Margaret Black Bear and I were strangers when I stepped out of my car, moated by a ditch in the dirt road arcing up to her house.
Dozens of rugged acres rise and fall in sun and shade between the roofs of neighbors in this high desert town.
The place is Jacumba, nearer to Mexico than to my house, which I’d left late afternoon, about an hour before . . . 8 days ago.
Circled the massive boulder, climbed the thirsty scrub-lined path to the ridgetop. Margaret called out to meet her on the side of the house.
Face to face, she avoids eye contact.
Margaret is an artist. Sought her out after eyeing her work in Descanso Mercantile, a shop near home. Left my number with the proprietor, Michelle, and waited for Margaret to call. Weeks passed . . .
Crescendo of barks from inside. The package deal is Margaret and her pups. She seems relieved when I beg to meet them, as they grow anxious when she’s out of sight. From tiny to honkin’, all are affectionate except the shrimp, Mah Hatone (“Arrow Man”), a white Chihuahua who yaps at my outstretched palm.
“Iyotake!” (sit down!) she gently commands Sunkj Manito Tanka, the big, coal-black bushy guy, who levitates the plastic patio table every time he glides underneath, sending our ice waters flying. “Stop carrying the table!” Gentle giant, love at first sight. I quickly learn to grab the glass whenever he nears.
If I spoke Lakota (a dialect of the Sioux language) and Cheyenne (from the Algonquian), we’d converse in the same tongues. These are Margaret Black Bear’s tribes, indigenous people of the Great Plains (North and South Dakota, Oklahoma.)
A big chunk of culture rests in language and the unique mental shorthand that goes with it. Margaret taped signs (Sesame Street-style) throughout the house with common words in these dialects as her kids were growing up, but they resisted learning—”We’ll never need it!” they chimed in. Her grandkids enjoy learning both.
Margaret, who warms up quickly as we find common ground (dogs, kids, artwork lost in fire, Grateful Dead story swaps) says Native American art sold briskly in the 80s, 90s (it was a fad as I recall, like hair metal bands and the Macarena), so much so that she’d pile her five kids in the trailer and hit the lucrative circuit of art shows and fairs. The public’s love affair has since matured. Collectors and museums seek her out, but fickle purchases have slowed. Technology is her ally, with a solid Web site. All of the artwork pictured in these slide shows was made by Margaret.
She makes replica pieces for museums to replace original artifacts that have deteriorated from exposure to light. Bead colors are limited to those available in the 1800s and materials are sourced to match those in use when the original piece was made.
The dogs settle in at our feet. Cicalla (“Little” in Lakota), the white puppy’s mom—no doubt named before a hefty appetite supersized her frame—pants hard in the summer heat that has not let up late-day. A coyote faintly wails in the gully below. The dogs dash in a pack to the spot. I rise to watch, but it’s gone. They return, but repeat this ritual several times . . . outrun by coyote, squirrel, rabbit (?).
Circa 1920, the house now wears a turquoise coat, “a protective color,” Margaret says. The ranch spans 90 acres. She’s self-reliant, content to live simply; no electricity, running water. “It’s like living in the 1800s,” chuckles the woman who also serves as Webmistress of her company’s site. She revs the generator to light the studio and Weeping Buffalo Native Arts’ onsite store, to juice the TV, computer. Kerosene lamps light the night, propane fuels the stove, water comes from a tank for running water (she pumps to fill it, an upgrade from hauling bucketfuls indoors). Her solar system’s on the fritz.
The garden plan accommodates wild moochers. She’s planted zucchini, corn, radishes, green beans, and peppers in profusion. “One bush for me, they get the rest,” Margaret says. “The moles didn’t like the jalapenos, but they ate the roots!” She uses medicinal plants growing wild on the property for herself and the dogs.
Margaret, 61, a lean, striking woman who looks much younger, rocks the sass vibe. Her near waist-length, dark brown hair falls in a loose braid to the side. She wears an azure blue and white ankle-length dress with rippling water design, shortie denim jacket, sterling bracelets, azure dangles, and crescent-shaped arcs of jewel-tone studs. Her deep blue eyes spark like sun on the waves when she talks. We’ve agreed no photos of herself or the dogs, in accord with her beliefs.
Downhill, the dinner bell rings.
Dusk is on hold. I join as Margaret pads down the path toward the pens. She slices two fat, scruffy slabs of green hay with a long kitchen knife from stacked bales in the well-worn white horse trailer and tosses one in the sheep’s pen, the other for the horse. (Crunching replaces bah-ah-ah-ahing; the chowtime “alarm.”) “Someone once said they look like buffalo,” Margaret says of her three Merino sheep, whose brown-black-gray fleece has recently been shorn. “They’re naked now.” She’ll spin the wool, knitting and crocheting it into hats and the like for sale in her shop.
