Category Archives: Art projects

Ask the Hippie, Vol. 2, Issue 2

From a search term used to find this blog today:

Q. Where are the best places to take st louis snow photos?

A. Tower Grove Park. It looks like something out of a postcard. Especially the Shakespeare statue. I took some stunning snow photos out there about eight or nine years ago.

Also, I would suggest a quartet of snow-covered concrete animals:
1. The Turtle Playground (on Oakland, just off I-64, across from a little Irish pub in Dogtown; I want to say you take the Kingshighway exit south and then hang a right on Oakland)
2. The Bevo Fox (at the A-B brewery; I think it’s on Arsenal, but if not, Arsenal will get you to the brewery, and you can wander around from there — or just go take the tour, which will also get you close to the Clydesdales and several other photogenic parts of the complex)
3. The bears in front of Kiel Opera House (just down Market Street from Union Station, as I recall … and while you’re at it, the Mermaid Fountain in front of Union Station would make a cool snow photo)
4. The sea serpent at the City Museum (the museum is on Washington Avenue; I forget the cross-street you turn on to get to the parking lot surrounded by the serpent fence, but there are usually banners all over Washington Avenue to let you know when you’re getting warm)

A trip up the Arch would give you a nice vantage point for an aerial view of the city during a snowfall (or any other time), and City Hall (on Tucker, I think) would be gorgeous in the snow, as would those water intake towers that are visible from the middle of the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in North St. Louis County.

Dreaming of spring


The diagram above gives you a rough idea of the sort of dementia concretia I am planning this spring. The path at the top of the diagram will lead to the garden gate. The brown area at the center of the large cavern-design meander labyrinth will be a planting area surrounded by bricks, with a large semicircular stone at the bottom, etched with the word “UNLESS” — a reference to the place where “the Lorax once stood, just as long as it could, until somebody lifted the Lorax away.” In the center of this planting area will be either a birdbath, a sculpture of the Lorax (if I can figure out how to construct such a thing), or a smoke tree, crape myrtle, or other suitably Truffulaesque plant.

The smaller spiral will lead into a lawn ornament, stepping stone, sculpture, or decorative planting of some description (perhaps a birdfeeder or butterfly pool) and then back out to the pond. The two paths at the bottom of the image lead to the clothesline (to be purchased and installed when the weather breaks) and to the deck.

The path appears to be black and green in this diagram. The green represents some type of planting along the edges — probably oregano or another mint that tastes good and will tolerate partial shade and total neglect — and the black just indicates where the path will be. The path itself will be constructed of Sackrete and will have bits of broken dishes, mirror shards, colored glass fragments, interesting marbles, broken figurines, and various and sundry other castoffs embedded in it. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, look at this amazing house in France. Amazing work. My little labyrinthine garden path won’t come close to this level of artistry, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

As soon as the weather improves, I’m going to start making regular visits to Goodwill, thrift stores, yard sale outlets, and junk shops to acquire materials for the mosaic. I intend to build the path a little at a time, as my schedule allows, and let the work be very freewheeling and expressive of my joy at being outside, creating something pretty.

I think this will be a good project. I have no idea how long it will take, but it should be a lot of fun, and when it’s done, I should have something unique and very striking.

To give you a sense of the dimensions, the “UNLESS” circle is four feet in diameter. It will be built first, followed by the main spiral path. I’ll make the path to the clothesline after the main spiral is done and install the path to the pond, with its secondary spiral, last.

This picture doesn’t come close to what’s in my mind, but it should give you a rough idea of what I’m talking about.

Not pictured is the Green Man sculpture that I plan to build over to the left of the path leading to the garden. The rest of the yard as pictured will belong to the dogs, of course.


I had an idea I might do a full-color sketch of the labyrinth I want to put in the backyard this spring, but for various reasons, Thursday turned out to be extremely long and extremely tiring, and I am pretty thoroughly drained at the moment.

It’s supposed to be slippery this weekend — two meetings I was supposed to attend (one on Saturday and one on Sunday) have been called off — so maybe I’ll have time to work on a few projects while I’m stuck at home.


