Sharmon Hilfinger

August 1st, 2023

A Conversation between Bay Area playwright Sharmon Hilfinger and Katherine Bazak

As I sit across the table talking with Sharmon Hilfinger, I see the embodiment of two different women who are elegant, gracious, and intelligent. One is a wife, a mother, a musician; the other is an artist/writer committed to portraying her view of life and the world around her. As a playwright, she has chosen the theater to tell her truths under the guise of entertainment.

Theater is a tough art form to navigate. One must try to get their play off the page and onto the stage. It is impressive to meet someone with Sharmon’s track record. Her produced plays include three dramas and nine ensemble plays with music in collaboration with composer Joan McMillen. These have been produced by San Francisco Bay Area theatre companies, including The Pear Theatre, TheatreFIRST, Inferno Theatre, Menlo Player’s Guild, BootStrap Theater Foundation, as well as Heartland Theatre Company in Illinois. In 1998, she founded BootStrap Theater Foundation which develops and produces original plays by Bay Area playwrights.  

Sharmon Hilfinger in her office. Photo: Katherine Bazak
Sharmon Hilfinger in her office. Photo: Katherine Bazak

Katherine: Let’s start at the beginning. I know that I saw An Ideal Mother some time in the early 90s. Was that your first play?

Sharmon: Well it was’t the first play I’d written, but it was the first play of mine that was produced. I read somewhere that The Menlo Players, at Burgess Park Theater in Menlo Park, was asking for scripts, so I sent it in. The director, Dean Burgee, called me immediately and it was produced in 1992. Beginner’s luck!

Katherine: Had you written anything before 1992? 

Sharmon: I had been writing for a long time. I’m not quite sure how to say this—writing was my consolation prize for failure. I was an actor and I was admitted to the Conservatory program at Carnegie Mellon. It was, and still is, a University degree structured as a conservatory program, very unusual at that time. It was heaven! Theater classes all day, crewing shows at night—24/7 theater. It wasn’t easy to get in, and it wasn’t easy to stay in. They had a policy of accepting a certain number of students and cutting 10% of the class after the first year. It was very rigorous and class attendance was mandatory. I was there in 1970 when the Kent State Vietnam War protest killings happened. I cut classes to march on Washington D.C., which did not help my standing in the department. I’m sure there were other reasons (I was not given any kind of performance review) for why I was cut from the program. 

That was traumatic! I was devastated. I came home and finished up my BFA in Drama at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois (my hometown). IWU is one of those gems of a good liberal arts college and had a very strong drama department. I grew up getting my theater education there because I went to all the plays they put on—the Head of the Drama Department was surprisingly avant-garde. I finished my BFA in drama, but I had it in my head that I couldn’t expect to pursue a professional career in acting, I was a failure, this profession was not for me. So I gave up theater! My creativity had to go somewhere, and I started writing instead. I wrote a novel, and a number of short stories over the following years. Whatever my day job was, I would get up at six in the morning and write before I went to work. First thing in the morning is still the best time for me to write. 

Katherine: You left theater and started writing, but you didn’t write plays.

Sharmon: That’s how deeply “being cut” wounded me. Theater rejected me, so I rejected it. 

Katherine: So when did you start writing plays?

Sharmon: When my first child, Paz (also a playwright!), was about six months old, I was marveling at how much I loved this new person in my life. I had a lot of ambivalence about being a mother, so all these positive love endorphins were a surprise to me. Somehow, they unlocked the bolt I had secured to bar theater from my life. Suddenly, one day (I remember it very clearly), I said, “But I love theater! Why did I give it up?” 

I had an infant, being an actor means spending your nights at the theater, I hadn’t acted for 15 years. I couldn’t see myself auditioning for parts, but I realized that I could write a play. And why hadn’t I thought of that sooner!?

I wrote a one act play and six months later I had a reading of it at the Palo Alto Play Reading Series run by Jeannie Barroga. Like the contact with Dean Burgee at Menlo Player’s Guild, Jeannie was local and the response was very quick. It was a good time to start writing plays in Palo Alto.

Tell It Slant CD cover image

Katherine: Did you go back to school and take some writing courses? Best advice you were given about writing? 

Sharmon: I took playwriting classes at San Francisco State and I got involved at the, now defunct, Eureka Theater in San Francisco. I took a workshop with Oskar Eustis, who was the co-artistic director with Tony Tacconi at the Eureka and they were in the process of producing Kushner’s Angels In America. That is where I met Ellen McLaughlin, a playwright/ actress who was the original Angel in Angels In America.

I took a playwriting class from her at the Eureka Theatre in the winter of 1990. It started out with a big group and as the weeks went on, there were fewer and fewer people, because Ellen had a very special style of teaching. I would call it beguiling! Instead of offering a bunch of techniques on how to write a play, she focused on the writing process.

The class whittled down to a small number of us who really wanted this and felt, yeah, this was nourishing to us. When it finished, we kept meeting once a week at one of the writer’s home in San Francisco. Ellen continued to meet with us, but she soon moved to New York. However, she stayed in touch with us and always joined us when she was in town. The group stayed together for years. It was all process-oriented. One of us would give a prompt, and we would all sit and write for 45 minutes and then read what we’d written. We could also bring in things that we were working on and share those as well.

That was the best writing group I ever had! I have remained in touch with Ellen; she has often read drafts of my work and discussed them with me.

Katherine: What is one of the most difficult things about writing plays? Ideas first or characters first? Do you map it all out in the beginning or do you write many drafts? 

Sharmon: I’m a firm believer that everybody creates in their own way, a way that works for them. You know people have often given me books on how to write and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I don’t really want them. 

Katherine: Do you feel that craft is important? 

Sharmon: Yes! Craft is important, and you must have an understanding of dramatic structures. I had excellent teachers in the classes and workshops that I took, where I learned the fundamentals, but I regret that I didn’t have a more rigorous education as a playwright. 

Katherine: Are you self taught? Would you say that most of your learning came from group readings and feedback, but also, maybe, from just reading plays and going to plays?

Sharmon: I’ve been involved in theater all my life. I acted as a child and by the time I was in high school, I was very serious about it. I was going to theater, reading plays, acting and directing. I learned by doing theater, I learned from the classes I took, and I continued to learn as I worked with directors on productions.

Sharmon Hilfinger watches Michael Sommers and Caitlyn Louchard in rehearsal of Tell it Slant at the Pear Theatre in Mountain View, California, 2009. Photo: Veronica Weber
Sharmon Hilfinger watches Michael Sommers and Caitlyn Louchard in rehearsal of Tell it Slant at The Pear Theatre in Mountain View, California, 2009. Photo: Veronica Weber

Katherine: I know you’ve written a novel because I remember reading it. 

Sharmon: Oh yes, I have written two novels and the thing I’m writing now is probably a novel. It’s a very different kind of writing. 

Katherine: Which one do you prefer? 

Sharmon: I prefer the stage, probably because that’s what I’ve done the most. But also, because I do love the theater. When I’m writing a play, I’m always (in my head) in the theater. I’m seeing the characters on stage, I’m imagining how I want it to be. Sometimes, I am writing a character with a particular actor in mind, and that helps me create the part. It’s fun!

Writing a novel is much more about creating interior spaces. You’re describing the inner workings of your characters, you’re describing the room they’re in, or the landscape, and all of that description creates the mood. In drama, it’s the character’s actions/interactions that create the mood, along with all the work of the designers—the directing, the set, the costumes, the lighting. The playwright builds the motor for the play, but it’s the collaboration of all the theater artists that create the finished car “for the run.”

Katherine: It seems that language is a difficult medium to work in. If you have to create language for the actor, to create the meaning, the dialogue is really important, how do you write that dialogue? Do you keep a scrapbook a of conversations? 

Sharmon: No, I don’t. But a lot of people do.

Katherine: How do you make it sound natural? So it doesn’t sound simple or cliché? Do you put yourself into the characters’ role so in essence you’re playing all the characters? 

Sharmon: Yes, absolutely.

Katherine: Many Sharmons out there on stage! Really?

Sharmon: The trick is to fit the language to the character. For example, when I was writing the play about Emily Dickinson, there were a number of direct quotes from Dickinson in the dialogue. So, I had to make sure that the lines that I wrote for her matched her particular diction. Tricky!

Another time I was highly aware of speech patterns was when I was writing Arctic Requiem. I had been to Alaska to spend time with the Inupiat people, four of whom became characters in the play, and I wanted to replicate their speech patterns. 

Katherine: How do you choose the topics for your plays?

Sharmon: The plays that I have done fall into two categories: feminist issues and environmental issues. 

An Ideal Mother was about a young woman who had been adopted and she was searching for her biological mother. She is an actor in a play (Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan), and she wants to believe that the older woman playing Lady Windermere could be her mother, her ideal mother. Keep in mind that I wrote this play just after my second child was born. Clearly, I was working out what kind of mother I wanted to be.

A History of Things That Never Happened was a romp through great literary heroines: Catherine in Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, and Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady. The main character, Elaine, fantasizes scenes for each of these heroines in which they make one small change in their action at a critical moment, thus transforming them into empowered, rather than tragic, women. Elaine does this as she is reviewing her own history of relationships with men. A review of “things that never happened.”

The next play I wrote was my first collaboration with composer Joan McMillen. We met in Judith Komoroske’s Dance Studio in Menlo Park. Joan improvised on the piano for Judith’s dance classes and I was very fortunate to be in the adult class. 

I asked Joan if I could try improvising on the violin with her on the piano, and she was game. We had a wonderful time making up music together, and soon we were talking about making a play together. Joan loved the story of the Imaginal Disks that are the cells in caterpillars that carry the instructions for the butterfly. Imaginal Disks became the name of the play. We wrote it as a coming-of-age story about a young girl, Franny, who is very imaginative, but not very good at school. Her father works for a company (not specified, but think Monsanto) that is genetically modifying corn to make it more productive and, in his words, “help save the world.” He is a single parent, and he would like to be able to modify/manipulate Franny’s behavior to make her more productive at school. Franny adores her father, but then she learns from her science teacher that the corn he is creating is killing the monarch butterflies. As Franny comes out of her pre-pubescent cocoon, she questions her father’s work and forces him to see the world in a different light. 

This play followed a fairly traditional Musical Theater format, with songs interspersed with dialogue. I wrote the lyrics for the songs and Joan composed. She accompanied in the performances with cellist Moses Sedler and percussionist Judy Kasle.

Joan and I wanted to keep working together and we were approached by Bear Capron, who was the drama teacher at Castilleja School in Palo Alto. With Bear, we created a summer improv workshop for high schoolers in which the improvisations were all about environmental issues. After the summer workshop, Joan and I took material and created got water? The play takes place in a high school during a time of severe water shortage. The students are issued water canteens and have to line up for their allotment. There are those who follow the rules, and those who take advantage, and there is the corporation that comes in to take over the water supply and sell the rationed water. That’s when the students mobilize in protest.

The cast was made up of teens from local high schools and we took it up to the San Francisco Fringe Festival. We also gave two performances open to the public at Castilleja. 

Katherine: What came next?

Production image for the play, Deuce, at the Pear Theatre

Sharmon: I had a production of Deuce at The Pear Theatre. This is a three-person drama, again dealing with feminist issues. The main character, Reddy, is a forty-year old academic who takes a sabbatical to write about her former professor who has died. She had a secretive love affair with him when she was his student. She arranges to do research in the professor’s writing studio with all of his papers, but arrives to find that his son is now living there. The son’s presence complicates everything. He’s protective of his territory, of his father’s legacy, and he’s very attractive. Reddy repeats the “older-wiser-lover” with the younger initiate, this time reversing the sexes. She also uncovers the unsavory truth that her professor had serial affairs with his students, that she had not been the only one. The relationship between Reddy and the son turns into competition over who has ownership of the father’s sullied story. And then Reddy discovers she is pregnant. It’s not a happy ending!

Katherine: I remember thinking of Wendy Wasserstein as l watched that play. . .

Sharmon: I’m flattered! But while that was being produced, Joan and I were brainstorming what to do next. When we finished got water? Joan said, “I want to do something that has to do with women. Women and creativity.” 

After a lot of discussion we decided we wanted to work with famous women artists. Originally, we were going to have a bunch of women artists together in a play, but that was way too chaotic and we decided to do them one at a time. We chose Emily Dickinson and Georgia O’Keeffe, both American icons in their fields. They were very different people, from different historical times. Georgia was born exactly 18 months after Emily died. They were both affected by deeply entrenched prejudices against women as creative writers and artists.

