Architect Moshe Safdie Likes Legos (Breaking Bad Fans Do, Too)

Here’s my attempt to build Habitat ’67 out of Legos like Moshe Safdie once did. My preschooler wanted her Duplo® back… and I longed for stronger spatial skills.

Here’s my attempt to build Habitat ’67 out of Legos like Moshe Safdie once did. My preschooler wanted her Duplo® back… and I longed for stronger spatial skills.

If you’re a parent of a young child, like I am, you likely have LEGO® in your house. With some relief—since Legos are a fairly wholesome, harmless distraction—and maybe even pride, you’ve watched your kid stack and lock those distinctive bricks of plastic for hours on end. You’ve probably gotten down on the floor to join the fun. [Less fun: stepping on a Lego.]

Lately it feels like I encounter Legos in more places than my living room. In early summer, I kept hearing about an exhibition, The Art of the Brick®, on view at a surprising venue: Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. At its hilltop museum, my family and I eyed thirty awe-inspiring sculptures by “brick artist” Nathan Sawaya, who used thousands of Legos to handcraft each work. A few weeks later, two separate groups of friends reported that the new hotel at LEGOLAND was actually pretty cool. In mid-July, I stumbled upon a story on NPR.org probing why the Danish toy company had launched a product line specifically for girls. The reporter concluded with the right question: “Would it be so hard to develop—even market—toys for girls and boys to enjoy together?” On his “Thinking Brickly” blog, David Pickett studies the Lego gender gap more closely.

As summer waned, Legos continued to pop up in my life. Lost in a Breaking Bad internet vortex as the series finale drew near, I learned that a Lego imitator, Citizen Brick, quickly sold out of its controversial “Superlab Playset,” featuring “minifigs” of Walt (in yellow lab suit), Gus (in Los Pollos Hermanos button-down), and Mike (sporting grey stubble but looking far less hard-boiled as on TV).

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s underground “office” = totally disturbing plaything

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s underground “office” = totally disturbing plaything

Eventually Legos became a topic of conversation at work, as we geared up for our fall exhibition, Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, opening October 22. As it turns out, the renowned architect, who has designed and built our Skirball campus in four phases over thirty years, used to toy around with Legos early in his career. In his book The City After the Automobile: An Architect’s Vision (Westview, 1998), Safdie describes how he began to develop a new concept for urban housing:

I began constructing large models out of Lego, stacking plastic blocks representing houses one on top of the other, each one forming a roof garden for the unit above…. This would lead two years later to Habitat, a project I designed and constructed as part of the 1967 world’s fair in Montreal.

Each of the units kinda does look like a Lego, huh? Habitat’67. Construction view. Image courtesy of Safdie Architects.

Each of the units kinda looks like a Lego, huh? Habitat ’67. Construction view. Image courtesy of Safdie Architects.

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Kicking Off Sunset Concerts with The Belle Brigade!

Summertime at the Skirball means Sunset Concerts—FREE Thursday night performances of the best in American and world music! To celebrate, each week a different member of the Skirball’s Program Department will preview the upcoming performer, giving a little insight as to how and why they were perfect for this year’s series. Read about the band, view photos, watch videos … then make your way here each Thursday to see the band live and in person in our magnificent outdoor courtyard. First up: indie band The Belle Brigade, this Thursday, July 25, at 8:00 p.m.

The Belle Brigade. Photo by John Peets.

The Belle Brigade. Photo by John Peets.

I saw The Belle Brigade for the first time in April 2011, when they opened for k.d. lang at the Troubadour. I hadn’t heard of them before then, but the buzz began in the line to enter the venue. We happened to be standing next to some of their family friends who were excited to see the performance. These enthusiastic, proud friends talked up the band’s folky pop, Fleetwood Mac sound and gorgeous harmonies—reminiscent of the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel. I admit to being somewhat skeptical, despite sibling bandleaders Barbara and Ethan Gruska’s impressive musical lineage: their father, Jay Gruska, is an accomplished songwriter and their grandfather is legendary composer John Williams.

Once inside, my husband and I rushed to the front—we made it to third row, center stage—to position ourselves for k.d.’s set, still more than hour away. When The Belle Brigade took the stage, I thought, “Okay, let’s see what these guys can do.” Continue reading

Take Five with Hunter Hunted

In just a few short months since forming, Hunter Hunted has already made a big splash, including a nationally televised gig on Conan, a raucous set in front of a packed crowd at the recent Make Music Pasadena festival, and upcoming dates with Weezer and Fitz and the Tantrums. The duo, made up of Dan Chang and Michael Garner, writes songs with soaring melodies and intricate harmonies mixed with a slightly hard edge. (Their music video for “End of the World” shows them running for their lives in a post-apocalyptic landscape.)

