For those of you that enjoyed the weekly videos from last spring's Broad River Archaeological Field School, I wanted to make you aware of this compilation of the entire season into a single 2:16 presentation. It will be a good refresher for me to watch the whole thing, as I'll be spending much of this semester working on analysis and write-up of the data from the first two seasons of work at 38FA608. Enjoy!
Here in Columbia, we're currently waiting to see what kind of punch Florence will still be packing when it gets here. We've had plenty of time to prepare (USC and the public schools have been closed since Tuesday), and we certainly won't get the kind of beating that the coast is getting. It does look like what's left of the storm will be coming straight for us, however, probably bringing a lot of rain. We've been under the clouds of Florence's extremities all day, and the wind has been steadily picking up.
City officials say that they're ready this time, and what happened in 2015 won't happen again. I hope that's true. I'm not betting on it, though. We stocked up on water. And bought a generator. We've got food, cash, extra gas, batteries, a sump pump in the basement, and a portable AC unit that we can use to keep a room cool to sleep in if we lose power for a prolonged stretch. Hopefully it will all be unnecessary.
Stronger winds and rain from Florence should arrive in Columbia tomorrow morning, with the center of the storm not reaching us until Sunday.
Now onto the art news . . .
The Race Against the Bear
I've been working on a 9-10' bear sculpture since May. I have always intended it as my entry into ArtFields 2019, but I'm not sure I'll get it done in time. The entry deadline is November 5. I'm over the hump, but still have a long way to go. I've made three videos showing my progress so far. You can follow the bear more closely by following my Instagram account.
And the Winner Is . . .
Based on participation, my summer selfie contest -- my attempt at art branding -- was a flop. That's the bad news. The good news is that the few entries makes it easier to pick a winner. And the winner is . . . . . . Flavia Lovatelli! I chose a photo of Flavia with "Naked Flank" as the winner. Congratulations, Flavia, you rock!
My Fall Commitments are Low
I entered two pieces ("My Father's Hammer" and "Music Box") in the South Carolina State Fair this year. Other than trying to get the bear done to enter in ArtFields, though, I have little else on the horizon. I decided not to enter several local and regional shows and I turned down an offer for a show. I decided in June to take pressure off myself by not committing, and I've stuck to that. I wish I had more time for art than I do, but I'm happy with the pivot I've taken away from promotion and toward trying to find a groove to make what I want to make.
Summer is winding down and I'll be back in the classroom in just a couple of weeks. This fall, I'm teaching Forbidden Archaeology again. In this second iteration, I'll be making some significant changes from the way I structured the course the first time around. As the rubber begins hitting the road (i.e., it's time to start working on the syllabus) I'm looking for ways to keep the course fresh and interesting for both me and the students.
Our topical focus this year will be "Cataclysm and the Lost World." I tried to cover three topical areas the first time around, and it felt like too much. So I decided to go with a single theme this year and use that as a lens to explore the social/political/historical threads that wind through various claims that (1) the cultural/natural world was a qualitatively different place in the ancient past; and (2) that "lost world" world was destroyed through some kind of incredible catastrophe.
As I start to think about what specific claims to focus on, I'm struck (again) by the overall staleness of the fringe world. There's plenty of "new" material out there, but much of it mixes around the same basket of stupid garbage that's been circulating since the mid-1800s. While there is still great value in going through these ideas and understanding (1) where they come from, (2) how they can be shown to be wrong, and (3) why people still cling to them, it would also be nice to explore something that's not essentially a re-casting of Victorian baloney. If you know of anything that really strikes you as a new claim based on new evidence that fits within the theme of the course, please let me know with a comment.
My wife thinks that finding a new nemesis would help to energize me. She may be right. It would fun to engage in a focused, prolonged analysis/debate of a specific claim or set of claims that revolve around material evidence. The key term here is "material evidence:" in order to have a meaningful back-and-forth, there has to be some kind of "thing" about which a claim/interpretation is made. One good artifact in archaeological context is all you really need to make a claim that actually has some teeth . . . so what have you got? What's the artifact that should change everything? (Note: discredited Roman sword advocates and rune stone apologists need not apply.)