We were interested in the struggles they had that were connected to their creative work. Emily worked mostly in secret, while Georgia became a very well-known artist in her lifetime. With both of them, there came a time of deep depression; with Emily it was possibly a psychotic breakdown. In both cases, hanging on to their creativity helped pull them out of these depths. 

Joan and I saw emotional struggles in both of these women that were familiar to us in our own lives, our own struggles to make space in our lives to create, and an awareness that turning to our creative work had helped process and pull us through emotional difficulties. For us, it was affirming to get to know Dickinson and O’Keeffe; we were in such amazing company while we worked on these plays!

Theater poster for Sharmon Hilfiger's Imaginal Disks

Katherine: In Tell It Slant, the play about Emily Dickinson, you introduced a kind of dance movement with a cord into the structure of the play. . .

Sharmon: Yes. This was when Joan and I really “hit our stride!” We didn’t want to stick with the Musical Theater format that we had used in Imaginal Disks and got water? We wanted the play to be an ensemble piece, with all the actors on stage all the time, playing multiple roles, lots of movement and the music woven into the fabric of the play. Joan was at the piano throughout the rehearsal process, and she started to improvise underneath scenes, creating musical commentary for the scenes.

She also wrote exquisite music to score the Emily Dickinson poems that were sung. This music stands on its own. We have lots of CDs, if anyone wants to hear it! 

The cord that you mention was used as a prop throughout the play. It represented a line which could be all sorts of things: a laundry line, a line of poetry, the noose that Emily considers hanging herself from. It was a part of the continual choreographic staging that our director, Rachel Anderson created. 

Rachel created an amazingly collaborative rehearsal room and out of this came the kind of ensemble theater piece that Joan and I had envisioned. I think that our idea of “ensemble work” was probably informed by our musical backgrounds. By this time, Joan and I were also playing classical chamber music together—small ensemble works that don’t rely on conductors, but rather very close listening among the members.

Tell It Slant was a co-production with BootStrap Theatre Foundation and The Pear Theatre in Mountain View. We later took it to the Fort Mason Center Southside Theater in San Francisco.

Katherine: So did you do Hanging Georgia, about Georgia O’Keeffe, after that? 

Sharmon: Yes, we created Hanging Georgia with most of the same actors from Tell It Slant. We had a sense of  “being a company,” something that is hard to achieve here, with the way theater work is structured as a gig-economy. We were not able to continue with Rachel Anderson as director because she had moved away. But we wanted to keep the same style of production: ensemble, music and movement integrated throughout, all actors on stage at all times so there was transparency about the process of telling the story. We were very lucky to get Jake Margolin as our director and he understood our aesthetic. 

Joan’s music was often focused on creating a sense of the physical environment of the scenes. We were with Georgia as a young woman in Texas, so she had a kind of country-cowboy piece; at Steiglitz’s family homestead at Lake George, so there was a very lively roaring-twenties picnic song; there was an evocative New Mexico shaman-like song. Again, Joan was onstage, performing throughout, adding her improvisations as background to the scenes.

BootStrap co-produced this with TheatreFIRST at what is now called the Potrero Stage in San Francisco. We did it there first and then we remounted it at The Pear.

Katherine: I remember you had some kind of copyright issues with O’Keeffe’s estate. 

Sharmon: Yes, you helped me with that! You were the one who told me we had to get permission from the O’Keeffe estate. Our original idea, (which in retrospect I thought, “thank God we couldn’t do that!”) was to have photographs of O’Keeffe’s artwork projected on a screen when she had scenes that were around the time she was painting a particular painting. But we were not allowed by the O’Keeffe Foundation to use images of any of her paintings. A blessing in disguise, because I think it would’ve totally upstaged what was going on, and that’s where everybody’s focus would’ve gone and it wouldn’t have worked out. Jake, our director, came up with the idea to use empty frames, knowing that people are familiar with her work. We had displays of her paintings (photos cut out of books we bought!) in the lobby. It really worked well. 

Sharmon Hilfinger and collaborator Joan McMillen
Sharmon Hilfinger and collaborator Joan McMillen

Katherine: Then you and Joan did another ecological play, Arctic Requiem: The story of Luke Cole and Kivalina. You knew the main character in this play, he existed and his story is a very powerful one.

Sharmon: Yes, I knew Luke, very briefly. I’m a friend of his wife, who is an actor, Nancy Shelby. She came to me and said, “We’re going to Argentina. Do you have any advice about where to go?” It turned out that we were going to be in Argentina at that time and told them to please come and visit us. (I married an Argentinian and we live there for part of every year.) So Luke and Nancy came to our house in Argentina for three days. Before that I had only met him briefly, shook his hand once at the intermission of a play and that was about it. Luke, an environmental justice lawyer, was on a six month sabbatical trip. 

During those three days he mentioned that the reason he was able to take a sabbatical was because he had finally settled this case in Kivalina. I asked him about the case and he explained that it was about this zinc mine that had completely polluted the water of this Inupiat Village in Kivalina, Alaska. Luke was a good storyteller. He talked about a meeting that he, as the lawyer for the people of Kivalina, had with the lawyers from the zinc mine in which they said that the mine would no longer be violating the EPA standards for polluting the water, so Kivalina (and Luke) would no longer have a case against them. As he pushed them for details on how they were reducing the toxins in the water, it finally came out that they weren’t changing anything in their water processing; they had convinced the EPA to change their standards so that their level of toxicity would be EPA acceptable.

That’s all I knew about Luke and Kivalina. 

We had such a good time together and he was going off to Antarctica and then to Africa and we said good-bye and we’ll see you in June when you come back to San Francisco. We were all looking forward to continuing this friendship. Then on June 9th, I got a telephone call that he had been killed and Nancy had lost an eye in a car accident in Africa.

We went to his memorial service at Cowell Theatre in San Francisco. The place was packed! There were so many people who spoke, including a delegation from Kivalina who came to honor him. Toward the end of the service a speaker asked that anyone in the auditorium “who feels that their life has been affected by Luke Cole to stand up,” and everybody jumped to their feet! I had not realized that he was such a huge force in the environmental justice movement. His passing was a significant loss to the environmental justice movement. Not long after that, I wrote to Nancy and I said I would like to write a play about Luke and Kivalina but I wanted to check with her, is this okay? Her response was, “It’s okay but I can’t have anything to do with it.” By the time Joan and I got around to actually working on the project, Nancy was involved. She put us in touch with Luke’s colleagues and with the people in Kivalina. Joan and I went to Kivalina and stayed in the house of one of the villagers for a week. As it evolved, Nancy became very, very involved and then became my co-producer. She helped put together the creative team. She was the one who brought Giulio Perrone to the team as set designer, and now Gulio is a part of my life. Which was a good thing!

Theater poster for Arctic Requiem: the story of Luck Cole and Kivalina

Katherine: The play was so beautiful especially the way you meshed the reality of the issue of pollution with the spirituality of the native people. You had that wonderful actor who played the Raven. He was a dancer so you got this wonderful dance movement into the play.

Sharmon: Yes. That was probably the hardest play that I’ve done for multiple reasons. Joan and I had the aesthetic that we had created with Tell It Slant and Hanging Georgia. The “company” with those two productions were all younger people, they were open to trying something that was different than what they had done before. With Arctic Requiem, we had very seasoned actors and a director, whom we discovered as the process unfolded, didn’t really share our aesthetic. So, there was a lot of tension in the rehearsal room.

That said, Arctic Requiem was our biggest box office success. I guess the tension pushed everyone to make it work.

Katherine: We didn’t talk about your play The Gods Must Be Crazy: A Dark Comedy for Dark Times. Why did you write it? 

Sharmon: That came about because of Giulio Perrone, who was the set designer for Arctic Requiem. He also has his own company, Inferno Theatre, and after Arctic Requiem closed, he came to me and said, “I’d like to keep working with you. Write something and we’ll produce it together.” 

The last three plays that I had written had all been about real people: Dickinson, O’Keeffe, Luke Cole and the people of Kivalina. I was ready to write something where I was not beholden to the constraints and details of being historically accurate. The mythological Raven was one of the characters in Arctic Requiem that I really liked; Raven is a trickster and a lot of fun to play with. He is also part of the creation myth of the Eskimo people. And there was a character in Tell It Slant, Demiurge, that I felt I wasn’t finished writing about. So I started with those two characters and let them kind of inform me about what I might write.

The premise became the gods are not happy with what humans are doing with the earth’s environment, so they get together to figure out what they need to do. I decided to assemble a diverse group of gods. I started finding all these weird gods, like Lui Hsing the Chinese god of jobs, salaries and fortune; Dhumavati, the Indian god of poverty; Pachamama an Incan earth mother; Ra, the Egyptian sun god. The play’s conceit is that these gods are appalled by the human-related activities impacting the earth, but can these gods help the situation or would they be just as unruly as the humans? Ultimately, the gods kidnap two powerful men (unnamed, but they really resembled the Koch brothers) in their efforts to regain control of the earth’s environment. 

This was a co-production of BootStrap and Inferno. Giulio directed the production and Joan and I were the musicians on piano and violin. We had not originally planned it that way, as Giulio had asked a wonderful Persian percussionist to provide the music/soundscape, but he pulled out right before we started rehearsals. So, Joan and I created some music and pulled together other existing music. It was an eclectic mix of music to accompany these diverse gods.

Katherine: How did this play come to be performed at the Brower Center in Berkeley?

Sharmon: Well, as Giulio and I were planning the production, we were looking for a venue in the East Bay. I went online and found the Brower Center in Berkeley. I contacted them and said, here’s who we are, we are doing an environmental play and could we do some performances there? It would be perfect. The executive director wrote back immediately and said yes. It was another one of those convergences that are so empowering when they happen so easily. We performed it there one weekend, and the other performances were at the Preservation Church in Oakland. 

At the Brower Center we were looking for a way to make this more than just a theater performance, we wanted it to be a community event. We invited a panel of environmental leaders to speak afterwards. Ingrid Brostrom from Luke Cole’s environmental law firm, The Center for Race, Poverty and The Environment; Sumona Majumdar, Executive Director at Earth Island Institute (which was founded by David Brower); and Dr Janice L. Kirsch, MD, MPH of The Climate Mobalization. They each talked about pressing environmental issues that their organizations are working on. It was very well attended, which was gratifying.

Katherine: I know writing a play is hard but ultimately you have to get it produced! Was that the impetus for BootStrap?

Sharmon: Yes. I took on everything when I started BootStrap. I had to because, quite honestly, I had this huge hiatus in my theater career. When I started writing plays, I had absolutely no network at all, nothing. You can’t do anything without a network, especially in theater, because you rely on other people to create a play—it’s not just you, the writer, sitting alone in a room. 

I mentioned earlier that I was taking classes at the Eureka Theatre while they were producing Tony Kushner’s Angels In America. Around that time, we went to a fundraiser for the Eureka and Tony Kushner was there. I asked him where he would recommend I send my plays. He said, “Produce them yourself!” I took him to heart. 

It was about a year and a half later that An Ideal Mother was in rehearsal at Menlo Players. Dean Burgee let me sit in all the rehearsals and participate in some of the design decisions. After that experience, I said, “Okay, I can do this, I can produce a play.” I founded BootStrap Theater Foundation in 1998 in order to produce A History of Things That Never Happened. And, of course, I was completely naïve about what I was getting into!

So for me, the hardest thing in writing a play? It’s getting it all the way to the stage.

Katherine: You have had plays at Zspace, at the Magic Theatre, The Pear and other venues in San Francisco.
I think that’s amazing because I know it’s not easy, it takes a lot of pushing and drive. 

Sharmon: And a lot of fundraising!

I always say doing a play, the way I have done it, where each time we have to raise the money, find the space, hire all the artists, build the set, make the costumes, run the rehearsals, create all the marketing, sell the tickets—it’s like a start up. You have to start everything up, build the product, and then it has a shelf life of four weeks. It’s insane, and I love it!

Katherine Bazak is a painter who works primarily with the human figure. Its potential for change, movement and intellect appeal to her optimistic view of life. She finds the figure to be a fascinating subject that demands close observation. She has a BFA in Painting/Printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MFA in Painting from the University of Wisconsin.

Zach Pine

July 1st, 2023

A Richard Whittaker Conversation

A few years back, Sam Bower and a few friends would gather every few weeks to think about the future of Bower’s Its funding had come to an end. Was there some meaningful to way to keep it going? 

