near (and far)

Trees burned by fire in the drought stricken Owens Valley. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Trees burned by fire in the drought stricken Owens Valley. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2016.

Thanks to an early start, we reached the Owens Valley just before the storm closed Tioga Pass for the winter. Snow had dusted the peaks cradling Tuolumne meadow. There would be no pie today as we passed the Tioga Pass Resort; the diner long since closed, the windows boarded until the spring snowmelt. We were giddy, caught in the romance of the storm; dark thick clouds promised snow and rain to assuage our five-year drought.

Descending to Mono Lake, we made a right turn onto 395 towards Bishop and the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association’s (ESIA) inaugural conference on the history of the eastern sierras. This is a desolate land, whose emptiness holds so many stories to be shared. The Owens Valley straddles two counties: Mono and Inyo. Mono County defined by Mono Lake and the volcanic fields at an elevation of 7,000 feet and the Mammoth Lakes ski resort. Inyo County, the table drops sharply, thousands of feet in altitude is lost, as we descend into ranch lands, cottonwoods and the meandering Owens River. We stopped often, capturing with camera and brush the conversation between brooding sky, dark mountains, parched landscape, and autumnal trees. A photographer and a painter, drawn to this sacred place, finding poetry at every compass point.

At the ESIA conference, David Carle spoke about water and the historic choices that shaped California. A long-term California State Park Ranger, Carle now writes full-time about land and water issues facing our state. According to Carle, in 1902 Los Angeles was a small town of 100,000 people, with a promising citrus industry, but desperately seeking water. Led by the engineer William Mulholland, businessmen and city planners set their sights on the Owens Valley, a region of 8,000 residents with a 75,000 acres of farm and pasture land producing 51,000 bushels of wheat annually. The Owens Valley also held lakes and rivers fed by the water stored in the snow covered Sierras. The aqueducts were completed in 1913, but it didn’t take long before Los Angeles was thirsty again. By 1924 Owens Lake was a dry lake bed where dust storms raged. Los Angeles had purchased all the water rights in the valley, but by the mid-1920s they owned all the towns too. Communities had been destroyed and ecological disaster created for the region. The author Mary Austin asked “ is all this worthwhile in order that Los Angeles should be so big?” Today, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is working hard to implement water reclamation, and to their credit most of Orange County’s water now comes from reclamation. But for some, there will never be enough water, Southern California’s thirst will not be slaked. The proposed Twin Tunnels Project would move water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to the southland. Recently, LADWP purchased five islands located in the heart of the river delta, just as LADWP purchased the Owens Valley a century ago. Stop the Tunnels provides information about establishing fair water policies in California.

Looking out across the Owens Valley, at a land so near, so precious, it is scary to know that actions taken by a few powerful people, so far away, change the land and communities forever.

Poinciana on Central Avenue

Circuit M.T.G.: Yumiko Koshima, Adrian Turner and Darrell Morgan.  Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Circuit M.T.G.: Yumiko Koshima, Adrian Turner and Darrell Morgan. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

“Check this out.” I listened closely as Adrian Turner queued up Poinciana by the Ahmad Jamal Trio.  “It’s highly structured and orchestrated…the spaces deliberate, equal to the sounds.”  In his book The History of Jazz, Ted Gioia wrote “Jamal was a harbinger of the future of jazz…his studied use of space influenced Miles Davis and anticipated the later work of Bill Evans…the charm of Jamal’s music came rather from his ability to maintain the swing, emotional conviction, and mood of his music even when playing the fewest notes.” Moments later, Adrian and his friends Darrell Morgan and Yumiko Koshima took up the bass, drums and piano, respectively, and the trio began the hard work of crafting their original compositions into a performance, inspired by the sparse, cool sounds of Ahmad’s piano and his colleagues Vernal Fournier on drums and Israel Crosby on bass (archival film footage of the Ahmad Jamal Trio in 1959 is available on YouTube). Three months later in June 2013 the trio  – Adrian, Darrell and Yumi –  now calling themselves Circuit M.T.G  – are joined by saxaphonist Dereck Mclyn and vocalist Annabel Lee for an evening of jazz and dance called Prime Spirit at ArtShare L.A. (a sanctuary for the arts in downtown Los Angeles providing live/work lofts and spaces for performance and exhibition). Their music is sublime; inspired, I sketch while they perform. It is a perfect evening, and I hope the music never ends; it brings me such joy to experience my good friend Adrian’s art, and although I’ve only briefly spent time with Darrell and Yumi I feel connected to them by experiencing their love for and commitment to jazz.