Fire! Fire! Fire’s cool!

Red Fork to Mitchell: We have fire!

Anybody who saw me stand in the middle of the Luna Cafe with a spark tester in one hand and a ruby-glass cherry in the other during the 2004 Illinois Route 66 Association Motor Tour knows what this means.

Anybody who didn’t witness that doesn’t need to know what this means. All you need to know is that today marks the beginning of the end of a project that has been hanging over me for the better end of three years. Today, I can begin the process of relearning an art medium I studied for a year and a half in St. Louis. Today, I can knock the rust off, practice things I haven’t attempted in years, and start the long road toward completion of a project I promised out in 2004 but never had a chance to finish.

Bill Fernau was right: When beginning any project, you should never give an estimate of the completion time or cost, because invariably, it will cost twice as much and take three times as long as your best guess.

If my best guess is correct, Bill will be just about right on both counts.

thinking that there’s no better way to start 2007 than by finally keeping that New Year’s resolution I made in 2005….

Dymaxion Christmas


I saw this unusual display on old 66 between Sapulpa and Tulsa the other night. The photo doesn’t begin to do it justice.  The best way I can describe it is “Dymaxion Christmas light display” — in real life, it looks like the result of some DNA-splicing experiment involving Bucky Fuller, Clark Griswold, and Peter Parker.

The concept is simple enough: It’s just strings of white lights stretched from random branches to random spots on the ground, like so many guy wires. The effect is amazing, though — as you approach, you get the impression that you’re coming up on some exotic street fair, with tents and pavilions everywhere, or perhaps some sort of geodesic structure outlined in lights.

As you get closer, you realize the lights aren’t outlining anything — they’re just an art installation unto themselves, and the way they shine through the branches makes them look like a giant spiderweb. It’s a really cool display, and one I’ve never seen before. I hope they leave it up for a little while after Christmas. It’s worth driving out there to see.



Downtown Sapulpa has a nice Christmas light display, too. The first photo is the view down Dewey (66) the other night. The second photo is from Martha’s Corner, a little park on an otherwise vacant lot on Dewey. Sand Springs has a little park kind of like that, right next door to the newspaper office, and it’s really nice. Tiny greenspaces seem to be popular in this area. I’m glad. I like little parks like that — they’re sort of like hidden treasures in the middle of a busy downtown.

Speaking of busy, I’ve been hard at work the last couple of days, putting together a little present for my little nephew. I am creating a book for him called The Hippy-Dippy ABCs. He’s too young for it just now, but I hope to have it done by the time he’s old enough to look at it. Here are a few illustrations from it:



That Fillmoresque lettering is hard to read, but I’m going to use inDesign to put the book together, and I’ll have the text printed below the images in a standard font. That way it will look cool on the page but will still be easy to read.

So far,  I’ve gotten up to J for Janis. I’m kind of stuck on K (“kynd bud” works, but I don’t think we need to encourage the baby to smoke weed, and “Kerouac” is too hard to illustrate), and I haven’t come up with anything for X. If anybody has any brilliant ideas, please toss them my way.

That’s about all for now. I had to buy India ink today because my ink had gotten old and started to congeal on the bottom, making it impossible to work with. While I was at the store, I found a great pen-and-ink set that had two pens and eight nibs for less than $8. It was too nice a set to pass up. I like using pen and ink to add details and outline things when I’m working with watercolors or colored pencils. I think that deep black ink really makes things pop out, and my style is cartoonish enough that I can get away with it. I use the same technique on murals, except I do them with acrylics and then use paintmarkers to outline things and add detail.

Someday I’d like to get into superrealism, but I don’t have time at the moment. I’m sure Jamie will enjoy colorful little hippie cartoons more anyway.