I’d happened into this group about that time and it’s how I met Zach Pine. Although we never managed to come up with a saving strategy, it was always a special pleasure meeting with this group of creative dynamos. Our meetings would begin with a silent meditation and move on to brainstorming as Sam manned a whiteboard, sharpie in hand. After a few hours, we’d share some food. Our meetings went on for three or four years. In the meantime, occasionally I’d run into Zach at Karma Kitchen in Berkeley. Even so, I didn’t know a lot about him. He’d mentioned that he was involved with contact improvisational dance and had also been doing some art activities in nature with groups of people. 

Zach running on a beach propeller with a sand globe decoration at Crissy Field East Beach, San Francisco.
Zach running on a beach propeller with a sand globe decoration at Crissy Field East Beach, San Francisco

One day I began asking questions and soon learned that he’d been a doctor before I met him. I was stunned. It was hard for me to imagine that this open, lively, youthful and entirely unpretentious man had already been a medical doctor and had left the profession. But so it was. Later, I got a good look at his art. The time had come to ask for an interview.

Richard: Let’s start with your journey into medical school and your experience there. 

Zach: I went into medical school for a lot of the reasons that I live life the way I do now. I was really interested in caring for people. I was very curious and had a scientific mindset. I wanted to get at real human things, and health and health crises were something I experienced up close as a young man. 

Richard: Can you say a little bit about that? 

Zach: My girlfriend got quite ill right after I met her in college. Now we’re married. I had a lot of experiences with the medical field because of that. I saw the science and humanity in it and, at that point, I decided to go premed in college. Before that I was an English and Physics major, so I already had diverse interests. My father and my stepfather were both experimental physicists. My mother is a painter, and also went to the High School of Music & Art in New York City, and did a lot of drama work. 

Richard: You lived in New York then? 

Zach: I did, but not as a child. I actually grew up in California with my mom. My parents divorced when I was two. 

Richard: Both your father and stepfather were experimental physicists. What does that mean, exactly? 

Zach: In the world of physics, there are two main branches, experimental and theoretical. The experimental physicists are the ones who actually design the experiments to try to find out how things work. My father and stepfather both worked on all the atom smashers here in the U.S. 

My youth was spent, in the summers, going wherever my dad was doing experiments. He would go and experiment with something that took months to run. Stanford, Brookhaven National Laboratory, those are places that we went because there were accelerators there. So I was interested in physics and in the humanities in college. I realized that medicine actually combined a lot of the things I was interested in, and I had personal experience with what it felt like to be on the receiving end of medical care. I saw there was so much opportunity for ways of being creative in delivering care and, also, understanding medical problems. That was how I got interested in medicine. 

Richard: Then you ended up going to Amherst where you met your wife. And now you’ve just celebrated 40 years from your first date, and have been together ever since? 

Zach: Yes. 

Richard: That’s really lovely. How long did it take for her to get back to health, more or less? 

Zach: More or less is an important term, because her illness allowed her to come back to college and graduate a year after I did. It was a period of several years for treatment. It was very intense. I think going through that is part of what bound us early on, and we stuck it out with each other. I have a caring nature, and I think my wife saw that I would, and could, be caring, even as an 18-year-old, which not all 18-year-old guys are. 

A lot happened in medical school and medical practice. A lot of things that are still influencing me. I pursued an academic career, so I was doing research. 

Richard: An academic career connected with medical practice? 

Zach: I became an academic physician, which means you stay affiliated with the university. The traditional trifecta of academic medicine is research, teaching, and practice. I enjoyed all of those things very much and had an affinity for all of them. But also, from the beginning of medical school, I felt at odds with the profession. I felt like traditional medicine and traditional medical education were really harmful to people in the profession—trainees, faculty and also patients. Despite all the caring that was being done, there was a lot of unnecessary pain. 

Richard: I’ve heard some people who went through medical school talk about the trauma of it. It sounded like it could be kind of brutal. 

Zach: It was. And in my day, it was already better than it had been in the past. Now I hear it’s better than it was in my day. But it’s still no piece of cake. 

A group learning to make sand globes from Zach Pine at an Earth Day celebration on Stinson Beach, 2014
Photo: Marco Sanchez
A group learning to make sand globes from Zach Pine at an Earth Day celebration on Stinson Beach, 2014.
Photo: Marco Sanchez

Richard: One friend said, “It almost killed me.” That sounds like hyperbole, but he almost literally meant that. Would you like to say anything about some of the things you found to be problematic? 

Zach: I can’t speak to how things are right now; I graduated from medical school in 1986. There’s a way that the educational process is exploitive. It uses the labor of the students and doctors-in-training to work very long hours and to do a lot of tasks that are unpleasant. That felt awful to me sometimes; I felt exploited, but also, there wasn’t enough focus on patients as humans. 

It was the beginning, really, when I was there, of the realization that that was a defect in medical education. There were institutions, including Columbia where I was, that established curricula and approaches to try to help doctors-in-training learn to see their patients as people, not just as collections of organs. But those efforts weren’t enough at the time. For someone like me, who wanted to see patients as people, there was always a lot of tension and, sometimes, conflict with the system. 

A perfect example, and it’s very simple, is when I was in residency training, again at Columbia. I studied rehabilitation medicine, so that was my field. I was in the rehabilitation clinic and we had to see a certain number of patients in a certain amount of time. The clinic managers wanted you to get them out quick, you know, like a factory. A complaint that many patients have had about their physicians over the years is that they don’t feel listened to, they feel rushed, and that just wasn’t natural to me. You can’t approach proper care of people that way. 

Richard: Listening to you, I get that you have a strong enough connection with your essential humanity that you couldn’t accept this abrogation of the doctor-patient relationship that was taking place. You just couldn’t push it far enough out of your life. 

Zach: Exactly. And it created tension with the system. But it also created great allies, because there were other people there who felt like I did. The clinic staff would do things like give me the special patients, the ones who were “difficult.” They would give them to me knowing that I’d take the time. Then they would, basically, buffer me from my higher-ups, the physicians supervising me. They would say, “Well, we gave Zach that difficult patient, so he needs extra time.” 

Richard: That’s great. 

Zach: I had allies who saw what I was doing. Both medical school and residency were really formative experiences for me; I really loved what I was doing. I was happy to choose rehabilitation medicine as a specialty, because at that time, it was one of the first specialties that did try to treat patients as whole people. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, or PM&R, is still a specialty. It’s quite small, and has to do with taking care of people with disabling conditions. So, when you’re talking about rehabilitation, you’re talking about how can the person function best in their role in society, as they wish. That includes their work, play, family relationships, ability to take care of themselves, sexuality. It’s all in there. I was really glad there was such a field. It was a good choice for me because of my humanistic tendencies. 

Richard: I’ve interviewed a few doctors, and I think our whole health care system is out of whack. So I’m glad we’re talking about this. I read somewhere lately, that there’s a fairly high suicide rate among doctors. I imagine doctors must suffer because they’re not allowed to really engage in the human part of care, given the bottomline priority in medical care today. The doctors must suffer and it can’t be good for patients, either. 

Zach: I think that’s right. The other thing I really learned through the rehabilitation medicine work I did is teamwork. Unlike in other fields, there’s an established culture of working together as a team, including the patient. There’s the patient, the doctor, and then all these other people who are professionals: nursing staff, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, psychologists, vocational therapists, prosthetics and orthotics professionals. All those people can come together and have a meeting, including the patient, to decide questions of what are we going to do, and how? 

In my current work, I’m doing a lot of things in groups, and also a lot of improvisation. Improvisation has been really important as a principle for me in more recent years. But even back then, when you treat patients as people, that’s always improvisational, because no two people are the same. You use the resources you have and do the best you can. But in the medical field you’d never write in a chart, “We’re improvising with this patient.” That would not go over well. 

But really, that’s what science is, too. You have a hypothesis: if I do this, will it help? You have a feedback loop: actually that didn’t help, so we’ll have to improvise something else. The idea of necessity being the mother of invention, which is really what improvisation is, has to be done in order to take care of people. I think the seeds of that were planted early on for me. 

Afternoon, Muir Beach, California. Sand globe placed in a cracked boulder. I wonder if one grain of the sand globe has come from this boulder. 2007.
Afternoon, Muir Beach, California. Sand globe placed in a cracked boulder. I wonder if one grain of the sand globe has come from this boulder, 2007

Richard: Fascinating. Why did you leave the medical profession? 

Zach: Well, I’d been making art in nature since I was a kid. I grew up in Northern California. My mom saw how much I loved being out in nature. She took me to the beach a lot, and I’d make sandcastles that became, essentially, sculptures. That became my way of relating to nature, getting my hands on it and actually investigating it. It was scientific and it was artistic from the beginning. 

Richard: What was the scientific part? 

Zach: At the beach, understanding how the tides and waves work, and understanding how sand is, as a material. 

Richard: Where do you think that interest came from? 

Zach: I was one of those annoying kids who always was asking the “why” questions. I think the science and art were bound up in each other from the beginning, as they still are for me. Every time I was in nature, I’d make things with materials I found, and I did it as a way of connecting to the place and learning about things. I moved back to Northern California with my wife in 1998 from the East Coast. 

Richard: Did moving to California also mean leaving the medical profession? 

Zach: Not yet. I got myself a two-year research fellowship at UCSF in the Department of Geriatrics. I was interested in subjective measurements of disability, how people report on their own daily functioning. UCSF was very interested in that. So I came out here and halfway through that fellowship, my stepfather died unexpectedly. I was having a lot of struggles with the slow pace of what I was doing professionally, and I was doing more and more art in nature on my own. People started coming up to me while I was creating things and asking, “What are you doing?” On impulse, I’d say, “Well, I’m putting sticks on this rock. Do you want to join in?” Very often, people would. 

I realized there was something really special about the connection of working together in nature, working in collaboration. The seeds of that were planted at the same time I had this crisis of my stepfather’s unexpected death. I had a year to go on my fellowship and I decided that when the fellowship ended, I’d leave medicine and go into art full time. 

Richard: That speaks very powerfully of the depth of your connection with whatever was going on with you out there making art in nature. 

Zach: Oh, yeah. I turned to it as a way of coping with daily life. The kind of art I make with natural materials is ephemeral. Life and death are right out there when you make ephemeral art. You have to be attached to it and love doing it, and you have to be ready to let go of it. 

People say they have a meditation practice. They use the word “practice” to mean that they do it on a regular basis. I think of my art as practice, literally, for living. I don’t draw a bright line between my art practice and my life practice. 

Richard: That’s wonderful. It’s a terrible thing to think of art and life as separate, and to think that there’s a class of people called “artists,” while the rest of us are just regular people. I think of this wonderful artist, Joseph Beuys. I use a quote of his a lot, “all people are artists.” And all of us have, as you know, a creative function. It applies everywhere, but the culture sort of puts creativity in the “art” box. Like you said, it’s an improvisation when you’re dealing with a patient. 

A group tossing sand globes together at an Earth Day celebration on Stinson Beach, 2015
Photo: Amy Pertschuk
A group tossing sand globes together at an Earth Day celebration on Stinson Beach, 2015. Photo: Amy Pertschuk

Zach: Exactly. 

Richard: What you’re saying reflects an appreciation for that broad reality. 

Zach: I have a huge connection to Joseph Beuys’ philosophy of art! I discovered him around 2000. I met Sam Bower, and there was an article on the website about Beuys. Reading the article, I realized, “Oh, my gosh, this is what I believe! I believe everyone is an artist.” Also there’s Beuys’ idea of social sculpture, that the medium for art can be people and places. There’s a way in which we mold society by our actions. 

In my artist’s statement on my own website, I have only one hyperlink, it’s to the Social Sculpture Research Unit, which is a Joseph Beuys inspired place. So, you’re definitely hearing what I’m saying about how important that is to me. 

Richard: Well, I’m on board with you! 

Zach: What you say about the boxes of artists and nonartists, I face this all the time, and I have some tricks for dealing with it. A lot of times I don’t use the word “art” to describe what I’m doing, because people have already decided that they’re not in that box. 

I do a lot of free public events where I invite people to come together and create together. I might say “create together,” or I might say “make stuff” if it’s kids. I might say, “Come make stuff with me.” Someone will ask, “Hey, what are you doing?” I’ll say, “We’re making stuff out of nature; come make stuff with us.” 

For a certain type of audience, I need to avoid using the word “art” because it’s very off-putting. On the other side of the coin, sometimes I need to emphasize the word “art” to get legitimacy. Like, “I’m not just playing in the sand. This is actually an artistic endeavor.” So, yes, the language I use recognizes those boxes that people feel so strongly about. 

Richard: That’s very skillful. One of the things that interests me is how there’s a bias in the Fine Arts against the idea that art is therapeutic or that you would ever speak of your own practice as a therapy, and that seems sort of mixed up. 

