“José Clemente Orozco in New York”: Roy Bentley’s Poem about Political Art

Image of Gods of the Modern World, by Jose Clemente Orozco

José Clemente Orozco in New York

It’s like this, light spills at a time
and place, and we cheer it as beautiful.
We jaywalk crowded streets that bum-rush us
into pulse stutters of traffic, which we do not cheer.
Why doesn’t a candle-white building with the late sun
gilding it stay that way, gilded, the watcher wonders—
rain sheeting down but stopping so gladness can rise
into pastel clouds, a democratic republic of runoff
founding governments-in-exile in the storm drains.
All the biographers agree Orozco dressed oddly,
that he was distracted and talked loudly to himself
on the street where, walking Brooklyn, day or night,
he learned that, in America, faces of the hopeful
constantly turn away since seeing obligates the seer.
Crossing from Mexico that first time, border guards
seized 60 of his paintings, as if brown naked human beings
were not a proper subject matter or art itself was illegal
or there were two kinds of hearts in Gringoland.
In the years just after the Great Crash,
and working in the shadow of Diego Rivera,
Orozco painted Gods of the Modern World
where the bones of dead ideas like Democracy
give birth to—what else?—more dead ideas.
Orozco’s “birthing” occurs on a bed of books
in a room of robed men where skeletal fetuses
ask, Where is the hope in repeating their mistakes?
The artist has painted faces that aren’t turned away.
Slits for eyes. In Modern Migration of the Spirit
a piss-yellow Christ has descended the cross, afoot
and wild-eyed, and sporting an ax. Later, in Mexico,
he creates wall murals with tanks and dive bombers—
his way of reminding the Afflicted who’s to blame.
When he falls in love with an American ballerina
named Gloria, it’s because the heart that fails
and fails trumps that other heart any day.

California’s Wild Edge: History, Poetry, and Art of Steinbeck’s California Coast

Cover image of California's Wild Edge, by Tom Killion with Gary Snyder

The Central California coast from Big Sur to Monterey Bay has become synonymous with John Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers, the iconic poet of the California coast who lived in Carmel from 1913 until his death in 1962 and influenced Steinbeck’s writing in the 1930s. In California’s Wild Edge: The Coast in Poetry, Prints, and History, the California artist Tom Killion reinterprets the landscape of Jeffers and Steinbeck’s California coast in image, poetry, and narrative uniquely suited to today’s ecology-minded audience. Influenced by the East Coast artist and author Rockwell Kent, a contemporary of Jeffers and Steinbeck, and by the art of Japan, a country that Steinbeck wrote about and visited, Killion has developed over a period of four decades a distinctive style of wood and linocut printmaking that perfectly serves the subject of his most recent book. Like Kent, he is a visionary artist with an eye for arresting image, lyrical text, and their marriage in beautiful books with popular appeal. In California’s Wild Edge, the Pulitzer Prize-winning California poet Gary Snyder—Killion’s mentor, friend, and collaborator—continues to be an essential source of inspiration, ideas, and information about the mystical topography and extraordinary ecology of the state celebrated in Killion’s art.

Image of Pt. Lobos, Carmel Bay, 2014, by Tom Killion

The Perspective from Point Reyes

Image of Tom KillionRockwell Kent’s work was inspired by the rugged terrain of Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine, where Kent lived from 1905 to 1910. Tom Killion has a similar relationship to Mount Tamalpais in California’s Marin County, where he grew up in the 1950s and 60s, and to Point Reyes, the isolated preserve on the Marin coast where he now lives and works. He became interested in book printing and poetry as a history major at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1970s. After graduation he traveled in Europe and Africa, returning to Santa Cruz to establish Quail Press before earning a PhD in African history at Stanford, the university Steinbeck attended but never finished. His first book, 28 Views of Mount Tamalpais, was published in 1975. Fortress Marin, his second, appeared in 1977, and The Coast of California: Point Reyes to Point Sur, his third, in 1979. During the 1980s he conducted historical research in Africa, administered a medical relief program in Sudan, traveled with nationalist rebels in Eritrea, and completed his fourth book, Walls: A Journey Across Three Continents (1990), which combines travel narrative with woodcut illustrations, as Rockwell Kent did in his books about wild, unpopulated places. In retrospect, Killion’s purpose as an emerging artist was clear early in his career: celebrating the human and natural ecology of people and places outside the mainstream of modern society, like Kent, an equally intrepid explorer.

Image of Big Sur Spring Sunset, 1990, by Tom Killion

Gary Snyder, Poet Laureate of Deep Ecology

Image of Gary SnyderKillion taught history at Bowdoin College in Maine from 1990 to 1994, traveled to Eritrea as a Fulbright scholar in 1994, and returned to California in 1995 to teach at San Francisco State University. His collaboration with the San Francisco Renaissance writer and environmental activist Gary Snyder, “the poet laureate of deep ecology,” resulted in three volumes of art and text devoted to California’s legendary landscape, all published by San Francisco’s Heyday Books: The High Sierra of California (2002), Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Print (2009), and California’s Wild Edge (2015).  Like John Steinbeck, Gary Snyder is a California native of Scots-Irish, German, and English ancestry with a worldwide reputation as an author and advocate on global issues. His progressive politics and activism, like Steinbeck’s, angered officials in Washington, D.C., and caused similar problems in his life. Like Steinbeck, he used his experience as a manual laborer in his early writing. Later he studied East Asian art and literature, lived and traveled in Japan, and became associated with the Beat movement centered in mid-century San Francisco. He received the 1975 Pulitzer Prize in poetry following the publication of Turtle Island, a book of poems and essays exploring humanity-in-nature from a holistic perspective similar to Steinbeck’s in Sea of Cortez. The spiritual dimension of environmentalism, East Asia, and the California coast and landscape informs his seven-decade career as a writer, one that bridges the generations of John Steinbeck and Tom Killion.

