Sunday, February 23, 2014

New Work, Lightning, and Lightning Bugs

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug"

-Mark Twain

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

River Teeth - The Ultimate Metaphor

"When an ancient streamside tree finally falls into its bordering river, it drowns as would a human, and begins to disintegrate with surprising speed. On the Northwest streams I know best, the breakdown of even a five-or six-hundred-year-old tree takes only a few decades. Tough as logs are, the grinding of sand, water and ice are relentless; the wood turns punk, grows waterlogged, breaks into filaments, then gray mush; the mush becomes mud, washes downriver, comes to rest in side channels which fill and gradually close; new trees sprout from the fertile muck.
There are, however, parts of every drowned tree that refuse this cycle. There is in every log a series of cross-grained, pitch-hardened masses where branches once joined the tree's trunk. "Knots," they're called in a piece of lumber. But in the bed of a river, where the rest of the tree has been stripped and washed away, these knots take on a very different appearance, and so deserve a different name. "River teeth," we called them as kids, because that's what they look like. Like enormous fangs, ending in cross-grained root that once tapped all the way into the tree's very heartwood.
They're amazing objects. A river tooth's pitch content is so high that some, sawed in half, look more like glass than wood. Too dense to float, many collect in deep pools and sandbars, and many more migrate along the river bottom, collecting by the thousand in coastal estuaries. The oldest teeth, after years of being shaped by the river, look like objects intelligently worked, not just worn: sculptures of fantastic mammals, perhaps, or Neolithic hand tools. And they all defy time. I have found spruce river teeth, barnacle-festooned in the estuaries, that have outlasted the tree they came from by centuries.
I'd like to venture a metaphor:
Our present-tense human experience is like a living tree growing by a river. The current in the river is the passing of time. Our individual pasts are like the same tree fallen in the river, drowned now, and disintegrating with surprising speed. We resist time's flow with our memories and language, with our stories. Our pasts break apart even so. Entire years run together. We try to share a "memorable experience" with a friend and end up arguing about details that don't jibe. Once key parts of our past become impossible to weave into any kind of narrative; other parts, though we narrate them accurately for decades, become so rote that they cause our listener's eyes to glaze. So we stop telling. We let the filaments of memory wash downriver. The past decomposes. New life, and new stories, sprout from the fertile silence.

There are, however, small parts of every past that resist this cycle: there are hard, cross-grained whorls of human experience that remain inexplicably lodged in us, long after the straight-grained narrative material that housed them has washed away. Most of these whorls are not stories, exactly: more often they're self-contained images of shock or of inordinate empathy; moments of violence, uncaught dishonesty, tomfoolery; of mystical terror; lust; joy. These are our "river teeth"-the knots of experience that once tapped into our heartwood, and now defy the passing of time.
Almost everyone, I believe, owns scores of these experiences. Yet, perhaps because they lack a traditional narrative’s beginning, middle and end, I hear few people speak of them. I resist this hesitancy. Fossils; arrowheads; adobe ruins; abandoned homesteads: from the Parthenon to the Bo Tree to a grown man or woman’s old stuffed bear, what moves us about many objects is not what remains but what has vanished. Let go of what can’t be saved. Honor what can. Share with us your river teeth."

-David James Duncan

Saturday, December 7, 2013

From the Labs of Sober, Sober, and Sober

"Put simply, it's good to screw up, because if you never screw up you never learn anything."
-Sam Sober (Neurobiologist and my brother)

My father is a philosopher of science, my brother a neurobiologist, and I am an artist. Despite these three disciplines being mostly different, we all engage the scientific process from different angles. I asked Sam Sober and Elliott Sober to send a visual image which represents their area of research, and a short description. As you can see, the fruit didn't fall far from the tree, but it rolled a little when it hit the ground. First Sam, who studies how birds learn song:

 "The brain uses sensory information to learn from its mistakes and improve behavioral performance (a bird doing a good job of singing).  The problem with this is that sensory information is actually really unreliable.  One of the main ideas my lab has been working on is that the brain solves this problem by only paying attention to sensory information (i.e. errors) that the animal has produced before.  We think of this in terms of probability distributions (the black curves) and we've shown (middle panel) that if there's a sensory error that's small enough to fall within the distribution of songs that a bird has sang before, the bird will correct the error, but if the error is too big the bird will ignore it.  This theory also explains why young birds are better at learning (right panel).  Young birds are less accurate singers (blue curve is wider than black curve), so they have a wider distribution of sensory feedback that they've heard themselves sing, so in turn they correct big errors more readily. 

Now Elliott, who is interested in evolutionary biology and natural selection:

 "Here's a picture of a "selection toy" that I put in my 1984 book The Nature of Selection.
The disks in the toy permits maller balls to pass to the bottom, but larger balls get trapped at upper levels.The toy illustrates the profound fact that green balls get selected and so do small balls, but there is selection for being small, not for being green."

Finally myself:

I have been testing a lithium matte glaze fired to 1945 degrees Fahrenheit. First, a quadraxial tile was made to show how the fluxes (Lithium Carbonate, Wollastonite, and Ferro Frit 3124), kaolin (clay), and flint (silica) behaved in different combination. The result is the quadraxial, which provides 35 different combinations. 

Next, a base glaze was selected and blended with Red Iron Oxide, Rutile, Copper Carbonate, Chrome Oxide, Cobalt Carbonate, Black Nickel Oxide, and Tin Oxide by weight. These glazes were then blended in equal proportion by volume to show how each oxide or carbonate behaved with every other oxide or carbonate.

Who says science isn't fun?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Two Sentences

"Humans generally get out the gist of hat they need to say right at the beginning, then spend forever qualifying, burnishing or taking important things back. You rarely miss anything by cutting most people off after two sentences."

-Richard Ford



Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sendak on Human Nature

“We’re animals. We’re violent. We’re criminal. We’re not so far away from the gorillas and the apes, those beautiful creatures… And then, we’re supposed to be civilized. We’re supposed to go to work every day. We’re supposed to be nice to our friends and send Christmas cards to our parents. We’re supposed to do all these things which trouble us deeply because it’s so against what we naturally would want to do.”

-Maurice Sendak

Sunday, November 17, 2013



I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

-Jane Kenyon

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Radio Silence, Broken

"I don't know where a poem comes from until after I've lived with it a long time. I've a notion that a poem comes from absolutely everything that ever happened to you. It's almost the secret of being a poet to let everything that ever happened to your be available to the page and the language. For me that usually takes a long time. I've had lines and stanzas come to me as if dictated by the mother ship, but never a whole poem.

You do get inspired. Things come to you that you don't understand, but then the intelligence comes in. I speak the way I work, at any rate. I need to go over and over a poem, and by the time I've finished it, I know a great deal about it and to a considerable degree where it came from. Some of it, of course, comes from reading, and a lot comes from experience. Part of it may come from when you were five years old, and eventually, you may be able to see all these layers of time...

...the poem is a way of tapping that source of power and strength and putting things simultaneously together that are apparently quite different. To me this is what distinguished poetry from most prose, which is linear and sequential. In poetry many things are going on at the same time and these layers of time and density of language make the poem uniquely poetic."

-Donald Hall

Monday, August 26, 2013