Zach: Right. It flies in the face of all the evidence, including all of the artists who clearly are getting therapy from their art, even if they won’t admit they are. 

Richard: What is the therapy in art making, anyway? Do you want to give a definition? 

Zach: I don’t have a good definition for therapy. I’m not an art therapist, by any means. But I am a healer. I believe that everyone, really, is a healer just like everyone is an artist. I think the underappreciated part of therapy is actually not fixing something, but strengthening something, galvanizing people, building resiliency. 

Of course, in rehabilitation medicine, a lot of things can’t be fixed. If a person has a stroke, they may have an arm that’s paralyzed for the rest of their life. You don’t fix that, but you strengthen the person so they can do things, despite having an arm that doesn’t work. I do know an art practice is something that helps you live your life fully, and cope, and be strong. 

Morning, Indian Rock Park, Berkeley, California. Eucalyptus flower caps floating on a puddle on Indian Rock. While I try to place the caps, the wind blows the caps around on the surface, threatening to sink them but never doing so. When I am almost finished, the wind has gone. I blow on the caps to jostle them and get them to pack closer together, opening the last few gaps which I fill with the last few caps. 2004
Morning, Indian Rock Park, Berkeley, California. Eucalyptus flower caps floating on a puddle on Indian Rock. While I try to place the caps, the wind blows the caps around on the surface, threatening to sink them but never doing so. When I am almost finished, the wind has gone. I blow on the caps to jostle them and get them to pack closer together, opening the last few gaps which I fill with the last few caps, 2004

Richard: That’s beautiful. I don’t have a good definition, either. I think it would be something that brings you more fully into life. What interests does your wife have? 

Zach: When I met Rachel in college, she was an art history major. She knew a lot more about art than I did, and she may still know more, in a traditional sense. Now she’s associate editor for the magazine Edible East Bay

Richard: In regard to art, I was looking at some of your early work. It’s wonderful. 

Zach: Thank you. The work you’re referring to is what I call solo work. For about five years, I took photos of the work; it was actually because of Rachel that I started doing that. Others had told me the same thing. I’d always say, “I can’t take a picture of this because it would spoil my process.” I had a fear that thinking about taking a picture would spoil something that’s so important to me. So I resisted that for a long time. 

But my wife is very persuasive. She told me my work was beautiful and that it would inspire others. I’d also just started working with groups, and she said, “If you want people to come do something with you, you need to establish that you’re a legit person, and having photos of these beautiful things is going to help you do that.” Then she said, “You could put your camera in your bag and forget it, and just do your work. Then at the end, you could remember, ‘Oh, I have my camera,’ and then take some photos.” 

I was surprised at how well I could actually forget. At the time, I was interested in making things that looked beautiful. So, I learned how to take pictures and also learned a little bit about the art world, like you could exhibit your photos, you could sell them, and I did all those things. Everything my wife said was true and turned out to be a really important, useful stage in this journey. 

At some point, I lost interest in making beautiful things on my own. I kept making things, but my interest was so far away from things that were going to look beautiful, it seemed like taking photos didn’t make sense. It sort of petered out after that. But recently, I’ve started taking pictures of solo work again because I want the sand globes I’m making now to look beautiful. 

Richard: That’s so interesting, your sensitivity to your process and the concern that maybe taking pictures would threaten the integrity of it. I’m touched by that. I’d call that virtuous. We don’t use that word much today, maybe because it sounds priggish. But the deeper meaning of virtue is something so needed today, and guarding the integrity of your process was more important than making an outer profit. 

Zach: I felt that very strongly then, and still feel it now. I do a lot of group things, and I also do teaching and training. I set up places where people can create with natural materials. In all the things I do, I’m aware of that same feeling I had back then: Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing this the right way? 

I’m glad I have the time and luxury to be able to do that. I’m not in academic medicine where, if I asked whether I was doing the right thing and the answer was no, my boss would still say, “But you have to do it anyway.” And since I’m my own boss, I can decide to do the right thing. 

Richard: Well, what you just said should be underlined. It seems that this idea of doing the right thing is so important, and so missing, not because people inherently don’t have it in themselves somewhere in their hearts, but because the pressures of life; the prevalence of lies; the scramble to get ahead, to cut corners, etc., make it almost impossible to hold out for what is gained by adhering to a kind of authenticity. 

Zach: It’s interesting, and thank you for bringing this idea up, because I haven’t thought about it in relation to how I work with groups, and especially with children. I do a lot of work with children, and a lot of it is informed by this idea of social and emotional learning, which are catchwords for what children don’t learn in school: how to communicate with each other and how to, in essence, do the right thing by the group and by each other, not just for themselves. 

This collaborative art making is a great vehicle for that because it’s new. It’s a new challenge for, say, a group of children. They haven’t done it before, and there are fewer of those preconceived notions about who’s the expert, who’s the bully, who’s the prettiest, who’s the best dancer, who’s the best dresser, and all the ways kids judge themselves and each other, or who’s the artist and who’s not the artist. For that, I take the word “art” out of it, and just say we’re going to “make stuff” together. 

Noon, Stinson Beach, California. Sand globes on rocks. I know the tide will take them away. 2006.
Noon, Stinson Beach, California. Sand globes on rocks. I know the tide will take them away, 2006

But the idea of doing the right thing by each other, not just for yourself, is something I really try to convey. It really is one of the underlying themes in a lot of my work now, and has to do not just with opportunities to be creative, but opportunities to be together in the right way. 

Richard: That’s beautiful. You were avoiding worrying about branding yourself, turning yourself into a cottage industry, I’m touched by that. I just feel that you’re on the right side of the fence here. 

Zach: I feel that way. Now I’m also in this unusual situation of having to market, some of what I’m doing. I’m following the lead of our societal tide in some ways, like I have an lnstagram account and I use a hashtag, #sandglobes, because I want sand globes to go worldwide and become like a fad. 

If I were selling Coca Cola, I probably would be taking some of these same steps I’m taking now. But of course, I’m not in it for the profit. I’m in it because I feel that if making sand globes could become a worldwide fad, people would go to the beach more, they’d touch the earth and they’d work together to make beautiful things. They would see their agency in shaping things; they’d see the value of shaping and protecting the coastal areas from global warming impacts, and from sand mining and pollution. 

These are very high aspirations for the simple act of basically making a sandcastle in the air, which is what a sand globe is. You make it by throwing it in the air. But that’s what gets me fired up. That’s why I feel like I have to go on lnstagram, because I’ve got to follow the tide of what’s going on a little bit while, at the same time, trying literally to stop the tide from getting too high at those beaches. 

Richard: I think it’s fair. We have to try to enter the world. 

Zach: I still make solo work with sticks and leaves and mud, and stuff. I usually go to Redwood Regional Park. I have a permanent space up there for creating with nature. 

Richard: A permanent space? What do you mean? 

Zach: Since 2010 I’ve worked with a group called Samavesha, a local nonprofit. I started working with them on their Art in Nature Festival in Redwood Regional Park. We did it for four years and each year the number of people doubled. It started with a thousand. So, by the last year, it was eight thousand people. Then, we decided to go on hold for a while. We worked with the Park District closely the last year and couldn’t come up with a model that would be sustainable, at least not yet. It’s a long way of saying that as part of working on this festival, we set aside an area for creating with nature. 

After the first festival, I proposed to the then supervisor of the park, Dee Rosario, and ranger Pamela Beitz, that we make it permanent and use it as a way of protecting a restoration area. There’s an area being restored under the redwoods. Since 2010, it’s been permanent. I go up there pretty much once a week, check up on things, and make art myself. One of my ongoing collaborations is with the Park District. 

Richard: That’s interesting. Beauty is really an interesting subject, and an interesting question. 

Late afternoon, Kensington, California. Dry pine needles around grass. It is impossible to quickly collect dry needles by the handful because every handful has a few freshly fallen green needles mixed in. It is winter, but the grass looks like spring, especially with the bright sun. While taking photos, the sun falls below the crest of the hill, and the light is suddenly gone. 2003
Late afternoon, Kensington, California. Dry pine needles around grass. It is impossible to quickly collect dry needles by the handful because every handful has a few freshly fallen green needles mixed in. It is winter, but the grass looks like spring, especially with the bright sun. While taking photos, the sun falls below the crest of the hill, and the light is suddenly gone, 2003

Zach: It is. I read this book, Art as Experience. A lot of it is about aesthetics. It’s like so many other important things, like love. We can talk about it a lot, but it’s really hard to put your finger on it. When I used the word “beauty” in relation to those solo works I was making, I was looking at them as something I wanted to look at. That was the type of beauty I was talking about. Now, there are other forms of beauty, like the beautiful feelings we have when we dance together, or when you have certain sensations, or you hear beautiful music. 

But wanting to make something that when others saw it, they would say, “Hey, that looks beautiful, or inspiring, or at least interesting,” that’s what brought me back to taking pictures of my solo work. So now, in addition to going to Redwood Park and working with leaves, and sticks, and mud, I’m going to the beach and making sand globes. And I’m interested in the lighting, especially at sunset, when the globe is illuminated from the side; it looks so planetary. Or when it’s balanced in a precarious way, or when the ocean or the Golden Gate Bridge are in the background. Or when there are people and dogs in the background. There are interesting visual juxtapositions between the stability of the inorganic form of a sphere, and then of humanity, or the animal vitality of the dogs. I’m interested in that visual experience for myself again. 

At the same time, just like back then, there was this confluence. This time, I’m realizing, “Oh, these are pictures I can use to further my goal of spreading these sand globes worldwide.” So, I post them on social media. I’m not making prints and selling them. 

Richard: I saw some of those photos on your website. They’re magical things. Even though I haven’t made one, I already know that the process of making a sand globe is a physical, embodied experience. I’m interested in what you might have to say about this physical part of it all, the experience of embodiment. It must be important for you, the embodied life, because you have a whole dance kind of history we haven’t even touched on. But I don’t want to put words in your mouth. 

Late afternoon, University of California, Berkeley. Shagbark Hickory leaves, torn, rolled, pinned with Italian Stone Pine needles, torn again, and wedged into the pine tree. Younger leaves are more pliable and easier to roll. Older pine needles are tougher and easier to use as pins. 2003.
Late afternoon, University of California, Berkeley. Shagbark Hickory leaves, torn, rolled, pinned with Italian Stone Pine needles, torn again, and wedged into the pine tree. Younger leaves are more pliable and easier to roll. Older pine needles are tougher and easier to use as pins, 2003

Zach: Just in relationship between what you call embodiment and my own dancing practice, and I say dancing “practice” like I said “art practice.” A lot of the dancing I’m doing has the same impetus and the same results as the ephemeral art making. Moving in space is essentially making ephemeral art; you’re making a trace in your own experience. It’s like an internal movie, a sense movie of an experience. It can feel beautiful, or painful, and it can feel different ways just like any movie can. But there’s a strong relationship. I’ve actually included a lot of dance and movement art with my ephemeral art making, with physical things from nature, always reminding people that humans are nature. 

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be collaborating with a dancer. We’ll be treating found objects from nature, found objects that are manmade, like cement and other things we find out there, and our own bodies, all equally as materials, making
sculptures and making movements together. 

I tend to blur the line between creating with nature and creating with my body, since I am nature. Sand globe making is especially physical. You literally throw the sand in the air to make a sphere. When the wet sand is weightless, it liquefies and tends to form a sphere on its own. Tossing the sand in the air is basically assisting a natural, physical process. It’s also part of why I see it as a powerful vehicle for this connection with nature in coastal areas. Humans have an innate need to connect with nature. It’s the same with their bodies. People have a natural need to be connected with their bodies. So many people sit at the desk all day and don’t get enjoyment from their bodies. Moving to make a sand globe with a group, tossing it back and forth, feeling the rhythm, feels like you’re dancing with someone, and everyone knows how great dancing is for you. 

Richard: Tell me what’s going on just holding that wet sand in your hands. 

Zach: When I’m out alone at the beach and I scoop up the sand in my hands, that’s one magical kind of connection. It’s like tasting a food you’ve never tasted. You have no idea what to expect, all you know is it’s food. You might think sand is just sand, but this is not the way I experience it. If I pick up sand at a beach I’ve never been at, right away I get all kinds of experiences: what the grains are like, what the color is like, what the proportion of water is in it, and even the scent of it sometimes. All those things influence my ability to make a sand globe out of the sand I’m holding. 

Richard: It’s a rich experience through the senses and you used the word “food.” The experience is like a food. So say something about the food part. 

