Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Jorge Jimenez Deredia Sculptures in Lucca

Along with Carrara, one of the other places I ended up visiting instead of Florence was Lucca, a town which turned out to be great. I’d never heard of it, but apparently it’s a popular destination; Italy has no end of wonderful places to visit and a couple of my favorite places were ones I’d never heard of beforehand. And instead of seeing David, I got to see a lovely outdoor exhibition of sculptures by Jorge Jimenez Deredia that were scattered throughout Lucca’s old town. Deredia is a Costa Rican sculptor who has lived in Italy since the 70’s. He does a nice job of synthesizing classical and modern, old world and new, figurative and abstract. The most impressive is this one here, which was sited just outside the gate to the old town. It’s huge, hopefully the photos give a sense of its scale.

I think the marble is from the nearby Carrara quarries I showed in my last couple posts. He has studied and had a workshop there, and the stone looks right for Carrara, with lovely flecks of gray mixed into the white marble. There’s a softness and fleshiness to it, really beautiful.

He also works in black granite and bronze. I’m rarely interested in bronzes, but his are great. He credits seeing the Boruca spheres in his native Costa Rica at age nine as the foundational moment of his art, and pretty much everything he does relates to the sphere. From what I can tell, he does three things: curvy women, curvy women interacting with spheres, and quadtychs that show spheres transforming into curvy women. The Lucca exhibition didn’t have any of the complete quadtychs, but the works on exhibit made a nice overview and a fun objective as I pedaled around the town center looking for them.

A couple more are below. His website shows more of his work and includes some worthwhile videos, including two that show the installation at Lucca and one that shows the creation of a large bronze. Read the rest of this entry »

John Singer Sargent’s Carrara Watercolors

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Carrara, I’m not ashamed to admit, is because James Bond had a car chase there. Switchbacks, stone, and big machines, sign me up. Another reason is Edward Burtynsky’s stunning photos. His book, Quarries, features Carrara on the cover and first convinced me that the landscape would be beautiful. But probably the biggest reason is the series of paintings by my favorite watercolorist, John Singer Sargent. I’ve never seen them in person and I’m not sure how many he actually did, but for years I’ve grabbed them off the internet whenever I’ve seen them. They might not be as important as his paintings of Venice and I’m sure I attach more importance to them than most other people, but it’s the world’s greatest watercolorist painting one of the world’s great cultural landscapes. Fantastic.

Titles and dates for most of them can be found at the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery, along with some pencil studies that are interesting to see. As I understand it, he visited the quarries twice, in 1911 and 1913, the era of dynamite and oxen at the quarries, before the workers had the big machines and the wire saws they use today. I love how many of the paintings show workers carrying ropes up the mountain. The weight of the stone is obvious, but I’m fascinated too by how heavy the ropes would have been and how much effort would have been put into just moving them around. Not an easy place to work.

Another dozen more are below. Read the rest of this entry »


Originally on my trip I had planned to go to Florence, but, after realizing how crowded it would be, I headed towards the coast. Instead of waiting in a long line and shuffling past Michelangelo’s David, I decided I’d rather ride around on the mountain where they quarried the marble for it. I still want to see David, but I’ve no regrets, Carrara is awesome. It has a sculptural quality equal to any statue. I didn’t quite capture it in the photo above, but the quarries girdling the mountain are creating a two-toned effect, weathered gray rock above a shining marble pedestal. It’s not as dramatic as the Cuernos del Paine, where glaciers created the two-toned effect instead of humans, but it’s the closest I’ve ever seen and an amazing by-product of the quarries.

That’s a beautiful cliff face. Many quarries are ugly scars, but not Carrara. I took a tour with Cave di Marmo, and then cycled around on the roads that are open to the public. It wasn’t quite as exciting as driving an Aston Martin with thugs shooting machine guns at me, but the downhills were fun, and a long unlit tunnel was sort of scary.

There was a ridge or saddle here in the past, and the quarrying is making separate peaks.