On Friday, July 12, come watch Hunter Hunted perform in the Skirball’s outdoor courtyard during Into the Night: Secrets and Truth, a late-night celebration of the exhibition Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open. The night also features the band Harriet, a special art performance created by artist Gary Baseman and choreographer Sarah Elgart, and other activities.

Hunter Hunted recently took a break from recording to answer a few questions from the studio:

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Let Us Show You Around

Skirball_Mural-1243-cropped

Photo by Bebe Jacobs

Skirball_mural_titlewall

Photo by Bebe Jacobs

When I began my job as a curator at the Skirball in summer 2012 I was asked to rethink the exhibition program in the Ruby Gallery, which is not only an exhibition space, but also the most communicative and communal space at the Skirball. I thought that we should find ways to work with these parameters and not against them. When I began to reflect on my own experiences at the Skirball, I remembered that I immediately felt welcome and, to my surprise, I found out that the notion of welcoming is an important part of the Skirball’s mission statement. So it seemed like a perfect first idea—to create a large piece about welcoming as seen through the eyes of insiders and outsiders. By “insiders,” I mean everyone who works here (staff, docents, volunteers) and by “outsiders,” I mean artists that weren’t familiar with the Skirball. I had already worked with Antje Schiffers and Thomas Sprenger a few times before in Germany and knew they would be a perfect fit for such an open yet specific idea. So I contacted them and asked if they could imagine developing a project about the idea of welcoming that includes all the people who work here. They were excited about the idea. Antje and Thomas spent two weeks in residency at the Skirball, interviewing the “insiders,” and then they returned home to process everything they’d learned. The final result is a smile, they said, a mural consisting of wall painting, text, and paintings on wood, now up in the Ruby Gallery through September 1. The exhibition has been up for a few months now, so I felt it was time to catch up with Antje and Thomas, and reflect on the fascinating process that led to this wonderful mural.

Let’s start by talking a bit about the process, about how this project gained shape.
Thinking about the Ruby Gallery, our first impulse was to work with its functions, not to insist on it being just an exhibition space. We knew very quickly that we wanted a big mural. And it was clear that we would include the voices of all the insiders—all the people who work here—in that mural.

welcoming-officeWe talked to people from the security department and administration as well as to Museum curators, docents, and volunteers. For that purpose we opened a ‘welcoming office,’ which most of the time was a physical office in the Museum department. But it also was a traveling office; we met the kitchen staff in the kitchen, Continue reading

Building Baseman’s House

How exactly did we build Gary Baseman’s house in our Getty Gallery for the exhibition, The Door Is Always Open? It probably would take about fifteen separate blogposts to describe it and I’d still be leaving things out. So, by sharing some behind-the-scenes images, I’ll try to show how we went from this:

IMG_2956…to this:

IMG_2903…to this:

IMG_3688Hopefully, this will help explain why we decided against this:

(The initial design plan called for using pre-made movie set flats such as the one shown here)

The initial design plan called for using pre-made movie set flats such as the one shown here

…and opted for this:

(he design team used period furniture and windows along with home moulding and trim to create their own “sets”.

The design team used period furniture and windows along with home molding and trim to create their own “sets”

There are so many good discussions to have it’s hard to know where to begin. From how best to use the furniture from Gary’s parents: Continue reading

Brooklyn’s Best: Our Noah’s Ark Puppet Designer

There's Chris, greeting me at the door to his studio.

Chris Green, at the entrance to the Red Hook studio suite.

Brooklyn is cool. Way cooler than I am (47, married with child, driver of a Volvo, living in Brentwood—you get the picture). And even cooler than Brooklyn in general is a particular artist’s enclave in a particular section of Brooklyn called Red Hook that is the workplace of designer/puppeteer Chris Green. Chris is none other than the visionary creator of thirty-five-plus kinetic animals—some freestanding with moving parts and others full puppets in the bunraku tradition—that inhabit Noah’s Ark at the Skirball™. Designed in collaboration with the Noah’s Ark creative consultant team led by Alan Maskin and Jim Olson of Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects, Chris’s life-sized creatures, from Japanese red foxes to South African zebras, are absolute icons of Noah’s Ark. Their beautifully carved wooden heads and outlandish bodies are fashioned from discarded items as diverse as whirling air ventilators and wooden sake cups.

Hence my excitement over visiting Chris in his Brooklyn studio while on a family trip to the East Coast last week. My mission was to check in on a new family of animals that Chris is working on: four mountain gorillas who will be coming aboard Noah’s Ark permanently this June. These adorable gorillas have movable arms and hands, and bodies made from repurposed material. Their heads, made of basswood, are carved by Chris’s gifted colleague and studio-mate, Eric Novak.

