On the Rocks

February 8, 2009


Crash! Thunder! Roar!

Behold the tumultuous madness of the waterfall!

I like exclamation points!

So, I don’t think this is the best or the last you’ll see of my attempts at waterfalls. I think the spray is a little wonky in places. And I think the stones need to be more logically positioned, and I think the top curves of the beginnings need to be better realized, but ultimately, yeah, I’m digging this for what it is.

I’ve always been a huge fan of waterfalls. Back in Hamilton, I used to bike up the mountain rail trail to a place called Albion Falls, and I used to picnic on a fat, flat stone (about the size of a large white van), and Simone (my gff) would wade around in the water of the falls, and I would yoga or tai chi my way into hippie heaven. One time, while we were up there, a young skimpy girl and a middle aged photographer were there for a photo shoot. It was amusing to watch the photographer try to direct the girl, shouting over the roar of the falls. But it broke my heart that she clearly had no idea how to act (artistically, I mean), and couldn’t even take basic physical direction.

Maybe she was just nervous. But as someone who’s been in theatre for over fifteen years, it’s hard for me to imagine stage fright.

Bottom line: it was the least sexy photo shoot I think I’ve ever seen. And she had a nice body. Keep that in mind next time you’re flipping through a Maxim.

(there’s that childish sun again…argh…I just can’t stop myself)


Tip’O’The ‘At

February 8, 2009


So, this image could go a lot of different ways. My gut reaction was that it was a four-leaf clover. But upside down it looks a little like a raspberry. Right side up it could be a tree, or another atomic blast, sort of. I mean, I get tripped up trying to describe most of my images, but this one actually seems to be more than one thing, due to its simplicity/suggestibility.

I’m not Irish. My girlfriend is. But we’re not nationalistically minded people. So you can imagine this one to be whatever you want.

My dad used to sing “I’m Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover” a lot during my childhood. So, maybe that’s what’s made me the way I am. Thanks a lot, dad.

I Want To Believe

January 31, 2009

Let’s just put it this way: when I was fifteen I bought a keychain with Scully’s head and upper torso on it, arms crossed, looking every bit as emotionless and monotone as she sounds. And…I still have it. 

For the last eight years I’ve had a replica of Mulder’s I Want To Believe poster hanging somewhere around my room. In my most recent abode, it continuously falls off the wall, despite the fact that every other sticky tack poster in the room stays up. There’s something almost…paranormal about it.

I wasn’t, and still am not, a big fan of the new movie. I could’ve just as easily watched it on mute. Still, seeing them kiss is like white-out-orgasm-ten-grams-of-ecstasy-nirvana for me, so at least they got that right. Seriously, every time they kiss on screen its like receiving an electric shock. And what other franchise can lay claim to that? I’m sure I’m not the only one. Right, guys? 


(for anyone scratching their head, the above garden depicts the I Want To Believe poster shown behind Mulder’s desk in virtually every episode of the show, google it)

Tai Chi

January 28, 2009

Tai Chi

I’ll probably never succeed in my quest to have people stop saying “yin-yang” and start saying “Tai Chi”: the proper name for the ubiquitous symbol. It’s about as likely as getting people in the English speaking world to start calling countries by their home name (eg. Japan = Nippon, Italy = Italia, etc.). 

Note of interest: the word for calling another country by a name better suited to the native language of the home country is “exonym.” I learned that courtesy of a word-of-the-day calendar. 


It never made much sense to me to have everybody calling each other by different names. Canada is easy because those three sounds are in all languages. But Czechoslovakia I could see being a bit of a tongue-twisted to some.

Anyway, this is a good time to mention that I’m a Taoist. Not in the religious sense, but in the philosophical. I may not believe in the nine heavens, or whatever, or that Lao Tzu was born at age 81, accompanied by a stork. I just think the words in the book (and in the continuing works of Chuang Tzu, and other Taoist poets) make sense. Not least of which is that the universe was born out of one energy giving birth to two, and two giving birth to three, and three giving birth to all things. in the above garden I’ve tried to capture this notion of the three energies.