Image of Monterey Bay from Santa Cruz Pogonip, 2012, by Tom Killion

The California Coast from Big Sur to Cape Mendocino

Image of Point Reyes from McClure's Beach, 1979, by Tom KillionThe art of California’s Wild Edge, Killion and Snyder’s third collaboration, is breathtaking. Its text—a fusion of natural and human history, poems and journal entries by various writers, and personal memoir—constitutes a mini-course in California culture that delights and surprises at every turn. Before “Anglo-Californian” coastal poetry there was “the poetry of naming,” colonial Spain’s greatest contribution to California, and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, “the finest account of the coast ever written from the perspective of the sea.” The story of Big Sur, the most dramatic episode in the history of the California coast, is told through the life and writing of the colorful character Jaime de Angulo, and literary figures—including Robinson Jeffers, Jack London, and the poet George Sterling—attracted to Carmel, north of Big Sur, after the 1906 earthquake. Largely forgotten today, Sterling was born in Sag Harbor, New York—where Steinbeck later lived—and committed suicide by swallowing the cyanide pill he kept for the purpose, like Cathy in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, during a depression caused by his decline in fame and fortune in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, San Francisco serves as source, context, and symbol for much of Killion’s history of California coastal poetry, from the native peoples of the coast to Bret Harte and Robert Duncan, the “mystical poet and pioneer of gay civil rights” who, with Snyder and other San Francisco literary lights, created the city’s modern literary renaissance.

Image of Cape Mendocino, 2014, by Tom KillionBut personal memories, not literary history, comprise the heart of Killion’s narrative—of a grandmother who left lonely Eureka, California for San Francisco in 1906 and survived the earthquake; of hiking Mount Tamalpais as a boy and biking from his parents’ home in Mill Valley as far north as Eureka and as far south as Santa Cruz; of helping clean up the 1971 Golden Gate oil spill that sparked Marin’s successful anti-development movement; of attending college in Santa Cruz, the embodiment of California coast culture, north and south; of returning to Marin County to live and work near unspoiled Point Reyes, “which projects father into the sea from the main axis of the California coast than any other point.” The “redwood coast” from Big Sur north to Humboldt Bay dominates Killion’s story because, he says, it’s less populated than Southern California and more dramatic. It’s the same California coast that engaged John Steinbeck in his much of his writing. The original setting of his second novel, To a God Unknown, was Mendocino County, and the 1955 movie adaptation of East of Eden was filmed in Mendocino—a stand-in, as Killion notes, for Monterey. Steinbeck liked to say he could take or leave the mountains, but had to live near the sea—the setting for his first novel, Cup of Gold, and for The Winter of Our Discontent, his last. Though neither novel is about California, each one has the unforgettable feel of the California coast between Santa Cruz and Big Sur where Steinbeck spent his happiest years—a rich source of history, poetry, and art from pre-Spanish times to the present. California’s Wild Edge captures the subject splendidly.

Images from California’s Wild Edge ©Tom Killion 2015.


Creative Art by Belle Yang Inspired by the Landscape of Steinbeck’s Monterey Bay

Image of Belle Yang's Ching-Chong, Chinaman

Ching-Chong, Chinaman

When Steve Hauk of Hauk Fine Arts Gallery in Pacific Grove, California, curated a show of Steinbeck art and artifacts, I contributed Ching-Chong, Chinaman, a gouache painting inspired by a scene in Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row. Andy is visiting the Row from Salinas and taunts a mysterious old fisherman. When the Chinese turns around, Andy sees the wilderness of desolation in his eyes. I once read the Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw’s comment that Steinbeck had ventured into the surreal in this scene. Having listened to my parents’ story of war, poverty, and devastation, I find the depiction far from surreal. I have seen loss through their eyes.

Image of Belle Yang's Cat in the Studio Window

Cat in the Studio Window

This painting is from my China years (1986-89). It was made large on a flat table using traditional paper that breathes like skin. The ink seeps into the paper and blends with its fibers to produce blue-grays, silver grays, warm grays, and the blackest black. I used brushes at least a foot-and-a-half long, loving the movement of my entire body in letting the ink and pigments fly.

Image of Belle Yang's Cat in the Bistro Chair

Cat in the Bistro Chair

A stray came to our house one hundred days after the Tiananmen Massacre. It seemed to my family that the cat was the embodiment of those who were crushed in Beijing by the government, only for asking for corruption to be swept out.

Image of Belle Yang's Lotus in Rain

Lotus in Rain

I spent an entire year watching the growth and decay of the lotus plant. In spring, spears of leaves and the pristine flowers rise out of the muddy water. The plant signifies dignity of a man or woman who emerges out of straitened circumstances, unsullied. In summer the leaf pads catch rainwater. In autumn the stalks bend and break, re-entering the water at crazy angles. In winter the flower pods remain above the ice-bound lakes. They look like black notes on sheet music.

Image of Belle Yang's Chinese at Point Lobos

Chinese at Point Lobos

When my family moved to Carmel in 1971, we were immediately at home in the landscape that seemed to mirror a Chinese painting. It was not until after I had returned from China in 1989 that I read Chinese Gold, a book about the Chinese in the Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley. The Whaler’s Cove at Point Lobos was built by the Chinese. Mahjong tiles, chopsticks, domino pieces, and shards of porcelain have been found under the floorboards of the cottage.

Image of Belle Yang's Sleeping Monk and Tiger

Sleeping Monk and Tiger

You see this image of monk and tiger in Zen Buddhist iconography. A man who is practiced in Zen is able to calm a tiger.

Image of Belle Yang's Chinamen


Following the publication of Chinese Gold, George Ow produced Chinatown Dreams: Life and Photographs of George Lee. Most Chinese men who lived in America during the Chinese Exclusion era (1882-1965) were forced to remain bachelors, for women were not allowed entry.

Image of Belle Yang's Odello Artichoke Field #1

Odello Artichoke Field #1

My father Joseph, who walked over a thousand miles out of China to flee Communism, is frequently my model. He is the storyteller whose tales I’ve turned into books for young and old.

Image of Belle Yang's Odello Artichoke Field #2

Odello Artichoke Field #2

I’ve known this landscape for years, and I’ve lived in this house overlooking the Carmel River and the Palo Corona Ranch, now a regional park. I’ve scrambled in and out of the hills. I’ve come to love the landscape’s flora and fauna; I’ve crossed its creeks and bathed in its swimming holes.

