Category Archives: lower hills

“Peace” mural & Mosaic history…

Here’s a mosaic with a similar theme to yesterday’s, but an entirely different approach… the Peace dove from yesterday was a smaller mosaic likely composed by just one artist. Today’s piece is the result of a collaborative effort by many, and comprises a large-scale wall mural bordering the school yard at Bret Harte Middle School.

peace mosaic oakland, pam consear, mosaic mural bret harte

This is the magic of mosaics… they come in an incredible variety of shapes, sizes, and styles.  But first, a bit of an introduction:

Mosaic is the art of creating images with an assemblage of small pieces of colored glass, stone, or other materials. (Wikipedia)

As an art form, mosaic originated literally thousands of years ago – the earliest examples found in the ancient Near East (what now largely corresponds to the modern Middle East) consisted of pieces of colored pebbles, shells, and ivory. The first evidence of glazed tiles appears hundreds of years later (1500 BC), but it is not until the time of the Romans’ great influence (post AD) that patterns and detailed pictorials become prevalent.

Roman mosaics were most typically constructed with local stones and were commonly used as flooring material and decorative wall murals. “Even the pavements of Pompeii were decorated with simple stone and marble patterns.” (The Encyclopedia of Mosaic Techniques By Emma Biggs)

Below is an example of one of these early mosaics…

beware of the dog mosaic, ancient roman mosaics

Mosaico di "Attenti al cane" (CAVE CANEM) nella Casa del Poeta tragico a Pompei. Photo by Radomil

If you are interested in the mosaics of this period, there is a rare opportunity to see one first hand here in the Bay Area. Currently on exhibit through July 24th at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco is a large, intact, and excellently preserved floor mosaic dating to approximately 300 AD. The piece was excavated from a site in ancient Diospolis, Israel, believed to have been the home of a wealthy Roman. “This glorious mosaic is in America for a limited time before it is returned to Israel, where it will become the focus of an archaeological center in Lod.”

Legion of Honor
100 34th Avenue (at Clement Street)
San Francisco, CA
Hours: Tuesday thru Sunday 9:30am to 5:15 pm

In the early Christian period, mosaics were frequently used as church decoration, depicting religious scenes and iconic figures. Below are just two examples:

Mosaic of Saint Demetrius.

Mosaic of Christ in Hagia Sofia.

Mosaics would eventually go into decline around the time of the Renaissance, being replaced by the less labor intensive technique of fresco (painting).

But today the art of mosaics is making a comeback, popularized by what I would argue is a renewed interest in craft (in an age when many of our belongings consist of artless crap made in China), also its appeal as a home and garden decorative technique (think kitchen backsplash or garden table), and lastly by the inherent characteristics that make it well suited for large-scale public installations (especially those that are collaboratively produced).

Which brings us back to our local middle-school-produced-mural: “Peace”.
bret harte, pam consear, oakland school mosaic murals
Mosaics of this sort are increasingly popular at schools. The artist spearheading this vision, Pam Consear, produced another one at Bret Harte last year (“Spirit of Oakland”), an even larger one at Bella Vista Elementary (“We Are Here”), and has a concurrent project installing at Oakland Technical High School right now.

I met Consear while she and a volunteer parent were grouting the mostly finished mural last week and asked a few questions about how these projects come together.

First, its worth noting that large-scale projects like this often take many months to complete. Two groups of students from Bret Harte (after-school Art Academy students and Safe School Ambassadors) participated in this project, and the planning began as early as last September:  fleshing out ideas for a theme, prepping the surface (an old mural had to be removed), and beginning the tile making process. Consear noted the usefulness of exposing kids to such a long-term project, showing that work extended over a long period of time can yield amazing results.

Another benefit is the communal aspect of these projects.  While students can create their own individual tiles, expressing their unique personalities and sentiments, these pieces come together to create a larger unified message and vision. It’s really pretty cool because you can have two entirely different experiences of these murals… one from a distance, and one close up.

