks in the last couple of years, the cat has been less than cooperative. There’s a fence right behind the flowers, just right for cat sitting. And many’s the time she has sat upon it. Just never when the damned hollyhocks are in bloom.

Today she deigned to offer a compromise and lounged on the bench which sits in front of the hollyhocks. The image I managed to capture in no way matches the arresting beauty of Raphael’s canvas. If you want to see that you’ll have to visit Vancouver. As for me, I’ll be waiting by the bench. Sooner or later the cat will come back.

Walking and Gawking


Among the pleasures on our frequent walks around Seattle are discoveries of unexpected art, some designed and installed by humans, some the work of Nature, some the transitory miracles of a unique moment.

My attempts to capture the sense of wonder that these sightings inspire are doomed from the start. Two dimensions are almost always trumped by three, or four, and at times it seems to me that there are far more than that. But that’s probably just the flashbacks talking.

Anyway. In this season when the city is besieged by pirates, Vikings, and tourists, the urge to get out and explore tempts us off the beaten paths. Most recently that led us over to Alki and the Whale Tail Playground, where the undersea theme is played out in three dimensions. I was drawn to the life-size cast-bronze octopus, which anchors one edge of the “Swimming Stars” entry plaza designed by Seattle artist Lezlie Jane. The children clambering over the nearby whale tail slide and the replica lighthouse may be unaware of the thoughtful elements at work in the colored and stamped concrete design studded with yellow mirrored stars in Jane’s tribute to Cetus, “The Great Whale Constellation,” but surely the sparkle of creative fire must catch in some young minds while playing there.

Come up and see me sometime.
Come up and see me sometime.

At Lincoln Park, a short distance south of Alki, we came upon an example of Nature’s artful sense of humor in a striking Madrona tree. Classic mythology tells of dryads, tree nymphs whose life depends on the trees to which they are connected. Admittedly, the first thought that went through my mind at the sight of this tree was that it called out for a caption contest. But bawdy subtext aside, it’s a work of art. And if you have the time to listen, it will speak to you.

Out of Site, Out of Mind

Listen closely. Birds are twittering in the bushes. Teenagers are tweeting in the classrooms. The sounds of spring are everywhere. But that gnashing and grinding that you may hear off in the distance is the result of the inevitable winding up of the overworked engines of protest here in Seattle.

The causes vary. There’s the ever popular tunnel vs viaduct debate, which rages on in spite of numerous studies and referendums. There’s the hotly contested issue of naked baristas in the tiny drive-thru espresso huts. There’s endless serious concern over the health of the salmon, the clams, and the waters of the Puget Sound.

Sidewalk solo
Sidewalk solo

One recent debate seems to have been put to rest, at least temporarily. The life-size statue of Jimi Hendrix which has graced the sidewalk of Broadway Avenue in Capitol Hill for the last thirteen years is going to stay put, rather than be moved to the newly planned Jimi Hendrix Park across town. Personally, while I understand the reluctance of residents of Capitol Hill to lose the statue, I have to say that it seems somehow wrong for Jimi to be stuck out by the curb next to the recycling. I’d like to see the statue on a more elevated site, perhaps near an outdoor stage at the new park. But apparently the majority of residents don’t share that view. And that’s fine. Democracy in action, or inaction. Whatever.

The latest hot issue may generate more high profile debate, however. The proposal to create a new privately operated museum at the Seattle Center dedicated to the work of glass art genius Dale Chihuly has stirred up a pot of contention. And it’s going to be a tough call any way it goes down.

On the one hand are the people who worry that there are already too many high dollar tourist attractions at the Center at the expense of precious open space for Seattle residents. The proposed Chihuly building would take over a portion of what was once the very popular kiddie ride park, the Fun Forest. But on the other hand, the Chihuly project would generate much needed revenue for the Center as a whole, and, occupying an estimated one and a half acres, it would take only a fraction of the Center’s 74 acres.

Still, it would make one more place downtown off-limits to those without disposable income. And that’s hard to support. Not when there are so many other neighborhoods in Seattle with space to spare which could benefit from the presence of a stellar attraction. Is it really such a good idea to concentrate all of the city’s major tourist sites in one small quadrant? Or is that the idea? To contain the cruise ship influx?

I’m a fan of Chihuly’s work, of course. There are already more than a few places to see it around town, but it requires a scavenger hunt approach and a good pair of hiking shoes. To have a formal collection of it in one place makes sense. Should that place be the Seattle Center?

Debaters, start your engines.

Mythic Mountain

We’ve all seen it. On the news, in movies and cartoons. It’s a man-made icon of one of America’s most compelling products. Its image evokes a land of golden opportunities, bright stars and happy endings. And it’s threatened by development.

