I am insanely grateful to the Foundation for this honor: while I’m somewhat known in the Bay Area, I’ve rarely received national recognition for my work, so this is something special for me. And I have many kind words I wish I could bestow on whoever nominated me or juried this, but it’s a 100% anonymous process (even my application was anonymized), so I have no idea who my guardian angels are.
Like any good San Franciscan, I turned to local institution Mitchell’s Ice Cream (no relation, no foundation) to celebrate yesterday. Their slogan is “Award Winning Ice Cream,” so it stood to reason that I should indulge there.
Death is always next door, but lately it’s felt like the neighbors are coming over too often. Still, better to be hospitable than hostile: trying hard to stay friendly (if not too chummy) with those on the other side of the veil.
The night that John passed (I found out the next morning), I was at SomArts Cultural Center, installing some prints in the Ramp Gallery for their annual Day of the Dead exhibition curated by Rio and Rene Yañez. John’s death knocked me for a loop, so I didn’t have the bandwidth to post about this other project for a while.
It’s Día De Los Muertos today, so now’s as good a time as any to share these. Ebony/Violets. For Ms McKinney and Mr Rogers Nelson.
A dear-but-distant old friend passed away very suddenly 10 days ago; the news completely crushed me, largely because he’d been on my mind a lot recently.
In fall 1997, John Francis Donahue and I embarked on a 2 1/2 month cross-country motorcycle trip on old vintage bikes (he on his R90, me on my R75/5); it was one of those epic adventures that changed my life. This fall being the 20th anniversary of said trip, I’d recently dredged up old photos and journals from that trip to revisit its impact.
Last year I’d even hatched a plan to take a 20th anniversary version of this trip on my own, and had gotten my hands on a second, travel-worthy motorcycle to such end. But then the election happened, and the present political climate in America pretty much scuttled my appetite for this.
In 1996, my two new year’s resolutions were 1, to start drinking, and 2, to start riding motorcycles: almost always in moderation and never together, which is probably why I’m still in one piece. They still hold true as the best resolutions I ever made. Far from being about recklessness, these resolutions were fundamentally about letting go of fear and control, and have served me well for over 20 years now.
I met John a few months after these resolutions: he was a bartender and a biker, and it almost seemed like he’d been placed in my path for a reason. He was right there when I went completely bike-crazy, and egged me on in the best possible ways. It didn’t take long for us to get into all manner of antics and hijinks together. John was maybe 8 years older than me, and had lived a lot of lifetimes already at that point. At a point in my young life where I was still sorting it out, he knew enough to show me how to relax, to enjoy it, and to take on all kinds of adventures and shenanigans with an open, joyful spirit.
John was game for pretty much anything. He wound up in several early M.O.B. projects: he drove the truck during our Pinays On Wheels Oakland parade appearance, and was a featured player in our first 2 karaoke videos. We even gave him one of the earliest M.O.B. honorary nicknames– Nardo– after my Tita Liling’s amazing driver in Manila.
While John/Nardo and I didn’t last that long as a couple, we packed an epic amount of entertainment into a short window of time, and stayed friends for many years after. He moved to Chicago 10 or more years ago, and so I’d only intersect with him occasionally, if affably, on social media from that point on.
The news of his death last week was abrupt and devastating: it set me off on a mission to find even more old photos and ephemera to share with other friends who were grieving.
The most surprising, conspicuously large item I came across was a sculpture I’d forgotten that I’d made back in that era–it was a replica of a vintage motorcycle fuel tank, hand-built in clay and finished with orange paint. I’d had a solo show at Dorothy Weiss Gallery in SF that year, and had made a whole series of motorcycle tanks and other ceramic sculptures for it. Some ended up in deep storage at my parents’ house, like this one.
The design of this tank was based on John’s Triumph Bonneville. Before I even knew him well, I’d noticed it in front of the restaurant where he tended bar, and asked if I could take some photo references of it for my new sculpture project.
As the sculpture and our connection progressed, so did the design of the tank. I removed the classic Triumph marque, replacing it with Lillet, the aperitif that the two of us were often drinking at the time, and presented the sculpture on a cluster of small, bartender’s rocks glasses. I wouldn’t call the Lillet tank a great work of art, but it’s certainly one that holds the power to connect me back to an intense and special time in my life.
I stopped making sculpture not long after this project, largely because of space and kiln limitations, but I’ve never stopped thinking of sculpture as a uniquely spatial way of working through ideas and emotions that can’t be sorted out in any other medium. It’s a funny thing to contend with memories, and with physical forms that serve as symbolic vessels. It has been strange and marvelous to return to this object, years later, that holds so much personal history and affection, and which also now stands as a memorial to a phenomenal person who was a pivotal part of my life.