I’ve got a really cool art project coming up next month: My friend Terriann is loaning me her kids (ages 3 and 6, I think) for a decorating project in my home office. My aunt gave me a Barnes and Noble gift certificate for Christmas, which I am going to use to get a copy of Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. When the book comes in, I think Jaiden and Corbin and I will read it together, and then we’ll paint Max and the Wild Things on my wall. Jaiden is kind of a wild thing herself, so she should enjoy that. Let the wild rumpus start! 🙂


Snow photos


I went over to Sapulpa this evening to grab dinner at the Happy Burger and shoot their wonderful neon sign in the snow. I like the Christmas lights on the building. I’m going to build them a Web site as soon as I get some information from them.

I love shooting buildings and signs on Route 66 in the snow.


I didn’t see Sapulpa’s parade. I think they were going to postpone it because of the weather, but I’m not sure. There were so many cancellations and changes around here in the wake of the ice storm that I can’t begin to keep track of them all.

Red Fork in the snow

Red Fork in the snow. I love those little ornamental shrubs flanking the entrance to the art gallery.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, Tulsa

First Church of Christ, Scientist, at the intersection of Route 66 (11th Street) and Boulder in Tulsa. Too bad I didn’t get out there this morning, when the light was coming from the east. Everything I wanted to shoot this afternoon was backlit. Still pretty, though, with the snow on the walls and bushes.


It was still snowing some when I got this shot of the snow piling up in my hanging baskets on the deck the other night. It was quite a storm.

Hope you’re in where it’s warm tonight.


Ask the Hippie, Vol. 1, Issue 8

Q. How do I take sharp, clear photographs of neon signs at night?

A. This is what I refer to as an “impress your date” trick: It takes about five minutes to learn, but most people don’t know how to do it, so you come off looking brilliant if you can pull it off. I put it up there with making French silk pie or teaching the dog to “gimme four.”

Here is how you do it:

1. Set your ISO as high as it will possibly go.
2. Get as close to the sign as you possibly can.
3. Open up your aperture as far as it will go. The aperture is your f-stop. The f-stop is measured with numbers like 2.8, 4.0, 5.6, 8.0, etc. You want this number to be as low as you can get.
4. Do not go below 1/100th of a second on your shutter speed. You can probably get away with something much faster than that, but that’s about as slow as you can go before things start getting blurry.
5. DO NOT USE FLASH. It will only lighten the background, which is exactly what you don’t want.

The cool thing about shooting neon is that you are almost guaranteed to get some kind of image, because you are shooting light itself. Since a camera works by recording light, it is almost guaranteed to “see” a neon sign, even if the sky around the sign is pitch-black.

Lower shutter speeds will produce a halo effect around the sign. Medium shutter speeds will give you a modest halo but will allow you to pick up detail, such as the electrodes and even the sides of the tube (which will look like faint black lines on either side of the light). Higher shutter speeds will give you a simple outline of the sign’s shape.

Here are some examples:

This sign at the Wigwam Motel on Route 66 in San Bernardino, Calif., was shot at 1/250th of a second, aperture f5.6, and 1600 ISO. The sign itself is maybe eight or nine feet off the ground, so I was pretty close to it when I was shooting. In retrospect, I probably could have gotten a nicer shot if I’d dropped to 800 ISO or used a faster shutter speed — I think this image is a little too bright, making it a bit hard to read (especially on those vivid white letters).

This neon swallow is mounted above a garage at the Blue Swallow Motel on Route 66 in Tucumcari, N.M. It’s probably 10 feet off the ground, or thereabouts. The lighting is a bit strange, because the entire property is illuminated with architectural neon. I shot it at 1/125, f5.6, and 1600 ISO. Notice how the camera picked up the edges of the glass tube and the details around the electrodes. Running the shutter faster or slower would have lost that detail — a faster shutter would have faded the lowlights into the background, and a slower shutter would have given a blown-out halo effect, like this:

This sign is also at the Blue Swallow, but it is inside a garage, just at eye level. I shot it at 1/250, f4, 1600. Notice the difference a few feet (and a slightly more open aperture) will make: Even with the shutter speed twice as fast, I wound up with a much brighter image, because I was closer to the sign and thus picking up more of the light. See how the details of the neon tubes disappear? If I’d dropped to 800 ISO or upped the shutter speed to 1/500 or so, I probably would have picked up more detail.

