Noah Purifoy

The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum, in North Joshua Tree, is a priceless treasure.

Purifoy fascinates me because of his background in social work. He was both a major artist and a significant figure in community programs and education. He was also a sophisticated, erudite artist who, according to everything I’ve learned about him, did not get caught up in the politics and materialism of the art world.

He is my favorite American artist. I am not an art historian, but I am an enthusiastic amateur admirer of art, and until recently I had three favorite artists: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Van Gogh. I now have four.

The Outdoor Museum rewards repeat visits as a great book rewards multiple readings. This time when we arrived, a woman introduced herself as the caretaker, Pat. She handed us new brochures and welcomed us to the site.

We started with “Carousel,” one of my favorite pieces – a round “building” decorated inside with a collection of 1980s-era computer parts. Near “Carousel” is my very favorite piece at the museum: “Ode to Frank Gehry,” at right below.


I read this piece as both homage and critique. Yes, Purifoy pays tribute to the “starchitect,” but he also seems to chip away a bit at Gehry’s mystique – I can do that, too, Purifoy seems to be telling us.

This was the piece that made me a Purifoy admirer when we first visited the Outdoor Museum a few years ago.

The eastern end of the Outdoor Museum has two pieces that especially resonate with me: “Adrian’s Little Theater” (left) and “Gallows.”

“Adrian’s Little Theater” is one of two theater-themed assemblages at the Outdoor Museum. (The other is next to Carousel.) The presence of two such pieces on the property suggests how important the one-time Watts Art Center director believed such public performance spaces were.

“Gallows,” on the other hand, is chilling in its perfection. It is furthest east of the pieces; of all the pieces at the Outdoor Museum, it appears to me to be the most sturdily-constructed. I am not sure if it was constructed from cast-off items, as the rest of Purifoy’s pieces here are, but it appears as though it could have been constructed by a contractor sourcing his items from the local hardware store. That the artist who was born under Jim Crow in Alabama placed this symbol of state-sponsored violence in his desert wonderland seems significant to me. It is as though he wants to tell us that hatred and violence are, like the gallows, sturdily constructed; it seems to be a warning that evil can follow us wherever we go.

“Shelter” is another piece that challenges me. All of Purifoy’s work is constructed of cast-off items, but here the trash feels like trash.

Irene Rible writes that this piece was “made from the charred remnants of a neighbor’s burnt down house and filled with all the manifestations of poverty that Purifoy knew so intimately from his time as a social worker.” I think this sense of the “manifestations of poverty” is what I find so unsettling about this piece. A sign that reads “Kids World,” strategically placed as a sort of welcome mat at one opening reminds that this is the world of many children–bare shelter and little else. Though I don’t especially enjoy looking at this piece, I think I need to spend time with it: when a work of art bothers me this much, it’s a sign that I need to pay attention to it.

On a happier note, the witty “Library of Congress” ends my post. The reading room may not be the most up-to-date, but as you can see from the photo at bottom right, the view is hard to beat!




Spring Break

After a challenging March, it was a joy to get out of town and unwind.

Big Bear

Marlene’s boss very generously offered us his cabin for free for the weekend, so we drove up on Friday and stayed till Monday.

Big Bear 2
Manzanitas outside the cabin

I spent part of the time finishing my work while Marlene read and watched “Arrested Development”; the other part we spent exploring the area. We had good beer at Big Bear Brewing Company, good Sichuan food at Dynasty, and good Indian/Nepalese takeout from Himalayan. We also went down to the lake and watched ducks for a bit.

On Monday, as we were getting ready to leave, the winds picked up. We finished our packing, drained the water pipes, and stopped at the Vons before heading down the mountain.  Marlene got this picture of the snow on the hillside as we were leaving the Vons parking lot.


Black Rock Campground

The winds remained strong as we moved from mountain to high desert along Routes 18 & 247, and kept on as we somehow set up camp and pitched our tent between two Joshua trees. Not sure if we could build a fire or even light the propane stove, we had a simple dinner of sandwiches and bunked down early. We did get a peek at the gorgeous night sky when we left our tent to use the bathrooms just after nightfall.

The wind howled through the night; the weather report posted outside the ranger station said that gusts of up to 55 mph were expected, and I believe it. I slept in my hooded sweatshirt, hood on, and could feel the cold from the wind blasts on the parts of my head and face that weren’t covered by cotton or beard.

Tuesday morning, however, though not windless, was much calmer, with wispy clouds. We woke up at about 6:30, after dawn, when the sun had not yet risen behind the ridge to our east, and the campground was bathed with understated early light.