The current process in Carrara is to start at the top and work down in benches ten meters deep. They drill three holes — one from the top and two from the sides — that meet at a single point and then they run a cable with diamond-crusted studs through the holes to make a loop. The cable spins very fast and slices the stone, first one side, then the other, and then the bottom. Then with machines they tip the block over onto a bed of rubble and break it down into smaller blocks to haul down the mountain and ship all over the world.

The piles of rubble in the photos are there for practical reasons, to cushion the landing of the blocks as they are pulled away from the cliff, rather than sloppy housekeeping. I posted a movie trailer with footage from Carrara showing the process a few years ago. Since then I’ve seen the full movie, it’s great, highly recommended.

They use water to cool the cable as it cuts, so you see large puddles of milky water everywhere they are actively cutting. They fill the water tanks from springs coming out of the mountain, delicious marble-filtered water I had a chance to taste while I was riding around. I saw a trucker pull over to fill his water bottle at a roadside spring. I asked if it was ‘Buona’ and he said ‘Buonissima!!!’ Like holy water for a mason or something, perhaps my chisel will now carve with greater acuity.

It looks like a slow unhurried process with only a few people working at a time, but then you realize the size of the stone blocks they are pulling off the mountainside.

Switzerland Drawings

These are my drawings from Switzerland. They loosely track my progress across the country. The furthest west is from Lausanne on Lake Geneva. The last is a view from Guarda, a town in the lower Engadine near the Austrian border. The interior view and the pool are from Therme Vals, Peter Zumthor’s phenomenal thermal baths.

Cycling Italy and Switzerland

I have a garden again! After two years splitting time between the Bay Area and the foothills, I’m now back in the Bay Area full time. The foothills were nice but ultimately an impractical place for me to live, and I spent way too much time driving. Also the cows rampaged every time we tried to start a garden, which frustrated me after a while. So now I’m back in Berkeley, and my new place has a garden. It’s not terribly interesting at the moment, but it has a lot of potential. There are a half dozen vegetable beds, a shady area with some natives, and a large area that was recently reclaimed from blackberry and now patiently waits for fresh new plantings. At some point I will start posting about it, but for now I am just taking ‘before’ photos and developing ideas.

At the moment I have other things to blog about: I spent the last six weeks riding a bicycle in Italy and Switzerland! It was fantastic, of course. Hotter and sometimes steeper than I might have chosen, but awesome cycling and fantastic landscapes. Lots of stonework of course, plus art, architecture, plenty of gardens. I took about 1500 photos and made a stack of drawings. I’ll probably post my drawings next and then some posts focused on specific places, but first, here’s a rather self-indulgent selection of photos from the road. Read the rest of this entry »

Castro Valley Lawn Conversion

I try to do one or two posts about lawn-to-garden conversions every spring, sort of an annual contribution to the anti-lawn propaganda movement. So far this is the only one I’ve photographed this year. I don’t have a lot to say about it, just that it seems clear to me how much better the planting looks than the lawn. I guess the previous owner kept the lawn so it would be possible to drive a camper van to the backyard. You can’t drive into the backyard anymore.

During the drought the new owner let the lawn dry out, then we replaced it with this simple little planting — mostly evergreen, some purple flowers and purple foliage, a bit of eye-catching yellow when the Kniphofia blooms, low-water, relatively low-maintenance, plants that are long-lived and can survive the unskilled ministrations of the mow-and-blow gardeners. Like many lawn conversion projects, it needed a low-cost path through the planting and, in this case, a couple of steps made with granite curbstones. Pretty straightforward, and such a huge improvement. These are the kind of ‘before and after’ images that I think about when I get pushback against the idea of removing front yard lawns. I really struggle to understand why people cling to their lawns.


We sheet mulched over the dead lawn, but more to smother weeds than the grass. The grass was pretty well dead by the time I first saw it, and to me the planting brought the space back to life.

Read the rest of this entry »