ArtShare L.A. is near the Fashion District and a couple of blocks from South Central; the steamy hot day is coming to closure as the sun sets behind the high rises of Bunker Hill. There is historical context for jazz performance in this place. In his forward to Central Avenue Sounds, Steven Isoardi, a cultural history writer and oral historian states “from the 1920s through the early 1950s…Central Avenue, extending from downtown Los Angeles south through Watts, was the economic and social center of the black population of a segregated Los Angeles…at night it became a social and cultural mecca, attracting thousands of people from throughout southern California to its eateries, theaters, nightclubs and music venues…this nonstop, vibrant club scene produced some of the major voices in jazz and rhythm and blues and it was the only integrated setting in Los Angeles.”  The book is based on excerpts from the UCLA Oral History Program’s interviews with musicians such as female trumpeter Clora Bryant (who played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington) and Buddy Collette (well known as a member of Chico Hamilton’s quintet).  Looking West at the sunset for a moment I imagine the community, so vibrant in the years just before I was born, documented pictorially in Carolyn Kozo Cole’s Shades of L.A.: Pictures from Ethnic Family Albums and captured by Walter Mosley’s hero Easy Rawlins in a series of novels starting with Devil in a Blue Dress.  Paraphrasing the historian Mina Yang, many factors played a role in the demise of Central Avenue: a downsizing post-WWII economy deprived many African-Americans of jobs; upwardly mobile black families were able to move out of South Central with the U.S. Supreme Court 1948 ruling making housing covenants illegal; and the merger of formerly segregated musician’s unions permitted black musicians to play in venues in other parts of Los Angeles.  But for insight into the role police played in the destruction of the neighborhood read Yang’s article A Thin Blue Line down Central Avenue: The LAPD and the Demise of a Musical Hub.

a meditation of light upon the land

Meditation on Lovell Beach House & Lovell Health House. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chander

This spring and summer we’ve made three trips to Southern California. Crossing “the Grapevine” through the Tehachapi Mountains I am filled with glorious anticipation of the descent into the Los Angeles Basin. Why such excitement?  Perhaps it’s my fascination with the contradictory juxtapositions of the place and it’s history, and the palpable tensions. But then again maybe some of the appeal comes from aesthetics; something as simple as the light.  Carey McWilliams, in Southern California: An Island of the Land, wrote “a desert light brings out the sharpness of points angles and forms…..but let the light turn soft with ocean mist, and miraculous changes occur…..but this is not desert light nor is it tropical for it has neutral tones. It is Southern California light and it has no counterpoint in the world.” There is a quality of light in Los Angeles and Southern California that is born from the relationship of desert, sea and the impact of humans (and the pollution we make) on the environment.

Years ago I read a February/March 1988 New Yorker article “L.A. Glows: Why Southern California doesn’t look like any place else.” Lawren Weschler tried to capture this sense of light with anecdotes from scientists, writers, and architects. Caltech Professor Glen Cass gazing north towards the San Gabriel Mountains identified a bright, white atmospheric haze.  Cass said “on some days there can be billions of particles in the line of site between me and the mountain – each of them with the mirrorlike potential to bounce white sunlight directly back into my eye.” The poet Paul Vangelisti said “for one thing, I think the light of L.A. is the whitest light I’ve every seen,” and the Pritzker Prize winning architect Coy Howard said …..it’s not exactly a dramatic light…..if anything its meditative…..when you get the kind of veiled light we get here more regularly you become aware of a sort of multiplicity – not illumination so much as luminosity.  Southern California glows…..and the opacity melts away into translucency, and even transparency.”

On these southern voyages, we’ve made it a point to have encounters with the work of artists and architects working in and inspired by the Los Angeles basin, such as Richard Diebenkorn, who I blogged about in April.  Most recently we’ve seen the pale, soft and transparent light of Southern California play against buildings designed by Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego.  Friends, colleagues and rivals they both came to Los Angeles after WW I from Vienna, Austria where they had individually studied with Adolf Loos and Josef Hoffman.  Making their ways separately to California, Schindler worked for Frank Lloyd Wright and Neutra for Eric Mendelsohn in Berlin.  Collectively, they practiced the concepts of modernism or the International Style in Southern California when these were still revolutionary ideas. Schindler and Neutra both designed homes for Philip and Leah Lovell; Schindler designed the Lovell Beach House in Newport, California and Neutra designed the Lovell Health House in the Hollywood/Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Both buildings are inspiring examples of innovation in materials (concrete and steel) and the architect’s use of space, form and the importance of light to the structure creating a sense of transparency between the interior and the exterior so characteristic of what would become the post-WWII California lifestyle.  Each building is a monumental work of art, but miraculously each structure lay easily and understatedly upon the landscape. In the case of Schindler, the eye of the viewer is lifted skyward into the light by concrete frames lifting the house above streetlevel; whereas with Neutra, the house is nestled within the canyon contours firmly anchored but appearing to gently to float cloudlike hugging the landscape.  Each home – considered historic structures in the story of California’s architectural past – remains a meditation of light upon the land.