Image of Belle Yang's After Breughal

After Brueghel

I’ve been entranced by Brueghel’s work since I was small, loving to see all the activities of dancing peasants, field workers at supper, hunters in the snow, children on skates, men and women cutting hay or erecting a scaffold for a hanging. In China I saw country folk similarly engaged in the myriad activities of a full life. In the developed West we may drive for hours on a highway, only to see a man pumping gas, a few cyclists, but mostly other drivers.

Image of Belle Yang's Cyclist in the Rain

Cyclist in the Rain

I’m drawn to paintings of rain. I wonder why rain isn’t a more prevalent subject for other artists? I suppose it’s because of the lack of rain in California, a desert and semi-desert environment that gives me the great yearning for the mutter of raindrops on the earth, the fragrance of water on hot, dusty soil. In the words of the novelist Iris Murdoch, “The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”

Image of Belle Yang's Plein Air

Plein Air

I started to take art “seriously” at age 11 when I tagged along with watercolorist Nancy Johnson, who lived across the street. She was sympathetic to this only child who was new to the neighborhood.  She drove us in her green VW bug to Point Lobos, Carmel Meadows, the beach, and Cannery Row, where her elderly students were waiting for her morning painting demonstrations.

Image of Belle Yang's Narcissus Farm

Narcissus Farm

Sitting in a field of fragrant narcissi in Carmel Valley on my birthday, my pant legs are soaked by the leaves and flowers dappled with previous night’s rain. I draw on site, then return to my studio to paint. Sometimes years may have passed when I finally return to the drawing to recreate the texture and feeling of that day.

Image of Belle Yang's Point Lobos

Point Lobos

Iconic subjects like Point Lobos, looming across Monterey Bay, are hard to paint. I had a breakthrough when I began to look closely at the patterns everywhere: foliage, vine, pine needles, shrubbery in the distance. From the low-angle perspective of the plant—as opposed to the bird’s-eye-view of a Chinese landscape painter—I was able to see Point Lobos with washed eyes.

Learn more about Belle Yang’s life and work in her own words.

The Chinese of Steinbeck’s Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley: An Artist’s Story

Cover image from Baba, Belle Yang's memoir
My family moved to the Monterey Bay region 45 years ago. We were drawn to the mist-swaddled crags at Point Lobos, which whispered of our ancestral homeland. Yet we felt ourselves alien people, among the first Chinese to have found a permanent nesting place in the celebrated Steinbeck landscape comprised of the Salinas Valley, Monterey Bay, Pacific Grove, and coastal spots—like Point Lobos—familiar to Steinbeck’s readers.

Arriving in Pacific Grove, Returning to China

When we attended the annual Feast of Lanterns Festival in Steinbeck’s Pacific Grove for the first time, I did not imagine that 65 years earlier squid boats lit at night were used to attract mollusks, a harvest from the sea no one wanted until the Chinese created a commercial market for the food, once plentiful in the Monterey Bay. After 1906, the year someone set fire to the Point Alones Chinatown—the location where the Monterey Bay Aquarium now stands—residents of Pacific Grove grew nostalgic for the lights, like fairy lanterns on the water, and so a magic tale was born to glimmer.

Residents of Pacific Grove grew nostalgic for the lights, like fairy lanterns on the water, and so a magic tale was born to glimmer.

I moved away from Chinese culture and history while growing up in the Monterey Bay area: being Chinese in no way helped me fit into the immediate world outside my new home. When I returned to California after witnessing the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, however, I began to understand the importance of stories—which, when burned, glow more brightly. It was 1989, I was 29, and I was given a copy of Chinese Gold, written by a man of passion—Professor Sandy Lydon—and published by a man of philanthropy, George Ow, Jr. From this book I learned about the early Chinese of the Salinas Valley.

Remembering the Earliest Chinese in the Salinas Valley

When they arrived in the 19th century, Chinese immigrants to the Salinas Valley signed five-year leases to work the land. In the first two years they cut trees, yanked out roots with knife-like spades, and wrestled out peat soil. They exterminated gophers and ground squirrels; they drained and dried the swampland. In the third year they planted the vegetable crops dictated by the landowner: large-root crops like potatoes to further break up the soil. Only in the fourth year of their lease were they allowed to recover their three-year investment before returning the land to the owner. The Chinese risked everything. The landowner was ahead of the game the minute the lopsided lease was signed. Salinas Valley land, worth $28 per acre in 1875, came to be valued at $100 an acre within two years. When C.D. Abbott and other big landowners were accused by anti-immigration agitators of being Chinaman-lovers, Abbott replied, “White men refused to work up to their knees in the water, slime and filth of the sloughs.”

When C.D. Abbott and other big landowners were accused by anti-immigration agitators of being Chinaman-lovers, Abbott replied, ‘White men refused to work up to their knees in the water, slime and filth of the sloughs.’

In a recent hike through the high Santa Lucia mountains above the Salinas Valley—an area where wheat was once dominant, followed by hops and then tobacco, before sugar beets succeeded the earlier crops as emperor–I could see the vast valley as it looks today, with its viridian and chartreuse patchworks of lettuce. It was easy to imagine what the Chinese saw when they un-kinked their aching backs and scanned the land as it appeared more than a century ago, flowing like a river of grass from the gentle Gabilan hills that Steinbeck loved much more than the ominous mountains to the west.

Imagine what the Chinese saw when they un-kinked their aching backs and scanned the land as it appeared more than a century ago.

The Chinese who farmed the valley knew that where willow grew, there would be fresh water, not salinas, the Spanish word for salt water that gave the Salinas Valley, river, and town their distinctive names. I could smell the immigrants’ desire for land and all the rights that landownership meant. They knew about the poverty of less promising terrain from the populous provinces of Guangdong, the part of China from which they came. This Salinas Valley and Monterey Bay peninsula—all this rich land celebrated by Steinbeck in his autobiographical novel East of Eden—could feed so many mouths! Most of the arable land at the time was concentrated in the hands of a few rancheros. In the eyes of the Chinese, more—much more—could be done to make the Salinas Valley what it eventually became, a source of vegetable and fruit crops for export on a huge scale. They saw this before anyone else.