I'm going to start with a point of order: my fascination with roosters goes deep into my childhood on an Ohio farm, and far predates any association with the University of South Carolina. I'm not a big fan of college sports, and over the last several years I've stopped paying any attention to any sports. So when I make a rooster it isn't out of any desire to cheer on the Gamecocks. And it isn't because I think cock-fighting is cool. It's because I find roosters to be intrinsically interesting.
I also like rooster art. And for a town where the gamecock is king, a lot of the rooster art falls somewhere on the spectrum between "bland" and "dumb." As Exhibits A and B, I present to you the sculpture that greets visitors at the Columbia airport and the $85,000 statue that graces the campus.
Moving on . . .
"Pinwheel" started with trying to capture the lines and feel of a shape in motion. I used some arcs of round steel from an old outdoor table (curb find) to start outlining the crescent shape of a rooster back-pedaling into the air. The feel of the piece emerged over the course of the month as I triangulated what I envisioned with the materials I had and my technical abilities. It wanted a twirling, spinning, somewhat gritty, mechanistic-yet-on-the-edge-of-control feeling, like being on a beat-up carnival ride. I also wanted an out-of-balance display, part show and part genuine menace. "Pinwheel" is a summer evening's trip down the midway and through the gauntlet of posturing carnies trying to goad little boys into demonstrating their manhood. It's the perpetual motion machine of flashing lights, trampled grass, fried food, and the music of AC/DC blaring from the Matterhorn.
It's also for sale.
I think this piece turned out great -- it's perhaps the "best" thing I've created so far. I'm selling it because I don't really have the space to display it inside the house (it's an inside piece) and because I honestly think it is a piece that can be enjoyed and appreciated by a lot people. Of course it won't evoke the same basket of memories and feelings from everyone that sees it. That's okay. I did what I set out to do, so my job is done.
I think "Pinwheel" would look great over the bar in a high-end restaurant in Columbia or some other city. "Pinwheel" has a wingspan of 38," a height (from the base to the highest wingtip) of 41," and a length (from beak to tail) of 30." The base is a steel ring with a 16.25" diameter. The base could be changed but there would be engineering involved.
I'm asking $8000 for it and a display that includes my name. If you've got the cash, the space, and the desire to ditch your cartoon chicken and sit at the adult table, please send an email to my art account: email@example.com. I'm always ready to consider interesting trades or other offers, but please don't email me to ask if I'll take $200 for it.
I'm going to put two old radio tubes in the sockets of the light fixture after I apply a clear coat to the piece to lock in the patina.
Here are some more photos (and more here; video coming soon):
Update (6/22/2018): Yes, it's as dangerous as it looks.
I think my decision to "just say no" to art commitments for a while is already paying off. Changing the question of "what do I need to do" to "what do I want to do" felt like removing the handcuffs yesterday when I got out to my garage, and I busted out a quick piece that I'm really happy with: "Music Box."
Carolina wrens are among my favorite parts of living in Columbia. If you've never been around these birds, you probably don't truly appreciate how loud and bold a pocket-sized bird can be. They sing all day, starting before sunrise. Sometimes they sing all night. If you leave your lawn chair for five minutes you may find a nest in it by the time you get back. They often fly into my garage even while I'm working, completely unfazed by the noise, sparks, and smoke.
"Music Box" was scaled around the neck of a trashed mandolin that one of my local supporters, Susan James, gave me. The body is shaped around a piston from an automobile engine, and the head and shoulders are made from a doorknob. The wings are made from some of the mandolin body and a clock gear. I used the strings (in need of being changed years ago) from my own guitar.
I'm still thinking about what exactly this one "means," beyond the obvious connection between wrens and their songs. As I was working on this and thinking about it, I found myself listening to REM's "Everybody Hurts" over and over again. It's a song about hanging on, especially though long, lonely nights. I think what resonates for me is the unending, self-contained spirit of these tiny, fearless birds whose morning songs signal that the day is right around the corner.
The second bird is "The Red," an owl made from an old red gas tank I bought from a junk store in eastern North Carolina during a trip this spring with my daughter. I bought the tank for $5 (I tried to get it for $2, but Windy could tell I wanted it) not knowing what it would be. "The Red" by Chevelle popped into my head on the way back from TAG and it the piece was there to be made.
I had a few art lessons as a little kid. One of the things that one of the teachers said that stuck with me was "nothing is ever one color." The water is blue, but it's not all the same blue. The shadows are dark, but they're not the same dark. Seeing the variation is one thing; capturing it in art is something else altogether.