Here are a few close-ups of the students’ hand-crafted tiles, which included a variety of traditional and experimental techniques (even stenciling!)

hand crafted tiles, painted stencil tiles, peace mosaic

hand crafted tiles, oakland peace mosaic, pam consear murals

The finishing touches are being put on the mural this week, just in time for Bret Harte’s School Expo and Open House on May 14th. You can see a slideshow of the entire project at Consear’s blog here: Peace, Bret Harte Middle School.

Nice work!

PS – Almost forgot to mention that this project was made possible by a generous grant from Philanthropic Ventures Foundation. Thanks to them for supporting the arts.

What I learned while walking backwards…

moon at dusk, oakland hills, winter branches

Last night I had a strange experience. I took an evening walk in my neighborhood, the lower hills above Dimond & Laurel (we’re right on the cusp), and decided to walk a different way from my usual route.

I walk frequently in my neighborhood because it’s sooooo damn pretty… extensive exotic gardens and established trees & landscaping, native creek habitats (we’re bordered by two… Sausal and Peralta), and sweeping views of the lowlands, bay, and beyond.

I’ve come to know the various blocks and individual houses, mostly by their gardens… oh, here’s that amazing succulent garden with dwarf japanese maples; or the fenced-in fruit orchard with its citrus, figs, apples, & peaches; the stunning palm & cacti landscape perfectly complementing the mid-century condos behind; the tiny craftsman cottage with an explosion of dahlias filling its front yard; and the bird lover’s paradise, with no fewer than 7 bird feeders hanging from the ancient oak tree in front.

Much as I love these regular stops, and witnessing the transformations that come with the changing seasons, I was craving a change; and feeling comfortable enough in my now-not-so-new neighborhood to explore where I had not gone before… to try a new street, to turn left instead of right, to wander without a particular destination in mindHow often do we allow ourselves the time & space to do this? Not enough I would say.

I walked along unfamiliar streets noting new gardens, houses, and points of interest as the light of day faded and deep blue crept into the sky above the hills.  Despite my exercise in free exploration, I did intend to find my way home before nightfall…

As I continued up a curving road, one I thought might head me back in the direction of home, an elderly asian man approached from the opposite direction. I decided to ask him for directions (at my age, practicality often trumps reckless abandon).  He didn’t speak much English (and I, no Chinese). But he pointed in the direction I was headed and said something about 35th, which needless to say, is not where I wanted to go.  But I trudged on thinking something would become evident sooner or later.  It’s hard to get too lost in the lower hills with the beacon of the Mormon Temple visible from most vantage points.

As I made my way up and around the bend, it seemed I was in a familiar place, yet everything looked so different. I’d never seen that house before.  And look at the gorgeous intricate brickwork on that patio… I surely would have noticed that before. It was like I was walking the same path but somehow the reality around me had been altered. And when I hit the top of the hill I understood why.

I reached the junction where I could turn left and make my way down the closed road that runs along Peralta creek.  This was the way I typically walked, but I had approached it from the opposite direction. And somehow that made all the difference.

I think the effect was magnified due to the hills… when you are walking down a slope, you see what’s below you… and when heading up you see what’s above you. It’s different than walking on flat ground where you can see all around.

So I wasn’t really walking backwards… but the choice to take a different route than usual, or even just a different direction, had a dramatic effect on my perception.

It’s easy to get into our routines, to do the things we’ve done so many times we don’t have to think about them, or pay attention at all because we already know what to expect. And when we anticipate what we are going to see/experience, that’s pretty much what we see/experience.

So shake it up peeps… take the road less traveled. Try something different. Change your routine. Explore. You just might discover something amazing.

Winter showers bring…


Sunday’s break in the week long series of winter storms – which reminded us all that sunny seventy degree weather in January is NOT normal – inspired me to shoot the incredible variety of flowers that have sprung up in my yard recently.  Most of ’em are small so I busted out my macro lens.