The famous rotosphere outside El Comedor de Anayas (an excellent Mexican restaurant with absolutely killer posole) on Route 66 in Moriarty, N.M. Shot at 1/200, f5.6, 1600. This thing is at least 15 or 20 feet in the air, but it’s so big and so bright that you don’t have to get carried away with the shutter speed to pick it up.

Here are three views of the Oasis Motel on Route 66 here in Tulsa. Notice the difference in the brightness of each one, and the variations in the amount of detail you see on the sign itself (not just the neon) as the shutter speed and ISO change:

1/160, f5, 1600 ISO. Notice how fuzzy the light looks — the shutter is slow, the ISO is high, and the camera picked up a lot of glare around the letters. This is fine if that’s the effect you want, but I usually don’t.

1/160, f5, 800 ISO. Notice how slowing down the ISO reduced the amount of glare around the letters and made the edges look a little more crisp without losing the intensity of the light.

1/200, f5, 800 ISO. Just a tiny bit more speed on the shutter, and the yellow moon (or whatever that thing is) loses a lot of intensity. When you’re dealing with yellow, purple, soft violet-blue, and sometimes green, you have to be careful not to speed up the shutter or slow down the ISO too much, because the tubes that produce these colors are coated with a powdered chemical inside that can mute the color and make it less vivid.

The sign at Fenders’ River Road Resort on Route 66 in Needles, Calif., is about 12 to 15 feet off the ground, as I recall. It’s close enough that I could zoom in a little bit and get a very intense image at 1/320, f5, and 1600. I like how the “NO” part of “NO VACANCY” — which isn’t lit up — is visible, but the tradeoff is that the vacancy sign itself is way too bright for my taste.

Green is produced by using argon gas and a tiny bit of mercury inside a phosphor tube. Depending on the shade, you can end up with an extremely bright light, because the mercury intensifies the color. (It’s really cool to watch this process when a sign is being made. You put the finished tube on a transformer to age, but you leave the mercury at one end. After the argon has settled down and quit arcing inside the tube, you roll this little ball of mercury through it. If you leave it plugged into the transformer while you’re dropping the mercury, you can literally watch the tube change color as the mercury rolls through it. But I digress.) This is important to you as a photographer because, with a sign like this, which has both neon (red) and argon tubes, you have to make some decisions about how to shoot it, since one color is much brighter than the other.

This shot of the Blue Spruce Lodge on Route 66 in Gallup, N.M., is one of my favorites. I just love the way the sign glows in that dry western New Mexico air. The sign is very close to the ground (I seem to recall the bottom being about seven or eight feet up, if that), so you can get away with a very high shutter speed: 1/500 at f5 and 1600 ISO.

Below is another example of that decisionmaking I was talking about when you’ve got a sign with several colors and intensities. This sign hangs in a garage at the Blue Swallow Motel on Route 66 in Tucumcari, N.M. I am sorry to report that this room rate no longer applies. 😉

1/1600, f5, and 1600 ISO. I could get away with a shutter speed this fast because the sign is at eye level and very bright. The “$3” part looks about right, “UP” looks a little too intense, and “VACANCY” looks a little dim.

At 1/640, f5, and 1600, the “VACANCY” part looks better, but everything else gets a little too intense.

Hope this helps. I know it was a little long, but it’s hard to explain photography without going into a little detail and giving visual examples.


Suddenly feeling productive.

I went to Paintmaster today, gave Randy his key back, and picked up my paints, which I had deliberately left in his lobby until I finished the mural. With my paints back home where they belong, I feel a creative outburst coming on. I’m not indulging it until I get this house cleaned: bathroom, kitchen, living room, office, bedroom. (I’m not messing with Ron’s office. He’s on his own there.)

Where to start? Paint some random trompe l’oeisl on the wall for no apparent reason? Bake a batch of elaborately decorated sugar cookies? Fire up the torches and bend a set of neon tubes? Sew curtains for the Starlight Express? Clean fast and get to Lowe’s before they close to buy materials for new shelves? Dig out some scrap lumber and see if I can improve my virtually nonexistent skills with the jigsaw? Work on that watercolor project I’ve been kicking around in my head for weeks? Plan next year’s garden? Redesign my other Web sites?