We had breakfast and coffee, then went over to the Nature Center, where we bought a water bottle for Marlene and a copy of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire for me.  We went for a short hike along the High View Nature Trail and then spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and reading.

Around 5, we realized that our single bundle of firewood wouldn’t be enough to keep a fire going, so I drove into Yucca Valley for more.  Unfortunately, almost as soon as I got back, it started to rain!  It rained for an hour, but we (mostly Marlene) managed to keep the fire going.  After the sun went down, it was still cloudy, but the quarter or so of sky that was clear was brilliant with stars.

We broke camp on Wednesday morning and headed to Desert Christ Park.


Ethics & Matthew 26

(March is coming to an end, and I have a backlog of topics that I want to blog about.  I drafted this post at the beginning of the month, after attending the California Council for Social Studies conference, and never managed to finish it.)

On Friday, after I left the CCSS Conference, I was quite hungry and I knew I had a long drive home ahead of me.  (I was right – it took about 90 minutes.)  I Googled “Costa Mesa vegan” and was delighted to see that there was a Native Foods branch nearby.

So I drove over to The Camp, the hip strip mall that houses the Native Foods, and parked in the first space I could find.  I was speed-walking through the complex when a young man in a florescent Greenpeace T-shirt hailed me and asked if he could talk to me.

For a moment, I hesitated:  I was in Somewhere To Go Mode, and it had been a frustrating day for a number of reasons that aren’t worth going into here.  I was eager to find Native Foods, get my dinner, and get on the road to get home.  (In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry, since I was about to…get on the road to get home at rush hour on the 405 on Friday.)

However, my better nature prevailed, and I slowed down enough to realize that it would be rude to blow past this guy.  So I stopped, and he went into his pitch.  I realized that he was very young, probably only 19 or 20; he could easily have been a student in my classroom or in one of my clubs in the past few years.

Greenpeace is right up my political alley, so it was easy for me to agree with what the young man was sharing.  But I quickly discovered that he was very nervous and inexperienced, he stumbled and apologized a couple of times, and then said it was his first day.  I found myself switching into teacher mode:  I tried to ease his anxiety by telling him that it was okay.  “You’re doing fine,” I said, “just think of talking to me as practice.”

He seemed to feel a bit better after that, and we got to the payoff – would I join Greenpeace with a monthly donation?  At this point, I couldn’t say no and let the young man down, so I agreed to a modest monthly donation and signed up.

As I walked away, I felt good about helping a young person.  This, after all, is at the heart of why I teach:  to encourage young people, to help them build their skills and confidence, and to play a supporting role in their progress toward their goals.  Yet my feeling of accomplishment mingled with embarrassment at how I almost hurried my way past a chance to help another person.

After all, I would never act like that at Mountain View.  On campus, I make a special effort to be polite to anyone who needs help.  Why, then, would I not take that same approach off campus?

As I mentioned, this young man could easily have been one of my recently graduated students:  bright and obviously motivated to change the world, but also inexperienced and unsure of himself.  I would be horrified and angry if another teacher treated my kids the way I almost treated this Greenpeace representative!

Granted, on the job and off the job are different situations, with different expectations.   But I realized yesterday that my demeanor and behavior outside of work doesn’t always match up with the ethics that I profess.

This morning, I headed out early for the conference, and stopped at Tierra Mia for coffee en route.  I posted to Facebook that I was up before the rooster.

After I got my coffee and got back in the car to finish the drive to Costa Mesa, the rooster was still on the brain, and my brain rolled around to ponder the memorable story in the Gospels of Peter’s denial of Jesus.  The story appears in all of the Gospels, but I like the account in Matthew 26 the best.  Jesus tells the disciples that he will be put to death, and the disciples assure him that they will not allow this to happen.

Jesus, however, tells Peter:  “Truly I say unto thee, that this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.”

Peter insists:  “Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee.”

After the Romans come for Jesus, chaos breaks out, and the disciples’ faith is put to the test.  Bystanders recognize Peter, and twice he denies that he knows Jesus.  Finally, in Matthew 26.73-75, Peter’s trial comes to a climax:

And after a while came unto him they that stood by, and said to Peter, Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee. / Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew. And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

I am not religious, but I grew up reading the Bible, and I often find myself drawing on its stories for insight into my everyday experience.  As Jesus was to Peter, so my moral code is to me; and when I act badly, I am denying my ethics just as Peter denied Jesus.

I first read the story of Peter and the crowing rooster when I was young – probably in middle school, and I remember appreciating the poignancy of the last sentence:  “…he went out, and wept bitterly.”  Now, 25 years later, I think I understand what I did not as a younger person:  Peter is all of us.  We all fail.