In the eyes of the Chinese, more—much more—could be done to make the Salinas Valley what it eventually became, a source of vegetable and fruit crops for export on a huge scale.

Each time I drive to the valley from the coast today, crossing the highway bridge over the shallow Salinas River, the sky yawns amply and I recall the dramatic topography described by Steinbeck in East of Eden. It was rich land for which men hungered—land that they fought pitched battles to seize, settle, and hold. It was the same kind of land that the Communists in my great-grandfather’s Manchuria wrested away from the haves to be redistributed, not always fairly, to the have-nots. I inhale the love of land like this from the stories passed down to me by my father about the House of Yang, eight generations in the telling, in the China of his youth, and his father’s, and his father’s father.

It was the same kind of land that the Communists in my great-grandfather’s Manchuria wrested away from the haves to be redistributed, not always fairly, to the have-nots.

California’s 1913 Alien Land Law targeted the Japanese but snared all Asian immigrants, barring them from becoming naturalized citizens who could own property. As a result, the Chinese who saw value where others saw trash and weed never gained control of the land they farmed in the Salinas Valley. According to legend, the Franciscan friars who first colonized the Monterey Bay had scattered mustard seeds to create a trail of gold connecting each mission they founded to the next in the chain that extended south from Monterey to San Diego and north to Sonoma. After the Spanish left, Chinese settlers cut the mustard weed for landowners in exchange for the seeds. One year the mustard crop failed in Europe, and the Chinese profited from their foresight.

Appreciating the Chinese Experience in Steinbeck’s Books

California’s Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—which forms part of Steinbeck’s character Lee’s story in East of Eden— specifically singled out the Chinese because, it was claimed, they disrupted the social order. The onerous law barred Chinese women from entering the United States, which meant Chinese men were unable to marry. Imagine the strain of two opposing forces: between the desire to go back to China to marry and return to raise a family, and the fact that the certificate required for re-entry excluded wives. As the tragic experience of Lee’s parents shows, the early Chinese in California would remain outsiders, looking in hungrily, often dying alone and forgotten on alien soil that they helped reclaim, cultivate, and make profitable by building railroads at slave wages.

As the tragic experience of Lee’s parents shows, the early Chinese in California would remain outsiders, often dying alone and forgotten on alien soil.

I first read Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row when I was 11, and reread it often as an adult. Steinbeck’s depiction of the mysterious, eternal outsider moves my heart each time I meet him in the pages of the book: the old Chinaman in Pacific Grove who with one flapping shoe walks down to Monterey Bay at dusk and fishes, always alone, in the night. Andy, a boy visiting from Salinas who is itching to be contrary, encounters the old man and mocks him in sing-song doggerel: “Ching-Chong-Chinaman sitting on a rail—’Long came a white man an’ chopped off his tail.” As the old man turns, the boy sees in those brown, alien eyes a landscape of spiritual desolation. It is the dying landscape from which the Chinese fled to California in the 19th and 20th centuries. In those two brown pools Andy encounters the ultimate despair of the excluded. My black and white gouache painting Ching-Chong Chinaman records this epiphany, captured by Steinbeck in the sparest of terms.

Plotting the Path of the Hakka Boat People to Point Lobos

Currently I am at work on In the Guava Garden, a graphic memoir about my Hakka mother, who lived under the Japanese colonial system in China from 1895 to 1945. What does the Hakka story have to do with Monterey Bay? In Chinese Gold I learned that a group of Tanka Chinese—part of the clannish Hakka people, who lived and died on boats— came to California, not through San Francisco or the mining camps of the Sierra Nevada, but as refugees directly to the Monterey Bay region, riding the black tide the Japanese knew as the kuroshio. After being shipwrecked at the mouth of the Carmel River, they settled at Point Lobos, where they constructed a simple home known today as the Whaler’s Cottage. The story of their landing has been passed down to their descendants, and the cottage still stands.

After being shipwrecked at the mouth of the Carmel River, they settled at Point Lobos, where they constructed a simple home known today as the Whaler’s Cottage.

The Chinese-language characters for Hakka mean “guest people.” In the third century, the Hakka lost their original homeland north of the Yellow River to invading nomads. Some managed to eke out a living anyway, farming the poorest of soil. Others were driven in desperation out to sea to found colonies in other lands. So the saga of one branch of landless Hakka people—to whom my mother belongs by an extenuated history of 1,400 years—came to California in 1851. It’s possible that Chinese refugees before the Hakka, before the Gold Rush, arrived by this same direct route.

Learning the Legacy of Monterey Bay’s Forgotten Ghosts

Monterey Bay’s written history includes little about these Chinese settlers, apart from vague names in the mountains or along the seashore, such as China Camp, Chinese Dam, Chinese Camp, and China Cove. They have become faceless ghosts through a complicity of mutual convenience: between newer Chinese residents anxious to avoid persecution and white settlers determined to cover up the murder, arson, and land theft that drove the Chinese from their settlements. So-called Chinatowns on beaches and in towns have been burned down, torn down, or simply forgotten. Steinbeck alludes to this tragedy in East of Eden, but much remains, repressed and half-hidden, for future historians who are interested in painting the whole picture.

So-called Chinatowns on beaches and in towns have been burned down, torn down, or simply forgotten. Steinbeck alludes to this tragedy in East of Eden.

Forty-five years ago my parents drove a rusted, borrowed Ford station wagon, loaded with clanging pots and pans and one canary in a cage, south from the city of San Francisco to the Monterey Bay region. We felt like raw strangers when we arrived because we were. Only when I returned to live in China for a period as an adult did I to consider that other Chinese preceded us because of their need to extend their muscle and exercise their talents. They couldn’t own land, but their labor and vision helped make the Salinas Valley and the coast of Monterey Bay prosper and grow. Their toil and tribulation also gave my family a sense of permanence, belonging, and inclusion that those who came before us never had. This is our home, our chosen homeland. It was theirs as well.

