Thursday, July 14, 2011

Birthday Beach

As one might imagine- the favorite place to celebrate Judith's birth is the beach so we headed there Sunday for the special Abbott’s Lagoon to Kehoe Beach trek- an all day sojourn that traverses a part of beach that we rarely visit- usually once a year.

Since this section of Ten Mile Beach is a prime nesting ground for the endangered Snowy Plover, Jeff Wilkinson, the greeter, is at the trailhead educating folks about the importance of not transgressing the fenced area that protects the nests. He entertained us with this song he wrote himself. 

We did this hike the first time for Judith 50th birthday-  on the left at 50 and years later on the right at 61 enjoying almost the same spot on the trail.

It was a glorious day- sunny not exactly balmy but warm enough to enact our ritual skinny-dip baptism - the water so chill that our calves seized up immediately- but a naked frolic in the waves is just the invigorating a 61 year old woman needs.

There was plenty of plastic to be found- almost simultaneously Richard pulled out of the sand a bright yellow French fry and Judith found a Lego-like clinched fist from an action figure. We each strutted our treasures proclaiming we each had found the best.

But the pièce de résistance was a metalized plastic balloon- the reflective Happy Birthday inscription was faded but still discernable- Hey, it’s party time!!! But those balloons are not  fun to wildlife and they don't biodegrade. Hey, the balloon party’s really over!!!

Although it is the off-season for plastic we found more than we could carry so we rigged up a “trailer” to haul back a weighty clump of a buoy. 

On the 13th, Judith's actual birthday, we enjoyed a tour of the Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris at the DeYoung Museum with curator Timothy Burgard. Wonderful to experience Picasso’s prodigious creativity. Bulls Head 1943 has long been an inspiration- a revelation of form and function- a recognizable bicycle seat and handle bars recontextualized into a bull’s head.  With that playful gesture he set into motion the idea of the objet trouve – which we continue today.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pink Flamingo

Conjure up the tackiest, most unnecessary plastic product ever made and the pink flamingo lawn ornament may come to mind. It's seems like they have inhabited front lawns forever, but pink flamingo-ness was born in 1957, the brainchild of Don Featherstone of Leominster, MA.

Featherstone was a recent art-school grad in the mid-fifties who sculpted the original flamingo out of clay after trying out various birds—ducks and geese that would have been more in keeping with his New England landscape, but they never "took off" like the flamingos. The official copy-written birds come in sets of two, one bending its sinuous neck to eat and one upright alert. Over 20 million have been sold by Union Plastics alone. There are knockoffs, of course. But we believe the head we found on Kehoe beach is authentic. The plastic is thick and sturdy. As the years unfolded the plastic became ever thinner and more and more red.  Though to authenticate we'd need the whole body intact since Featherstone's signature appears on the underside.

They turn up everywhere, most recently as a marker that US soldiers had been around, like the "Kilroy Was Here" graffito of WWII. A couple of flamingos grace the now-dry fountain at the US Embassy in Baghdad.

Why flamingos?
We think maybe the flamingo mania came with a 50's romance about retirement to Florida, though flamingos are not endemic to Florida. A flock of the Caribbean variety was imported to the lake in the center of the Hialeah Racetrack in the 20's, where a flamingo ashtray souvenir may have started the craze or maybe it was Don Featherstone's desire to escape the New England winter.

Bugsy Siegal's trademark Las Vegas gambling palace hotel is the FlamingoCrayola introduced the color Pink Flamingo in 1998. John Water's movie Pink Flamingos (what better name for bad taste) is the benchmark by which all things vulgar are measured. The Flamingo's biggest doo-wop hit in 1959 was "I Only Have Eyes for You." 

We've been lucky enough to see real flamingos in the wild, a sparse flock in a volcanic lake in the Galapagos Islands and spectacularly huge flocks at Lake Manyara in Tanzania.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Combs and Toothbrushes

Along with billiard balls, combs were some of the first items made from plastic. The first plastic combs were made from nitro-cellulose or celluloid and later the "unbreakable" comb arrived in the 1940's made of nylon. We find combs and brushes almost every time we go to Kehoe.

Some of the very first combs were used not for grooming but mainly for hygiene. Nit picking. Getting parasites out of the hair. Fine wood and silver combs for this purpose have been dated to 5000 years ago and it's been theorized that the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe was passed along on nit-picking combs.

Because of their rarity we particularly cherish doll's combs and brushes. We have found only two Barbie combs in all these years—amazing to see that tiny thing in the welter of debris washing in. We've got a pretty good bunch of toy plastic brushes. We found a sparkly little comb from a Ty Girlz doll. Cutesy tween-age girls, the main feature is the style-able hair. Hey, com'n get 'em: there's Pretty Patty, Totally Trish, Punky Penny. And just off the assembly line, you once could buy a set of the two Obama Girlz. It was a big controversy when the dolls were named Sasha and Malia, the actual names of the Obama daughters. The Girlz were recalled and are now called Marvelous Maria and Sweet Sydney. An unre-called pair sold on e-Bay for $3000. The dolls are brought to you by the folks who generated the Beanie Baby frenzy.