Creating with dried agapanthus flowers at a public art-making event in Berkeley, California, 2019
Creating with dried agapanthus flowers at a public art-making event in Berkeley, California, 2019

Zach: Thank you for noticing that. That came unconsciously as an analogy, but that’s what it feels like. It feels very nourishing. It feels like there’s an innate need. Just like when you’re hungry, you eat; when you’re thirsty, you drink. When you need to touch nature, what’s a word for that? A lot of people maybe don’t even recognize they have that need. 

There’s a form of sensation called interoception. It’s like being able to sense what’s inside your body, like I’m hungry or I’m cold. Some people are really interoceptive; they know how they feel inside. Other people are oblivious. They’ll say, “I just realized I haven’t eaten in many hours, but suddenly, I’m hungry.” 

There must be a type of sensation or need to be with nature that I think so many people are not even aware of. But when I give them a little taste of it, this turns on. Other people start to feel the sand at the beach as if it were food and, all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh, my gosh! There’s so much going on here!” It’s such a rich experience. 

Richard: I don’t hear it spoken about per se, how there’s something that can come in directly through the simple sensation of holding sand in my hands, or a rock. It’s something so primal. It actually nourishes something, but you have to slow down enough to let that experience enter. 

A family creating with nature at the Art and Soul festival in Oakland, California, 2007
A family creating with nature at the Art and Soul festival in Oakland, California, 2007

Zach: Definitely. This nourishing is part of what I tap into in what I’m doing. I’m so lucky, because I’m at the intersection of these needs. There’s the social need to connect with each other; the need to connect with nature—I think E.O. Wilson calls it biophilia—and the need to express and build, to create, the creative instinct. I’m at the intersection of these three things. I literally bring these to people, catalyze the connection, and then it’s like a chain reaction. It happens so beautifully and easily, usually. 

I feel so lucky that I’m at this intersection, and I also feel sad that these connections are so lacking. That’s part of why I work with kids so much. With technology being the companion for a kid so much now, they don’t have the companionship of nature, and of each other, and even of adults, really, in the ways they used to. There’s a strong international movement to reconnect people with nature, and children specifically. I’ve worked a lot with groups involved with that. 

Richard: You probably know the lack of this connection has even been give a name: nature deficit disorder. 

Zach: Right. Richard Louv coined that term. His book, Last Child in the Woods, was a sort of wake-up call to what technology was doing to children, like, it’s “the last child in the woods” because they’ll all be on their machines. Soon after he wrote that book he started the Children & Nature Network; it’s a national group. Early on, I got involved in the local chapter in the Bay Area, The Children in Nature Collaborative. Mary Roscoe lives in the South Bay, and she invited Louv to come and speak. The auditorium was filled with hundreds and hundreds of people. 

I’ve worked with the Children in Nature Collaborative and with Mary Roscoe a lot, on different projects. She’s connected me with a lot of different groups to do my work. So, yes, nature deficit disorder is actually a big, big problem. 

A child sits inside a den made in the Create-With-Nature Zone in Blake Garden, Kensington, California, 2013
A child sits inside a den made in the Create-With-Nature Zone in Blake Garden, Kensington, California, 2013

Richard: I’m so glad we got to this, Zach. We’re all living in our heads, and this whole digital revolution just exaggerates that. We’re so out of touch with nature and our bodies and now we can entertain ourselves effortlessly 24/7 if we want to. 

Zach: It’s a huge thing. It reminds me of sad and interesting experiences I’ve had around technology with kids and nature. One young kid, maybe six or seven, was trying to balance one rock on another, and the rock kept falling off. He was putting the rock on top at a diagonal. It was obvious that it would fall off immediately as soon as he took his hand away. I was watching him; my way of working in these situations is not to tell people what to do. Eventually, he turned to me and said, “This would work on my screen at home.” He had such little experience with physical rocks he didn’t realize how one rock balances on another. So that was one scary moment. 

Another one was with an older kid, around 12. We were on a field trip at Blake Garden in Kensington. Do you know that place? 

Richard: I don’t. 

Zach: It’s really wonderful. It’s a UC Berkeley garden, ten acres. They use it as a teaching laboratory for the landscape architecture school, but it’s open every weekday. I have a permanent “Create with Nature” area there also, like I have at Redwood Park. The materials all come from the garden prunings, clippings, fallen trees and such. So it’s really rich. 

One day, there’s this kid and his classmates are buzzing around making stuff. They’re making teepees, making crowns out of leaves and just crazy stuff. All of a sudden, this kid sat down on this log, and was just watching all this activity going on around him. Usually, when something stands out like that, I get close to it, maybe he’s depressed, or he feels left out, or maybe he needs some help. So I’m just standing quietly next to him and he looks at me with this look of wonder. He says, “This is so real! It’s almost like a video game!” 

I couldn’t believe that.

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola Magazine. A selection of his interviews, The Conversations—Interviews with Sixteen Contemporary Artists, is available from the University of Nebraska Press. This interview was first published in works & conversations #35 July 2018, and edited for this publication.

Zach Pine’s website:

All imagery is used with permission and is copyright of Zach Pine unless otherwise stated.

Cynthia Sears

February 6th, 2023
Cynthia Sears smiles as she stands in front of a well lit display case filled with handmade books.
Cynthia Sears in the Sherry Grover Gallery at BIMA.

Meet Cynthia Sears, Champion of the Arts

Cynthia Sears is a creativity explorer and the founder of the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA) on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. She is known for her extensive support of artists, writers and cultural entities. Her collections include paintings and sculptures; antique and finely bound books; and some 1800 artist’s books, which comprise the Cynthia Sears Artist’s Books Collection at BIMA.

A pioneer in cultural support, Sears has collected and donated numerous works of regional artists to BIMA, creating a rich legacy of Pacific Northwest artistic production. Her wide ranging appreciation of the arts is demonstrated in BIMA’s community-centered mission and diverse programming which includes musical and theatrical performance; hands on educational activities; lectures, tours, and a wide array of community outreach events including an online series Artist’s Books Unshelved. This year BIMA is launching four generous biennial awards to support both regional artists and an artist making books. These BRAVA Awards (BIMA Recognizes Achievement in the Visual Arts) are in celebration of the tenth anniversary of BIMA in 2023, and a further expression of Sears’ belief in the value of the arts to human existence.

We conversed via zoom over a span of four months, discussing a range of subjects which touch on aspects of Cynthia’s life and thinking, including her work in radio and film, social and environmental issues, collecting and philanthropy, education and the arts. 

Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Photo by Art Grice.
Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Photo by Art Grice.

Nanette: What is your background: growing up, education, early careers? 

Cynthia: I spent my childhood in Beverly Hills. I went to public school through eighth grade and then to a girls’ boarding school in Virginia, Chatham Hall. I was actually relieved that I wasn’t going to Beverly High because the girls that I knew in 7th and 8th grade who were going there were so much more sophisticated than I was. They were very concerned with boyfriends and convertibles and cashmere sweaters. . . they were already like late teenagers. I wasn’t ready for any of that. The idea of going off to a place where you had lessons in the morning and then rode horses in the afternoon was heaven. My older sister went to Chatham first. I couldn’t wait to go because I met many of her friends, whom she would bring home during vacations. They were great, interesting girls, so I couldn’t wait to go. Going to that boarding school was one of the great experiences of my life. 

Then, I went to college at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, also a small institution. The entire student body was only 750 girls. It was out in the country and beautiful. I just loved it. It looked like a medieval fortress—towering gray stone buildings which were built out of mica schist which catches the light so that it sparkles in the sun (I learned in my geography class). 

I studied English Literature and Latin. I was sure I was going to be a writer. Well, that didn’t happen, but I was convinced of it when I was in college. I had a wonderful experience with terrific people. 

Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Photo by Art Grice.
Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Photo: Art Grice.

Nanette: What happened after college? 

Cynthia: After college I got a wonderful job teaching in the Bronx. I was a teacher at the Hoffman School. It was a school for kids who didn’t exactly fit other places, either because the child was super intelligent and could get bored in a regular classroom, or kids who had physical or mental challenges. They were all mixed together in the classes and it really worked. It was extraordinary. 

I was hired as a Latin teacher. I taught Latin to second through sixth grades. We made Latin books and grammar books. They would say things like, “If the verb goes at the very end, how do you know who is doing what to whom? Maybe you make sounds so that you know this is the person who is doing the throwing and this is the thing being thrown.” They basically invented the accusative case. 

Nanette: Latin isn’t really taught much anymore. People who know Latin know the meanings of almost all the words in Western languages. 

Cynthia: Yes, and it’s oh so much fun. At the Hoffman School it had a secondary benefit. Many of the kids who were challenged for one reason or another, had brothers and sister at home going to regular schools. When their children would go home and say that they had learned Latin and could now read Latin, it was a big deal because their siblings weren’t going to get Latin until high school. That turned out to be an important aspect of their success. 

I taught at the Hoffman School for three years and then I got married and went back to California and started on a different path. 

Nanette: Did you get married to a California boy? 

Cynthia: Yes. Both of David’s parents taught at Stanford and he went to Stanford as an undergraduate. I met him when I was visiting my sister who was attending Stanford as well. So we met when I was in college and married years later. 

David [David Sears, a professor of psychology] got a position in the Psych Department at UCLA and we ended up living about two miles from where I was born. The weather and outdoor life make it a nice, easy place to raise children. 

Jenny Andersen, Fox Spirit. BIMA Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Cynthia Sears.
Jenny Andersen, Fox Spirit. BIMA Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Cynthia Sears.

Nanette: You had a radio show “Writers and Writing” in Los Angeles. Will you share a few memorable stories from that experience. 

Cynthia: I had been listening to KPFK in Los Angeles [a station in the Pacifica network of independent media]. I went to the station for one of their fundraising benefits and met some people. They asked what I was interested in and I said writing. They said, “Do you want to invite a writer over and interview him on the radio?” 

I had recently met this young Canadian poet, Arthur Lane, who went on to become a distinguished professor, but did not publish much poetry. I thought it sounded like fun and Arthur was a good friend so I thought: How scary can it be? Well, It turns out I have acute mic fright. I was sitting in the broadcast room with a microphone in front of me and I was virtually in tears. Arthur looked at me and said, “I bet you’re wondering where I get my ideas, and I bet you’d like to ask me. . .” I didn’t have to say a thing. He interviewed himself. That was so easy. One thing I am really grateful to Arthur for is that he introduced me to Billy Collins, who was one of his best friends from grad school. They were having a poetry correspondence. Billy Collins has become a really close friend. 

For another fundraiser I brought my older daughter, Juliet, when she was in second grade because she was a really good reader. She read Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies on the air. The verses are so hilarious, especially when read by a seven year old. 

By 1969 I was doing a weekly radio show. That turned out to be the most fun, apart from the scary part of dealing with a mic. I could call up any of my heroes who were writers and say “I have a radio program and I would like to interview you on tape.” And they would say, “Sure.” It was magical. 

Nanette: It wasn’t a live show? 

Cynthia: I interviewed on tape. I only did two live shows with guests that were self starters and happy to talk about themselves. All of the writers were so amazing in person—they were open and generous and funny. The fact that I was so visibly nervous must have been reassuring to them. There are times when the person in control isn’t actually in control and it turns out best. 

Nanette: Were you writing at that time yourself?

Cynthia: No, I was writing just the intros and outros for the program. 

Nanette: How long did you have the radio show? 

Cynthia: Once a week for seven or eight years. I was able to spend a day with Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and another with John Cheever and John Irving. I spent weeks with Henry Miller because he became a really good friend. He lived nearby in Pacific Palisades. I had become an experienced tape editor because I had all these quavery introductions that sounded like I was on my last legs—I was so trembly in my voice, but with a razor blade and editing tape I could make myself sound brave and confident and literate. Henry had a disconcerting speech habit while he was thinking of the next thing to say: mmmm mmmmm mmmmm. I was able to edit that out and he said I made him sound like Alan Watts. He was so happy. When Henry Miller turned 80, Lawrence Durrell flew in from France and we had parties to celebrate Henry. 

N. Scott Momaday painting. Collection of Cynthia Sears.
N. Scott Momaday painting. Cynthia Sears Collection.

I interviewed N. Scott Momaday just after he had won the Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn. I absolutely adored him. I had written a paper on his work while in college. He had the most amazing voice. As I recall he had been trained to be a preacher. . . When I went to interview him he was living outside of Santa Barbara. He talked about the myths and legends of the Kiowa people and then abruptly he had to excuse himself to go to his Gourmet Cooking Club meeting. He did a painting for me of a wolf and an eagle that I still have and treasure. 