Sunset in the rearview as I backed up the car.
The mountain pass rose to near 4,200 feet on the drive out, where boxcar-size boulders edged the cliff, and emerald green trees tickled parched scrub.
Now, sapa (black).
—August 17, 2012
[Post script: Margaret opens the doors of the studio/store on the premises as her schedule permits, for people coming from far away. Always call first.]
His name is Bailey, but the way you do when an oldster loved one needs extra help, we sometimes add the title to mask the aid and seem more like old-school Brit valets.
Loving care, with stealth assists.
“Mr. Bailey, would you like a better view?”
If you bring the water bowl to him, he ignores it till you’re out of sight. He’s proud, dignified.
Bailey’s an island hopper, napping on the throw rug nearest his destination (strategically beneath air vents, hazardously underfoot as an aroma molecule wafts from meal prep).
The hand-loomed harlequin-pattern rug in Steve’s favorite colors (red, orange) that I handpicked from dozens piled in waist-high, neat stacks from a rug workshop
housed in an ancient-looking stone building, like a rock outcropping overgrown with shoots jutting from the cracks . . . the rug I carted home from San Miguel, in Colonial Mexico, on a trip with the folks. Shop had a hand-penned sign no larger than a cigar box—illegible from the road as we passed by every day on foot—which didn’t hint at the line of business. The telltale rug draped over the scrub out front was the sole clue, like one of those universal icons.
became Bailey’s top nap destination from the moment I unpacked and unfurled it 2 years ago. It’s now muted; the bright diamonds show briefly post-vacuum.
Bailey is a proper gent, a Golden Retriever.
The breed is traced to the 1800s, to the Scottish Highlands, developed by Lord Tweedmouth, according to the American Kennel Club.
Steve adopted him from a Golden Retriever rescue in L.A. some 6 years ago, and his current age has been pegged between 11 and 23 dog years (the latter a joke from the vet, we think).
He’s still a rug hound, but to his list of quirks add the bent to touch something when he sleeps.
A table leg, lock of fringe from the rug just so under his nose, silk pillow tassel, or Steve’s discarded T-shirt and socks, massed on the floor by the hamper.
When I was little my dad nicknamed me Noodles. My favorite for him is Noodle Poodles.
Not sure, but it seems that Mr. Bailey needs an anchor.
—August 16, 2012
one’s an old outboard motor boat with three dozen-plus “occupants” (well-worn chairs) perched as precariously as Pick Up Sticks. Artist Robin Roberts’ The Boat/El Barco speaks to the shifting, uncertain path of an ocean crossing, from Mexico to the U.S. Regardless of your views on immigration, when you stand beside the adult and child-sized castoff seats, you feel the immediacy of people who once occupied them, (i.e., undertook the journey). The piece is part of a public arts initiative from UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College’s 40th anniversary celebration, featuring commissioned work by MFA program grads. (Couldn’t get the small sign (left front) and light pole ( left rear), out of the frame when I shot it; used the spray paint tool to eradicate them; first-timer.)
one’s a kahuna strumming his ukelele strings, stoking hopes the volcano won’t spew on his tune. Really a vintage miniature figurine, spotting one of the many gopher holes in our citrus orchard.
one’s a juvie sea nettle, snapped at Birch Aquarium, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, UCSD. Almost looks like an X-ray. It’s one of Birch’s many diaphanous jellies. Wonder if Brit Edward Craven Walker (who invented the Lava Lamp in the 60s) saw these flouncies and thought, “What if . . .?”
one’s the surfer guy stationed outside the pagoda’s red front door (the color conjures good fortune, joy). Hard to resist the urge to adorn him with a lei.
one’s an underwater 3-D topo display at Birch, depicting ranges/canyons off and under San Diego’s coastline (San Clemente Island, Scripps Canyon, La Jolla Canyon). Its label says each layer represents a change in depth of 300 feet. The day I visited, overheard a man telling his companions about his dive down one of the underwater ridge lines, turning the corner past the edge . . . and seeing nothing but blackness, void, below.
one’s called Pleasure Point. Like its landlocked cousin at the college, this amalgam of 30 nautical vessels seems to have tripped off the lip of a tidal wave onto the roof of The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, Calif. Created by Nancy Rubins. You can’t spot it from the museum out front; it’s easily seen from the back, either strolling through the sculpture garden or on the street below.
—May 30, 2012
Actually, more than one house.
The only stipulation is, she can only walk through it once (or sometimes, backtrack, if she really likes it.) So, each year I get us tickets for the Venice Garden & Home Tour, in Venice, Calif., a fundraiser that showcases homes of local creatives.
These people are allergic to ordinary.
Landscape architect Joseph Marek wedded plants from the Mediterranean, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and California’s own.