One of the things I wanted to do with "The Red" is take that simple little "red" gas tank and let loose the different shades and textures. Emotions, like objects that we can see and touch, are complex, variable, and never all one color.
I perched this one on an old 1930's lamp stand, cut so the owl is about at eye level.
I'm kind of fascinated by this one because of its connection to internal combustion. It's made from a gas tank. It has the glass fuel petcock inside. It has spark plugs. It's a post-steam creature that produces power by burning within. I kept thinking of that line from "Red Dawn" where the guy says that the anger inside keeps him warm.
I captured the making of "The Red" on video. Enjoy!
I spent this week along the Broad River with colleagues from the South Carolina Heritage Trust and some of my own students doing fieldwork associated with a research grant I received from USC. The grant, titled "Finding the Family in South Carolina Prehistory," was focused on exploring the potential for buried archaeology in alluvial landforms in the vicinity of 38FA608. Several seasons of hand excavations there have revealed about 3 m of stratified cultural deposits spanning at least 6000 years, all protected within a sandy "natural levee" deposit.
I believe I've mentioned the grant before, but only in passing. In brief, the strategy was to use a backhoe to excavate a series of short trenches spaced about 100 m apart along about a mile of deposits. The sediment sequences revealed in the walls of those trenches provide information about how the alluvial landscape along this section of the river formed and developed and which areas have (or have the potential to contain) well-preserved archaeological sites. We cleaned, drew profiles, described sediments, and photographed a wall of each trench. Carbon was scarce, but I obtained a few small samples from buried strata that I think will help me construct a preliminary depositional chronology. I'm most interested in locating sites with good potential for preserving evidence of family- and group-level behaviors in the Early and Middle Holocene (hence the name of the grant), but I want to be able to tell the rest of the story as well.
The weather was not our friend early in the week. We got soaked by heavy rain all day on Monday, and intermittently on Tuesday afternoon. The remainder of the week was better, perhaps even relatively pleasant by the standards of South Carolina in late May.
It was a hectic week, but we got everything done and learned a tremendous amount in a short time. I owe a huge debt of thanks to Sean Taylor at the South Carolina Heritage Trust for kicking in resources (both human and machine) and expertise at his disposal. I'm also thankful for the continued generosity and hospitality of the landowner. The analysis of the materials and information will begin immediately, starting with cleaning/cataloging the artifacts we collected, digitizing the profiles, and selecting samples for radiocarbon dating, etc. I still have a day or so left in the field to map in some trench locations and take a few final notes. I'll write about it as I have time, and will produce one or two videos showing what we did. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy some photos from our week and some of my initial thoughts on what we saw:
Tuesday: Trench 3 shows what appears to be a sediment sequence similar to that at 38FA608 (A horizon underlain by sandy loam with increasingly thick lamellae) buried beneath a thick "cap" of alluvium. If this landform was used by human groups, the entire record may have been buried prior to historic use the area (resulting in a well-preserved buried record with no surface archaeology).
Tuesday: the Trench 8 profile shows well-developed lamellae but no buried A horizon. Sediments in this area appear to have been truncated, removing the upper zones. Artifacts are common on the surface here, but probably represent a palimpsest of materials left behind as the upper deposits were deflated.
Friday: there was no evidence of human occupation in Trench 5, but there was a sequence of 16 zones that mostly alternated between coarse, loose, sand and more clayey, more compact lenses of sandy loam. I collected two small chunks of charcoal (marked with pink flagging tape in this photo) from zones in this profile that were separated by about a meter, hoping that dates from those will give me some idea of how much time is represented by depositional sequences like this. Other trenches had shorter sequences of alternating sand/clayey sediments sitting on top of what might be "good" sediment sequences that could contain archaeology.
Followers of my blog know that my year is starting to settle into a seasonal cycle of 9 months of archaeology and academics and 3 months of art. The lines aren't that sharp, but summer is the time when I get to exhale a little bit and spend time thinking about something other than the human past. I don't get paid by the University over the summer, and it has been nice to begin getting some economic utility from my art. So far I'm nowhere near being able to live off what I make selling sculptures, but it helps.