Nanette: You also worked in the film industry as writer and producer, mostly with documentaries. Your 1978 film, Battered, was strikingly innovative for it’s time—the subject of domestic violence and encompassing realities, the use of a narrative weave to follow multiple characters’ paths, the subtleties of showing rather than telling the individual stories and related issues, the inclusion of black characters on socially equal footing with white, the absence of sensation and definitive final resolutions, and the fact of being a female writer and producer in a male dominated industry. What can you tell us about this experience—your motivations, challenges, joys. . . 

Cynthia: I had become friends with Karen Grassle who was dating a good friend of mine. Karen, at that time, had just started performing in Little House on the Prairie. We were talking about how we wanted to write something, we wanted it to be important and not frivolous. We had independently come to meet a woman who was involved with a battered women’s shelter in Los Angeles. She invited us over to a safe house to talk to some of the women who didn’t mind talking about their experiences. The really distressing thing for us was finding out how many women had been stuck in abusive relationships because they were economically dependent on their husbands. There was nowhere for them to go, nothing for them to do. Most of them tolerated being abused themselves and it was only when their husbands began abusing the children that they would feel it was necessary to get out. 

It was an issue that Karen and I were concerned with. At that time Karen was associated with the character Ma on Little House. The studio loved her. So it was an ideal time if we were going to get studio support. It was also a contrast with the character she played on Little House where the only thing that goes wrong was the weather or the crops, certainly nothing within the family. 

We decided to write an account of a battered woman. We wanted to have enough characters so that any socio-economic level would be represented, so that it wasn’t just working class men that beat up on their wives. The first person we asked to be in this show was Mike Farrell who was doing M.A.S.H. He played a wonderful loving, gentle character on M.A.S.H. He had a relative who had been abused and thought this was an important topic. As we went on inviting different actors to be a part of this show we found that almost everyone we spoke to had been acquainted with someone who had experience with this issue. That was very shocking to me. 

We asked Levar Burton and he said he was interested. We showed him a sample of the script and he said, “Oh typical, you’re making a black man into a batterer.” We said, “No. All of the men in this story are guilty of spousal abuse and lack self control. But in fact, Levar, your character is the only one with a successful outcome.” We didn’t really know what we were doing but we wanted to have every possible outcome. One woman was going to die. One was going to get a divorce. One was going to go to counseling with her husband, that was Levar’s character. He was happy with that outcome. 

Howard Duff, whom I had grown up listening to as Sam Spade on the radio, was the character whose wife dies as a result of her abuse. Mike Farrell played the husband whose wife ends up divorcing him. We found that, when we were preparing for a rehearsal all of the people involved—makeup, costumes, cinematography—would want to talk about the issue. So we would have, kind of, discussion sessions—talking at the beginning and showing the resources that were available at the time. I think it was an important movie at the time. I’m very proud of it. 

Nanette: Do you think it had an effect on the larger population in bringing awareness to domestic abuse? 

Cynthia: I was hopeful when it was going on the air that it was going to solve the problem. I was convinced of that. So of course I was disappointed when it didn’t. But I think it made a difference. All the local hot lines reported a lot of calls and visits. It probably did as much as a single show could. 

Nanette: How was it working in a male dominated field? 

Cynthia: It was interesting. At NBC at that time there was a great deal of support for this project and I’m not really sure why. It was a Monday night “movie of the week.” 

Nanette: You and Karen wrote the script?

Cynthia: Yes. We had done a couple of storylines for Little House

Nanette: Did you do other documentaries? 

Cynthia: I did not. I always intended to. An organization grew out of the movie that still exists in Los Angeles. It’s now called Peace Over Violence. I was involved with getting that established and creating a board of directors for it, and working with the Santa Monica rape treatment program. I sort of left writing at that point. 

Inlaid book cloth design in a binding by Cynthia Sears.
Inlaid book cloth design in a binding by Cynthia Sears.

Nanette: Are you a maker of objects as well as a cultural worker? 

Cynthia: When I first met Frank [Buxton] he was a bookbinder. He had a bindery in Hollywood. I had come across an antique book that had become completely unbound. I took it to the bindery to see if someone could repair it. I met Frank. He fixed that book. I immediately went home and started looking for more books that needed repair. I took a bookbinding class with him. So I have bound books myself, and I collaborated with Frank on three or four. I never got good enough to do a full leather binding. I would do designs in book cloth with inlaid book cloth. People would get hysterical because you don’t take book cloth and make an inlaid pattern with it. 

Nanette: I think now people are doing that. You are an innovator there. 

One of the activities that you are currently known for is your extensive collecting of artist’s books. Do you recall your first encounter with an artist book? 

Cynthia: My sister gave me Susan King’s Women and Cars as a Christmas present. It was a landmark book at the time. Then I was in San Francisco and went into an art gallery. I saw across the room what looked like a cave. I went up close and saw at the very back of the cave the figure of a tiny octopus. I asked the gallery owner “What is that?” They said it was “an artist’s book by Julie Chen.” 

Women and Cars by Susan King. Artist's book published by Women's Studio Workshop, 1983. Flag book format.
Susan E. King, Women and Cars, 1983. Photo: Hunter Stroud & Laura Zander.

Nanette: There is a thread of the book in your life from that first book you took to get rebound and met Frank. . . 

Cynthia: Here it is repaired by Frank. [Cynthia shows me the book.] It is a friendship book from the early 1800s by Emily D. I got excited at one point and thought it might be Emily Dickinson, but no, it’s not. Her friends would come over and spend time at the vicarage where Emily lived. Her father was a pastor. When her friends would stay the night they would write a poem or paint a picture directly in the book. It was a blank book, not a published book. The art done by these young people is breathtaking. Just so beautiful. The poems are not all that great, but they are charming. 

Nanette: How did you come across this book. 

Cynthia: It was in an antique store in England. I absolutely loved it and handled it so much showing friends and such that it became completely disbound. So I took it to Frank and he fixed it and everything else. [Cynthia and Frank married in 1982.]

Nanette: Were you collecting books at that time? 

Cynthia: I just found this one. I have always loved books. My love of them evolved. Initially I was collecting old books and a lot of blank books that people had written poetry in or used as a sketch book. I started looking specifically for artist’s books after I bought Julie Chen’s Octopus.

Nanette: How did you come to found Bainbridge Island Museum of Art? 

Cynthia: Frank and I were thinking of moving to Bainbridge Island from Los Angeles. Friends had told us it was the best place in the world and a haven for artists. So we came up to look and were looking around in town. We went into one little gallery and asked where is the art that this island is so famous for. They said, “Oh, it’s in private houses. You’ll get to know people and they will invite you in.” It was at that point before we moved here that I thought this island needed an art museum. There is no point in being an island devoted to art if no one can see the work. This was 1989. We had come up to visit Richard and Margaret Stine, but we wanted to surprise them and didn’t tell them we were coming and they were away for the weekend. We didn’t know what else to do so we bought a house. 

Alfredo Arreguín, Salish Sea, 2017, oil on canvas. BIMA Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Cynthia Sears.
Alfredo Arreguín, Salish Sea, oil on canvas, 2017. BIMA Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Cynthia Sears.

Nanette: Is that the same house you are now living in? 

Cynthia: It is. We were looking for a place to rent because we thought it was pretty terrific here, but there were no rentals available at all. This house had just come on the market. We had been driving around and it was raining hard. There are glass panels in the front door of our house, and you can look right through to the sliding glass windows of the living room. As we were walking up to the front door the rain stopped and as we looked through the glass there was a rainbow coming down into the water. Frank said, “That’s kind of blatant. I don’t think we can afford to overlook this.” So we bought the house. 

I started talking to people to see if there was a way for the people on the island to share art they owned for a month. I was asking a lot of people about this, including my older daughter Juliet who had also moved to the island. Juliet is a horsewoman. She said, “Mom, if you want people to lend you their horses, first you have to show them that you have a decent barn to keep them in.” So we started a “barn raising.” It was as simple as that. It worked. I found it really invigorating. The artists are always so happy to participate. We are coming up on our tenth anniversary in June so I may have forgotten some of the drudge. It’s sort of like childbirth. I remember now that it was just the easiest thing in the world. 

Nanette: How long did it take to break ground after you started fundraising? 

Cynthia: To break ground? Just over a year. 

Nanette: Wow. That is incredible. The museum is a non-profit and you were able to go that fast? 

Cynthia: It wasn’t like I was standing on Winslow Avenue saying “We need a museum.” There was also a bit of serendipity because the museum site had just become vacant. People were talking about putting a parking lot there. It’s the first corner you see when you come off the ferry. I knew that if the museum was going to represent the town it needed to have a prominent place. I was able to buy the land on that first corner, and that was great. We have more parking lots than we know what to do with on the island. 

Frank Buxton and Cynthia Sears on the construction site of Bainbridge Island Museum of Art in October 2012.
Frank Buxton and Cynthia Sears on the construction site of Bainbridge Island Museum of Art in October 2012.

Nanette: Did you run the museum initially or did you hire right away? 

Cynthia: We hired Greg Robinson right away. He is now our superb head curator. As far as being an administrator, Sheila Hughes is brilliant in that role. 

Nanette: So you were the vision. 

Cynthia: Yes. 

Nanette: What is the history of the Cynthia Sears Artist’s Books Collection. How has the collection developed and evolved over time? 

Cynthia: I really didn’t think of it as a collection until Catherine Alice Michaelis started working for me. She was very clear that it was. I just thought they were books that I didn’t want to be very far away from, ever. 

Nanette: So they were still at home. 

Cynthia: Yes. The collection as a whole only just this year went to the museum for storage. They’ve always been a part of the museum, but they didn’t live there. 

Nanette: But you have a display room for books with cases. . . 

Sherry Grover Gallery at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Photo by Keith Brofsky.
Sherry Grover Gallery at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Photo: Keith Brofsky.

Cynthia: Yes. The Sherry Grover Gallery was from the very beginning intended to have nothing but artist’s books. The gallery is named after my closest friend who died a few years ago. She was an amazing person. 

Nanette: Are you involved on deciding on the book exhibitions. 

Cynthia: Yes for the books. Catherine Alice and I do all the book displays. A new one every four months. Every three years we are allowed to break out of the gallery and take the whole top floor of the museum with the books. That is when you really have a chance to see them. We have petting zoos to allow children to touch the books. 

Nanette: Do you have a collecting agenda? 

Cynthia: Anything I see that I love. It’s my greedy side. 

Nanette: What makes an artwork successful? 

Cynthia: If it captures the imagination of the viewer. Whatever that means. It has to stir the blood to be successful. 

Gayle Bard, Near Keswick, 2011, oil on canvas. Collection of Cynthia Sears.
Gayle Bard, Near Keswick, oil on canvas, 2011. Cynthia Sears Collection.

Nanette: Bainbridge Island Museum of Art has a specific focus on regional artists. Who are the regional artists that you find to be particularly engaging? 

Cynthia: The first artist on the island whose work I bought was Gayle Bard. Her paintings are landscapes, but to me she is painting air. Early on, I bought two large pieces of hers, each one about 10′ wide by 8′ tall and they fill the room with a sense of fresh air! Another favorite artist of mine is Kurt Solmssen. Many of Kurt’s paintings are interiors, scenes of domestic life. He often uses his own home and family as his subjects. And still another favorite is a Mexican-born painter, Alfredo Arreguin who lives in Seattle. His work is simply magical.

Nanette: You show these works next door at a gallery called Yonder

Cynthia: Yonder is our guest house next door. It is where we entertain. It is called Yonder because when we were building it a friend from the South kept asking, “How are things going over yonder?” Then everyone started calling it that. It is a guest house, a party house and a gallery. 

Another Bainbridge artist I collect is Johnpaul Jones. He is an architect. He was the lead design consultant of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The paintings and drawings I have of his are all animals. Beautiful paintings of local critters: birds, foxes, owls, ravens, coyotes.

Kurt Solmssen Reading Sociology, oil on linen, 48" x 46". Cynthia Sears collection.
Kurt Solmssen, Reading Sociology, oil on linen, 48″ x 46″. Cynthia Sears collection.

Nanette: Why do you think Bainbridge Island is a Mecca for artists? 

Cynthia: It might have something to do with the fact that it was for a long time the summer home for Seattlites. They were people who appreciated art. It just seems to be a given that people care about art when they are on Bainbridge Island. 

Nanette: What goals are you currently working on and what do you hope to achieve with them? 