Every time I drink Lillet, I lift my glass to you.
When I finally take that road trip, I hope you can hitch along for a while.
Earlier this year I collaborated with Berkeley’s OES (Office of Emergency Services) on a version of Lotería for disaster preparedness. The idea was to make something bilingual that would help families and kids identify necessary items and actions, and to make something scary feel more like a game that can be “won”. Our version (made with a simpler game board for shorter activities) was called “Está Listo? Lotería!”, and was part of my Kala Print Public Fellowship project.
In light of recent disasters, most particularly the chilling footage from the September 19 earthquake in Mexico, I’ve found myself on edge again this week. If it weren’t already abundantly clear from my various projects addressing disaster and collapse, these realities have become an ongoing subject of consternation/interest to me. I’m not big on fear–it seems like a waste of time–but I am enthusiastic about being prepared and empowered.
Having first responders among my family and friends as of recent years has really clarified for me how serious the odds are, and how limited any immediate governmental response will be. There are only so many fire stations; there are only so many other emergency responders. In every recent disaster, victims have been upset that the government wasn’t doing enough fast enough to help them. This is the rule, not the exception.
So, shout-out to my fellow Californians:
Get your shit together. Please. Earthquakes and fires are real.
Have an emergency plan and supplies. Bolt stuff down. Get that extra extinguisher. Get NERT, CERT or CORE training. Get basic first aid training. Stop disconnecting your smoke alarms. Stop twiddling your thumbs and hoping someone else will deal with this for you. We will ALL need to be ready to take care of ourselves and our neighbors in an emergency.
Here are a couple of simple, helpful resources at ready.gov to get you started:
Many parts of California and the US call their programs “CERT”, so use that term if you’re searching for a program elsewhere.
Please don’t avoid this because you don’t have the capacity to prepare everything right now. You don’t have to become a hardcore doomsday prepper: I’m certainly not. Honestly, I don’t have the ultimate emergency preparedness set-up yet either, but I constantly chip away at it in little ways: buying an extra gallon of water or a couple extra cans of food when I’m in a position to lug it over from the store. A transistor radio purchase here; a flashlight purchase there. Re-reading my NERT manual since I’m still not 100% confident about how to do things like shut off my building’s gas valve if there’s a leak, or how to clear someone’s airway if they’re not breathing.
Last thoughts before I end this post:
Taking a little action now is so worthwhile; anything is better than nothing, and feeling helpful is always better than feeling helpless. Start with learning or accumulating small things and don’t expect to be the perfect hero, but just give it a go. And there are many ways to take care of yourself and others, so think about your particular abilities and how best to use them: while I used to joke that my ability to make funny cartoon drawings wasn’t going to save anyone, I’ve actually manage to translate my illustration skills into projects that might actually be of help. Who knew?
“The arts are alive in San Francisco and we should be proud of what we have going on here. I think it’s really unique and a lot of people are looking at us from around the world…and so I think we have a lot more sharing to do. And so I hope we’re not giving up on ourselves, because there’s a lot of power here.”
It took awhile to track down, but I finally got my hands on a clear enough reference image of the extraordinary Ms. Ebony Uhura McKinneythat would allow me to make an illustrated portrait of her.
Ebony passed away very suddenly in late July: I didn’t have adequate words when she passed, but I hoped that I could eventually make an image of her, instead.
Ebony, I hope it’s cool with you that I did this. Based on how hard it was for me to track down a clear pic, you seemed eminently uninterested in having your photo taken. Since you did love art and illustration, though, I hope that this is something you would have been tickled by. I miss you and I don’t want anyone forgetting who you are, so I want this image to stick around awhile. (I might also make an editioned print of this if there’s interest, with all profits going to a cause that you would appreciate.)
In any case, thank you again, for everything you did, in your far-too-short time with us here.
Bay Area Memorial for Ebony Uhura McKinney
Date: Tues Sept 12
Where: Against the Stream and Red Poppy Art House, both in SF’s Mission District (2701 and 2698 Folsom St respectively) Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society/6 pm Red Poppy Art House/8 pm
The Against the Stream (2701 Folsom St) program starts promptly at 6:30pm with a meditation. People may remain at Against the Stream until 9pm.
Red Poppy Art House (2698 Folsom St) will open its doors at 8 pm for people to gather and continue celebrating Ebony with music, dance and refreshments.