There are many different aspects of my art that I think are worth writing about and that I'd like to write about, but I find that when I have a window of discretionary time the last thing I want to do is sit down and write. So here are a few bits of super-condensed thoughts and news items from this spring.
ArtFields 2018 Has Come and Gone
If you haven't noticed, I'm a bit competitive. One of the main reasons I was interested in ArtFields was to see if I could get in, and, passing that bar, see if my entry would win anything. I got in, but I didn't win. What I did get was a better sense of how the competition works and the space my work occupies in the context of other contemporary art.
I wish I could have spent a bit more time in Lake City while with event was in full swing, but there was just too much going on at home and at work. I did manage to spend a couple of hours in town on a Wednesday (perhaps at the mid-week low point of attendance) and check out a couple of galleries and wander around town. I saw some art that really impressed me (clearly ArtFields ain't the State Fair) and some that seemed so boring and stale that I wondered how in the hell it got juried in. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course. The quietness of my personal experience on that Wednesday bummed me out a bit -- the density of people was so low that I didn't really get to talk to anyone about anything substantive. The longest conversation I had was with one of the docent volunteers who seemed also to be looking for someone to talk to.
After feeling like I didn't really exist there, I was happy to see that a quick shot of my piece made it into the final official video (at 3:41). The warm feeling I got seeing a bunch of kids around "Beauty and Grace" reminded me that seeing other people engage with and enjoy what I do is far more important to me than winning anything. I got a number of shouted compliments as Chris Gillam and I were taking the piece apart and loading it onto his trailer. That makes it worth it.
As I wrote back on the 11th, I took a carload of sculptures down to this year's Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) conference at the University of Florida. It took me about 6.5 hours to get to Gainesville from Columbia. Make no mistake: the Coastal Plain is vast.
I blasted music the whole way down, but drove most of the way back on Sunday silently. I came away from TAG with some mixed feelings, but I realized that driving silently for hours meant that I wanted to be able to think about things. Leaving a conference full of thoughts is, in my book, the mark of a good conference.
The interactions to my work at TAG seemed to me to range from indifference to aesthetic appreciation to deep curiosity. I wish there had been more of the latter. I have a lot to say about the meaning, experience, and process of what I do, and I can speak the languages of both art and archaeology/anthropology. Fewer people than I expected seemed to want to talk about it. The conversations I did have, though, were really nice and I learned a lot from them.
I spent my Saturday evening wandering up and down University Avenue, picking up whatever metal bits and pieces I could fit in my pocket. The campus was between semesters and eerily empty. I'm planning on making something out of the small assemblage I collected and calling it "Left Behind."
"Zero" and "One"
I finished a pair of small winged rabbits that I named "Zero" and "One." I wrote a little bit about them here. I steered myself heavily back into the music of Social Distortion as I was making them, and I think it was because those "shortcuts" of binary oppositions that we use so often to understand and describe the world loom so large in Mike Ness' lyrics. Winners and losers, good and evil, lovers and haters, strong and weak, saints and sinners, cowards and heros, angels and devils, beggars and choosers . . . you get the idea. The guy has been singing about the same things since I was in elementary school. It resonates with me since I've lately realized that I'm fixated, still, on the same themes, shapes, questions, and animals that I've been fascinated by since I was a little kid. I want to keep pushing myself to explore through art, but there is nothing wrong with being curious about long-standing questions and themes that remain relevant and slippery. When something bugs you, you get to keep poking at it. On a "Michael" continuum, I'm probably about 95% Ness and 5% Angelo.
Here's a video showing some of the making of "Zero" and "One."
ecoFAB and Re-Current Shows
I'll be participating in the upcoming ecoFAB and Re-Current shows at Tapp's, organized by my friend Flavia Lovatelli. ecoFAB is a fashion show on June 2; the clothing from that show will be displayed in the windows of Tapp's along with related art through June and July. I saw part of the fashion show last year (Afterburner was running at the same time, which is how I met Flavia) but this will be my first year as a participant.
I'm bringing "Zero" and "One" (see above) as well as "Naked Flank." I'll post pictures of the show after it happens as well as the window displays. If you're in the Columbia area you should check it out.
So far this spring/summer, my experimental efforts at "brand building" for my art have been, as best I can tell, a flop. I've gotten entries in my Summer Selfie Contest from just a single person: Columbia-based artist and friend Flavia Lovatelli. If the first month of the contest is any indication, Flavia is going to win hands down.