Adapted by the author from her recent “California Author Series” feature, commissioned by the Sacramento Bee. View her images of Monterey Bay, Point Lobos, and the Salinas Valley.

Interview: Marietta, Ohio Visual Artists Appreciate John Steinbeck in Show

Image of visual artists Michelle Waters, Todd Morrow, Lisa Haney-Bammerlin, and Geoff Schenkel

REsolve Studios, a visual-artist group in Marietta, Ohio, is designed with both visual artist and local community values in mind. Its distinctive connection to literary artists, including John Steinbeck, involves sharing shows that travel to other venues in the Southern Ohio-West Virginia area. The Appalachian Soul, a show that featured a distinctive installation called “The Victorian Brain,” is one example of exhibitions that make local and literary references of special significance to lovers of John Steinbeck, interactive art, and the Appalachian heritage. Ideas and images from The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men informed the exhibition’s eclectic visual elements, reminding viewers that John Steinbeck’s circle of friends at the time he wrote these books embraced visual artists, musicians, and other writers. In the following text by a Chillicothe, Ohio poet-editor and SteinbeckNow.com contributor, visual-artist interviews and individual artist statements suggest how John Steinbeck’s social vision applies to a region suffering marginalization, deprivation, and conflict similar to the cultures of the Dust Bowl, California, and Mexico depicted by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Forgotten Village, and The Pearl. The writer remained painfully aware that genocide was the price of expansion under the invading Spanish, and the rapacious Yankees who followed. The earliest settlers of John Steinbeck’s California were the Ohlone Indians. Chillicothe, Ohio, the home of ancient Indian cultures predating the Ice Age, was later settled by the Shawnee people for whom the city is named. To the east of Chillocothe, the historic town of Marietta, Ohio sits on the West Virginia border. A station along the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, it is the site of the Marietta Earthworks, a burial venue of the pre-European Hopewell Indian culture referred to in the introduction to Kathleen Burgess’s interview with the visual-artist group eager to talk about their sense of mission and heritage, and their appreciation of John Steinbeck.—Ed.

Driving through the Marietta, Ohio neighborhood occupied by the REsolve Studios visual artist collective, I found one of Geoff Schenkel’s murals transforming the wall of an old brick building. On one side of the two-story studio, a garden blooms on land the artists reclaimed from an abandoned gas station. I first met core members—Geoff, Michelle Waters, Lisa Haney-Bammerlin, and Todd Morrow—in 2014 when they were installing The Appalachian Soul at PVG Artisans, a gallery in Chillicothe, Ohio, where I live. Gallery owner Cynthia Davis saw, in REsolve Studios’ blend of energy and social purpose, artists on a spiritual quest to redefine being an artist in Appalachia. They reimagined and reconstructed the exhibit for her gallery. Geoff and Michelle wrote the artists’ statement for the show:

It is a massive, yet intimately approachable, room-sized sculptural environment. Anchoring this innovative combination of literary, musical, and uniquely mixed visual sources, this exhibit draws viewers to its wildly sprawling interactive core and continues to reward its “participants” when they pull back . . . to catch their breath while taking in the surrounding, focused satellite works. This deeply engaging, richly cohesive yet hard-to-define body of work represents the adventurous, even noble inclinations of REsolve artists to reach for a better life by letting go of the comforts, conventions, and security of their known world and seeking new depths in a wilderness of worlds yet to be defined.

Geoff and Michelle stayed in Chillicothe for days assessing the community’s character and needs. Several of the artists presented workshops, spending hours commuting from their homes in the river cities of Marietta, Ohio and Parkersburg, West Virginia. They also attended literary, art, and music activities at the gallery and were embraced by the Chillicothe, Ohio arts community.

Image of Chillicothe, Ohio art installation "The Victorian Brain"

“The Victorian Brain” occupied the center of the gallery, an eight-foot-high block of cabinetry with shelves, drawers, and cubbyholes exposed on all four sides. Its small doors, audio features, moving parts, books and notebooks, and written messages invited interaction. Sturdy beams connected “The Brain,” as it is affectionately known, to other sections, creating a 10’ x 17’ foot space large enough for several visitors to enter and move through at the same time. An outer layer of photographs and sculptures on walls, shelves, and pedestals surrounded the central structure. Some participants sought to contribute and added small objects to the installation. Others moved elements to different places as they passed through. Children contributed notes taped to shiny stones. A beekeeper added an antique bee smoker.

The theme of Appalachians coping with economic, societal, and environmental pressures, limited opportunity, and traditional values fits the city of Chillicothe, Ohio, the first and third capital in the history of the state. White settlers arrived in the 1700s when President Thomas Jefferson granted land to members of the victorious Continental Army following the Revolutionary War. People of the region are proud of this heritage, yet are sometimes seen by outsiders as unlettered and incompetent, as expendable as the Indians driven from Ohio 200 years ago. Authors Allan W. Eckert, Ron Rash, Donald Ray Pollock, Roy Bentley, and Diane Gilliam, among others, have written about Appalachian culture from this perspective. Despite challenges, however, Chillicothe, Ohio continues to plan for the future with optimism, and the area is under consideration for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the stunning Hopewell earthworks being rediscovered and authenticated by archaeologists using lidar technology.

Image of visual artist Anthony Wilson

Visual Artist Interview: John Steinbeck in Appalachia

Kathleen Burgess: Welcome to the Steinbeck Now community. Please tell us about yourselves and how literature, and John Steinbeck in particular, figures in the life and work of REsolve Studios.

Geoff Schenkel: We come from humble beginnings. We have challenges. We struggle. We feel uncertainty. When we are together, I feel at times like George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men, almost as if they are different parts at work in my mind, dreaming of something better than when we are on our own. Fellowship is great, belonging is great, but it feels fuller and richer when it is infused with purpose. Of Mice and Men normally travels with the exhibit, and it reflects some of our work as a team of artists.

