Kayaking on the Occoquan: Week 183

Polaroid of Barret kayaking on the Occoquan River: Manassas, Virginia

My parents store two kayaks along the southern side of their house. One is red, the other is orange and the both of them are covered with a few days’ worth of cobwebs. It was hard to navigate them around the corner of the house and when I finally had the right angle, I bashed into a beautyberry bush. The impact caused small purple berries and a variety of spiders to scatter across the cement.

“The spiders come be back an hour after you put them away,” my Dad warned me as he stated brushing them off with his hand. “You can’t keep them away.”

He was right but I grabbed a broom anyway. I didn’t like the idea of being trapped in the middle of the river with a spider crawling up my leg. Once the kayak was swept down I plugged in the leaf blower. The nozzle blasted all the plastic crevasses and then I positioned it so that the air created a spinning vortex of debris inside the kayak. Nimble little spider bodies swept along the walls like those dizzying theme park rides that just spin and spin and spin.

When the kayaks were as spider-free as they were going to get, Barret and I carried them down to the Occoquan. The river was one of the reasons my parents bought that house. You can’t see it from the windows, but it’s only a short stroll through the patch of trees on the other side of the road.

Because it was summer, a million miniscule bugs bounced along the surface of the water, their bodies so light that their movement doesn’t even cause a ripple. As we paddled down river we saw jumping fish and turtles resting on water-logged branches. One statuesque white heron watched us approach before it suddenly burst skyward.

Colvin Run Mill: Great Falls, Virginia

Most of the homes along the river use the water for recreation. However, it wasn’t too long ago that these bodies of fresh water were important for food and transport. The Colvin Run Mill, which is 45 minutes north of my parent’s house, is a beautiful example of an early 19th century mill. The mill is still used for grinding and the nearby gift shop sells bags of cornmeal, grits, wheat and buckwheat flour.

Polaroid of flowers at Colvin Run Mill: Great Falls, Virginia

While my parent’s bend of the Occoquan is too tranquil for a watermill, it is the perfect speed for a gentle kayak ride. There is nothing better a hot summer’s day than a shady river and the rhythmic splash of a paddle breaking the water’s surface.

How to get to the Colvin Run Mill: 10017 Colvin Run Road, Great Falls VA 22066

Neon Museum Boneyard: Week 182

Polaroid of the Las Vegas Club neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard, Las Vegas

I was with my color photo class the very first time I visited the Neon Boneyard. Even before it became a proper institution, a museum with a visitor’s center and a security guard, the Boneyard was something special.

As soon as my film was developed, I locked myself up in the photo lab. The color darkrooms were small individual rooms along a short dark corridor and they had a vinegary smell. It might not have been practical to study film in a digital age, but it felt more meaningful. My film was a tangible object that captured the jagged glass, the rusted metal, the heart and soul of Sin City history.

Polaroid of the Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

“Neon lighting took on a particular resonance in Las Vegas and in other parts of the open landscape of the Southwest. Without many trees or buildings, the illuminated neon sign could be seen from miles away in the evening. Western motels used the neon medium perhaps more than any other business. This was also perhaps afforded by the low profile of casino and motel buildings when casinos within Las Vegas’ city limits were once limited to two stories. The low, horizontal profile has allowed building-mounted signs to be seen at longer distances. Traveling north on the Strip, the neon glow of Las Vegas acted as a beacon signaling toward the city.”(Spectacular: A History of Las Vegas Neon).

Polaroid of the Lido neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

Within the last two years, the neon collection has been split into two different yards- the North Gallery is for commercial shoots and weddings while the Neon Museum Boneyard is available for public tours. One of the most exciting new additions to the facility, which was still in the process of relocation the last time I was in town, is the visitor center. The clam-shaped lobby, designed by Paul Revere Williams, was salvaged from the demolition of the La Concha Hotel in 2005.