Noah Purifoy & a community of admirers

On Sunday a few weekends ago, I had a wonderful, unexpected experience at LACMA.  I’d like to write more about this later, but I’ve been wanting to get it down in a post, however draft-like this post may be.

Marlene and I went to see the Ingres Madonna and Sam Doyle’s painting of Jackie Robinson from the 50 for 50 exhibit, and then to visit the Noah Purifoy exhibit again.   I had fallen in love with Purifoy’s work when we visited his Outdoor Museum in Joshua Tree at spring break.  We enjoyed the Last Supper, which, with its 13 sardine tins, calls powerfully to mind the image of Jesus as a minister to the poor, sick, and outcast.  We marveled again at the assemblage titled Summer of 1965 that features a “meticulous arrangement of photos, pigments, a skull and various objects” and juxtaposes an idyllic tourist image of the Golden Gate Bridge with images from the wreckage of the Watts Riots.  I sat and watched the documentary that was playing on a loop and had a reverie at the idea of going to the Purifoy Outdoor Museum and actually seeing the artist there working on his creations.

As we were looking at the last room, almost ready to leave, suddenly we heard a trombone. We had seen instruments in the room with the portrait of musician Earl Fatha Hines, but I had assumed they were part of the exhibit.  (Marlene confirmed later that the instruments were not there when we first saw the exhibit in the summer.)

We wandered over to the first room of the exhibit, where an older gentleman was soloing on the trombone and three young people were performing a dance.  The trombonist, who I learned later was Phil Ranelin, was positioned as if he was soloing to one of the Purifoy assemblages.  It was incredibly moving, and it got better.

The dancers moved into the next room, and Ranelin followed.  There was a bass line, as well, which I assumed was recorded; there was no bass player in sight.  The dancers performed a piece that riffed off another of the Purifoy pieces; one of the men gestured as if he was trying to cool himself off, while the other male dancer and the female dancer fanned him.  They backed away from the art, still metaphorically on fire.  Meanwhile, Ranelin soloed in front of another Purifoy piece.

Finally, the dancers and Ranelin moved into the other room, where we saw that the bass was live;  the bassist had been playing in this room the whole time.  (I don’t know for certain but I think the bassist was Wendall Williams, who, according to my brief online research, has been a frequent collaborator with Ranelin.)

It is difficult to explain how beautiful this performance was.  Especially when Ranelin soloed in front of and facing the art, I felt as though these talented performers were honoring this artist, an artist whom I of course never met but have come to admire deeply.  I felt as though I were part of a community of admirers.

Weekend in San Diego

NOTE:  Due to my limited WordPress skills, I’m having some issues with the formatting of text next to the photos of the Model Railroad Museum.  I’ll have to revise the post later to address that because I’m headed out for the evening.  If anyone knows how to get the rogue “We” in the sentence that begins “We were headed to the Timken…” to move down with the rest of its verbal friends, I’d be most grateful for any suggestions!

On Thursday the 17th, we went to see Hum, one of my all time favorite bands, at the Regent Theater in downtown Los Angeles.  Because I am too old to be out on Thursday night and go to work the next day, I took a personal day on Friday the 18th; we decided that the resulting three-day weekend would be a good opportunity to visit San Diego.

We got a ride from Marlene’s sister to Union Station on Friday morning and rode the train to Santa Fe Depot.

Our hotel, the Bristol, was a 10-minute walk from the train station. We checked in and went across the street to the restaurant in the Sofia Hotel for happy hour.  (Later, I discovered that the Sofia is an “upscale” renovation of the old Pickwick Hotel, which I knew from my college days as it was next to the Greyhound Station at 1st & Broadway.  That bus station has since moved to 13th & National.)  Roasted shishito peppers in aioli dip were the highlight here. We were tired from the night out, so we decided to make it an early night. Unfortunately, an earlier version of this construction scene was underway a half-block from our hotel…

I took this picture on Sunday morning, but it gives the reader an idea of how delightful it was to be a half-block away on Friday night & early Saturday morning.
I took this picture on Sunday morning, but it gives the reader an idea of how delightful it was to be a half-block away on Friday night & early Saturday morning.

…and a jackhammer drill was running much of the night.

We eventually fell asleep, and went out Saturday to visit Balboa Park, which I’d been wanting to visit for awhile because of the ongoing events in celebration of the park’s centennial. Before we went, though, we stopped at Donut Bar on B Street.