At PVG Artisans we organized groupings of art into seven interrelated clusters. Each part drew inspiration from a written work. Books are featured because of a question posed by Kentucky-born Gurney Norman (Kinfolks) many years ago at an Appalachian conference that addressed issues of marginalization and stereotypes. He asked, “What would essential reading for the Appalachian region include?” Answering Norman’s question guided the creation of “The Brain.”  Michelle and I, as content curators, selected seven works from a list that is now quite long. Around this core we organized The Appalachian Soul. Our raw library responds to Norman’s question with answers derived from many cultures, including John Steinbeck’s California-based work. For me, REsolve’s work expresses, from the margins of mainstream society, a perspective shared in Steinbeck’s writing.

KB: What is REsolve Studios? How does the name describe what you do, who you are together?

Anthony Wilson: The REsolve name is about solving things by thinking through solutions from all possible angles via collaboration. It’s about working together and building a better community, reconciling our own pitfalls, and making ourselves better people. We improve ourselves, and, thereby, our immediate environment, which extends to the overall community.

Lisa Haney-Bammerlin: For me it means family, a sense of belonging. It means giving a new sense of purpose to discarded things. It’s the will to keep going no matter what is thrown our way. Much like the discarded items, we all were once needed but have to adapt to challenges. Having friends, brothers and sisters, makes the journey less daunting.

Todd Morrow: REsolve = the determination to bring about a solution.

GS: After several years as a community muralist, I began doing studio-based work and toyed with the idea of calling the studio “Junk Man Designs” to play off the found objects I was beginning to use in my work. REsolve worked because it has to do with committing and then living with a decision. We seem like a practical lot of dreamers who lean toward healing the broken, fixing up the discarded, loving the imperfect, and finding a home for the outcasts.

I decided to seek others of similar mindset. If I couldn’t find them in neighborhoods, towns, physical communities, maybe I could find them in communities of shared interest, similar mindset, values, wishes. Todd chose to join. Others passed through. Then Anthony found us. He said he hadn’t become the artist he wanted to be yet and wanted to discover what he was capable of in this community. We attempted big projects, leaps of faith. Michelle liked the work she saw coming from the studio and reached out to us. She said we’d have a hard time getting rid of her. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to deal with her overwhelming cheerfulness, but it didn’t turn out that way. Lisa found in us kindred spirits. Here we are, a family of choice with all our imperfections.

KB: Tell us something about John Steinbeck that engaged you in planning and creating The Appalachian Soul.

GS: (Quoting Tom Joad’s description of Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath): But now I been thinkin’ what he said, an’ I can remember—all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’t have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ‘less it was with the rest, an’ was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn’ think I was even listenin’. But I know now a fella ain’t no good alone.

I believe what Tom Joad says. In that place I’d called alone is the breeding ground for violence and the hurt we unleash actively and passively against ourselves and others.

KB: How do you engage the neighborhood through your art and your garden?

GS: Through our art we seek to create a place where it’s safer to imagine what is possible, safer to explore differences in ways that are open, not competitive, trying to find resolutions to chronic problems, and ways to accept human imperfection. Some might call our work “mentorship.” We work with schools, community groups, and religious individuals, while thinking with others about issues of sustainability, community, inclusiveness, and fairness. Something I’ve always valued about this work is its ability to surprise. Many come to it in joyful, childlike response.

While I love that and want that to be part of the experience, I also love that below the surface there is more going on related to Appalachians coping with outsiders’ attitudes and challenges. Recently I got the great opportunity to watch a young man explore “The Brain.” He’s at that stage of life where he’s getting a sense of himself in the world at large. There is for him a dawning awareness of just how big the world and its issues and its forces can be.

As he explored, sort of posturing as he went, not wanting to be too interested, trying to maintain his cool, on-top-of-the-world football star swagger, he unrolled one of the hidden messages like a fortune from a cookie, and he read these words from a 1912 New York Times editorial titled “Education or Extermination”: The majority of mountain people are unprincipled ruffians. There are two remedies only: education or extermination. The mountaineer, like the red Indian, must learn this lesson. As he read, his jaw dropped and he impulsively showed everyone around him. That back and forth between magical, playful elements and jaw-dropping, serious understanding is our aim.

We seek to make the studio and gardens spiritually and physically a healthy, nourishing place by amending once neglected soil through intensive composting and sharing with others the abundance of what grows here: art, food, and human relationships through mutual exchange.

Michelle Waters: I think the moments that struck me the most were when I was working in the garden, people I didn’t know would drive by and smile, honk, wave, as if they supported the act, the momentum of what we were doing. That felt really special to me. I also really enjoy the concrete blocks that have become a part of the garden’s retaining walls—the blocks that we made with the local boys and girls club, creating art together that they could see when they walked through the neighborhood, and be proud because they helped make their part of the planet more beautiful.

KB: How have you grown within the collective and in interactions with communities you’ve served?

GS: Fighting the bitterness that stems from living in proximity to what some call a “sacrifice zone” isn’t as hard as it once was, and the desire to punish others for their inhumanity doesn’t burn as strongly. Doling out punishment isn’t my job, and with that burden removed I can grow into being a healthier participant in this creation we share. I’ve witnessed suicidal individuals become more forgiving of themselves and seen people at wit’s end come here to ground themselves, seeking comfort and a chance to deal with the trauma that comes from life.

KB: How do you make decisions—regular, structured meetings, or another way?

GS: We have had regular meetings. We are currently working on our own projects, but we come together every so often to reconnect. We discuss things as if we were a family sitting around the kitchen table weighing facts, opinions, options, then sorting the tasks that need to be completed to reach our group goals. It is not a clean, efficient business model. It doesn’t run itself, but this method has produced some wondrous results. I think we go by instinct, or hunches. Michelle wanted to create the exhibit at PVG Artisans. Anthony and Todd wanted to do the steampunk show in Athens [Ohio]. Those turned out well on many levels. We constantly adapt to challenges.

KB: No other studio captures the spirit of this region, its traditions, realities, and potential, better than REsolve Studios. I know that your art offers chances for exploration and delight, with serious educational implications. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about John Steinbeck, community, and art at SteinbeckNow.com.

Photo of Michelle Waters, Todd Morrow, Lisa Haney-Bammerlin, and Geoff Schenkel by Cynthia Davis.

Photo of “The Victorian Brain” courtesy REsolve Studios.