Polaroid of the Stardust neon sign: Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

The Neon Museum Boneyard is a testimony to the ebb and flow of Vegas culture. From the atomic font of the 50s to the kid-friendly themed signage of the 90s, the history of this desert valley is written in neon. Hotels might come and go, the wedding chapel vows too, but the Boneyard will still be around fifty years from now to document the changing city. At least, that’s what I would bet on.

Polaroid of wedding neon sign. Neon Museum Boneyard: Las Vegas

How to get to the Neon Museum Boneyard: 770 Las Vegas Blvd North

Nevada Test Site Tour: Week 181

Operation Teapot - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Operation Teapot – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

You should have seen the food back then. Only $2.50!

Steak and lobster $5.00!

Then- imagine- 10,000 people,

It was a block party!

Area 23

Every month, the DOE Nevada Field Office runs a free tour of the Nevada National Security Site (formerly known as the Nevada Test Site).

John, one of the retired employees chaperoning the tour, narrates with a touch of a Southern drawl. Over the PA system he covers both the history of the site and whether or not the camera battery is charged. “I just wait while this thing spools up,” John mumbles into the microphone. Dario, the other guide, stands up when he has something to add to the conversation.

The isolated outpost of Mercury once had a bustling hobby club, swimming pool, church, movie theater, eight-lane bowling alley, and tennis court. That was before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1992. Now, the only sign of life at the gateway to the Nevada Test Site are the two stationed guards and the woman behind the canteen cash register. She has long black hair and curled bangs.

Whenever a bomb was being detonated, all unessential personnel were sent to Mercury. Of course not everyone had been as excited as John and Dario about the nuclear test block parties. During the heyday in the 80s, the entrance to the Nevada Test Site was often filled with protesters. If they crossed onto government property they were put in a chain link pen with a port-a-potty until the police took them to Beatty for processing.

From where those protesters sat, they would have seen a nondescript desert landscape in every direction. They knew better though. Just beyond the rolling hills, where Area 23 transitions into Area 5, is a closed basin- an innocuous name for land with a water system that does not drain into another body of water and has high levels of evaporation. It is an ideal location for ensuring the quality of nuclear weapons.

Damaged Vehicles - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Damaged Vehicles – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Area 5 Radioactive Waste Management Complex

Overlooking Area 5 is a series of benches where press and dignitaries once observed the atmospheric tests on Frenchman Flat. The warped and twisted wood planks are surrounded by green brush and little yellow signs. Caution Radioactive Material.

Our first stop is at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex. It is comprised of a few cream-colored metal buildings surrounding a covered picnic table. A few employees are having a fish fry in the shade with a retiring colleague. Our tour bus pulls up to allow the manager of the complex to board.

During his portion of the tour, Jon speaks about the complexity of plutonium. He tells us that transuranic waste has a higher atomic number than uranium. Bioturbation, remember this word, is the study of the disturbance of soil. That’s why we put a four foot cap of earth on the waste; insects won’t go deeper than that.

The land is divided into ‘cells’ and within those earthen graves the waste is carefully recorded by columns, rows and tiers. Contaminated dirt goes into large white ‘super sacks’ and cranes deposit the 72,000lb casks containing hot material. Cell 19 received some waste from Dayton, Ohio. “I feel close to home,” Jon jokes.

Aside from hazardous waste, the facility accepts classified military waste. It’s more affordable to bury the classified material than it is to shred it.

Building 6-902 Wet N’ Wild

“I’ll let Dario tell you about that because I gotta call Brenda.”

Dario wears aviator glasses and a baseball cap with a roadrunner on it. He began his career at the test site in 1988 as a water engineer.

During the construction of Building 6-902, Dario had ordered a hydrostatic test on an important 12” pipeline. Some obvious part was overlooked, which makes the guys sitting next to me groan in disbelief, and 300,000 gallons of water flooded the facility.

“I wasn’t the one who forgot it,” Dario claims, but he has never lived it down. The nickname is printed on the tour itinerary. As the bus rolls past Wet N’ Wild, I see an antelope’s white bottom running through a field of lush scrub. It had rained a lot more than normal in the area.