Photo by Marlene Caldera
Photo by Marlene Caldera
Photo by Marlene Caldera
Photo by Marlene Caldera

Wow. This place had some tasty donuts. We ordered Funfetti & Creme Brûlée, which are vegan, as well as Pop Tart & Mexican Hot Chocolate.

The Creme Brûlée was tasty, though I’m not sure how much I like the “burnt,” hard topping on a donut. The Funfetti was an unqualified success though, salty & sweet at the same time.  When we got back to San Gabriel, I had a taste of the other donuts; the Mexican Hot Chocolate was delicious, with hints of cinnamon, and the Pop Tart surprised me by not being overly sweet.  (I never liked Pop Tarts, even as a child, because of their saccharine sweetness.)

We took the donuts back to our room, then caught the 7 bus and got off at the stop on Park Blvd at Zoo Pl.  We made the short walk along the grass down to the Desert Garden, and took a stroll through this space before reaching the rose garden.  My grandpa, who worked for the city as his second career after retiring from the Navy in the 1960s, tended this garden. I’m not certain, but we suspect that at least some of the roses he grew at his house were from cuttings taken here.

The scent from the roses is delightful. We sat under the gazebo for a bit and enjoyed the view of flowers and Florida Canyon before moving on across the pedestrian bridge.

A miniature trolley moves past the recreation of the Botanical Building. Photo by Marlene Caldera.
A miniature trolley moves past the recreation of the Botanical Building. Photo by Marlene Caldera
Marlene captures photographic evidence that demonstrates I am really five years old.
Marlene captures photographic evidence that demonstrates I am really five years old.

We were headed to the Timken, but along the way we stopped at the Casa de Balboa building for a drink of water, and I saw the Model Railroad Museum. I half-persuaded, half-begged Marlene to go in with me. It had been awhile since I’d been there; it will probably not be surprising that this was a favorite place of mine when I was little. It was much as I remembered it, but for the 2015 celebration, the museum has added an outdoor “centennial garden” which includes recreations of Balboa Park buildings.  My favorite was the miniature Botanical Building and Lily Pond. There’s also a recreation of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

We had lunch at the Prado, and then moved on to the Timken, which had a Vermeer painting on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  We had seen Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks, on loan from the National Gallery in London, in December.

Unfortunately, I incorrectly assumed that the Vermeer loan would be through the end of year; instead, its last day at the Timken was September 13. However, the museum’s most-celebrated painting, Rembrandt’s “Saint Bartholomew”  – which was in Europe for nearly a year in exchange for the Raphael and the Vermeer – was back on display, which made for a nice consolation to my disappointment at having missed the Vermeer.

This is my favorite painting. I have seen more famous paintings and perhaps more beautiful paintings, but the fact that this piece hangs in a free museum in my native burg puts it at the top of the list. A reproduction can hardly capture the astonishing range of shades Rembrandt captured in this painting of deceptively simple appearance. Even the background seems to have a thousand different shades of dark brown and black; it swirls behind St. Bartholomew with menace and premonition. Add to this range of shades the starkness of the composition: the saint holds the instrument of his martyrdom and, as the Timken website notes, appears to be “contemplating his own demise.”

After I enjoyed the Rembrandt, we crossed the Cabrillo Bridge (dedicated by then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1914) and spent a bit of time at Marlene’s favorite spot in the park: the Nate’s Point off-leash dog park.  We sat on the bridge and watched the dogs play for about an hour before heading back through the park to catch the 7 bus back to the Bristol.

Headed back across the Cabrillo Bridge, with the California Tower prominent. Photo by Marlene Caldera
Headed back across the Cabrillo Bridge, with the California Tower prominent. Photo by Marlene Caldera

After resting for a bit in our hotel room, we decided to go to Old Town for dinner. Admittedly, Old Town is touristy, but – as with Olvera Street – we enjoy visiting. We browsed the Fiesta de Reyes, where I bought some chile pepper seeds and Marlene got a couple of books for our nephew at Gepetto’s Toys, and then had a relaxing dinner at El Patio de Old Town.

It was not as good as El Patio in El Monte, but then again, what is? I had a light meal of tortilla soup and caesar salad, which was good if not memorable, and shared some of Marlene’s rice and tortillas. The tortillas were handmade and quite good, the hotter of the two salsas was delicious, and the staff were friendly.

Sunday morning, I tried to get more donuts, but the line was out the door almost to the corner, so I had to settle for a tasty bottle of cold brew from Westbean Coffee Roasters on Broadway.  We walked the few blocks back to Santa Fe Depot and were on our way back to Los Angeles aboard the train.