If these homeowners didn’t need mail, they could unscrew the house numbers and replace with letters: F-U-N. Fun for grownups.
Their hand (and often like-minded designers, architects, landscape designers) melds the space to its most pleasing form, so whatever they’re doing they can do it with the feeling of being outdoors, under the shelter of a roof. Unless they’re outside doing it.
How you feel when you hike deep in a canyon glade, the sun haze snaps clean away, shade from the shoulder of a huge granite wall bathes you in cool: different. These people forge their own kind of different.
The tour this time snaked through neighborhoods east of Lincoln; west of Lincoln (which is like, 8th street) is the beach—and the more expected route.
A three-story house on Victoria, canoe mounted like a sailfish atop the front door, could as well be a beach house if you didn’t know where it was planted (not Malibu beach, but deep inland Venice). Owned and augmented by Jay Griffith (Griffith & Cletta), landscape designer and Venice Garden & Home Tour founder.
Goldenish hubcaps dot the yard like so many giant, pressed daisies, flanked by oar leaves.
The ground floor design (theatrical set piece) with fantasy fireplace out back, is under way.
Upstairs, six people each dwell in a private bedroom, and share two plush communal living rooms and bright kitchen space.
On Appleton, a couple of bungalows on a big lot (one built in ’51, the other ’65), were snagged, somewhat preserved, and mostly renovated 4 years ago (shown below).
Today the kitchens are attached along a common wall, and the two separate homes have some 2,000 square feet of new space. A communal inner courtyard, with tree-shaded pool/spa, outside shower, and fire table with built-in banquette are mere steps away. Plantings include Palo Verde trees, acacias, octopus agave, “Guardsman” flax, and sedums. Robbie Conal’s works hang centrally on the walls of both homes. One of the homeowners (and resident landscape designer) did some landscape design for artist Ed Moses; his work too, is displayed.
Homeowners down the street live/work on their compound. The garden has taken shape like a painting, they say, with dabs of color here and there. The gardens comprise cacti, mini botanicals, grasses, and bamboo.
One of my favorites is the home on Vienna designed by architect/homeowner Ron Radziner (Marmol Radziner). Instead of a sprawling open plan with no walls, he sets walls of glass, which neatly define areas without obstruction. Biting into an apple in the kitchen and barely turning your head, you could gaze through windows and walls to the sunlit living room, through the back yard fireplace, to art down the hall in another wing. A pool nestled in the front courtyard seems an oasis of calm, in an otherwise orderly haven of calm.
We never go in order; saw it last.
With its cabaña in back . . . LOVE.
My mom and I have invited others to join in the past, but are happiest just us two. Guests in the homes of strangers, if only for a flash.
—May 13, 2012
So much rain here in Alpine our moss is growing moss.
Vivid succulents lining Fiesta de Reyes plaza (Old Town, San Diego) swim through my mind. Like eternal spring, they’re always new. Went to visit them.
TAZA Chocolate Mexicano discs fanned in a bowl on display out front draw me into Fiesta Cocina (co-see-nah), a kitchenware and specialty food shop on the plaza’s edge (619-293-3200).
Rustic, organic, stone ground chocolates, made in the remote Mexican state of Somerville, Massachusetts, each package contains two pieces, scored—for those with discipline.
No Nestlé these; some are infused with chipotle chili, guajillo chili (my favorite; tastes like raisins), salt and pepper (which I’m nibbling with a peanut butter M&M’S chaser) . . .
Tourists flock to this historic zone, which holds charms for locals too. Sally, whose time spent working at the shop has deepened her joy participating in Old Town’s cultural events, urges me to return in November for Day of the Dead, which she says honors those who have passed on.
Embracing my garden quest, she points me toward The Urban Seed.
Maurice Taitano and Michael Bliss, proprietors of this shop, have for 40-plus years captivated locals with their residential garden designs. You can see the highlight reel spooling in Michael’s head when he says their gardens look on Day 1 as if they’ve been in forever.
The couple places a premium on marrying inside and out, seamlessly.
Maurice touts open-pollinated plants, such as wildflowers. Wait till the plant bears fruit and its seeds dry and drop to the ground, then collect and replant them, she says. You know what to expect; hardy plants that are always the same. “It’s survival of the fittest,” she says. “Whoever comes back next year gets to stay [in the garden].”
Maurice and Michael uprooted a tree and ripped out a swath of lawn from their own garden to make room for zucchini and melon plantings. “Gardens make room,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you put it in a pot or have a small plot—just eat it!”
San Diego was born here, in this plaza.
Cinco de Mayo celebrations will soon sweep through town.
For some, the festivities are simply a chance to hoist a brew; for others, the day honors the fortitude and independence of the Mexican spirit, flourishing in its people like these vibrant wild blooms.