This concept got a little turned on its ear for me when I heard the song “One” by They Might Be Giants off their kid’s CD, Here Come the 123s. Great album, by the way. Even for adults. In the song they posit that at the end of all counting everything in the universe boils down to one, “There’s only one everything,” John sings. Which, I suppose, doesn’t exactly contradict Lao Tzu’s words, but it definitely puts the warring polarities in a different light for me.


I struggled for a long time on metal. There’s about seven prototypes you’ll probably never see due to their boredom quotient. The problem is that raw metal is hard to portray in sand. And even harder to find a place for the stones. Believe me. One attempt that I think came closest will appear here later under the title, Farmhouses. 

Anyway, this attempt (which I wasn’t totally sold on, but Simone loved) is based on a Google image search I found (and can’t re-find) of a bunch of pokers fresh from the oven, red-hot and scattered about in a pile. So I like to think that this is actually a depiction of a bunch of metal tools, like kitchen utensils, hanging on a bunch of hooks. But maybe not, maybe it’s a bunch of metallic wizard staffs, at the prime and ready for the fray.

I almost betrayed this series, ending with a design in the smaller tray. But I stuck with the biggie, so I betrayed the angle of display. I did this for a number of reasons: 

1) F*ck metal! Why is it in the elemental cycle? Everybody knows that air is the logical conclusion. When you talk to people about the creative cycle they start to guess which element is going to come next, and everybody, EVERYBODY, says air last. 

2) If you look at the kanji (the Japanese character) for all the different elements, they all pretty look like the element. Except metal, which is chunky and complex. It’s definitely the one-of-these-things-that-does-not-belong. So, I figured its depiction should be strikingly different.

3) I was having such trouble finding a way to show metal that I thought a new perspective would help.

4) This design in the vertical has become part of the Lord of the Rings series.

So, I hope you’ve all come to your own conclusion about what exactly is being shown in the above garden. Feel free to enlighten me on your decisions. Upside down it kind of looks like notes on a musical staff. On its side it could be, like, a chorus of trumpets. Or maybe it’s just a bunch of question marks. As in what the hell are you on, Joe?

Answer: happy grass.

When I finished the first draft of this piece I never thought I’d be able to reproduce it, but, happily, I think this piece far exceeds its former.

As you drive up through Ontario, where I’m from, the rocks you see hedging in the highways make this sudden shift from red clay to white stone and its really striking. You feel a bit like you’ve drifted thoughtlessly through a toll booth into some foreign land. Of course, Canada had the potential to be many foreign countries (and doubtless will be, someday), but as it stands, it’s just one long, sprawling swathe of geographic diversity. 

I sort of unconsciously chose the stones in this picture to reflect my experience of earth in that way (my family made annual trips to Killarney Park, where the red/white split is most pronounced).

This pic was my first attempt at a Hokusai homage, but I realized that what was to be a tidal wave had the potential to be a cresting mountain peak, and I shifted gears. 

Side Note: A lot of my early work feature this “Sun Emblem” kind of anomaly like you see in the upper left. I’ve tried to move away from this tendency. It strikes me most times as being kind of childish. Like a rudimentary crayon job of a happy house with happy people and a happy sun. Maybe some happy grass.

I could use some happy grass right about now.

Anyway, I thought the Sun Emblem worked in this piece so I left it in. It gives the picture a kind of height that I like. Also, it sort of reminds me of those red artist signature stamps you sometimes see in the corners of Asian art.

Expect to see a lot of more of this kind of design when I begin work on my Lord of the Rings stuff.

The first draft of this piece I did at East Wind, just fooling around, trying out some new techniques (I found myself getting too mired in left-to-right, up-to-down type, Western thinking style gardens), so I started making wild swooshes that didn’t start on one side and connect with the other, but, rather, faded out, like tracks in the snow.

Then this dude came in and was like, “Hey, I like the lotus design.”