A sun-drenched view of the Santa Fe Depot from the train
A sun-drenched view of the Santa Fe Depot from the train

Chiles in the garden & a rose

A few months ago, a lady began selling plants, including a wide variety of chiles, at the Alhambra Farmers’ Market.  Inspired by Gustavo Arellano‘s Facebook posts on growing chiles and by the “Hot Peppers” episode of Visiting With Huell Howser, I bought a couple of plants from the lady at the farmers’ market.  I bought a few more over the next month or so, and I now have six chile plants:

* Fresno
* Apache
* Chile de arbol
* Black Cobra
* Bombero
* Piquin

Three weeks ago, I picked the first peppers from my little garden.  (I only thought to take pictures after I had eaten some of the first crop!)

I cooked up the first Fresno chile & the first chile de arbol with some cauliflower, shallots, and garlic.    I cooked the Apache chiles with a tofu scramble, but first I took a bite of the skin.

I am a rather cowardly person when it comes to physical pain.  The exceptions are in the garden and on the soccer field – and now the Apache pepper.  It burns, but its combination of sweetness and heat is heavenly.  Then it hurts, hurts, hurts, but it’s worth it.

And that’s just the skin!  I haven’t been brave enough to eat the seeds by themselves.  I cook with the seeds, but I balance the heat a bit with lime.

Here is last weekend’s pick, which includes the first Black Cobra as well as Apaches & chiles de arbol.

The small peppers are the potent Apaches, and the longer one is the Black Cobra.
The small peppers are the potent Apaches, and the longer one is the Black Cobra.
Though the large unripe pepper looks like a Fresno or a jalapeño, these are all chiles de arbol.
Though the large unripe pepper looks like a Fresno or a jalapeño, these are all chiles de arbol.

The Black Cobra is also delicious, hotter than the Apache even, but without the Apache’s sweetness.  The chile de arbol, which is common in Mexican cooking, is smokier and not as hot.

The Piquin, which is also advertised as smoky, has borne fruit but the peppers are still unripe.  The Bombero, last of the plants to blossom, has put out flowers but no fruit yet.

Finally, here are a few photos of a pink miniature rose that bloomed last week.  My interest in gardening is intimately linked to my memories of my grandpa, whose second career (after years in the Navy) was as a gardener at Balboa Park.  This is one of the roses that I was able to transplant from his garden eight years ago after he died and we had to sell his house.


Adventures in the Valley(s)

Marlene and I had to pick up our quarterly wine club bottles from Agua Dulce Winery in the Sierra Pelona Valley in northern Los Angeles County (about an hour from our house).  On the way, we decided to stop in the northeast San Fernando Valley at #100 on LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold’s Top 101 Restaurants, Rocio’s Mole de los Dioses (mole of the gods/goddesses).

I started off with a refreshing agua de nopal con piña (fruit drink with cactus and pineapple).  We shared the mole sampler; I  also had a cactus salad and Marlene had a chicken dish with mole poblano.

The mole sampler with “nopaltillas,” cactus tortillas. Photo by Marlene Caldera.

The moles were delicious, probably the best I’ve ever had.  The “mole de los dioses,” made with huitlacoche, an edible fungus that grows on corn and is also called “corn truffle,” had a smooth creaminess; the mole manchamanteles was smoky, almost like a Mexican barbecue sauce; and the mole de nopal was creamy up front and hot at the end.

After lunch, we headed over the Newhall Pass into the Santa Clarita Valley and exited California Highway 14 at Placerita Canyon Road to visit the Placerita Canyon Nature Center.


The center, maintained by LA County Parks & Recreation, is the home of a famous tree:  the Oak of the Golden Dream.

Photo by Marlene Caldera

Leon Worden’s article at Santa Clarita TV’s history website tells the story:  according to legend, in 1842, Francisco Lopez was herding cattle on his niece’s ranch when took a nap under an oak tree.  As he slept, he dreamed that he was swimming in a pool of gold.  After his siesta, Don Francisco found some wild onions, and, after he dug the onions up, he noticed that some particles of gold in the dirt around the onion roots.  Sure enough, Placerita Canyon was the site of the first gold strike in California, six years before the famous strike in Northern California.

Next, we headed to the Vasquez Rocks, not far from the winery.  If you’ve ever watched Star Trek, you’ve seen this iconic landform.

IMG_1269 IMG_1282 IMG_1269(1)IMG_1273

Apparently, not far from the rocks are Native American petroglyphs.  Looks like we’ll have to go back and hike that trail!

We ended up at the winery around 3:30.  It was getting late, so we only stayed long enough to pick up our wine before heading for home.