Cynthia: I want to ensure that the museum is absolutely solid. So I am working on the endowment. I don’t want it to be left up to any individual to have to rescue it. 

I would like to do what I can to encourage people to collect artist’s books so that book artists have an audience that wants their work. I feel that collecting art/appreciating art is somehow somewhat passive because it’s all given to you right on the canvas. The reason I like artist’s books so much is because you have to read the book to get it. It invites you in and is a very active engagement. But just saying that doesn’t convince people that they should start collecting artist’s books. 

Cynthia Sears with daughters Juliet and Olivia.
Cynthia Sears with daughters Juliet and Olivia.

Nanette: How do you think going to all girl schools impacted your life and your decisions? 

Cynthia: I think that for women a single sex school is absolutely enabling. I was able to focus so much more on what I was learning and wanted to do with my life in high school and college than I ever did in grammar school. Obviously there is or should be a maturation that is taking place, but I was totally distracted by boys when I was in a mixed class. I never wanted to sound too brainy or compete with them. It was only when nobody was saying anything that I would raise my hand. So for me it was very liberating to not be conscious of myself as a maturing girl, and whatever that meant. I would recommend a single sex school in general, although my daughters went to public high schools. It’s funny I didn’t pass that belief or gene onto my girls and they have done just fine. 

Nanette: It’s different times. . .

Cynthia: Yes. I just loved being in the all girl classes. 

Nanette: Tell me a bit about your younger daughter Olivia. 

Cynthia: Olivia is a poet and translator. She runs an organization in San Francisco called CAT, The Center for the Art of Translation. It publishes translations from an astonishing number of languages into English. They also publish a journal of original translations each year. 

Nanette: What are some of your other philanthropic interests? 

Cynthia: I love and support, as much as I can, all of the arts. I love theater arts, film, silent film, really any of the arts. But it is very intentional. I took a trip in a private plane and eventually felt very guilty knowing just what that one trip could do to the environment. I ended up making eleven gifts to organizations that protect the environment and analyze things like the ecological effects of our activities. That giving was about things I felt guilty about, giving to organizations that are doing important work. A lot of years ago everyone just thought everything was going to last forever, and one didn’t have to give it [the environment] a second thought. Man, were we wrong. 

Alfredo Arreguín, Spring Sea, 2011, oil on canvas. BIMA Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Cynthia Sears.
Alfredo Arreguín, Spring Sea, 2011, oil on canvas. BIMA Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Cynthia Sears.

Nanette: Why are the arts important? 

Cynthia: That’s like asking, Why is life important? It’s so huge to even approach as a question. It’s like asking, What is the meaning of life? 

Interview by Nanette Wylde with thanks to Myrna Ougland, Catherine Alice Michaelis, and BIMA.
All images courtesy of Cynthia Sears, the artists, BIMA, or otherwise stated.

Bainbridge Island Museum of Art

Kathleen Canrinus

September 13th, 2022

A Tale of Two Remarkable Women: Interview with the author of The Lady with the Crown: A Story of Resilience by Helen Gibbons

Bay Area native Kathleen Canrinus wrote The Lady with the Crown: A Story of Resilience to honor her mother, Dorothy. When Kathleen was 15, her mother suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. After three months in a coma, Dorothy emerged partially paralyzed and cognitively impaired, upending the life of her family. 

Photo of Kathleen at work in her small office. Behind her is a painting by her father, who took up oil painting after retirement, immersing himself in it much as Kathleen has immersed herself in writing. Photo: Don Anderson
Photo of Kathleen at work in her small office. Behind her is a painting by her father, who took up oil painting after retirement, immersing himself in it much as Kathleen has immersed herself in writing. Photo: Don Anderson

Kathleen’s memoir focuses on the relationship between mother and daughter, particularly its evolution during the 54 years between Dorothy’s accident and her death at age 99. There were plenty of challenges, but also lots of laughter and, oh, so much love. It’s a story I will enjoy reading again and again, finding some new insight or well-crafted sentence to relish each time.

I met Kathleen in 2006 when we both joined the World Harmony Chorus in Mountain View, California, and our conversations over the years have focused mostly on music. I wanted to learn more about Kathleen’s writing life and in particular The Lady with the Crown. We exchanged some emails and then sat down to talk. Our conversation is edited and condensed.

Helen: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?

Kathleen: I came to writing late in life, that is, after I retired from teaching elementary school. When I signed up for my first writing class, I had in mind writing stories from my life and wanted to tell them well.  Even though I have now written a book that was published, and numerous personal essays too, I still hesitate to introduce myself to a stranger as a writer. But as far as thinking of myself as a writer, that came in the first few years of writing seriously, when I discovered that I was a person who noticed and remembered things, that I could write an occasional beautiful sentence, that I had a sense of how to shape a story, and most importantly, that finding words to match experience brought with it a thrill like nothing else. Writing lends meaning and purpose to my life. I like the Joan Didion quote: “I write to find out what I’m thinking.” 

Helen: How did The Lady with the Crown come to be?

Kathleen: The Lady with the Crown evolved from stories I wrote about my mother over a decade in various writing workshops and classes. My mother had a remarkable attitude about life in spite of epic reversals. She was funny too—good material. I was never writing about her for family alone but for people like my classmates and possible future readers who didn’t know her. I intended to honor her and others who live small lives with dignity and courage. Although I wrote about other topics like friendship, marriage, and aging, the response to the mother stories was the most positive. I planned to string them together in a book and had finished most of them when the editor at a small press offered me a contract.

Helen: What a great opportunity! What happened next?

Kathleen: Next I spent nine months finishing a manuscript. Everything I had already written needed to be revised and new chapters added to complete the story. My editor made a lot of suggestions that improved the book.

Helen: Can you share examples?

Kathleen: When I originally thought about doing a book, I thought I would take the stories I had written about my mother and link them very loosely, like the stories in Olive Kitteridge [a novel by Elizabeth Strout that is a collection of interrelated stories]. I thought that approach would make my task easy. But when I told the editor, she said, “No, no, no! Make it one story. And whether you like it or not,” she added, “you’re the main character. You need to put yourself into this story; you’re not just the witness.” 

Helen: Did following her advice make the task harder?

Kathleen: Yes, and it made the book better. Here’s another example: After my father died, my mother had a series of caregivers at her home in Santa Cruz—one bad one after the other. I was living hundreds of miles away in Southern California. I tried to make the arrangement work, but eventually I had to give up and take over. In my first draft, I summed it up briefly, something like, “We had a series of disastrous caregivers, and finally I brought my mother to live with me.” And the editor said, “No, no, you need to put that in scene.”

Helen: “In scene”?

Kathleen: Putting something in scene means that you don’t use a lot of narrative description. Instead, you use images, dialogue, and sensory details to bring the reader into the story. As Nancy Packer [short story author and emerita English professor at Stanford University] puts it, “Make it happen on the page.” So I went back and included phone conversations and moved through the caregiving calamities step by step. It’s harder to write that way. It would have been easier just to say, “That was a tough time.” It wasn’t a time I particularly wanted to re-experience, which is something that happens in the writing.

Kathleen and Dorothy.
Kathleen and Dorothy. Photo: Don Anderson

Helen: What else was going on in your life as you did this work?

Kathleen: The pandemic offered uninterrupted writing time. While I was finishing the book, I stayed active in writing groups, but on Zoom. I also sang world music with our chorus—for a while on Zoom, and then distanced and masked outdoors. I hiked, swam, made sourdough bread, and explored Japanese cuisine. I reread memoirs that, like mine, describe caring for or coping with a severely brain-damaged loved one—Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, for example, and Family Life by Akhil Sharma. At the end of the summer, I sent my publisher the final draft of the manuscript from Montana where I was visiting my daughter. It took another four months to polish the writing, work out cover and interior designs, and plan publicity, during which time my husband had a knee replacement—a lot to juggle! Getting the word out is an ongoing project.

Helen: Did you read parts of the book to your mother?

Kathleen: No. Because of my mother’s short-term memory problems, I never read any of the book to her. I talked to her about her grandmother though, and early days on College Avenue [the Los Gatos house where Dorothy grew up and Kathleen spent her early years], things she remembered. Several times, I mentioned to her that I was writing about her. “Me?” her shrug and blank expression seemed to say. “Why me?” 

Helen: How about other family members?

Kathleen: In general, I’ve kept my writing life mostly private. My family was aware that I was taking writing classes, but I never talked much about them or about writing except to other writers. For years I have thought of myself as a person learning to write, practicing, with nothing quite good enough to share yet. With the book, I had to go public. Before I sent it to the publisher, I read it aloud to one daughter, who is also interested in writing, and she made suggestions. My husband read it after I sent off the manuscript. I didn’t ever mention to family members that I was writing about them because, although they appear, the story is very focused on my mother and me and does not include much about other parts of my life.

Helen: In many of the scenes from your girlhood, you are reading. What are some of the books you enjoyed?

Kathleen: My parents read to me and my brother when we were little—nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and picture books like Make Way for Ducklings and The Golden Egg Book. The book that turned me into a reader is Pam’s Paradise Ranch. I lived my dream life while reading that book. As a girl, I consumed horse books by Walter Farley and others. Nancy Drew was a favorite, Cherry Ames too. I grabbed Boys’ Life magazine before my brother could read it. I also recall reading volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that were around the house. Later, I enjoyed Louisa May Alcott and the Brontës, Pearl Buck, and Jade Snow Wong. Gone With the Wind was the first book I read through the night to finish, or nearly. I read quite a lot of French literature in high school and college, all forgotten now except for titles.

Helen: What do you read now?

Kathleen: These days I particularly enjoy books by or about people my age—novels like The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, and Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson. I read younger authors too, like Lauren Groff and Curtis Sittenfeld. One of my favorite genres is literary nonfiction—three good examples are The Beak of the Finch, A Civil Action, and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I enjoy many genres—poetry, biography, cookbooks, you name it—and I have read at least a hundred books about writing. 

Helen: Who are the authors that have most inspired you?

Kathleen: Certainly the two memoir writers I already mentioned: Abigail Thomas and Akhil Sharma. But if I could write like anyone, it would be Grace Paley. No one can, and that’s what makes her special. She wrote short stories that came directly from her life. “Wants” is my favorite short story by Paley.

Helen: What have you written besides The Lady with the Crown, and what are you working on now?

Kathleen: In addition to the memoir, I have published about a dozen essays—two since the memoir came out—and a book review. I wrote a poem about my father right after I finished the memoir. It’s hard to write about him because I can’t see his faults, I can’t see him really as human. After my mother’s accident, he stayed with her—he did all the cooking, he did the caregiving, he did everything. He didn’t complain, and he didn’t ever talk about his life being hard. He just carried on. I have always admired him for the choices that he made, and I want to write more about him. Meanwhile, I have three short stories underway. Fiction is harder for me than memoir, but it interests me and is a nice change.

Helen: Has writing become central to your life?

Kathleen: It has. The creativity of writing thrills me. Starting with a blank page and making something—it’s so different from anything else I have ever done. I loved collaborative teaching, but something about the non-collaborative aspect of writing, being on my own, appeals to me. From nothing to something, and I did it!

Helen: Do you have any advice for aspiring memoir writers?

Kathleen: Read. Read memoirs especially. And take a class. In a class, not only will you learn what to do and what to avoid when writing, but you will read great stories, both by published authors and by classmates. The first class I took was through a Bernard Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. In this class, an English woman who had worked at Bletchley Park [an Allied code-breaking center during World War II] sat next to a German woman who had survived Kristallnacht [a violent attack on Jews and Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues throughout Nazi Germany in 1938]. Both were terrific writers with compelling stories. Another classmate grew up poor in Hungary, came to this country, started a company, and invented a computer language. From other students, I learned what it was like to grow up in Iran and Holland, Michigan, and on a farm. If you don’t think you can remember enough to write about, try this: Imagine yourself in the home you grew up in or spent years of your childhood in. Walk through the rooms. I’ll bet you can even draw a floor plan. Open drawers. Listen for sounds like the front door closing. Add family members if you like.

Kathleen does a lot of writing at her kitchen table. Photo: Don Anderson

Helen: Did writing The Lady with the Crown help you process some of the trauma of your mother’s accident?