So many projects … so little time. 🙂

I will report back in exactly four hours. With photos. Unless, y’know, I get distracted and find something extraordinarily cool to do while puttering around the house….


There’s a light

I have been overcommitted as long as I can remember. I think I was born with a to-do list in my hand.

This afternoon, I realized it was entirely possible that I might, at long last, finish enough projects simultaneously to end up with a completely empty list.

The last item is a mural-painting project I started almost a year ago. It took way longer than I expected. I worked on it all winter and into the spring, and when I finally got it done, it wasn’t really done, because I discovered little spots that needed touchups, and I got a suggestion about something I should add to fill out an empty spot, and I kept thinking I’d get a hand free to wrap up that last little bit.

Except I never got a hand free. Spring turned to summer, and summer turned to fall, and my plate piled higher and higher with projects. Each one I finished led to another new one … and sometimes three or four new ones.

In the past three days, I’ve laid out a newsletter, updated two Web sites with reciprocal links I’d promised out, called Sprint to have a mistake corrected on my cell phone bill, placed a call to my neon guy so we can finish installing some equipment in my studio, and started touching up that mural.

I can’t quite finish it this minute. The paint has to dry so I can come back with a paint marker and add some final flourishes. But for all intents and purposes, I’m done, and anything I don’t wrap up tonight when I go back (after I feed the dogs and grab some dinner for myself), I can finish tomorrow on my lunch hour.

The last time I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, Ronald Reagan was serving his first term as president.

It’s been so long, I’d forgotten what that light looked like. But it’s a glorious sight.

I’m going out to dinner with a friend tomorrow night. I don’t know how to explain what it means to me to be able to give her my full attention, without that obnoxious little voice in the back of my head yanging at me about how irresponsible I am for socializing when I’ve got projects to finish.

This is the first time in 23 years that I’ve had a chance to see how normal people live. This is the first time in 23 years that I’ve had a chance to find out what the phrase “down time” means.

God help anybody who even THINKS about dropping a project in my lap tomorrow….



In case you missed the comments section of yesterday’s post, my sudden enthusiasm for dementia concretia has inspired a similar flurry of daydreaming by my mom and my sister, who are probably going to end up being next-door neighbors in the near future. They are now plotting all sorts of craziness, from an Indian medicine wheel to a faerie garden (CAUTION: Cutesy, twinkly music begins automatically) to a sort of enchanted bunny forest inspired by Kit Williams’ Masquerade.

To fuel their daydreams (and yours) this winter, I have assembled a little collection of links to various and sundry gardens, restaurants, museums, books, mythological beings, works of art, roadside attractions, and various other ephemera generated by some of the world’s most creative minds. Happy surfing!

The Lost Gardens of Heligan (includes sound effects, so keep that in mind if you’re trying to look busy)
The Venice Cafe
City Museum
Dave Dardis’ Secret Garden
Firefly Lights (CAUTION: Site features obnoxiously loud, automatic music.)
Fake fireflies, butterflies, infinity mirrors, fountains, and more
Faerie houses
Various mythical creatures
Jack O’ the Green
Sheela-Na-Gig (CAUTION: Images are a bit, um, “adult,” albeit in a weird-primitive-looking-stone-carvings-found-on-14th-century-Irish-churches sort of way)
Another Masquerade site
Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book
Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Address Book
Maurice Sendak
Pippi Longstocking
Elmer Long’s famous Bottle Tree Forest
The Watts Towers
Labyrinths (the concept)
Labyrinth (the first reason your favorite Hippie Chick utterly adores and desperately misses Jim Henson)
The Dark Crystal (the second reason your favorite Hippie Chick utterly adores and desperately misses Jim Henson)

Feel free to add your own links in the comments section. These are just the ones I thought of off the top of my head. I’ll probably tack on more as I think of them.

Hippie, artist, gardener, and overgrown 4-year-old