The month of May marks annual National Bike Month, during which people in cities all over the country are encouraged to ride more, learn about bike safety and mechanics, and commute to work. I myself have been a bike commuter for almost twenty years, first when I lived in Seattle, riding through rain, sleet, and hail to get to my high school teaching job, and now climbing through a mountain pass to get from my home in Santa Monica to my job at the Skirball.
I am often asked why I ride my bike to work (and if I’ve totally lost my mind or have a death wish), especially in the last few years during the massive construction project along the 405, which has made the 405 corridor bumpier and more haphazard (and hazardous).
For me, riding my bike has always been a mix of personal pleasure and public service. I enjoy the exercise of it, the hour or so of vigorous riding to begin my day. But I also see it as a way to honor that very core Jewish value which we at the Skirball try to impart through our programs and exhibitions: that of taking care of the earth and each other. I feel, perhaps naively, that I’m doing something (albeit a small something) for our planet: a bit less CO2 emitted from a tailpipe, a few more friendly exhales in the direction of the plants along the road, a bit less stress put out into the world.
I start out each early-morning ride pedaling through the dark in Santa Monica with a red light on the back of my bike and a headlamp strung up around my helmet. Continue reading
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.
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
Need someone to walk you through the options? I can help!
It’s wedding season! One of my personal joys at Audrey’s Museum Store is meeting and guiding engaged couples through the process of selecting the perfect ketubbah. A ketubbah is a Jewish wedding contract and often a decorative document that hangs proudly in the home for years to come as a symbol of mutual love, commitment, and partnership. A ketubbah may be the first contract a couple signs together and the first piece of art purchased together.
With the multitude of options for text, personalization, and artist techniques (among them lithography, hand-painting, giclee printing, and papercut), selecting a ketubbah can be a confusing decision. As ketubbah specialist, my goal is to simplify the process, to give personal attention and historical context, and to make this experience memorable and meaningful.
The Vorspans posing with their beautiful and freshly inked kettubah!
What’s especially gratifying are the continuing relationships with couples I’ve worked with over the years. In 2007, Elana Taylor and Ben Vorspan came to Audrey’s to choose their ketubbah. After much deliberation and contemplation—Audrey’s carries hundreds of ketubbah designs created by dozens of artists from all over the world, from L.A. to New York to Israel—they chose “Beside Still Waters” by Amy Fagin. What they liked about it—and what I find so appealing about Amy’s designs—are her intricate patterns and vibrant colors.
I was among the many excited visitors and staff who were at the Puppet Festival on Sunday, April 1. It was a joyous day. During the daylong program, I worked with a terrific photographer, Peter Turman, to capture the day in pictures, meeting many Puppet Festival attendees along the way and catching countless special moments. Here are just ten memorable moments caught on camera that give a sense of what the Puppet Festival was all about: an array of puppets throughout the day and fun for the whole family.
A little storytelling and impromptu drumming with Noah’s Ark fans Griffin and Zoe.
I have the best job. Ever. My job title is something like Retail Sales Associate at Audrey’s Museum Store, which means I sell toys and books to people visiting Noah’s Ark at the Skirball. But really I like to call myself the Toddler Whisperer because I spend my days interacting with very young children. My measure of a good day isn’t how many sales I’ve had, but rather, how many of my “regulars” have come to visit. I have a whole pocketful of friends:
Jasper, my animal expert, knows everything there is to know about the wild kingdom. At four years old, he can identify a Xenops or a vole as readily as a pig and a cow (the latter two being alike because, as Jasper informed me recently, “they are both farm animals”). On one of his visits, he brought his most special animal book to share with me. I was expecting a small board book or a thin paperback. Out of his backpack came a heavy animal encyclopedia that must have taken quite a bit of effort for him to lug around. I was so happy that he wanted to share it with me. Together we sat and looked through it.
You can always tell when Aidan and his younger brother Connor are approaching the store. You hear the calls of “Shaaarrrooonnn! It’s my friend!” as Aidan enters the store and gives me a hug. Aidan likes to sit at our little “touch table,” where kids can feel free to play with select store goodies, and try out the toys. He often comes up with creative names for them. Continue reading
The Rogue Artists Ensemble will perform The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone this Sunday at the Skirball's Puppet Festival. Another step in my short but ongoing journey knowing puppets.
So the early history of me and puppets is probably not dissimilar from yours if you were born in the early seventies. It goes something like this:
When I was really little, King Friday and Queen Sara Saturday ruled a kingdom of hand puppets on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Cornflake S. Pecially manufactured rocking chairs, X the Owl admired Ben Franklin from inside an oak tree, and Lady Elaine Fairchilde lived in a Museum-Go-Round, a design concept that would either delight or nauseate (or both), but give architecture critics plenty to chew on.
Daniel Stripèd Tiger inhabited a grandmother clock on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Courtesy of Photofest.
I’m no camper. The platform wedges that I wear religiously and the complete absence of sweatshirts from my wardrobe give me away. So you can imagine that I was a little uneasy about the prospect of spending a night “camping” at the Skirball with my seven-year-old daughter, Georgia, as an attendee at one of the first Skirball family sleepovers.
With folk-art Noah’s Arks “sailing” above them, my daughter, Georgia (left), and her good friend Gillian (in sparkly hat) get ready to say good night at a Skirball family sleepover. You don’t have to rough it if sleeping bags aren’t your thing. Airbeds welcome!