Just another installment of nature’s incredible artworks…  like my Chasing Spiders post.

purple daisy, drought tolerant daisy

I was told this is a South African Daisy- very drought resistant

blooming rosemary, small purple lily

Rosemary on left; and unknown tiny purple star flowers on right (some kind of lily?)

orange and red magnolia flowers

Marigold: I rescued this plant from a crack in the driveway... I had no idea it would turn out so pretty!

orange stalk flower cactus, white droopy star flowers

on left is an aloe flower (I think) and to right is a mystery plant that sprung up in a pot of lilies, which have not yet flowered (anyone?)

cherry plum blossoms, plum blossoms

These blossoms are from a tree that dumped a ton of tiny cherry-plums in the yard last year - I was told it's a "weed" tree!

iris about to bloom, pink geraniums

on left is an iris plant moved from west Oakland; on right are geraniums that amazingly bloom all year long

pink camelia flowers

Our neighborhood has a lot of camelias... must have been fashionable years ago. Sort of reminds me of Los Angeles...

calla lily flower

Lovely calla lily

succulent flowers

not sure what's on left (anyone?); on right is a flower from one of my succulents

euphorbia flowers

I'd never heard of Euphorbia before moving into this home, but we have a variety of these South African plants

Another type of Euphorbia... these plants are super drought-resistant


Snowdrops - these were some of the first blooms of the year... popped up all over the yard.

Peruvian Lilies

Alstroemeria - we have big clumps of these in pink, orange, and red. They mostly flower through the summer and are great for cut flower arrangements, but this lone flower sprouted early.

I have no idea what this is. It produces big flat heads of flowers, sort of like Queen Anne's Lace, but yellow. Anyone?

plum blossoms

Another plum tree, but these plums are bigger!

fuschia monkey flower, tiny pink clustered flowers

Not sure what's on left, flowers are shaped like Monkey-flower bush but are fuschia colored; on right is a highly invasive weed (I've been told) and I've ripped much of it out, but I really love the tiny clusters of pink flowers

perenial pink flowers

I think this is called a daisy tree (or shrub) - it's a pretty big perennial, covered in tiny flowers.

lavender flowers, blooming lavendar, purple daisy

another view of south african daisy on left; blooming lavender on right

impatiens oliveri

This plant was faring terribly - I was told it's called Poor Man's Rhododendron and was in too sunny of a spot. I moved it into the shade and it's much happier!

Patience Grasshopper

Awhile back you got spiders.  Today you get grasshopper.  Just because.

long horned grasshopper, california grasshopper, grasshopper photograph

This little bugger was on one of my tomato cages. As a gardener, I know I’m not supposed to like these hungry herbivores, munching away on my carefully tended goods. But I can’t help but dig them… they’re so cute.

I’ve been visited by vibrant green grasshoppers like this from time to time in my garden, both in West Oakland and here in the lower hills. I decided, one seemingly mundane day, that one of these visits was a sign. But of what?

I did a bit of quick internet research to discover that grasshoppers (and locusts, which are a type of grasshopper) figure into cultural lore for many centuries, especially in Asia.

  • Regarded in China as symbols of good luck, longevity, happiness, prosperity, fertility, and virtue (wow, that’s a lot), families often kept them as pets.
  • In ancient Greece, they represented symbols of status and even immortality – Athenian women would wear decorative hair pieces and jewelry featuring the figure of the grasshopper as an indication of nobility.
  • And the Japanese cherished the songs produced by these insects (particularly the long-horned grasshopper, which I believe this one is), and considered them to be symbols of good luck.

As I lay in bed before falling asleep, I often hear the lovely chirping of what I thought was a cricket.  I now think it’s likely this little guy (or gal).  Woohoo little grasshopper!  You can come visit anytime…

long horned grasshopper, green grasshopper, photograph of green grasshopper