Big Pink

House. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler

My neighbor’s house was an Oakland community landmark on Google Earth with its magenta walls and chartreuse trim.  It was so pink I always hummed something by The Band, which makes me think about the passing of the great Levon Helm, but that’s another story.  All colors fade in the sunshine, even the bright ones, and so the day came when a new coat of paint was required.   While most mortals choose the security of pale pastels for their homes, my wonderful neighbors boldly embrace intense, vibrant, juicy color.  The two-story domicile now dresses in an azure gown with lime accessories.   The transition was a delight.  For several days the house was a canvas where a team of painters painted layer upon layer diligently bringing blue to the forefront and quietly pushing the reddish-pink to the background. Daily life was being re-framed through the window. Within borderlines created by ledges and transoms, the colors and shapes were pushing and pulling within a geometric grid recalling one of my favorite painters Richard Diebenkorn.  Just a few weeks ago, we saw the Diebenkorn Ocean Park Series exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art.  Initially inspired by the “view” from his studio window, Diebenkorn captured the geography, topography and hazy light inspired by the marine/desert environment of Los Angeles.  My love affair with Diebenkorn began over thirty years ago in a course taught by the painter Cornelia Schulz.  Captivated and spiritually centered by Diebenkorn’s strong horizontal and vertical bands of color I was inspired to see the world through his framework. Diebenkorn’s painting made me feel it was possible to realize something as close to oneness as can be known.  Critiquing my work, Schulz noted my clear interest in the Ocean Park Series and suggested that I seek out Diebenkorn’s inspiration: the abstractions created by Matisse of the “view” from his window during his stay in Morocco and Tangiers.  And I did.  Last summer San Francisco MOMA hosted the exhibit The Steins Collect which delved deeply into the art collections formed by  Gertrude, Michael, Sarah and Leo Stein.  Michael and Sarah Stein became great friends with Henri Matisse purchasing many of his paintings.    Leaving Paris before the Nazi invasion of Europe, Michael and Sarah Stein settled in Palo Alto, California.  After World War II, Richard Diebenkorn, an Art Student at Stanford University, regularly attended the salon’s held by Sarah Stein, where he was first exposed to Matisse’s paintings.  In 1964 and 1966 Diebenkorn had the opportunity to see many of the paintings Matisse created in Morocco and Tangiers at the Hermitage in Leningrad and the UCLA Art Gallery Matisse retrospective. In 1967, Diebenkorn moved to Los Angeles and the Ocean Park Series was born.

Feliz ano Nuevo

Early morning and first day of the New Year, dinner was already in the bag.  The black-eyed peas were cooked and we still had a little smoked turkey from “Tejas”  – my Dad’s annual holiday gift.  We were ready for our traditional new years pilgrimage to the ocean.  The truck easily covered the fifty-mile distance seamlessly crossing the once Spanish and Mexican ranchos — remembered now mostly as streets, colleges, landmarks or towns named for land grants – Peralta, San Pedro, Nicasio, Tomales and de Los Reyes.  Sir Francis Drake Boulevard holds some thirty years of memories: the old white horse in the corral just west of Lagunitas (a toy horse perched on the fence has sadly replaced the original); seeing my first Steelhead with Jane in Lagunitas Creek on our bike-camping trip from Santa Rosa to San Francisco; watching the Salmon with Wave as they lay their eggs in redds just below Kent Lake; and the journey to Bolinas in the old VW bug for my first kayaking adventure with Glo, John and Carol.

Before reaching the beach, two mandatory stops are necessary.  Ginger & Chocolate-Chocolate-Cherry cookies from the Bovine Bakery are a must: necessary fuel for the hike ahead.   Stocking up on our reading materials was another must at the Point Reyes Books.  We are members of their Community Supported Bookstore Program a cool new idea inspired by community supported agriculture to help sustain independent book sellers.  Supporters make a deposit with the bookstore and draw upon that amount for future purchases.  Brilliant! I hope other bookstores start this program!  A lover of browsing, I bought my first book of 2012, a volume by the roots music guitarist Ry Cooder: Los Angeles Stories.  Looks like my kind of book.  Fiction, but the kind of stories you might gather by sitting down with the everyday folks in your community over a cup of coffee and listening to their life; learning about their part in our shared history.  Revived both gastronomically and intellectually, we headed on down the road to Limantour Beach to let the ocean ions do their purifying thang.  We walked the beach length in the bright sunshine, the waves gently lapping at our feet and the sweet ocean air wafting through us.  Later, alone in the truck for a few minutes while Wave lingered to capture a last image of a beautiful day, I queued Mary Gautier’s Mercy Now.  As I look to the year ahead may everyone have “ a little mercy now.”

In the shadow of the ancients

The Topatopa bluffs are part of the Condor Sanctuary in the Sespe Wilderness; the sanctuary is a space where the Condors can mate, breed and raise their chicks undisturbed by humans.  At sunset seen from the Ojai Valley, the bluffs glow “pink” from the last rays of the setting sun.