Photo of Anthony Wilson courtesy Michele Coleman.

Fine Art by Nancy Hauk on Show in Pacific Grove, John Steinbeck’s Favorite Place

Image of "Near Harmony," John Steinbeck Country painting by Nancy Hauk

The magical landscape of John Steinbeck’s beloved Monterey, California Peninsula continues to inspire fine art with broad appeal. “Loving Watercolor, Paintings by Nancy Hauk’’—an exhibition opening on April 17 at the Pacific Grove Public Library—is an impressive example. “Near Harmony” (above) was painted just off Highway 1 on the Central California coast. John Steinbeck worked on the highway construction crew as a young man before becoming the state’s most famous writer.

Image of Steinbeck Country scene by Pacific Grove painter Nancy Hauk

John Steinbeck’s Pacific Grove

Steinbeck did much of his early writing in Pacific Grove, the quaint, colorful town south of Monterey, California, where Cannery Row starts and a slender street running past the Steinbeck family cottage bears the name of Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist and model for Jim Casy and other characters in John Steinbeck’s most memorable fiction. As it happens, Nancy Hauk’s home is the former abode of Ricketts and his first wife—also named Nancy—on Pacific Grove’s legendary Lighthouse Avenue. Holman’s Department Store, instantly recognizable to readers of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row fiction, isn’t far. Hauk Fine Arts, the gallery owned by Nancy and her husband Steve, is also located nearby. Pacific Grove is a walking town, like Sag Harbor, the Long Island village that became Steinbeck’s Pacific Grove East when he lived in New York later in life.

The Fine Art of Nancy Hauk

Image of Nancy Hauk, fine artistNancy Burtch Hauk made the opposite journey, majoring in art history at Connecticut College before moving to Pacific Grove with her husband Steve and pursuing the important career of breaking down test biases for CTB–McGraw Hill, traveling the country and working with the late Ross Green, a national pioneer in the field of educational test assessment and publication. When she could find the time as a busy professional with two children, she painted scenes of Monterey, California and France, studying with Sam Colburn—who arrived on the Monterey Peninsula in the 1930s and knew and associated with many of the same artists John Steinbeck did—as well as National Academicians Gregory Kondos and Don Nice, Claire Verbiest, Gerald Brommer, Katherine Stock and Jann Pollard. Her friend Marty Clarke was her constant painting companion.

Image of "Reflecting Reeds,' zen-like watercolor by Nancy Hauk

Capturing Essence, Like John Steinbeck

Most of the works in the Pacific Grove Library exhibition were painted between 2000 and 2010. They include French vignettes, scenes from Steinbeck Country, gardens of ancient adobes in Old Monterey, California, and innovative studies of Spanish missions integrating the decorative motifs that distinguish Mission San Juan Bautista and other churches built by Franciscan missionaries 200 years ago. Some of the selected paintings are incomplete, with the artist’s notes and practice brushstrokes illuminating her creative process as a fine artist. “Reflecting Reeds” (above) demonstrates her Zen-like mastery of meditative line and visual economy.

“Loving Watercolor, Paintings by Nancy Hauk” was curated by Julianne Burton-Carvajal and runs through May 30 in recently restored library gallery space located at 550 Central Avenue, a block from Lighthouse Avenue in downtown Pacific Grove. (Note to Steinbeck lovers visiting Monterey, California in April or May: don’t miss the experience of seeing Steinbeck Country through the eyes of a contemporary fine artist with a talent for capturing the essence of every scene—just as John Steinbeck did when writing about his favorite places from the comfort of his Pacific Grove cottage years ago.)

Big Sur’s “Dark Watchers” Subject of Sumptuous Book By Thomas Steinbeck and Artist Benjamin Brode

Cover image of In Search of the Dark Watchers by Thomas Steinbeck and Benjamin Brode

John Steinbeck’s short story “Flight” is haunted by “dark watching men” whose gaze must be avoided if encountered in the mysterious mountains of Central California’s Big Sur. The writer Thomas Steinbeck, the author’s son, has collaborated with Benjamin Brode, the Big Sur landscape artist, in a beautiful word-and-picture book about these curious creatures out of some Jungian archetypal dream. Published in 2014 by Steinbeck Press, In Search of the Dark Watchers: Landscapes and Lore of Big Sur proves that some pictures really are worth a thousand words when they come from the collective unconscious.

Image of painting by Benjamin Brody from Big Sur book with text by Thomas Steinbeck

As an adult, John Steinbeck read Carl Jung and understood archetypes. But according to Thomas Steinbeck, the idea was first planted in John’s imagination by his mother Olive, a true believer who—like Mama in “Flight”—warned her son to respect the Dark Watchers’ sovereignty over Big Sur’s dangerous terrain. Thomas Steinbeck wrote a short story called “The Dark Watcher” that further embellished the Steinbeck family fable, inspiring Benjamin Brode’s moody, mystical paintings in pursuit of the elusive spirit-beings said to inhabit Big Sur. Don’t worry. You won’t need Carl Jung to appreciate the art or text in this coffee-table delight. But follow Olive Steinbeck’s advice. Exercise care if caught—like Pepe in “Flight”—alone in the Big Sur woods at night. As Carl Jung discovered, disturbing dreams can come true.

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row: The Representational Art of Sculptor Lew Aytes

Image of John Steinbeck, sculpture by Lew Aytes

John Steinbeck

A multi-tasking Monterey, California sculptor whose busy career as a musician, businessman, and installation artist would have appealed to John Steinbeck has brought three-dimensional life to famous characters from Steinbeck’s fiction in a series of bronze portraits—representational art that aptly reflects the stylized realism of Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. A Monterey, California resident who once lived near the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove, Lew Aytes read Cannery Row as a boy, and the faces in his Steinbeck series suggest a sense of fresh discovery and boyish delight. The museum-quality pieces, designed to be affordable and accessible to audiences attracted by John Steinbeck’s fiction, toured venues in Ireland, New Orleans, and other sites associated with Steinbeck’s storied life before being exhibited for the first time on Cannery Row recently.