And I was like, “Lotus, eh?” and I busted out the samurai swords and chopped him in half in a frenzy of unleashed artistic fury. Blood sprayed about the tiny room, ruining the design, forcing me to commit it to memory with ninja-like photographic reflexes. 

That didn’t really happen. It was more of a sushi knife.

Seriously, though. The lotus comment made me pretty resentful all that day. And it almost made me try something different. Almost kept me from hatching the five elements plot in the first place (fire was the first).

I think it’s neat how fire and water are the least serene of all the designs. A sort of natural pandemonium vivifies both elements, broken down to their raw representations. What I’m implying is that fire and water both have multitudinous applications that are kinda dull. I mean, there’s only so long you can stare at a smokestack.

But if you just try to picture the elements themselves, on their own, free from earthly restrictions, I don’t know. There’s just something explosive about both of them. Whereas earth, wood and metal are mostly boring if left to their own devices. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge hiking enthusiast. But chemically speaking, fire and water, they just got it going on. 

Which is why they have such little power in Feng Shui, no doubt. More on that later.

Sometimes I feel like this is a really boring one. But I wanted each element to have a distinctive style. Water uses a lapping technique, fire, a swooshing, tapering technique, earth, an enjambment technique, metal, a focused technique, and wood, a streamlining technique. 

So it’s not just that the pictures depict the element in a differentiating way stylistically, but also technically. 

Also, if you’re a sand gardener at home, you know what a bitch it is to get all the base lines straight. And, if you’re a regular Sand Zen viewer, you know that I don’t always put the strictest effort into achieving this first rule of zen gardening (I should really get around to talking about that someday, but I think my gardens will eventually give you all you need to know). 

Anyway, what I was going to say was, with all the base lines being a little crooked, it gives the feeling of a real woodland area behind the tree image. 

As I said in the last post, the stones are meant to resemble fruit in this one. But the more I look at it the more the stones look like earrings. My girlfriend Simone, a talented artist in her own right, made us a sweet earring tree out of coat-hangers. If I get around to it, I’ll post a pic of her creation here.

As promised, I’ll be posting the Elemental Cycle Series,a five parter, including water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. This order, you might notice, is known, in Feng Shui terms, as the creative cycle. In other words, to invoke any particular element in any corner of the room, you have to build up to it with the two elements preceding it. There’s more to it than that. But that’s a whole different canoodle of oodles.

This piece, Man Overboard!, was inspired by the work of world-famous Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusai. You’re more than likely familiar with his piece, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Well, it was that piece in particular (which, if you look closely, resembles a yin-yang) that inspired me to think of how to express waves as these cartoony, mountainous things. 

I love the idea of many men being swept out to sea. All of them bumping into one another, drowning, flailing, clutching, churning, hopeful and doomed. I mean, there’s a reason that Titanic sold so well, and it’s not the acting quality. 

We love tragedy. Does it need to be said?

All my favourite bands reflect this: Tom Waits, Radiohead, The Decemberists, on and on and on. Of all the emotions, sadness is the juiciest.

It occurs to me that all the stones in all the elemental pictures represent something. In water, they represent people. In wood, fruit. In fire, cinders. In earth, uh…earth? Sedimentary lines? And in metal, nothingness.

Each of these correlations has, I think, a sweet, poetic resonance. After all, aren’t we all just…water?



January 23, 2009


I was inspired to this one after watching the opening to The Usual Suspects not too long ago. Also, by a poem I wrote called Citylights, in the style of my father-in-law, the people’s poet James Deahl. I used to ride my bike to my 12 am – 2 am radio show, Saturn’s Rings, at a local university, and to get there I’d bike around the Hamilton harbour, and Cootes’ Paradise. It was in this way that I first saw the crazy visual effect of what appeared to be vast, descending walls of light, stretching bottomlessly into a faux-chasm, but were actually just streams of reflected light from the trail-posts across the harbour.


across the harbour

make Van Gogh’s
yellow icicles

dance and shiver
down laps of liquid glass

like drooping gold necklaces tempered
in the hands of black fire

the deep walls
of a never-carved chasm

city of lights