While I'm still hopeful that the scheme will start to work, I'm not optimistic. Over the past week I've had large, fairly photogenic pieces in two highly visible spots and . . . crickets. I watched people take photos with my 8.5' seahorse "Rocket Queen" at West Columbia's Kinetic Derby Day and . . . nothing. "Beauty and Grace" has been on full display at ArtFields this week and . . . nothing. The word on the street is that there will be a free popcorn machine next to it tomorrow, so maybe something will happen there. Fingers crossed.
For those of you in Columbia, Saturday presents another opportunity to not take a photograph of yourself with my work. I created a piece called "The Rabbit Hole" for the Tapp's putt-putt golf fundraiser this weekend. My hole (I think it's the 16th hole) plays with concepts of binary oppositions that we so often use as shortcuts to simplify, describe, and understand the world. It is built around the contrast between stable and unstable equilibrium points: it's much easier to tip over the edge and go down into the rabbit hole than it is to sharpshoot your way out. It's got two winged rabbits ("Zero" and "One") that will be for sale when they're done. It's also got lights. And I'm hoping there will be music. I won't be there to turn everything on, so "The Rabbit Hole" is in capable hands of Wilson. It's all yours, Wilson.
I'll be sorry to miss the fun at Tapp's, and I'll sorry to miss the awards day at ArtFields (also on Saturday). I'll be at the beach with my kids. Art is great, but I would be more sorry to miss that. Plus I could really use a day at the beach.
Tomorrow will be our last day in the field at 38FA608. Last Friday we finished excavating the features in the block and got Unit 13 almost down to where it needs to be. Tomorrow we'll backfill the block and collect final information from the profile exposed by Unit 13. We may not have time to get everything done during the day, so I'll probably have to finish up when I go out next week to break down the toolbox and grab the screens, etc.
If you like snakes, you'd love 38FA608 this time of year.
Enjoy the video!
I've been busting my butt on weekends and evenings to complete "Rocket Queen," a seahorse built around the frame of a tandem bicycle. Don't believe me? Watch the video.
The piece will be on display (and for sale) this Saturday at Kinetic Derby Day in West Columbia. This is a new event, and it looks like it will be a lot of fun. I'm going to take my kids to the parade and the race in the morning, and visit my beloved seahorse at some point. I'm not familiar with West Columbia, but it shouldn't be too hard to spot an eight-and-a-half-foot-tall seahorse. I made sure it would poke up above the crowd.
As for the name . . . My original concept for the piece was an exploration of the complementary tension between art and science. I used a lot of blue and orange because they are complementary colors (and because I had an old Ford air cleaner that I wanted to use for the snout). I tried to blend in some other complementary oppositions also.
In my book, the song "Rocket Queen" is among the best things that Guns 'N' Roses ever did. It energetically blends the "guns" and the "roses" sides into a single thread that wraps around and bookends itself. Remember the "duality of man" scene from Full Metal Jacket? At its best, the music of Guns 'N' Roses is that. Holding and accepting two contradictory ideas in your head (and heart) at the same time isn't easy. Art can do that.
The song is also important to me historically. I first heard Appetite for Destruction at a small party in high school. It was a crazy night that I feel like I remember better than I probably actually do. The album blew me away from the first time I heard it. I got someone to make a cassette for me, but the last part of the last song -- "Rocket Queen" -- got cut off because of length. I didn't hear the last half of the song until I saw the 1988 concert at The Ritz on MTV. In that performance, Axl Rose disappears during one of the verses and then tosses the microphone at someone offstage before the very end of the song. So I didn't hear all of the song. But I did get to hear most of the last part, with those sappy lyrics and an actual melody. That concert made a big impression on me and changed how I wanted my own music to sound and feel. I still like watching it.
Eventually I did get my own copy of the full song. It was a mainstay of mine for years of gearing up and getting going. The whole story worked and still does.
If you're headed to the Kinetic Derby, I hope you have a chance to check out my work. "Rocket Queen" is probably one of the most photogenic things I've made -- ironic because it's so big I haven't yet been able to get a picture of it that I like. I incorporated a mirror if you'd like to work that into your entry in the Zero Point Mechanic selfie contest. I bet it's the biggest seahorse you'll see all weekend.
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