Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas departure

For a couple of years now I've done a series of little portraits for a group of friends at Christmas. It all started with a rather odd request that I decided to make into something else - or more.

Because of that request, the portraits also started out as mice caricatures. This year the mice took on their human characteristics, so a bit of a departure.

You can find the other series here And then it was Christmas
and here Cat scratch Christmas.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Pork, plastics, cyclamates - and cigarettes (oh my)

I sometimes wonder to what extent guilt plays a part in my conversion to well produced food. A lot of my career was given over to the production or promotion of stuff that has proved problematical.

Pork, plastics, cyclamates and cigarettes.

Actually the pork I feel good about. I worked for a while at Oaklands Park Farm in Sussex, and although it might have been highly offensive to the neighbors with its pervasive smell and twice daily squealfests, it was close to paradise for the pigs.

The food was great – my uncle’s secret recipe - the pens were warm and safe, all had outdoor yards, and every day the pens were cleaned and supplied with fresh straw. As the pigs grew we moved them around so that their size fitted the area of the covered pen. All floors and walls were insulated. OK, the castration part was unfortunate, but I was fast.

So was the pigs' growth. At one point the food to pig conversion rate on the farm was 2.73:1 – unheard of at that time. And there was a financial point too. The pork was incredible: melt-in-your-mouth, fall-apart-in-your-fingers, sweet and well flavored. A small chain of south coast butchers demanded only Oaklands Park pork, so the abattoir paid my uncle a few pennies more per pound.

A good model, you’d think. We grew the barley that made up the bulk of the feed, were ingenious when it came to cheap insulation materials for buildings - the product was even distributed locally. But agricultural laborers like me were the lowest paid in society, so as much as I’d like to say it was an ideal situation, it was only sustainable if agricultural labor was willing to be the mascot for society’s poor. The smell was pretty bad too.

I didn’t stay long at the farm. I’m not sure if it was at my parent’s insistence, or that I had become disturbed by my increasing ability to communicate quite subtly with the pigs - in their own language.

Then came plastics research with Bakelite. (Now I know better how toxic chemicals were spinning off the plastic washing machine agitators and into our water system – same with the lavatory seats.)
Then to General Foods, helping to put instant coffee into plastic jars (puberty at 9?) and the “New Improved - with cyclamates” into kids instant desserts. (Turned out it caused cancer in lab rats, but who knew?)

I already feel like a Dickens villain, but there’s worse.

Carlton Cigarettes. The “Your Choice for Every Occasion” advertising headline turned out to include occasional trips to the ICU and hospice. We didn’t know what would become of smokers, but we did know how to create new loyal users. We were only mad men in retrospect.

It’s not that I was mad, or bad – I was unaware. Unaware that stuffing chemicals in the body can have disastrous results. Now I know, it makes sense to be more careful, less cavalier - especially with food.
I do know we need to value it more in real terms, because agricultural workers are still at the bottom of the heap. And if people are concerned about the cost premium for sustainably grown food, then the smartest thing they could do is get more out of it.

The best thing about the farm was the food. My aunt was a great cook. I got so hungry I was close to fainting right before meals. For the first five minutes at the table, the others – Uncle Jack, Gran, cousins, cousin’s boyfriends – watched me eat.

But what a meal! Same time every day - no excuses. Not the meat, veg, and fabulous desserts, but the event. A tear through the day’s politics, soccer, pigs, art, history, boxing, music and fashion, with my aunt fixing the food and the grammar along the way.

Cost of food divided by entertainment and education value equals peanuts.

If the ten of us had had separate tables, they would have been joyless and costly meals. I might still be dropping aitches. I might not have risen at 3 a.m. to hear live fights from America on the radio, or heard of Pollack, Mondrian and Ben Nicholson, let alone attempted their defense against Mona Lisa classicism.

So to cut down on energy costs and vastly increase the real and perceived value of food, share it. Or visit someone who shares. And talk.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My organic banana tipping point

In the USA, we love our bananas, eating around 30lbs a year each - one way or another. Well, it’s the great convenience food, and good for you too - very low in sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

A lot of the calories are from sugar, so let’s hope it’s the  slow-release kind, because the odd banana may be the only dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals that many people get.

Jeri Lynn and I eat a bunch a week, mostly in natural yogurt smoothies with a couple of other soft fruits. It’s one of the most palatable ways to reach the recommended daily intake of fruit.