Preparations underway for an underground nuclear test - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Preparations underway for an underground nuclear test – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Area 7 Icecap Ground Zero

The white corrugated emplacement tower is 152ft high and has a sign affixed to the front door that says no classified discussions in this building. Thick diagnostic cables snake out the back of the tower, through the desert, and into recording trailers encased within shock-absorbing aluminum honey comb. These cables would have been lowered down the ‘event hole’ to capture information about the bomb’s performance.

Operation Icecap was in the works when the nuclear testing moratorium went into effect. Had the project been given the go ahead, the 500,000lb test package would have been chilled with dry ice to -42 degrees to simulate the temperature a missile system would encounter in outer space. Because the test was discontinued the site has remained as it would have been prior to a test, emplacement tower and all.

Yucca Flat runs along the western edge of Area 7. The dry lake bed has the dubious distinction of being one of the most popular locations for nuclear tests. Out of 928 total tests, 828 of those were underground and a significant portion of those took place on Yucca Flat. Ten miles away from the peach-colored lake bed was News Nob. People like Walter Cronkite stood there amongst the Joshua trees in anticipation of an atmospheric detonation.

Sedan Crater - Courtesy of Emmet Gowin

Sedan Crater – Courtesy of Emmet Gowin

Area 10 Operation Plowshare

On July 6, 1962 a hole was dug 635ft deep. A 104 kiloton thermonuclear device was inserted and, when detonated, displaced 12 million tons of dirt. The result was one of the largest man-made craters on Earth.

In an age of unlimited nuclear possibilities, Operation Plowshare was part of a larger concept introduced to the public by President Eisenhower. The concept, Atoms for Peace, was interested in the application of cheap nuclear energy for peaceful applications: excavating land, open pit mining, and dam construction. Surprisingly though, the most promising use for underground nuclear explosions was the stimulation of natural gas production. To this end, Operation Plowshare only ceased at the end of Fiscal Year 1975.

Today, Sedan Crater is fronted by a metal viewing platform and rimmed with small puffy bushes. This is the only site on the tour where the guides are allowed to take a group photograph, but they are not allowed to show the horizon.

Loomis Dean—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Caption from LIFE. "Fallen mannequin in house 5,500 feet from bomb is presumed dead."

Loomis Dean—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Caption from LIFE. “Fallen mannequin in house 5,500 feet from bomb is presumed dead.”

Area 1 Operation Cue

Just off in the distance, on Rainier Mesa, was a good café. At least it used to be really good.

“And,” John added, “it used to have a rec center.”

John pops a DVD of archival footage from Operation Cue into the stereo equipment. An attractive young woman named Joan Collin enters the footage with a purse on her arm and a patterned scarf loosely tied over her hair. “As a mother and housewife,” Joan assures us in that soothing Hollywood accent that went extinct in the 1950s, “I was particularly interested in the food test program.”

During the early hours of May 5th, 1955, Joan drank hot coffee on Media Hill while a small group of Civil Defense Volunteers jumped into a trench close to ground zero. They had thick, bulky jackets and hardhats. “As I watched the people eating,” Joan notes after the detonation, “I realized that mass feeding would be an important job for civil defense.” The camera pans over a troop of dusty men preparing a feast made with ‘salvaged cans.’

“Don’t let me forget, Dario,” John says as he switches the PA back on, “to call Patricia to get the photos set up for us.”

Film still from Operation Cue Footage - Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Film still from Operation Cue Footage – Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

We drive into Area 1 along Yucca Flat and when we turn off the paved road the scent of dust drifts through the AC. Soon the bus is approaching a brown two story timber house. It is one of two structures still standing after the famously televised detonation of the Apple II bomb in 1955.

The structure is in relatively good condition, considering it was only 6,600 feet from ground zero. It has a red brick chimney, asphalt shingles on an undulating roof, and a reinforced concrete basement. Through the front door I see a white wood staircase and through an upstairs window I see Garfield spray painted on a wall. The tour bus slowly circles around the house. The gentle rocking has put Barret to sleep.