Isn't he just so serene and beautiful!

One of the gorilla heads in process; carved by Eric Novak.

Each time I’ve visited Chris’s studio over the past seven years I’ve felt like I was entering Geppetto’s workshop, and this time was no different. It’s a magical place, with dusty tools and gadgets of all sizes and puppets of every conceivable style—some created by Chris and others by Eric or one of the other designers who share the two-story workspace, capacious by New York standards. Continue reading

Destined to Puppeteer: An Interview with Elizabeth Luce

Elizabeth's "Moon Lady."

Elizabeth’s Moon Lady.

Elizabeth Luce is a puppeteer, storyteller, writer. Her puppet performance “The Emperor and the Nightingale,” based on one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved tales, will be performed at the Skirball’s second annual Family Puppet Festival on Sunday, April 7. I sat down with Elizabeth as she was preparing for the show to ask her about the magical world of puppetry.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I think puppetry and I were destined for each other, and would have come together no matter what, but my first important puppet experiences were because of my kindergarten art teacher, Mr. Blake. He would bring puppets out to talk to us. We were enthralled, sitting in a circle around his chair. There was a puppet show of his with puppets that lit up under black light, which made quite an impression on me. He also was responsible for guiding me to build my first real rod puppet (see below). Pretty funny puppet, right? That’s actually the “improved” version; a year later, I ripped off his hair and taped on smaller eyes.

Elizabeth's first puppet.

Elizabeth’s first puppet.

Also, the local library—hurray for libraries!—had a half dozen books on puppets and puppetry in the adult section. I checked them all out multiple times as a child. In particular, I loved the look of the Czechoslovakian puppets, and that has been a visual influence that’s stayed with me always: clean simple lines with nice stylization.

Which puppet or puppeteer captured your imagination when you were younger?
I loved, loved, LOVED “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” and to this day I think they are special. The show played during the early days of television (1947–1957) and Burr Tillstrom, the puppeteer, would arrive at the TV studio with only a loose plan in his head for the show, but mostly he just improvised, even though the show was broadcast live! This would never happen nowadays, of course. There was a set of puppet characters and also Fran Allison, a warm and gracious lady who often stood out in front of the stage and talked with the puppets. Although Fran served as “straight man,” she was what made all the funny puppet characters and their special world work so well. Because she believed in them, we did too.

Watch a scene from “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie”—Fran, Madame Ooglepuss, and Buelah Witch rehearse a song from The Mikado:

Where do you get inspiration for your shows?
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How Visions Connected with Voices: An Interview with Arnold Schwartzman

Arnold Schwartzman, Master’s Series 2012. Quote: Susan Sontag. Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Arnold Schwartzman, Master’s Series 2012. Quote: Susan Sontag. Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Arnold Schwartzman is the creative director of the Voices & Visions poster exhibition, in which compelling Jewish texts are graphically visualized by contemporary designers. The program was initiated and produced by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and we at the Skirball Cultural Center are excited to be the first institution to show this engaging poster series. In curating this exhibition for our Ruby Gallery I had the chance to meet and talk to Arnold Schwartzman about this project.

Arnold, you have two functions in the Voices & Visions exhibition: you are the creative director and you also designed a poster. Let’s talk about the poster first. You chose the quote by Susan Sontag, “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” and came up with a simple, yet complex image of silent speech. How did you find the visual language for it? And why did you choose this quote?
As the creative director of the Voices & Visions project I had the advantage of being able to choose the pick of the crop of quotations prior to offering them to the other artists. I decided to select the Susan Sontag quotation as I realized that there are many ways to visually interpret speech. The challenge was which direction I should take, other than displaying a zipped-up mouth!

I have always been intrigued by sign language of one sort or another. I was once invited to design a poster for the revitalization of the city of Naples, Italy, in which I incorporated an engraving of the Neapolitan hand gesture for ”beauty.” On another occasion I designed the cover of the house magazine of a television network. I created the magazine’s name in nautical flag semaphore, a nod to the company general manager’s naval background. Or for the opening title sequence to my documentary on World War ll, Liberation, I spelt out the letter V for Victory in Morse code. I recall, as a child during the war, seeing the dot-dot-dot-dash painted on many of London’s street walls and air raid shelters.

After finally arriving at my concept, my next step was to decide on the technique and medium. At first I contemplated drawing the hands realistically, or perhaps in a more decorative style, then serendipity stepped in during a visit to my local art store—I finally found the answer when I noticed a display of wooden articulated hands. “Bingo, I’ve got it!”