Topatopa Bluffs near Ojai. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

With their nine foot wingspan, Condors glide at fifty-five miles per hour ranging three hundred miles a day on the look for expired creatures that will sustain them.  Bradley John Monsma in The Sespe Wild writes “attempting to see the lay of the land through the eye of the condor quickly turns a wide-angle wilderness into a lesson in the limitations that we impose on other species.”  The Sespe is a crucial link in the foraging habitat used by the Condor for thousands of years ranging from the the Ventana Wilderness through the Sespe and Tejon Ranch to the Sierra Nevadas. Humankind continues to encroach upon the condor’s “home” as rolling oak grasslands situated along I-5 north of Los Angeles too often become real estate development opportunities.  But sometimes people do get it right.  In May 2008, a coalition of conservation groups – the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society of California negotiated a conservation easement to preserve 178,000 acres in Fort Tejon that will supplement the public lands forming the condor habitat.  There are approximately seventy condors in the wild and space and water are key to their survival.  I marvel at the condor’s ability to daily traverse a “u-shaped” area from Big Sur to the Range of Light.

Mt. Whitney and the Range of Light. Copyright 2008 Robin L. Chandler

Their need for habitat, fires my imagination contributing to my personal geography.  As Stephen S. Hall writes in his essay I Mercator in the book You Are Here, “I have roamed across state lines and oceans and continents, backwards in time, each thought colored according to a personal legend, corresponding to the elevation and depressions of my private humors: pride, wonder, sadness, remorse.”  We are here, now, navigating our personal maps, facing the emptiness of our  intelligence in a space and time where nature balances precariously between our greed and our benevolence.

To shape the future

There are two holidays that serve as book ends for my mother’s life: the 4th of July marks her death and Labor day marks her birth. This year – 2009 – marks the 20th anniversary of her passing and would have been her 92nd birthday were she still with us. My mother was an energetic woman hugely impacting my life; it wasn’t always easy, but I know and love the gifts she gave me. She loved making music and creating things. Growing up, there was always some kind of project in the works be it making candles  (and spray painting them gold for whatever reason), sewing clothes for me and my sister, or preparing for her teaching job or her girl scout troop. She had so much energy and intelligence and she was driven to do something helpful for others.

When I was very young, my mom worked as an occupational therapist. One of her patients was a young man with polio confined to an iron lung. I remember that he painted the most wonderful paintings using only the movements he could make with his big toe. My mother had built a splint for that big toe enabled to cradle a paint brush and she spent hours with him making sure it fit correctly and gave him the support he needed to do his art. From my mother I learned that a person could do anything with a little help and kindness, and beautiful artwork flows from everyone.

healthcare

Pain. Copyright 1989 Robin L. Chandler

Unfortunately, the last years of my mother’s life were spent in nursing facilities and hospitals. Our family was fortunate, because the government’s Medicare provision and my father’s health insurance covered those expenses. During the last few weeks of her life, I visited my mom in the hospital and I tried to capture those moments in watercolor. Robert Henri wrote in his book Art Spirit “the beauty of the lines of the drawing rest in the fact that you do not realize them as lines, but are only conscious of what they state of the living person…you have been let into that life.” It was important to paint her, so that I would never forget her pain. Over the years I have returned to those paintings to remember my mother and think about the good things she did for others. I share one with you now to serve as a call to action. This is our time we can make a difference and help others.

In the middle of August 2009, the group Remote Area Medical provided free health care services to some 10,000 residents of Los Angeles for eight days providing the uninsured with routine services like eye and dental exams, mammograms and access to special treatments like kidney dialysis. There is a crying need for healthcare reform in this country. We need to find the right model so that no one is without healthcare in our country. The latest recession figures indicate there are 40 million Americans living in poverty and they cannot afford healthcare. T. R. Reid’s book The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care describes four basic models of health care at work in the world: Britain’s Beveridge Model where health care is provided and financed by the government; Germany and France’s Bismark Model where private insurance funds — financed by employers and employees — cover everyone and are government regulated to keep costs low; Canada’s National Health Insurance model which uses private-sector providers financed by government insurance plans into which every citizen pays; and lastly the “out-of-pocket” model most found in undeveloped nations where you get what you can pay for. We can do better than the last model. Wednesday night, President Obama laid out his vision of healthcare reform stating “if you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who don’t currently have health insurance, the second part of this plan will finally offer you quality, affordable choices. If you lose your job or change your job, you will be able to get coverage.” He went onto say we can help people in need and we can solve this big problem. When I remember my mom, I think of someone who was always trying to do something useful to help someone in need. Like my mother, everyone deserves access to healthcare through every stage of their life. Now it’s our generation’s turn to help others. Lets bring about healthcare reform and shape the future by our actions.