I never liked bananas until I got the “bonk” cycling up Clee Hill in England, collapsing limply at the side of the road. My body craved calories, and the only food I carried was a bunch of bananas belonging to the other guys - who were now way ahead. I had no choice. I lay in the grass at the side of the road under my bicycle, with just enough strength to slowly peel the bananas and feed them to my lifeless body. Gradually I gained strength until a wobbly walk to the train station became possible.

I like to think of it as my first near death experience, and although I’ve never fallen in love with either the taste or texture of bananas, I eat them out of gratitude. Until last year that is, when a casual stop at a plantation packing station in Costa Rica became a tipping point.

(Nutrition data and image courtesy of - Top graphic  and other pics in Costa Rica by me.)

Our eco guide explained that dense monoculture of their number one export crop in this ideal hot and humid climate needs massive applications of pesticides to combat the killer nematodes and fungus that become inherent to such a system. Fifty cropduster type aerial sprayings a year of heavy-duty chemical pesticides. Plus chemical fertilizers.

Irrigation washes a lot of it away so they need to apply yet more in a vicious cycle. Waterways around banana plantations are toxic.
Good for us, the banana bunches are protected by plastic bags, themselves impregnated on the outside with, you guessed it, pesticides (at least in the conventional plantations which account for 99% of our imported bananas.) When they reach us, they are “clean”.

Not so the workers in the plantation. They suffer abnormally high incidence of cancers, not to mention alcoholism, low wages and domestic abuse.

Ranting at the big agripolitical machinery isn’t going to help, and I have no desire to heap unemployment on top of the woes of plantation workers. Shipping bananas and delivering them “ripe” requires huge capital investment, no matter how they’re grown.

The move to a better grown banana will only gather speed if people who care change the demand paradigm. Buy organic bananas if you can – most of them are from the corporate giants and production is only marginally sustainable, but it’s the right thing to do.

Whether organic tastes better, or is better for you, or even if it’s better for the planet, is moot. To allow human beings to live with astronomic levels of chemical toxicity so we can chomp on a 17 cent banana with a dollar soda is indefensible. Do it in the USA and you would be thrown in jail. So I switched to organic, and I eat more of them. If I can find fair trade certified bananas so much the better.

The long-term sustainability of banana monoculture, albeit organic, is questionable. Deforestation to replace spent land remains an issue, as does pollution. Not to mention the cost of shipping and ripening. But agribusiness will be delighted to meet demand for organic in the meantime.

Really sustainable banana cultivation is being achieved on a small scale in Costa Rica, planting in a forest canopy situation. Most of the fruit goes to puree, but if ever I get the chance to go to Costa Rica again, you bet I will search out jungle bananas.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The grow your own legacy of Bob Cannard Sr.

Earlier this year, one of the great boosters of home and locally grown food in Sonoma County passed away.

Bob Cannard’s family chose to counterpoint his rather noisy life with a quiet family funeral. But on what would have been his 83rd birthday, and with Fred and Nancy Cline’s help, they threw a party for anyone in Sonoma Valley who cared to see the old fella off.

They roasted an ox, fed maybe six hundred or so people with a fabulous meal, and fired a cannon.

It was no less than Bob would have expected, and in fact, it was more.

Bob was not an organic grower, but the ox his sons roasted was grass fed, their produce way beyond organic, and the Cline wine came from grapes grown sustainably. 

By anyone’s reckoning, this was an act of great generosity and inclusiveness. For me, that’s exactly what Bob was all about, and why the event was so special.

Depression era starvation was burned into his memory of childhood, as was his mother’s generosity toward the starving. The Cannards of Danville, Pennsylvania were growers, bottlers, canners, preservers, cordial makers and despite being a large family, gave a lot of it away.

Ever since, wherever he has lived and whatever he has made a living at, he has always had an orchard, grown produce in abundance, and kept chickens. More than that, he has urged, cajoled, and intimidated everyone around him to do the same.

“Don’t worry about the details, here’s some bean seeds, take a couple of these broccoli plants and this Ficus carica and get ‘em in the ground. Would you believe you can grow forty-seven vegetables on twenty square feet all year round. Why I can eat my own fresh peaches from May through to November! Try this raspberry, wonderful. Pull a few carrots and take this Camellia for Jeri Lynn, Do you need eggs?

