Archive for ‘artist’

Zach Pine

Saturday, 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.

Elizabeth Gómez

Saturday, 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.

Minoosh Zomorodinia

Wednesday, July 28th, 2021
A Week Living Art, 2015

Minoosh Zomorodinia is an Iranian-born interdisciplinary artist and curator working in time, space and the natural world. Her current art practice involves nature walks which are documented via smart phone app. The resultant maps are then made tangible via a variety of both old and new technologies. There is an edgy, accessible humor in much of her work, this she calls “the abstract absurd.” actuality, Zomorodinia uses all aspects of her making to parse and comment on current critical issues including borders and territories, colonialism, immigration, culture and identity, stereotyping, relations of the self to the environment, the power of technology, and the art world itself. Her work is both layered and engaging—smart, funny, and often visually exquisite.

Zomorodinia earned an MFA in New Genres from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). She has a Masters in Graphic Design and a BA in Photography from Azad University in Tehran. She is the recipient of a Southern Exposure’s Alternative Exposure Award, a California Arts Council grant, and a Kala Media Fellowship Award. She has received residencies at Headlands Center for the Arts, Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency in Michigan, I-park Foundation in Connecticut, Local Language Residency in Oakland, Santa Fe Art Institute Residency, Djerassi Residency in Woodside, and Recology in South San Francisco. Zomorodinia has exhibited locally and internationally. She volunteers for Southern Exposure Gallery’s Curatorial Council and is a board member of Women Eco Artists Dialog. Zomorodinia currently lives and works in the Bay Area.

We spoke in the studio at Recology, where Minoosh is resuming an artist residency interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Minoosh Zomorodinia Integration with Nature
Integration with Nature, 2010

Whirligig: A great deal of your work has a focus on the body in nature—often your own body which is shrouded, wrapped, blanketed, responding to external elements. Why the body? Why your own body?

Minoosh: There are different reasons to use the body in my work. First, I want to acknowledge that my friend, Tara Goudarzi, generously accepted to be a model for the Destruction of Nature, Destruction of The Human Being as we were traveling together.

One reason to use the body is expressing self. I spend a lot of time in nature, it’s an extraordinary experience and inspiration for my practice. My mind opens and I see things when I’m in nature. I search for spirituality in nature and some sort of psychology for finding positive energy. I have been wanting to illustrate this feeling in different ways.

Another reason is to dematerialize and use my body as a signifier to lived experience as well as illustrate identity. I believe using my body offers a variety of contexts and perceptions. Employing my body in my work somehow represents time and space, especially in my performance installations. I consider my body as a sculpture—I make myself vulnerable to challenge the perception of the female body, and represent culture and religion. I want to emphasize a political perception from a Muslim woman’s body and how it’s been interpreted in the world.

Whirligig: Are you thinking of specific interpretations of a Muslim woman’s body? Can you explain?


Ever Rodriguez / La Feroz Press

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020
Ever Rodriguez and Gabriela Valencia in the studio of La Feroz Press.
Ever Rodriguez and Gabriela Valencia in the studio of La Feroz Press.

Ever Rodriguez was born and raised in Mexico and has lived in California since the early 1990s. He writes prose and poetry on themes related to his experience, including immigration, biculturalism, music, language and nature. Ever is a pragmatic writer for whom the common becomes the special as a way to contrast the abject against the normal.  His education includes a B.A. in Spanish Literature and a M.A. in Library & Information Science from San José State University. He has worked for the Stanford University Libraries for the past 25 years. Ever’s letterpress studio, La Feroz Press, focuses on handmade editions with original texts and translations. His work often has the intention of amplifying the voices and concerns of his marginalized community.

Although we live a short bike ride apart, we conducted this interview via email while sheltering-in-place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whirligig: What is the history of La Feroz Press?

Ever: La Feroz Press officially started with this name in January of 2019. We had been working under the name of Taller de Tinta y Texto since 2015, which was the time when our printing press project really took shape. It is wise to say here that when one has the intuition or the wish to do something, one has to follow up with at least one decisive action that would move further towards that direction to really get started. 

For me, the decisive action that put me on the printing track was taking a letterpress class. This allowed me not only to learn the basics of letterpress printing, but it also laid out the challenges I would need to overcome in terms of space and equipment, and it put me in touch with the printer and bookmaking culture and communities that would inspire me to fully embrace this activity.

Out of such initial inspiration I was able to create a space for myself at home where I could potentially house a printing press and other essential equipment. For years our one-car garage was filled with unused furniture, souvenirs and unwanted items, so one day I just decided to get rid of all of it and remodel the space to make room for a printing studio.  

Once I had the space, I started itching to find me a press. At first, I was looking for a hand press, but those are as rare as they are expensive, and I even started looking at the possibilities of making my own wooden hand press. I figured that if Gutenberg’s contemporaries were able to build those presses without the tools we have today, I should be able to build one press half as good. I found and bought a book entitled The Common Press, by Harris and Sisson, which has drawing plans and notes about the construction of the Franklin hand press, owned by the Smithsonian Institution. But I deviated from that adventure for a different alternative.

