Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Piano Man

Pianos are delicate things for their size.Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug They are highly susceptible to “colds” that is they often find themselves singing at the wrong pitch because of exposure to sun, of temperature, and worst of all high humidity. When you are a Florida piano, you really can’t avoid any of these things, so you often find yourself out of tune with a piano cold.

When that happens, it’s time for a visit from the Piano Man. Our piano man is Jordan Wiegand, whose father and grandfather before him were piano tuners. Jordan has an impressive array of obscure tools, but mostly he has the ear and the experience that make piano tuning more of an art and a calling than a job. Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug He told me he tried careers in banking and real estate, but came back to his family trade after a few years. There is, apparently, nothing like being the Piano Man, especially when it runs in your blood. So Billy Joel, I think, may not have had Jordan in mind when he wrote his song, but it works: “… we’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feeling alright”.

For the full set of "Piano Man" pictures, click here

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Recently when driving down route 17 in the low country of South Carolina near Charleston, I noticed several small road side frame structures. Although they looked like unoccupied fruit and vegetable stands, I knew they were most likely stands that sold sweetgrass baskets, a local craft with roots traced back to ancient times.

Sweetgrass basket sewing is a traditional African craft practiced primarily in the low country of South Carolina. The contemporary craftswomen who weave these works of art are the descendants of Africans brought to the south by slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
Most can trace their ancestry back to the Windward, or Rice Coast of western Africa. Their ancestors were brought from this area because of their knowledge of the cultivation of rice which was, and still is, a major part of the economy of this area of the east coast of the United States.

Coiled basketry is one of the oldest African crafts. Originally made of bulrush and palm in biblical times, the materials favored in the new world were typically oak, bulrush and sweetgrass.The baskets served a practical purpose in that they were traditionally used to winnow the harvested rice. Because the exact materials used varied with the the kinds of plants available locally and with the sewing techniques of the individual, each basket was and is unique. Rather than traditional weaving methods, these baskets are sewn using a "sewing bone" or "nail bone" to interlace the basket material. Sweet grass basket making in early 18th century America was practiced primarily by men as these baskets were viewed as a necessary agricultural tool. Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug After the end of the civil war and slavery, baskets began to yield to other implements as winnowing tools. This resulted in baskets that were more refined and popular as household objects. As this transition happened, the responsibility of crafting them also transitioned from men to women until by the 1920's sweetgrass weaving became almost the exclusive domain of women.

This tradition is still very much alive and the baskets made today reflect no less on their maker's skill, locale and preferred technique. Sweetgrass is a long bladed grass found along the southernmost coast of South Carolina. It became more popular as a primary material because it is softer and finer than bulrush, and longleaf pine needles were used to provide additional contrast and color. Palmetto was often used instead of oak as a binder. These days sweetgrass is inn decline in the low country, primarily due to commercial development and the inevitable shrinking of the coastal wetlands. While the craft doesn't seem in danger of disappearing as there are other sources of sweetgrass in Florida and North Carolina, it seems that a certain elegance of design is being lost since the materials are not always strictly local as the tradition requires.

Even so, if you are looking for fine examples of this ancient craft, Route 17 in South Carolina around Mount Pleasant near Charleston, South Carolina is still the place to find great examples. There are many roadside stands from which the makers sell directly. As I was driving along this highway recently, I stopped at random at one of these stands and met a remarkable woman. Her name is Anna Dawson. Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug She was very willing to tell her story and demonstrate the way these baskets are made. Traditionally, she said, the craft is still passed from grandmother to granddaughter. Does it skip an generation or is this because the mothers are too busy working at more traditional jobs and don't have time to weave? I didn't think to ask, but she said she learned how to make them from her grandmother years ago and is now teaching her granddaughter. Her preferred materials are Bulrush, sweetgrass, pine needles and palm. These give a subtle richness of texture and color to each basket.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Last year I spent some time in neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro that could be described as depressed. Because of government incentives to clean up the criminal activity in these neighborhood (favelas in Brazilian Portuguese), their internal landscape is slowly changing. Will the change be good or bad for the people of the favelas? Personally I don't know. Getting rid of the criminal gangs here is obviously a step in the right direction, but there is a social vacuum created by the elimination of the current power structure there. It is clearly a social experiment work in progress.