It’s the last thing he said to me, or rather wrote, on his trademark yellow pad after his voice went. Take some eggs.

The fig tree gave us three sweet figs this fall. Go get some seed and grow some food.

You can visit the website for the Bob and Edna Cannard Fund for Agriculture for additional information about Bob Cannard, Sr..

Many more of his stories, history and memories have also been collected in Sonoma's Last Pioneer, which was jointly published in 2005 by the Sonoma Historical Society and Whitworth and I.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Malibu sketchbook

Along with the giant mosaic animal sculptures that I worked on with Leslie Stone & Associates (for Legacy Park in Malibu) there will be interpretive material giving info on each animal. These are some of the sketches that hopefully will be approved for the final illustrations.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

This is just a test

I wanted to find out what a composite visual would look like so here it is, followed by a map I created as part of a Guide to the Parks of Sonoma valley that JL and I are working on. Bartholemew Park is a mile to the northeast of Sonoma Plaza.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bus Blind opens my eyes

My friend Strange David stopped by to tell me that his reaction to losing a fair portion of his wealth in the recent bankers benefit drive, was to buy a Jag. Black of course. (A couple of years ago he had managed to acquire Sid Barrett's bread bin. I have a feeling his Star Wars action figures will appreciate faster, but a bread bin with connections has a certain je ne sais quoi, and must be a lifesaver when dinner conversation drags.)

Having let me sit in the Jag and make vroom vroom noises (which I thought was my birthday gift) David then presented me with a large cardboard tube which contained . . . . . a bus blind! - an obscure item that at first promised a similar cachet to a bread bin.

But this was not just any old bus blind. It was a Birmingham bus blind, and as I unrolled it, familiar destination names tumbled out in wild profusion. "Bearwood," "Bilston" and "Brierly." "Smethwick," "Sutton Coldfield" and "Not in Service."

Then the gems. "Kings Heath" - where I went to school - "Via Sparkbrook" Sparkbrook, where the Greek owner of the mythically fearful El Sombrero espresso bar had leaped over the counter and cut the throat of a Ted.

"Deritend." The Midland Jazz Club in the old Town Hall, Saturday night, but first two devastating pints of cheap cider in Kelsey's to avoid jazz club beer prices. The immediate effect is your fuzzily thrown dart sticks in the hand of a large Irishman, slow to remove his from the board. You feared the worse, but he pulled out the dart from his huge hand and politely handed it back. Phew.

"Heartlands Hospital" - my mother had been rushed there after her stroke and I rushed there a few days later from the USA. I was going through my rebellious stage a bit late (51 I think), and my hair was trying to be like Sam Elliot's in Roadhouse, but at least it hid the ear ring. Ed Zak thought I looked like an ugly old woman, but the elderly patient by the door of Mom's ward in the smoking alcove recognized me. "You're Mrs Whitworth's son aren't yer. From America. Well get yer bleedin' hair cut or you'll give 'er another stroke."

The memories went on for another fifty feet. "Now that's art," I said.

And it is.

The wall to the left of where I work is eighteen feet high. The bus blind now hangs from the top in a vast loop that I can turn - and change my destination.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Close but no cigar

I recently worked on some exploratory designs for a new retail cheese product.
The project has not gone ahead, but the client and I liked these.

I completed some illustrations on another project the same week - it was basically a week of trees and cheese.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Legacy Park animals

I've been fortunate to work with exhibit designer Leslie Stone of Sausalito, who in turn is working with landscape architects, on the Malibu Legacy Park Project. It's a joint project of the City of Malibu, residents, non-profit groups, generous donors and the local water agency.

The park will feature Leslie's interpretive nodes and a number of large scale sculptures that I've gotten to visualize in drawings like the one above. The idea is to create anatomically correct but large scale animals appropriate to the five coastal habitats featured in the park. Artists will add mosaic treatments using colors and materials representative of Malibu's particular art and craft heritage - for a stunning added dimension.

I developed one of the designs - the one of the jackrabbit - into a small test piece and then had some fun imagining what it would look like, say in Green Park?

It looks good but would be tough to engineer safely. The coyote is posed to avoid "voids", which makes the job of armature building simpler and the final sculpture more appropriate to a public environment.

The project is a wonderful example of cooperative teamwork that will result in a singular impact.