How did your collaboration with the Grinspoon Foundation actually come about?
My wife, Isolde, who is my collaborating partner, and I had the opportunity to meet with philanthropist Harold Grinspoon and Madeline Calabrese, the campaign’s project manager, in New York City in March 2011. But my involvement with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation began earlier with a telephone call from venerated graphic designer and educator Louis Danziger. He was one of the artists who visually interpreted well-known quotations for the landmark advertising campaign Great Ideas of Western Man that was produced by the Container Corporation of America (CCA) between 1950 and the 1970s. Harold Grinspoon’s idea was to take the CCA concept and translate it to a Jewish perspective by selecting significant quotations by Jewish luminaries throughout history, each representing a Jewish value, and have them interpreted by Jewish artists. And it was Danziger who asked if I was interested in the project as he wished to recommend me as creative director.

Our first task was to come up with a name and logotype for the project. I finally proposed the name Voices & Visions as it not only expressed the coming together of the two entities of words and images, parallel to this I discovered that by strategically placing the two Vs together they form a Star of David.

Indeed, that is a wonderful “coming together.” Could you talk a bit more about the process, about the making of Voices & Visions?
Certainly. A team of scholars chose the quotations, after which copyright clearance was obtained prior to sending invitations to the prospective participants. With the knowledge of the unique styles of each of these artists, we carefully chose quotations that we thought would stimulate their style and thinking. This approach produced unexpected results—some predictable, some surprising.

In June 2012 Isolde and I spent a week in Springfield, Massachusetts, supervising the print check on the large run of the eighteen V&V posters, printed in several formats. After a period of eighteen months we now find it most gratifying to see the fruits of our labor so beautifully displayed at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Isolde and Arnold Schwartzman in front of Arnold’s Visions & Values poster. Photo by Doris Berger.

Isolde and Arnold Schwartzman in front of Arnold’s Voices & Visions poster. Photo by Doris Berger.

Actually, the title Voices & Visions makes me think of the Skirball’s permanent exhibition called Visions and Values, for which you created an amazing audiovisual kaleidoscope of Jewish contributions to humanity as well as graphic decade panels of notable events. Both of those works feature a multi-perspectives approach­­, and so does Voices & Visions. Continue reading

Sticking Not Stuck

Simon Ford takes notes in front of the Rainbow Arbor, where a “Red Sea” scene will be.

I took this photo of our graphic designer, Simon Ford, as he jotted notes in front of the Rainbow Arbor, where a “Red Sea” scene will be.

Following up on my last SkirBlog post, I wanted to share more about the design of Exodus Steps, but time, time, time! We’ve been working away at it late, late, late. The story’s so big, and the Skirball campus is so full of possibilities, we’ve gotten carried away with ourselves. This is going to have to be fast.

Since agreeing with the Skirball we were going to make Exodus Steps, we have (cutting out all the tedious administrative/visa waiver stuff that no one wants to hear about, least of all me):

  1. Re-read the book and identified all the must-have, could-have, and don’t-need scenes.
  2. Written a draft script.
  3. Decided who needs to say how little to make the story function and have some degree of character/humanity. (Remember, we’re cutting all the text into vinyl speech bubbles, so no one is allowed to soliloquise.)
  4. Thought about what objects the audience needs to see/interact with to tell the story and make the thing look attractive. (As in most movies, we’d like the story to be told by sight and action rather than words.)

    Footsteps in the courtyard, ready to be followed.

    Footsteps in the courtyard, ready to be followed.

  5. Designed most of the props, including feet. As this is the eighteenth edition of the Steps Series we have a fairly extensive archive of designs from previous shows so cow, sheep, dog, and horse footprints don’t need designing. Simon Ford, our graphic designer, has created a new line of footwear for Exodus Steps as we aspire to show gradations of social class/wealth in ancient Egypt through the footprints—which admittedly is a little ambitious (the Sherlock Holmes stories were amongst our inspirations for the series). Continue reading

Planning the Exodus

Years ago I was thinking about “teach-yourself-to-dance” floor mats and how it was unfair that dance had these but theatre didn’t. I imagined that with some ingenuity we could right this wrong. All we needed was an organization to allow us to plaster their building with adhesive vinyl.

In 2008 mac birmingham, our local arts centre, was looking to commission a piece to mark its closure for rebuilding. We pitched the vinyl idea to them, and given that much of the building was due to be demolished anyway, they figured we couldn’t do too much harm.

Stan’s Café Dance Steps. Photo by Ed Dimsdale

Stan’s Cafe Dance Steps. Photo by Ed Dimsdale.

Making Dance Steps was tricky, as we didn’t know how “teach-yourself-theatre installations” worked. We’d never met one before. We had to make up the rules ourselves. We had to learn the art of applying vinyl stickers, which in some cases is more complicated than it sounds (though in other cases my three-year-old daughter was happy to help and couldn’t believe sticking stickers was my JOB!). Continue reading