Image of Ed Ricketts, sculpture by Lew Aytes

Ed Ricketts

The pieces shown here are part of an assembly of representational art united by a single theme—“Steinbeck: The Art of Fiction”—currently on view at the American Tin Cannery, a rehabilitated commercial building where Pacific Grove and Monterey, California merge and Cannery Row begins. Also featured are works by the painter Warren Chang and the photographer Robert Nease, area artists steeped, like Aytes, in John Steinbeck’s description of life in Salinas, Pacific Grove, and Monterey, California during the 1920s and 30s. Historic Cannery Row photos from the 1950s by the late Robert Lewis, also on display, document the gritty waterfront scene where John Steinbeck met colorful Cannery Row figures depicted in his fiction as Doc Ricketts, Dora Flood, Mack, and Lee Chong. Aytes has also sculpted characters from other books by Steinbeck: George and Lennie, the unfortunate bindlestiffs from Of Mice and Men, and two members of the equally luckless Joad family—Ma and Tom—immortalized in The Grapes of Wrath.

“Steinbeck: The Art of Fiction” runs through March 31, 2015, at 123 Ocean Avenue in Pacific Grove. The exhibition is free and open to the public 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. daily except Mondays.

Image of Dora Flood from Cannery Row, sculpture by Lew Aytes

Dora Flood

Image of Lee Chong from Cannery Row, sculpture by Lew Aytes

Lee Chong

Image of Mack from Cannery Row, sculpture by Lew Aytes


Image of George from Of Mice and Men, sculpture by Lee Aytes


Image of Lennie from Of Mice and Men, sculpture by Lew Aytes


Image of Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath, sculpture by Lew Aytes

Ma Joad

Image of Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath, sculpture by Lew Aytes

Tom Joad

The Writing of Tortilla Flat and the Mysterious Missing Portrait of John Steinbeck

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by Ellwood Graham

In the late 1950s I rented a house owned by Barbara Stevenson and Ellwood Graham, artists who knew John Steinbeck when he was writing his 1935 hit Tortilla Flat, at the end of Lobos Street on Huckleberry Hill in Monterey, California. By then Graham and Stevenson—who later adopted the name Judith Deim—had decided to go their separate ways, Ellwood to San Francisco and Seattle, Barbara to live with her four young children in a cave in Spain.

What worldly goods the couple possessed, including a number of Barbara’s paintings that I found leaning against the walls of the three rooms in their small studio-home, were being left behind for the time being. As I unpacked and stored my clothing in the bedroom, I made a surprising discovery behind a pair of sliding closet doors: the now-missing and much-speculated-about portrait of John Steinbeck painted by Ellwood Graham some years earlier.

Barbara was still in the process of vacating the house when I began my move, and I mentioned that I didn’t particularly like Ellwood’s painting (shown above) because I thought Ellwood had made John look like a punch-drunk boxer. Neither agreeing nor disagreeing with my reaction to the work, Barbara told me how it came to be painted.

Barbara recalled that John did much of his early writing in the garage of the Steinbeck family cottage, located down the Hill on 11th Street in Pacific Grove. Like everyone living on the Hill, Barbara and Ellwood were aware that John and his wife Carol had made an unusual arrangement: each morning Carol locked John in the back-garden garage until late afternoon. The garage had a window or two, so there was a way out in case of  emergency, but as Barbara explained, John was easily distracted and felt he needed the kind of discipline forced on him by daily isolation when he wrote.

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by Judith Deim

As Ellwood and Barbara sat with John in their kitchen one evening, enjoying a jug of red wine at a massive hand-hewn redwood table with matching picnic table benches, John complained that he was struggling with a story he was trying to write about some of the lively characters who inhabited nearby Cannery Row. Refilling their glasses, Ellwood stated that he thought the material seemed limitless and suggested that John ought to be writing a novel, not a short story. John replied that he couldn’t imagine looking down at a blank page in another new ledger book knowing “I’d still be working on the same damn thing two years from now.”

Ellwood made a proposal: rather than sitting alone in his garage each day, John should move his writing ledgers and his sharpened pencils into their kitchen, where he could write and Ellwood and Barbara could each paint his portrait. Without hesitation, John agreed. Perhaps with the help of their good friend Bruce Ariss, the artist-author who lived next door, Ellwood hurriedly built a portable box-like platform approximately 14 inches high, large enough to accommodate John’s table and chair. It was there that John Steinbeck wrote portions of Tortilla Flat, his first commercially successful book, while Barbara and Ellwood painted their soon-to-be-famous friend from remarkably different points of view.

Today Barbara’s well-known painting, showing Steinbeck seated at his desk writing (above), can be viewed at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. What happened to Ellwood’s portrait of the writer remains a mystery.

(By the way, the similar sound of our names meant that John Steinbeck and I were frequently confused for one another in the minds of some people in Monterey, California. There were occasions when I’d receive checks made out to “John Steinbeck.” I always endorsed them, and I never had trouble cashing one. I mentioned this to John when I saw him in Pacific Grove while he was visiting his sister at some point in the 1960s—the Vietnam War was on, but I don’t remember the exact year—and he said he’d do the same if he ever got a check made out to “John Smithback.” Even-Steven.)

The Fallow Fields: Online Paintings by Ron Clavier

Image of The Fallow Fields, painting by Ron ClavierA picture can be worth a thousand words. But who knew that online paintings could be so popular at a website about a writer like John Steinbeck—or involve an actor like Woody Harrelson? Awe and Humility and Joy, a series of 24 online paintings inspired by passages from John Steinbeck and created on canvas by Ron Clavier, has become a frequently viewed feature at SteinbeckNow.com. Recently Ron, a successful artist who lives in Canada, made the generous gift of a painting from the series for sale to benefit San Jose State University’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. The Fallow Fields (shown here) will be exhibited during the May 9 and 11 performances of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Grapes of Wrath opera by the San Jose State University music school, along with information about how to participate in the bidding process for this large and evocative work. Woody Harrelson narrated the words from John Steinbeck behind each painting in Ron’s series, including this one. But hearing is believing. Listen to Woody Harrelson read the passage from The Grapes of Wrath that inspired Ron Clavier to paint The Fallow Fields below.