In January of 2015, I found a small press for sale online. The press was not ideal, and it was certainly nowhere near the Franklin hand press, but it was an inexpensive alternative that would get me started. So I bought it and the next day I drove to Los Angeles to pick up a midsize (14 x 24) Morgan Line-O-Scribe proofing press. This was the very first piece of equipment that I owned, and it came with a little bit of awful metal and wood type, but that satisfied the itching.

I experimented with that proofing press for about one year, and then Matt Kelsey—printer and owner of Camino Press, in Saratoga, California—told me about a Chandler & Price (C&P) 10×15 platen press that somebody was selling in Gilroy. I decided to buy that press, and a few printer friends helped me pick it up, bring it to my garage and install it. Mark Knudsen and Kim Hamilton made beautiful wooden feed boards and a treadle for it, and other printer friends gave me some tools and made me feel welcome to letterpress printing. 

The acquisition of this C&P press gave me added impetus to get more serious about letterpress. I acquired both new and used metal type and other essential tools and items through friends and referrals, and then I started to get more adventurous with printing and designing other things beyond postcards. All along, my wife—who I call Gaby—had been supportive about my new adventure, and I think that when she saw me purchasing that big, old C&P press and hauling it into our garage, she realized that my temporary craziness had turned into long-term seriousness. I think she was happy but surprised and concerned all at once. Once Gaby realized that these old devices and tools were here to stay, and she saw how excited I was about them, she got excited as well and started making lemonade with my lemons.


A couple of years passed, and in 2017 our friends Linda Stinchfield and Kim Hamilton gave us a beautiful Griffin etching press, thus helping me to expand my horizons to allow for more and better relief printing, which now includes linocuts and occasional woodcuts. Finally in June of 2019, I was lucky to bid on and win a Vandercook SP15 press at a local auction and that is now part of La Feroz Press.

By then I had taken several letterpress printing classes and I even earned core letterpress diplomas from the San Francisco Center for the Book on both the platen and the cylinder press. So far that is the story of La Feroz Press, which is still in the making.


Judith Selby Lang

Saturday, November 16th, 2019

Judith Selby Lang

Judith Selby Lang’s website states that she “is an artist committed to the creation of positive symbols and life-affirming images to help energize the conversation about social, political and environmental issues.” This is a perfect description of the uplifting and transformative nature of her multi-dimensional art practice as well as a reflection of her demeanor and personality—creative, positive, life-affirming, energetic, and openly communicative about critical concerns that affect us all.

Lang’s work includes artist’s books, mixed media objects, and a wide range of projects using plastic debris collected from 1000 yards of one beach on the Northern California coast. Lang has an extensive exhibition history. She currently has a large scale beach plastic installation in The Secret Life of Earth: Alive! Awake! (And possibly really Angry!) at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland; and will be showing in The Great Wave: Contemporary Art about the Ocean at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, California in early 2020. Her current project is creating a wedding dress made from recovered plastic bags for exhibition in Castaways: Art from the Material World at The Bateman Foundation in Victoria, British Columbia, which opens in Spring of 2020.

Lang has a BA from Pitzer College and an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies in Creative Arts from San Francisco State University. She spent many years teaching art in a variety of North Bay (California) venues before turning her focus to the studio full time. With a barn full of beach plastic—washed, sorted and boxed—collected over the years, Lang has an immense body of work, both independent and collaborative, which reflects our times while engaging viewers from all walks of life in conversations regarding possibilities for improving our environment.

We visited on a bright fall afternoon in her rural Forest Knolls studio, just a short drive to Kehoe Beach.

Whirligig: How did you come to art?

Judith: Defining myself as an artist was a long time in coming. I thought I would never have the patience to be an artist. People have this preconception that art is a wild and spontaneous activity but don’t know that after the flash of inspiration sometimes a long and tedious effort is required to realize the vision.

I grew up in a family that was art friendly. My dad and mom both painted. We went regularly to the art museum. In 1962 my parents took me to the Dallas Museum of Art where I saw Andrew Wyeth’s painting That Gentleman.

The painting drew many to the museum—there were long lines with stanchions and velvet ropes to control the crowds. Was it because curious onlookers wanted a glimpse of a painting of a black man? Mind you it was a simple scene of a black man seated, in dusky light, in a moment of repose. It’s of Wyeth’s neighbor Tom Clark. To me it seemed a radical move for the museum to exhibit a painting of a black man especially at a time when segregation still existed in the South. I remember water fountains with signs for whites only, for blacks only. This was 1962, years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Perhaps it was the shock to the public that the museum had purchased the painting or maybe, it was, as I would like to think, that there was tremendous interest in seeing a masterwork by a great American artist. Either way there were people, lots of people waiting for their turn to view the painting.

The line moved slowly in a kind of reverential prayer and when it was my turn I stepped up in front of the painting to gaze with wonder not only at the power of the image but also the incredible finesse of the brush work. Something in my young heart was deeply moved. At that moment I made a commitment to art. I made my pledge to become an artist. That an image could have such an incredible impact on me and the people who had come to the museum was something that I too wanted to accomplish. On that day, at age twelve, I knew that I wanted to do something that would make a difference—to make art that would shine a light on injustice in the world. (more…)