Although there are no more full-scale nuclear tests, the residual radiation from decades of testing makes Yucca Flat ideal for first responder training. The nearby Transportation Incident Exercise Site simulates nuclear terrorist attacks. Overturned cars, trains and shipping containers are strewn in front of a replicated Main Street. A jack rabbit hops past an airplane crash.

The Nevada National Security Site has a lot of scary associations, but those are carefully tucked away. What is visible looks as harmless as a neglected backyard with rusting cars on blocks.

I don’t know how John and Dario feel about the ethics of nuclear testing; they do a very good job of treading neutral ground. It must have been so thrillingly banal to work a 9-5 shift at a nuclear test site. I can see how easy it would have been to focus on just the science and forget the big picture.

***

Operation Ivy - Mike Shot - Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

Operation Ivy – Mike Shot – Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

In fact checking this article, I came across a name that was familiar but didn’t mean much to me: Operation Ivy. In 1952 President Eisenhower gave the green light to Operation Ivy. Two bombs were detonated under this program in the Marshall Islands. The first one, named Mike, was the world’s first hydrogen bomb. The yield for the device was 10.4 megatons.

When the dust settled and the ravaged landscape surveyed, Gordon Dean, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, sent Eisenhower a short message.

“The island of Elugeleb is missing!”

Humankind had just harnessed nuclear fusion, the same process that takes place in the sun. I can’t think of anything more sobering than that.

About: the Nevada National Security Site tour

About: NNSS Photo Library

About: NNSS Factsheets

The Archibald Prize: Week 180

'Penelope Seidler' - Medium: acrylic on canvas - Artist: Fiona Lowry

‘Penelope Seidler’ – Medium: acrylic on canvas – Artist: Fiona Lowry

The Archibald Prize is one of the most prestigious arts awards in Australia. The annual prize is named after an Art Gallery of NSW trustee and since 1921 it has been given to the best portrait made in Australia/New Zealand.

To be eligible for the $75,000 prize, the entrant must reside in Australia or New Zealand for one year prior to submission deadlines. JF Archibald had stipulated in his will that the subject be ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics.’ While this guideline is more loosely interpreted, the following rules are hard and fast:

  • Must be a painting.
  • Must be a portrait painted from life, with the subject known to the artist, aware of the artist’s intention and having at least one live sitting with the artist.
  • Must NOT exceed the size limit of 90,000 square cm (eg 3 × 3 m, 1.5 × 6 m). Dimensions apply to the actual work of art, not the mounting or framing. Exhibition wall height is 3.4 m, floor to ceiling.
  • May be a multi-panel work as long as the overall dimensions do not exceed the size limit above.
  • May be painted in any medium (eg oil, acrylic, watercolour, mixed media).
"I wanted to paint him as a mountain" - Medium: oil on canvas - Artist: Abdul Abdullah

“I wanted to paint him as a mountain” – Medium: oil on canvas – Artist: Abdul Abdullah

The guidelines might be clear-cut, but they’ve still generated their fair share of debates. Throughout the 20s and 30s, artists were conservative in their subjects and style. Realism dominated and it wasn’t until the early 40s that a radically different kind of portraiture won the prize.

"Evan on a Sunday morning at the gallery having a ginger tea with some old fat snoring man and some lady pushing someone's annoying crying baby around in a blue pram, and no, you can't smoke here mate" - Medium: Ink on Chinese paper - Artist: Jason Phu

“Evan on a Sunday morning at the gallery having a ginger tea with some old fat snoring man and some lady pushing someone’s annoying crying baby around in a blue pram, and no, you can’t smoke here mate” – Medium: Ink on Chinese paper – Artist: Jason Phu

William Dobell had painted a fellow artist Joshua Smith. What ensued can only be described by the Art Gallery of NSW as a shit storm. Their words, not mine:

Opposition to the win was intense and two Royal Art Society members, Joseph Wolinski and Mary Edwards, took legal action against Dobell and the Gallery’s trustees, alleging that Joshua Smith was ‘a distorted and caricatured form’ and therefore not a portrait. In contrast, the supporters of Dobell described the portrait as both ‘a likeness or resemblance of the sitter and a work of art’, which allowed for distortion for the purpose of art.