Kathleen: The answer to that is two-fold: “That’s not why I wrote it,” and “Yes, in a sense it did.” I wrote my memoir to share my remarkable mother. I included the dark parts like facing and owning up to a few unpleasant truths about myself to render the complete story and so others with similar experiences would know they are not alone. What’s true also is that the process of writing about this trauma, turning the chaos of experience—in my case a random tragic accident and its fallout—into a story with a beginning, middle, and end, giving the story shape and meaning made a difference in the way I hold the memories. I feel lighter. This is a therapeutic effect of the writing process. But for the record, no goal, whether freeing yourself, healing yourself, or even honoring a beloved mother excuses a writer from the hard work of making art. Writing about personal experiences is not easier than other kinds of writing. Good storytelling of any kind involves doing research, creating a narrative arc, and using all the elements of craft—dialogue, scene, and description—to bring the pages to life.

Helen: The Lady with the Crown was released in January of this year. What kind of feedback have you received?

Kathleen: The book has gotten good reviews, online and at readings. The feedback is extremely gratifying because the book has touched people. Every couple of weeks I get an email from someone who has just read it. Often, they have their own story, of placing a parent in a memory unit or caring for a mother who became ill when they were young. There are very few people whose lives have not been touched by something like this.

You can order The Lady with the Crown: A Story of Resilience from independent booksellers everywhere. It’s also available at public libraries in Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Los Gatos. 

Kathleen Canrinus enjoys attending book clubs in person and on Zoom to participate in conversations about The Lady with the Crown. Contact her at: theladywiththecrown at gmail dot com

Helen Gibbons worked for many years as a science writer and editor in the U.S. Geological Survey’s Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center. Highlights included blogging from an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean and editing the newsletter Sound Waves. Now retired, she enjoys reading, singing, walking, and writing an occasional article as a USGS volunteer.

Elizabeth Gómez

October 2nd, 2021

Elizabeth Gómez is a Redwood City based artist and children’s book illustrator. Part of Gómez’s practice involves designing and managing community participatory murals in both paint and mosaic. 

I first met Elizabeth during her July 2021 Redwood City Art Kiosk exhibition. Her installation, Naturaleza Muerta, was striking in the manner it pulled the audience in and then held their attention with an edgy softness: A lifesize deer and mountain lion hang upside down in the center of the kiosk. They are accompanied by a squirrel and a crow. These hand sewn creatures are made from pale, low contrast fabrics. Scatterings of thin red cloth trail from each body. The kiosk floor is covered with pink quilting and a spare grid of deep red, fabric roses. There is a feeling of being in a child’s bedroom. These layers of symbolism reveal a multi-dimensional philosophy about the relationship of humans to other animals, to profound effect. In this work Gómez brings together a blend of Louise Bourgeois construction with Sue Coe content to make her own statement about real life events involving wild animals in our suburban neighborhoods.  

Gómez has an MFA in Pictorial Art from San Jose State University. She has shown at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco; the Oakland Museum of California; MACLA in San Jose, California; and at the Mohr Gallery in Mountain View, California.

This week Gómez’s most recent mural, created with the help of many from our community, will be unveiled at the Magical Bridge Playground in Redwood City. We spoke during the last weeks of mosaic tile making under the redwoods and oaks on the back patio at Red Morton Park, the mural’s home.

Magical Bridge Playground mural, 2021

Whirligig: Let’s talk about your background. You went to San José State?

Elizabeth: I did most of my college in Mexico City where I am from. I did three years at the San Francisco Art Institute and then I did my masters in painting at San Jose State. I had great professors like Erin Goodwin-Guerrero and Rupert Garcia. It was an excellent program, lots of support, really nice.

Whirligig: How long have you been working in mosaic?

Elizabeth: I have been doing small things here and there but I am really a painter. I have been working with Redwood City for many years. I have done murals in the schools and parks. The city knows me as an artist that can create and facilitate public works with volunteers, with the help of the community. That is why they asked me to do this mosaic mural. I have learned a lot doing this. 

Whirligig: What are the dimensions?

Elizabeth: It is gigantic. It has more than 700 square feet of tile. 

Whirligig: You did the design?

Elizabeth: I did the design and many workshops. For example, here in Red Morton Park during the pandemic we were outdoors and indoors and outdoors again and then we couldn’t do it at all. Then, I had to transport boxes of materials to the volunteers, house to house, I would bring a new box and take competed work away. I did that for many months. It was a lot of work. Then we were allowed to work here outside again, almost a year and a half after we started. The hardest thing about this project has been the management. We have had more than 750 volunteers on this mural. Everybody is welcome. I have taught the class on how to make mosaic shapes hundreds of times now. I will be happy to see it on the wall.

Whirligig: You plan to install next week. . .

Elizabeth: We have two walls and a tunnel. We are hiring professional tile installers because it is so big and heavy. I will be there as support. I don’t know what problems we will encounter, but we will have problems. We already fixed a few things–the walls were uneven and there was an anti-grafitti sealant on one wall that would not allow the tiles to adhere, so we had to remove that.

Orange Halves

Whirligig: Tell me about your painting work.

Elizabeth: My work belongs to the Mexican tradition. I like surrealism. I like animals and nature. I like a lot of handmade patterns and decoration. I have been working on a collection called Madre Tierra (Mother Earth). They are women with the face of an animal. Very surreal. They represent the need to care for the environment. The most recent is Mother Earth Crow. She is signaling with her wings the end of the wilderness, saying “From here to here is wilderness, so you don’t build. And from here to here is for humans, so stay on the human side.” They almost look religious. They are big animals with dresses, in nature. One is Vindictive Mother Earth. She has humans in a cage. Bird Mother Earth is teaching little birds how to protect themselves against us. But all very beautiful and colorful, filled with flowers. Mother Earth Wolf is planting flowers on the pavement in Mexico City. She is taking care of them with a watering can, a nurturing Mother Earth.

Whirligig: Those are in acrylic, oil?

Elizabeth: I love to paint old style, oil on wood, because with painting in glazes it becomes very jewel like and medieval. You can touch the colors. 

I’ve also illustrated many children’s books. I just finished a book on El Salvador, ABC El Salvador.

Crow Mother Earth at the Edge of the Wilderness

Whirligig: Are there specific artists you are inspired by or look too?

Elizabeth: Sometimes I am a bit sad that the person most known here is Frida Kahlo. When you see Frida’s work it’s not only Frida’s style, but it is Frida’s style on top of the Mexican tradition. Her work makes a lot of sense within Mexican art. When she was painting there were a lot of women painting. For example Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. There was a magical group of women painters that had this surreal, folksy, decorated, colorful work. I really like their work. Because I grew up in Mexico City it was normal for me to visit Frida’s house or see a show of Remedios Varo and other artists from that time. I don’t try to do what they do, but I like the visual language they were using. My own work is always about nature and the environment.

Whirligig: Would you say that you are mostly inspired by female artists?

Elizabeth: I would say that I really like their quality. I don’t want to generalize, but with Mexican women artists there is something that is, to use a trite word, feminine–care taking, nurturing and smaller–that I like. The famous male Mexican artists are very grandiose, “Industrialism came to save us! The workers will save us!” Full of big ideas, but with little heart. I like works with more heart. I am not saying that men cannot do this, just historically in Mexico it has been the case that women pay attention to heart.

Lion Fountain

Whirligig: You exhibited sculpture in your Art Kiosk show.

Elizabeth: I do a little bit of everything. I have created three installations with ideas of nature and animals. At the Oakland museum for the Day of the Dead I showed dead animals. I made a coal circle . . . where it is clean the animals are alive and flying. Where it is dirty the animals are dead. 

Whirligig: What is it about working with animal symbolism that you hope to communicate?

Elizabeth: I sometimes feel that we humans do not believe that animals have the same right as us to be here. That we are more than they are. That we own this place. After all of the facts telling us this is not the case, global warming. . . I want to be a voice for animals, even if it is a small one, saying “We are here. We belong. This is also our earth.”

Whirligig: So you grew up in Mexico City . . .

Elizabeth: Yes. I did most of my formative years in Mexico. I came here after I got married. I have been many years now here in California.

Whirligig: How is it to be an immigrant here in California?

Elizabeth: Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not so much. Especially if you are from Mexico. My husband is from Argentina and he does not cross too many people with stereotypes about what an Argentinian is. Maybe they know about the tango. . . But if you are from Mexico the stereotypes are very, very, very strong. Sometimes when I encounter someone who knows only that I am from Mexico and nothing else about me, I feel discriminated against. For example, people who don’t know me immediately assume that I am not educated. They talk to me as if I didn’t know things. This actually happens a lot. I am not saying that everybody needs to be educated, but oh my gosh, they speak to me in such a way that I want to say, You know I have a graduate degree you don’t have to talk to me as if I don’t understand things.

Whirligig: Because of your accent?

Elizabeth: My accent for sure, and then they ask me, Where are you from? And I say, Mexico. In my life in California I have been hired at least three times as a babysitter. I would be with my children and they [some stranger in public] would assume I was a nanny. It was hard for me to convince these moms that I was also a mom and not the nanny. They would ask questions like, “The children speak Spanish to you?” And I would say, Yes. Then they would say, “That’s wonderful. Other nannies I know speak Spanish to the children but the children do not speak Spanish back. Do you have a driver’s license? How much do you charge?” They would be so surprised to find out I was the mother and not the nanny. Some assumptions are stronger than you think. In daily life doors can close easily because people have very strong stereotypes about what a Mexican is. I moved to a new neighborhood and the next door neighbor told me, “I don’t want to be discouraging but Mexicans are moving here. . .” Things like that happen here and there and everywhere. It always surprises me because most people are nice and good. But those who are rude and not nice. . . they don’t know me, I don’t know them. . .

Whirligig: Part of it is being a woman. . . 

Elizabeth: Yes. But why don’t they just ask me what I think rather than thinking I don’t know anything? Sometimes people start sentences like, “Here in California, we. . . ” immediately making me the other. I’ve been here 30 years. I can say, We in California. . . 

I like so many things about Northern California, but when I face those discriminating people I don’t like it.

Whirligig: I’m sorry that is here.

Naturaleza Muerta, at the Redwood City Art Kiosk

Elizabeth: People don’t know that if you have an accent you are asked a lot, Where are you from? How long are you staying? If it were a neutral question . . . but when you are asked that on a weekly basis it makes you feel as if you don’t belong, you don’t belong, you don’t belong. It makes you feel there is a wall around you everywhere you go. Now when they ask me, I ask them, And where are you from? Tell me about. . .  We all are from somewhere, even if we didn’t cross a border. I try to be light about it but I wish it wasn’t the case.

Whirligig: You’ve been working on a two plus year project. What will you do after?

Elizabeth: The park has asked me to make some individual animals. It will be only me in my studio. I will have control of everything. I am looking forward to that. Then I will paint. I have loved doing this, but it was a lot of heavy lifting.

Whirligig: It’s an important project.

Elizabeth: I love that we have so many community members taking part, and also, if someone came to a workshop and made a piece of the mural, it is included. I didn’t get rid of anything the volunteers created. I kept my promise, that “if you learn to do it, you are a part of the mural.”

Whirligig:  Do you think there was anything in your upbringing that made you particularly tune into non-human animals?

Elizabeth: My grandfather was a farmer. He could barely sell his cows because he loved them. He named them and the chickens and the pigs. When buyers came to take them, he had so much trouble. They followed him like dogs. He was a bad farmer in that sense. I think growing up with him I fell in love with the animals just like he did. Growing up in Mexico City, nature was so devastated by pollution, 20 million people in one city.

One day, everywhere I went, there were dead birds. Something was happening in the air or poison. Walking to school that day was one of the most important days of my life. I realized it was not a normal day. This was human induced. I think I became an environmentalist that day. Later we heard it was a paper factory that did not have proper air filters. They polluted the air. The birds died. . . It really welded a before and after for me.

Whirligig: Do you have a spirit animal? Is there a particular animal you are closest to?

Elizabeth: Not really. I strongly believe the earth would be better off without us. We are the extra animal.

Whirligig: Agreed.

Magical Bridge Playground mural, 2021

Elizabeth: Even sharks and insects have a right to be here. I’m a little bit of Buddhist in that sense. Everything that is living has a right to be here.

What makes me really happy is that I have found many paths to follow and they have taken me to incredible places that I never thought I could go or do. My parents were very sad when I told them I wanted to be an artist. But I am so happy that I am. A perfect day for me has art and nature. I have lived my life like that. And Northern California is a beautiful place and people respect nature here. People are also more open. I know that the Bay Area is the right place for me. Here I can blend in. California has a very nice collection of Asian art and Latino art and Californian art and good food.

Whirligig: How are you feeling now that the mural is up and complete?

Elizabeth: It was a tremendous amount of work. I am exhausted. I am happy.

Whirligig Interview by Nanette Wylde.
All images copyright and courtesy of Elizabeth Gómez.
Elizabeth Gómez’s website.