The slide show below is a compilation of images I took over a month last year when working on a project in the favela and a neighborhood just outside of one. The music is Tom Waits' Talking at the Same Time. The full size image slides can be found here:

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Tropical Heat

Tropical climates have weird and wonderful light. That weirdness, combined with a relentless heat, tends to translate

into the wonderfully vibrant colors typically used on everything from shirts to signs. On a recent trip to Mexico, I was impressed by the use of color on buildings,

especially the small workaday ones like corner bars and restaurants. The strong colors and light inspired me to create this series of photographs celebrating color and heat.

Or maybe it was just the tequila.

Friday, February 26, 2010


In 2007 I made what was, for me, a pilgrimage to place I had studied years ago in architecture school: Arcosanti. One of my professors had been spent a few months working there in the late '60's

and he had told us about the rise of a theoretical city in and of the desert; a place that was a mind meld of architecture and ecology.

Paolo Soleri first envisioned Arcosanti in the late 40's or early 50's. The idea of arcology (architecture+ecology) was born in the heyday of mid 20th century urban sprawl. If you are not familiar with Paolo Soleri's ideas, a good source of information is My overly simplified short version (at least as I understand it) is that Soleri's idea of the city is based in creating extremely dense urban environments, called arcologies, through a complex miniaturization of

infrastructure that would necessarily include both passive and active systems. This results in a city that, theoretically, requires only about 2% of the land area of traditional cities of similar population. This frees vast amounts of land to either remain in its natural state or be cultivated to feed the urban population.

A great theory, but difficult to apply in a practical way given our then and now technologies. Even though there have been tremendous technological advancements in the past 50 years, advances that would seem to help move arcologies from theory to practice, not all apply. For example, advances in wind power generation may not be what Soleri had in mind because of the sizable land area required to generate meaningful amounts of power. However many of the advances in solar energy technology have been in the miniaturization and increased efficiencies of collection devices that would seen to align with the theories of arcologies.

Even more important than the technology, however, is the need for the urban form to be organic, sensitive to nature and in tune with the cycle of the sun and seasons

to afford maximum efficiencies that such densities require. Without the proper orientation to nature and artful manipulation of form and space an arcology would be all but impossible.

At any rate, it's better to read what Soleri himself says at

The photographs here represent what I saw in December of 2007 at Arcosanti. I was impressed by the theory and that people could actually pull off a practical demonstration of such a complex theory. Arcosanti is a real place where people live, make things, build, socialize and they have done so for decades. It seems sustainable, but clearly there is much work to do. I'm looking forward to visiting again to see how both theory and place continue to evolve.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Panis Angelicus: The Bread of Angels

Driving slowly down the one lane road, trees towering all round and dappled light filtering through my windshield, I can just see the clearing ahead. Buried deep in the hardwood forest we find the place, not a hermit’s tattered house, but a cheery sunlit little place with an “open” sign. Park the car in the tree bark and stroll out of the dark woods into the light by the bell tower. Through the front door we are welcomed by Jan and Anna into an unexpectedly quiet world of musical form.
There’s not so much of a sound in here, just the sensual curves
and rich dark wood colors of stringed instruments hanging from above, suspended in rows like notes from a little etude.

We walk into the workshop where these artisans create and repair their instruments.
Tools are scattered all around, an orderly clutter necessary for their craft. Luthiers are special people; they feel the wood and string and they carve. They mold and shape the everyday things we can touch and smell into instruments of unparalleled joy. They practice an art that allows art.

Outside, leaves are blown by the breeze and the light filters softly through dusty workshop windows creating gentle rhythms within. We wander, we touch and we listen. Jan will only let us try those instruments
he has played recently. According to him, the others have a sound that is too lonely and neglected; there is not enough time to pay proper attention to each in a day, or even a week. One child is drawn to an instrument and reaches for it. The selection is made and the music prepared.
The first sweet notes rise from the strings and we are rewarded by an innocent, joyful and satisfied smile.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Bells of Cosanti

Paolo Soleri’s bells are part of a design theory that runs the scale from art object to megastructure. I have a half dozen of these beautifully crafted objects
that bring joy not only from their sound, but also from their place in a scheme of urbanism that foretold the value of density and conservation during the mid 20th century, a time when just the opposite was in vogue.
The bells, like the city of Arcosanti are organic in design, each seemingly dwelling within the other.

Visiting Cosanti is very much like tripping back to a desert commune of the ‘60’s.

It’s an intriguing place caught in time. The bells are cast each morning and the sand molds are broken in the afternoon.
If you are in the Phoneix, Arizona area, it’s worth a trip to both Cosanti the foundry, and Arcosanti the urban experiment.