More accurately, I was ambivalent about it. While the idea of shimmying into my jammies in a setting far, far more public than the comfort of my own home gave me the willies, I was genuinely excited to experience Noah’s Ark at the Skirball from the perspective of a nighttime inhabitant. As project director for Noah’s Ark, I’d been closely involved in bringing it to life, and I love it on a visceral level (insofar as one can feel that way about a museum space). The thought of taking part in a nocturnal Noah’s Ark experience with my own daughter, who came into this world as the project itself was being born, was a thrilling prospect.
I’ll confess that Georgia and I didn’t start off as model campers. Soon after checking in, we trundled off to choose our sleeping quarters on the ark along with other families. Spotting what we agreed was the perfect spot—a cozy corner beneath a display of Skirball folk-art ark vessels from around the world—we unpacked our gear and set up camp. Minutes after I’d inflated our air mattress (yes, of course I brought one), Georgia happily flopped back onto it, shouting, “This is the life!” But then, with panic and dismay, I watched our bed deflate pitifully… with Georgia still lying on top. We were forced to sleep directly on the gallery’s wooden floorboards that night, which gave me a new understanding of the term Not a happy camper (though my daughter slept like a baby). Continue reading
Nestled into a makeshift “nest,” pieced together from materials we used for a recent art project, two baby hummingbirds found on campus seemed to float in a pink cottony cloud.
I manage the staff and operations of Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, so responding to a lost child or a spill on the gallery floor is no problem. Knowing what to do with two tiny, helpless birds unable to feed themselves or fly? That is not in my handbook.
So, when I was at my desk recently and heard that two hummingbird babies were found in the grass near the rainbow mist arbor, I groaned. The Skirball is situated right in the Santa Monica Mountains, so living amid wildlife—snakes, lizards, spiders, foxes, raccoons—is expected. It’s not unusual to encounter a family of deer standing majestically in the arroyo garden when I’m heading out to my car after work. I kindly leave them alone, and they kindly leave me alone. But when we encounter an injured animal right in our backyard, we can’t very well leave it alone.
Quite fortuitously one of our Noah’s Ark gallery educators is a trained, licensed wildlife rehabilitator. When faced with an injured animal, she’s been kind enough to oblige and whisk the animal off to safety until she’s done teaching. But this doesn’t make for good practice, and I knew that we needed to take her off the hook for responding. Coming up with a protocol had been on my to-do list, but I had not yet thought it through. So here I was, groaning because it had come up… again. Continue reading
That's me (in blue on the left) along with my colleague Jackie Herod at the Skirball Admissions Desk. We're the smiling faces that greet visitors as they walk through the door. Be sure to say hello next time you visit!
One of my favorite parts of my job as Visitor Services Director at the Skirball is to talk with our guests and to hear their stories. I’ve always been a seeker of stories. I grew up in a big family with lots of interesting characters sharing their tales. I caught the journalism bug early, at Floyd Central High School in New Albany, Indiana, where I preferred feature assignments to the news, because that’s where you get the real scoops. Even now, I think, What’s his/her/their story?—sometimes to myself and sometimes out loud to others—when I meet someone. I’m always looking for one’s unique experience and perspective in order to make a connection.
With 2011 about to wrap up, I think back to all the fascinating people I’ve come across and the things I’ve had the chance to talk with them about.
There was the young father who came to visit Noah’s Ark at the Skirball with his wife and three children. When I asked if he’d ever visited before, he revealed that he hadn’t been to the Skirball since his prom was held here ten years ago. (I kick myself that I didn’t ask if his wife was his date that night!). Kindergarteners, meanwhile, love to tell me that Noah’s Ark is their “favorite place.” But who said Noah’s Ark is just for kids? I met a gentleman who brought his mother and their extended family–eighteen in total hailing from four generations–to celebrate her ninetieth birthday! Continue reading
Welcome to SkirBlog, just another way into the Skirball. Photo by John Elder.
A few weeks ago, a woman from the East African nation of Burundi found herself visiting our newest exhibition, Women Hold Up Half the Sky. She was part of a small entourage traveling with the African Union Ambassador to the U.S. As the group walked through the gallery with the Skirball’s Museum Director, Robert Kirschner, the Burundian woman suddenly stopped in her tracks, listening intently. She thought she must be imagining it, for what she heard were the voices of girls singing a traditional Burundian lullaby. Where was that sound coming from, so far away from home? Bob assured her that the music was in fact part of the commissioned audio installation Amplify, by multimedia artist Ben Rubin, designed specifically to amplify the voices of women and girls that often go unheard. Moved by the idea of the project and the music from her homeland, our visitor asked if she could listen again.
This story quickly made its way around the Skirball, as stories tend to do around here. On any given day, at any moment—while grabbing a cup of coffee, rushing across the courtyard for a meeting, working a lecture or concert—any one of us staff or volunteers hears about… well, all sorts of things. Baby hummingbirds abandoned on campus and lovingly rescued by security staff and Noah’s Ark facilitators. A shy teen who found his voice participating in the Skirball’s spoken-word residency and, on the last day of the program, read a surprisingly emotional poem before a crowd of fellow high schoolers. A curator’s eye-opening visit to the L.A. home of a legendary émigré artist whose lesser-known work in film may well be the subject of an upcoming exhibition (spoiler alert not needed; we’ll tell you about it when we can). Negotiations underway for a double-bill concert starring Algerian Jewish pianist Maurice El Medioni and Cuban percussionist Roberto Rodriguez, whose joint album Descarga Oriental blew our programming team away. Continue reading