It's said that combing or brushing the hair is healthful not only for bringing luster and vitality to the hair itself but the act of stimulating the scalp has an acupunctural effect. We don't have data on this idea but it sure feels good to unsnarl the hair and run the nubs of a brush or comb along the scalp. Anyone who commutes would do well to have a scalp massager comb on hand to keep the driver alert.

The toothbrush is a part of this family as well, hog bristles on a wooden handle was the first iteration going back to China in the 1600's. Hogback bristles were widely used until the invention of nylon and in 1938 the very first use of nylon was a toothbrush —Dr. West's Miracle Brush. Toothbrushes are another thing we've found on every trip to Kehoe. We have hundreds. These days you can buy handles with replaceable heads—good ideas are coming along.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


By the tens of hundreds, we find the ivory colored little tips from Tiparillo cigars. Any trip to the beach, no matter what season, we'll find at least 10, often many more.

They arrived on the smoking scene in 1962 from the General Cigar Company "improved" with a plastic mouthpiece so the cigar doesn't get chewed up and nasty—however, the plastic tip is often chewed to a frazzle end. We try to imagine a lonely fisherman pacing the deck worrying that little bit of plastic. Or an artist sculpting a Nike of Samothrace. Or maybe Tiparillos are just used because they are easy- the plastic tip could be clenched in the teeth leaving the hands free for tying knots, setting hooks, etc. 

BUT, why are there so many?

Tiparillo's became most famous for the 1964 ad campaign "Should a Gentlemen Offer a Lady a Tiparello?" This was the peak of smoking culture and the dawn of the liberated woman. The ladies in the ads were hardly what we'd call liberated—they were always showing lots of cleavage. "Should a gentleman offer a Tiparillo to a violinist?"depicts a 20 year old blond in a nightgown open to the waist barely covering her nipples. Her long pink-polished fingernails holding a violin and bow would never be able to press strings to make a sound. The infantile oral fixation married to smoking, focused on her bountiful chest comes to us almost as a joke. But it represents a historical moment. The anonymous hand proffering the cigar is a cast toward additional oral fixation. 

There were scuba diver babes with unzipped wet suits. The dental hygienist, holding the mouth mirror like finger pondering, should I? So weird. The copy says "the dentist is a little late, hey, why didn't you have a toothache sooner?" More cleavage, more blond hair. Twin busty census takers had you seeing double. The ad with a naked librarian with a book held up to her breasts says, "Maybe she'll have to put the book down if you don't offer a light."

These days the Tiparillo is used to make blunts. The cigar skin is emptied of tobacco and filled with marijuana. The flavored paper of the menthol variety is a particular favorite. In San Francisco we see them littering the gutters on their way to sea. We are also starting to find the empty wrappers for flavored papers made from plasticised aluminum which will last forever. Now you can dispense with the tiparello altogether. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011


In the studio we sort first for color- the subtle gradations of rust to red, from fuscia to pink.      When presenting our collection of plastic we are frequently asked if we did something to the color?        Never!!!     From the brilliant yellow of a toothbrush handle to the cobalt blue of single use water bottle lid- the unlimited hues are what makes for a great palette of plastic.

In his poem FLESH, Richard muses on his childhood relationship to crayons and color.


It wasn't that the color didn't match
‘cause it wasn't called skin.
It was called flesh though it seemed flesh
didn't have much to do
with the color of skin.
Flesh was the stuff under the skin,
and anyway people weren't white.
People weren't black or red or yellow.
The skin of people was brown or coffee
or pale amber or tanned pink.

And old Binney & Smith in 1903
when the first crayon hit the scene
the box only HAD eight colors,
the usual ones, but the post-war big-box
had Flesh in it with the other 47.
Flesh was changed to Peach in 1962
and no Negro color replaced it
or yellow-man color
which reminds me of sitting
in a Pittsburgh hot dog joint.

At the next table an African-American boy
playing I-spy-with-my-little-eye,
saying “Brown” and pointing to his sister,
his mamma says, "No, baby, she yellow."
opening my eyes to the austere hierarchy
invisible to most of us with pale skin.
And Crayola dropped the Indian Red name
as a political correction in 1958
even though it was named
for a kind of iron oxide found in India.

And stuck in my brain is a swirling rainbow
of color like oil on water catching the light.
Skin of the "colored man"
my mama said was coming by
to do the lawn.

Disappointed that it was the open-hearted Major,
though I was always glad to see him,
an African-American man who
was kind to kids,
and had really been a Major in the war,
these days, mowing lawns.

He was no colored man though I kept looking
and maybe my mama was right,
if he would catch the light just so. . .
To this day my mind holds a picture
tight to itself of the real rainbow-colored man.

Finally, it was that eight year old
holding a hard tube of crayon in 1956
and saying over and over flesh, flesh.
Flesh was meat and I half expected it
to have the flow of warm blood pulsing.

And even now when I hear the word flesh,
I think of that peachy cylinder.
As in, the way of all flesh,
or sins of the flesh,
or in the flesh,
or flesh and blood,
and flesh eating bacteria,
or pressing the flesh,
and flesh and bones,
and, "Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt . . ."
and that pound of flesh Shylock
hoped would be the heart of Antonio,
And, come to think of it, just
how does the dark substance of my flesh
become these colorful thoughts,
the flesh of this poem.

Richard Lang, 2011

Thanks to Sarah Ratchye for embodying the rainbow.