The Arts
October 4-11, 2006

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Toshi Kawai

Photographs by Laura Mattingly
Japanese Heavy Metal: New to the United States, artist and metalworker Toshi Kawai takes a swing at bringing his Eastern styles to Santa Cruz.

Proof of Life

Over 300 artists in Santa Cruz County open their homes and studios to the public this October

By Laura Mattingly

For many artists all over the United States, the passion of creation is not what pays the bills. And in some ways Santa Cruz's reputation as an artistic community stands in stark contrast to its reputation for being one of the most expensive places in the country to live.

Toshi Kawai, artist and metalworker, moved from Japan to the States with his wife three years ago. He creates natural forms--frogs, snails and pea pods, simplifying the figures while capturing their essence in the medium of precious and nonprecious metals. His highly realistic, delicate technique recalls the precision and beauty of traditional Eastern poetry out of the Tan dynasty.

To make a living, Kawai makes handrails.

I ask Kawai why he continues to make art even when it is not so economically profitable.

Over the phone I hear his wife, Etsuko Kawai, translate the question to him in Japanese. There is a long pause before he answers, and she translates slowly back to me in English.

"He says it is the proof of his life," says Etsuko Kawai.

For three weekends in October, over 300 artists in Santa Cruz County, including Kawai, will open their homes and studios to the public for a self-guided tour. This year will mark the 21st annual Open Studios Art Tour, hosted by the Santa Cruz County Cultural Council. Many of these artists are not and may never be world famous. And many have day jobs. But for one month of the year, you have the opportunity to find out what many of your neighbors consider to be the proof of their lives.

What's the similarity between quilts and rocks? Many of us wouldn't make the connection, but artist Susan Else designs rocks out of quilts. She also quilts three-dimensional chess sets, dioramas, buildings and 3-foot-tall humanlike figures drinking coffee.


Susan Else

A Little Off the Wall: Susan Else began her venture in textiles as a weaver, and then as a 'flat quilter,' until experimenting with the third dimension.

If you ask nicely, she'll let you touch them.

"For the big figures, I put together a bunch of fabrics and then cut the pieces, quilt the pieces, assemble all the pieces together and then stuff them and put an armature in, and sort of sew them all together," says Else. "I make the skin first for the big figures by assembling a lot of different fabrics."

"I started out as a flat quilter," says Else.

The quilts decorating her house now are anything but flat. Behind her couch is a piece called Boundary inspired by a Celtic wall. The pile of rock--or pillows?--is made with mossy colored fabrics, greens, blues and grays, and most resembles a livestock wall--the most beautiful, not to mention light-weight, livestock wall you may ever see.

Else is not into squares.

"The technique is called machine reverse appliquÈ, where I take two layers of fabric, sew on them and then cut away the top layer so you end up with these patterns that you wouldn't make if you were piecing, and then I stabilize the edges with mono-film," says Else. "It's a way to merge fabric and have it look very organic as opposed to geometric."

Participating in the Open Studios Art Tour for her third year, Else says her displays pleasantly surprise folks who wander in.

"Some people walk into the house and they have no idea what medium it's going to be, and, 'Oh my gosh, it's cloth! Can I touch them?'"

Else's first artistic venture was in weaving, and she took her first quilting class when she was pregnant with her daughter 20 years ago. The whole thing started as a hobby, but Else had grown up in a family of artists, her mother a sculptor, and her father a painter, so it wasn't long before Else could no longer deny her artistic routes.

"So when finally the work started morphing in the three-dimensional direction, there was a lot of osmosis-learning that I could just draw on," says Else. "You know, how forms work in the world, how sculpture works. I was kind of on the fringe of the art-quilt movement. So I wasn't doing exactly traditional quilts, but they certainly didn't look like this either."

Her quilts came to life when she added a raised border and was inspired by a fellow quilter to try out figures.

"And when you have a little raised border and the figures together, you ended up with people on a stage. And once you have a stage, you have narrative. ... So then it just took off. The first pieces were very simple, tiny dioramas, very shallow. A few inches thick. And then gradually they started coming off the wall."

"Textile takes such an extravagant amount of time that you could never charge what they're worth," says Else.

Between the immeasurable number of hours spent on each piece, supplies and patience, Else's art pays for itself at this point but it doesn't pay for her. Since leaving her own job, her living expenses have been supplemented by income from her husband's full-time job.