Mr Joshua Smith - Medium: Oil on canvas - Artist: William Dobell

Mr Joshua Smith – Medium: Oil on canvas – Artist: William Dobell

In response to critics, Dobell said that when he painted a portrait he was ‘… trying to create something, instead of copying something. To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation. The real artist is striving to depict his subject’s character and to stress the caricature, but at least it is art which is alive.’

The case stimulated massive press coverage and public comment – by those both familiar and totally unfamiliar with art. Ultimately, the Dobell case became a lively debate about modernism. The question of whether the painting was portraiture or caricature equally asked the questions of what constituted a portrait and what was the relationship of realism to art in general. Justice Roper upheld Dobell’s award on the grounds that the painting, ‘although characterised by some startling exaggeration and distortion… nevertheless bore a strong degree of likeness to the subject and undoubtedly was a pictorial representation of him.’

"Real thing" - Medium: acrylic and oil on canvas - Artist: Mia Oatley

“Real thing” – Medium: acrylic and oil on canvas – Artist: Mia Oatley

Controversy struck again in 1975 when artist John Bloomfield’s photo-realist painting was disqualified. The image was based on a photograph of a British-Australian filmmaker he had never met. By way of the ruling, it was clear that capturing the essence of a known individual was more important than just realistic rendering alone.

Not too many boats were rocked at 2014 Archibald awards though. There was a lot of good work, the right amount of questionable stuff, and a few oddballs; however pretty much everyone agreed that the painting Rose Seidler was worthy of the substantial award.

The winner Fiona Lowry might have been walking on air, but I was also feeling pretty lucky to have been given a free ticket to an exclusive reception with the artists. There were delicious hors d’oeuvres and a buffet table of free champagne. My friend and I traipsed through the galleries back to front and when we scaled the marble steps back up to the foyer we were greeted with anther flute of champagne.

I already love art receptions, but this was like being upgraded to business class. Cheers to the JF Archibald for getting this ball rolling.

About: the Archibald Prize

How to get to the Art Gallery of New South Wales:  Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney NSW 2000

Marrickville Markets: Week 179

Marrickville Market statue garden: Sydney, Australia

Sydney loves it markets and what separates the Marrickville Market from all the others is its distinctively alternative vibe. It’s the kind of place where you can pick up organic food and run into a guy in a red beanie with Jesus hair that is passing out flyers for a charity concert. That obviously wasn’t my experience.

There are many reasons why these civic-minded people might like the Marrickville markets, but I’m guessing the primary reason is the food. The bread is delicious and a gluten-free option is always on the table. Green juice is available by the gallons and there’s more organic produce than you can shake a stick at.

Barret enjoying the Fritter House at the Marrickville Markets: Sydney, Australia

If you can’t wait to go home to cook your delicious vegetables, there is always the Fritter House. Barret’s plate of fritters came with dill mayo, hand cut fries, sausage, and a side salad. It was absolutely delectable and I was more than a little bit sad that I had filled up on corn fritters from a competitor’s stand.

Reverse Garbage by the Marrickville Markets: Sydney, Australia

The last and definitely best reason to visit the markets is Reverse Garbage. It’s a local institution that began in 1974 when a group of teachers came together to divert landfill-bound material that could still be used for creative projects. Forty years later the material is just as eclectic and reasonably priced.

Reverse Garbage: Marrickville, Australia

It wouldn’t hurt if the place had a spring cleaning, but that doesn’t detract from the fun of searching through the rabbit warren of curiosities. There is pretty much everything you could possibly wish to find, from plastic baubles to old video projection screens. I wish this place had been around when I was in art school!

Reverse Garbage: Marrickville, Australia

How to get to the Marrickville Markets: Cnr 142 Addison & Illawarra Rd, Marrickville NSW 2204

How to get to Reverse Garbage: 8/142 Addison Road, Marrickville NSW 2204

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