The Hollywood Sign has loomed in tilted splendor above sprawling Los Angeles since 1923. In the beginning, no one expected it to become a national landmark, much less a treasured symbol of an industry that markets dreams to the world. In a way, the Hollywood sign represents the imaginary romance of LA, in the same way that the Eiffel Tower represents the imaginary romance of Paris. At the time of its construction in 1889, many Parisians considered the Eiffel Tower an eyesore and a waste of money. Yet in time the city embraced the tower, and it became symbolic of all things French. In Hollywood, surely no one expected the 45-foot-high crude letters on a mountainside to become legendary, yet so they have.

In the eighty-seven years since it was first built as a temporary advertisement for “Hollywoodland” the sign has been restored a few times, most recently in 1978 when the original letters were replaced with steel thanks to the philanthropy of major Hollywood supporters including Roy Rogers and Alice Cooper. The sign itself is now owned and maintained by the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation. But the 138 acres of open space behind the sign which provide its dramatic backdrop are now threatened by development. Supporters are trying to raise 12.5 million before April 14 to protect the mountain on which the Hollywood Sign stands for all time.

It could be argued in a world like ours, where tragedy and chaos devastate lives with depressing regularity, that to put money and effort into saving a mere symbol of the creative imagination is frivolous, if not reprehensible. But I would argue that the human ability to imagine a better life, to hope for an end to suffering, to dream of a better future, is what enables us to continue fighting to mend our world. And Hollywood, for all its flaws, feeds the flames of hope all over the world.

You can say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

The Art of the PBJ

So, how do you like your peanut butter: a) smooth, b) crunchy, or c) fine art?

If your answer was “c,” then read no further. Perhaps you are among those intellectuals who can parse the meaning of nontraditional media and unpack the symbolism hidden in coded works of art. Or maybe you are just another sucker for the emperor’s new art. I don’t know. But, after a recent visit to Seattle’s Asian Art Museum I found myself compelled to reexamine my notions of what, exactly, qualifies as art.

Generally speaking, I’ve always been an easy audience for any and all kinds of art. From finger paintings to Faberge, I applaud people for even attempting to produce art, because I think life would be so barren without it. So, yeah, I’m a big fan of art. However, even the most gullible audience at times feels the tug of doubt, the creeping suspicion that someone is trying to put something over on you.

That’s how I felt when I first walked into the new “Reflex” exhibit of works by Brazilian artist Vik Munoz, who has made a name for himself with photographs of familiar images recreated in nontraditional mediums. In one series, for instance, the artist used sugar to produce unusual pointillist copies of photographs of children taken in the Caribbean. The enlarged images resonate with a subtle tension between the sweetness of the medium and the implicit bitter subtext of the children’s economic dependence on this cash crop.

Another series of images depicted selections from the Museum of Modern Art painstakingly reproduced using the dust vacuumed from the building itself. Still other works employed children’s plastic toys, straight pins, and refuse from the dump to fashion copies of familiar paintings by artists such as Goya and Monet.
For me, though, the most riveting works in the exhibition were the ones made with edible materials. The giant chocolate syrup photo montage. The sequence of Jackie Onassis’s face traced in ketchup. Portraits of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi rendered in pixels of black caviar. And, most of all, the “Double Mona Lisa” in Peanut Butter and Jelly (after Andy Warhol).

I stared at this large cibachrome print – it measures four by five feet – and the only thing I could think was, “Why?”

My initial reluctance to accept this unusual homage to Da Vinci’s masterwork was probably inspired in part by the coincidence of having just seen Art School Confidential a few days earlier. In that dark satire of the art world the line between fiction and reality is razor thin, and as I peered at these reinvented copies of other works, I kept wondering when John Malkovich was going to saunter through with a dry comment.

My companion at the museum seemed untroubled by conflicted feelings about the merit of the exhibit, although in passing she did voice a preference for grape in the jelly selection. I told her I could respect that, but had gone over to apricot long ago. But, I kept puzzling over the way we ascribe value to works of art. Recently, for instance,  Andy Warhol’s print of Mao was sold for seventeen million dollars. I’m no expert on investments, but I do know that in a world where millions of children are starving, seventeen million dollars could buy a lot of PBJs.

Eventually,though, I decided that maybe I was missing the point. After all, in the visual arts as in literature, some works are meant simply to entertain, others to educate and inspire. Rarely, a work accomplishes all of these goals. But, when I look at a copy of the Mona Lisa executed in peanut butter and jelly, I have trouble silencing the still small voice inside whispering, “Psst. This is bullshit.”

I guess it boils down to whether you think art is meant to decorate or stimulate. If all you want from art is something that goes with the couch, then I guess it doesn’t matter what the subject is, or the medium. But, if your idea of art is that it should provoke thought, suggest narrative, lift the spirit and/or feed the fire within, then perhaps any work which is created with thought and skill is worthy of the title. Even if it’s made with crunchy Skippy’s.

Whether or not you want it above the couch is another matter.