"But Open Studios has been a good place for me to sell," says Else. "The work straddles several media, so this doesn't just fit in any gallery. So in some ways I'm better off putting it up myself and having people come through. And with galleries of course there's always commission."

Ben Llano Hecht

Art's For the Birds: Bilingual artist and teacher Ben Llano Hecht has quite the feathered collection, and often incorporates winged 'messenger' figures into his art.

Artist Ben Llano Hecht makes his living from creating an engaging space, his personal gallery next door to his own Seven Directions Children's Art School.

Upon entering his workspace you'll be accosted by a chorus of screeching tropical birds. The walls are lined with shelves of art books, fish tanks, figurines of baseball players, stones eggs and antique clocks. He has drawers of daguerreotypes, tintypes and old pocket watches, and there's a computer in the corner.

Hecht, clad in worker's overalls, walks quickly around the room, from one piece to the next, each a collage or assemblage of various images and objects placed and blended together, lending the feeling that the various elements of each have an inherent connection.

"These are a few pictures of winter storms, so it's a montage of winter storms ... some of these are planispheres, or archaic maps, I use a lot of old images of space and things like that. ... This is an original picture from the 19th century of these two kids. ... These are milagros, like if you go to churches in Mexico you can usually buy these outside on the walkway from people selling them, and then you bring them inside and put them on the altar--they're called milagros which means miracles. Frida Khalo used them a bunch."

The thin, quick-talking Hecht pauses from darting around the room when the rare bird sitting on his shoulder defecates explosively onto the front of his coveralls.

"Ewwww, he totally got me! I knew that was going to happen!"

"In this one, the picture of the tree is one from West Cliff ... and then this is a picture of slate, I have some slate rocks at home ... and this is a picture I bought on eBay of the New York skyline from like 1912. This is a photograph of wings from one of my finches that died, and this piece has the real wings."

Sure enough, one of Hecht's messenger figures has a tiny white-feathered finch wing fastened to it in beeswax.

He leads me to one corner of his studio with many tools and small colored containers.

"This is all encaustic painting with beeswax. It's basically the oldest form of painting other than cave painting. A lot of people think it's the word 'caustic,' which means something bad, but it's not, it's encaustic, from the Greek word enkosticos, which means 'to burn.'"

Kitchen tools, dental instruments and hardware brushes fill the corner.

The piece he works on while I'm in the studio incorporates images of a large Santa Cruz wave and a 19th-century photo of a man looking into the distance enlarged with the help of a scanner and Photoshop. In the background are dated astronomer's maps, a crow and the word "South." Hecht explains that the direction South often indicates looking or traveling into the past.

"And then there's an angel, or a messenger person," says Hecht.

Though winged "messengers" appear in many of Hecht's works, as do many other religious symbols and imagery, he prefers his art to be thought of as spiritual rather than religious.

"I borrow from everywhere," says Hecht.

"It's hard to call them angels at this point. Once you say 'angel' it's like a lot of cheesy things, and a lot of angel art is pretty bad. They're messengers, because for me it's about relationships across distances."

The human figures and animals in Hecht's works often gaze toward each other, communicating across varied unlikely combinations of oceans and cities, landscapes and maps, some of which appear very obviously to be from different time periods. The result is a blending or synthesis of time and space, the beeswax spread over the work functions as a connective tissue drawing various parts into a cohesive and mystic whole.

"Part of the reason it takes so long is that every single layer has to be fused, otherwise it doesn't hold together," he says, pointing a heat gun toward the wave crashing on the board.

The medium itself acts as a time capsule for the images and objects suspended inside. Hecht gets out a book with photographs of ancient Egyptian sarcophaguses from 100 C.E.

"They've found food in tombs captured in wax that's still good; you could eat it if you wanted to," says Hecht.

Hecht exposes his students to fragments of history, religion symbols, mythology and animals, hoping to inspire them on many sensory and creative levels.

"I like the idea of having my studio attached to the school because then it's not something abstract for the kids, they can see someone working."

Hecht supports himself and his art mainly through the art school, covering rent for the studio, all his supplies and his birds.

"The overhead is high," he says. "But it's worth it. This is my playground."

The Open Studios Art Tour takes place the first three weekends in October; all studios open the first two weekends, Oct. 7-8, and Oct. 14-15, and some select artists open for the third, 'Encore' weekend, Oct. 21-22. Studios are open 11am-6pm. Artist guide/calendars are $20 and serve as admission for all three weekends. For information contact or 831.475.9600.

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