—April 30, 2012
Streamlined modern shapes often take form in plastic. Like candy dots on a roll, they can be popped out in bulk.
Plastic’s malleable, chromatic, strong, economical.
But a crack renders it junk. If you lose your Bic gel, oh well. If a piano drops on your Big E; ouch.
Wood’s another matter.
The warmth of wood, its tawny, butterscotch hues, soothes. Hard and softish. It grows; it’s post-organic. Not what we see when we look at a tree (bark), but the mind knows.
Long relied on for seating, transport, shelter, music making, toys, sport . . .
Wood objects have patina, character, provenance, grain, aroma, knots. (And can be glued if split.) But even when wood stuff is new, it’s not “new.” You can’t make a hockey stick, or even a toothpick, from a sapling.
We expect objects of daily life—laptop, pen, shades—to be new, modern. Plastic.
Rebels against uniformity have cooked up some unlikely wood works.
In my circle are guys who enjoy them.
A cousin to the wood pencil, the wood-encased pen.
[The cousin to these Schwoodsy shades is here.]
Off-topic on wood, but some, in a way for giving new life to fractured delicates, reinvent.
—April 15, 2012
An elaborate range of product tie-ins today forge a bond between gamers, kids, music lovers, females, avid readers—and sellers of stuff who craftily court consumers’ patronage.
Popular TV shows, films, and advertisers vie for the attention of consumers, offering challenges, games, quizzes, points, rewards, badges; apps; and the promise of social visibility, pop culture fame—an opportunity to help suppliers pitch their goods under the guise that those who are hungry for a byte of fame are more savvy than their marketing gurus. (It’s not enough to like the stuff, you must “Like” it.)
One of my mom’s favorite pastimes when she was little was collecting Campbell’s Kids; cartoonish drawings of task-oriented cherubs in the company’s ads, whom she deftly liberated from their marketing jobs with cuticle scissors.
The marketing campaign expanded widely, but my mom was hooked on the “kids.”
Repurposing an autograph book, she grouped them on pages by theme. (Circles of “friends,” who were aviators/cowboys/fishermen/explorers/photographers; farm and backyard toilers; chefs; exercisers; grownups in training.)
Thumbing through the book this weekend, she couldn’t recall the exact date, but figures she put this together in the 1930s. She loved cutting the figures out and looked through the book often.
Constant early exposure to the marketing scheme failed to turn my mom into a canned soup devotee, and though I’ve always loved (and coveted) the book, I don’t like soup at all.
—April 8, 2012
We hopped in a rental car, taking side trips when we could peel away from the group .
Bonnet House Museum and Gardens, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, Miami.
On the way somewhere, we pulled off the road for cool drinks; beside the convenience store was a pawn shop. Don’t frequent them at home, but here was intrigued.
Floor-to-ceiling shelves were jammed with guns of every kind (don’t know about guns, and didn’t get close, but was struck by the throng). My eye was drawn to the outliers—an azure kyanite (?) hunk, handful of shells, and a sea star. Their last day at sea, hundreds of dustings ago. Someone needing cash set the relics adrift. The shop obliged. Money for food, barter for a cheap gun? Based on my haggled rate, the seller didn’t get much.
Many years ago I pawned a necklace passed down to me, to buy a hefty hardcover book I kept visiting at Hennessey + Ingalls, Santa Monica, Calif. Needed the book more. Seemed inevitable someone would buy it (one copy on the shelf, before online access. Hardcover, was $50; I believe the 1975 edition’s now out of print.). I was a new mom with little kids and no money for luxuries such as art books. It’s called “P. H. EMERSON: The Fight for Photography as a Fine Art.” Stumbled on it; had never heard of Peter Henry Emerson before. Unlike many photos that depict another place or time, these black + white images on velvety cream stock look like no place to me. Cast light, shadows, his subjects, and ground are as real as the space between your breaths, and as unquantifiable.
There’s wonderful text, by the astonishing Nancy Newhall. Emerson’s words are here too. And his correspondence with Alfred Steiglitz.
In Emerson’s voice, a chart on page 99 depicts his scheme, which is the luscious morsel stuck on the end of the fork in the road where realism and naturalism diverge. His premise that photography be accepted as fine art could make you shrug, unless you realize he was one of the first to put it forth.
I read snippets here and there, but it’s the images that speak to and for me. They whisper about my need for solitude, for companionship, to be near waterways, feeling dumbstruck by the contrast of seasonal shifts, tides’ thrust, the push of a breeze, decrepitude, solitary endeavors, reflection/grit/ingenuity, refuge . . .
(In the decades since I bid that necklace adieu, never missed it. Besides, it never fell quite right in the hollow at the base of my throat. The book; a trusted companion.)
—April 3, 2012