Dancing on Thin Ice

To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine. —R.W. Emerson

Category: Visual Arts

if I lived there

. . . I would probably never leave. Near the end of April I was a guest of the Sociology Department at Notre Dame de Namur College, which has its main offices in the old Ralston mansion in Belmont, California. While there, I had an opportunity to photograph the mansion house. Enjoy.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

sky on fire

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A recent sunset as photographed from my rooftop.

the upside of insomnia

If indeed there is anything at all good about having a sleep disorder, it’s that I’ve witnessed many glorious sunrises. From my rooftop, I recently photographed the sun’s ascent above the horizon as the full moon was setting.

Sunrise with Cloud

“Sunrise with Cloud”

Dawn and Moonset

“Dawn and Moonset”

a visit with Serge

This post has been moved and incorporated into my story about Serge titled “Temple of the Heart’s Imagination”, on my history site Up from the Deep.

italianate lanterns

The next time you find yourself walking about the San Francisco Civic Center, take a close look at the lanterns on the War Memorial Opera House and the Veteran’s Building and especially those that illuminate the gateway between the two buildings. Of course the architecture is beautiful, but the lanterns are sublime.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Reinventing myself meant, foremost, reactivating parts of my mind that had lain dormant for six years and recovering my hand/eye coordination. To accomplish this, I used drawing as one of my primary tools. Below is the first of my pen-and-ink drawings, dated July 2001, my third month at the Sixth Street hotel.



While still in the hospital, I had rediscovered my love of language and symbolism when I read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum; afterward, once I’d secured a roof over my head, much of my time was spent poring over alchemical treatises and ars combinatoria of the Middle Ages, wherein I found the inspiration for many of my drawings including “abracadabra.” The alchemical symbols inside the little gold triangles represent mercury (mind) at the apex, sulfur (spirit) on the left, and salt (body) on the right.

setting forth from the jaws of darkness

Almost as soon as I moved into the hotel on Sixth Street, still in the early stages of recovery from a six year nightmare of heroin addiction and homelessness, I started a sketchbook as an exercise in reinventing myself. Among other things, I used the sketchbook to reconnect with my love of calligraphy and the illuminated manuscripts and decorated letters of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The exercises culminated in a small series of watercolor decorated letters, two of which paid homage to poets whose writings had influenced my life in years gone by. I offer here some pages from the sketchbook and the three watercolors for whatever they are worth.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

another lifetime

“Curt McDowell and Mark Ellinger, circa 1979”

Not long after my friend Curt McDowell died, I drew this picture from a photograph of the two of us shooting a scene for his film Initiation on King Street. The drawing was a gift for Curt’s older sister Marce, who lives in Indiana where Curt grew up. It’s a shame that Curt never finished King Street. It was, or would have been, one of his best films: dreamlike, dark and moody, unsettling and prophetic,* densely layered with metaphor; it was an allegory of Curt’s self-discovery as an artist. Initiation on King Street was not Curt’s final film, but it was the last film on which I worked with him. It was another lifetime—we were so damn young.

In ’78 and ’79 Curt and I shared a flat near the foot of Utah Street at the bottom of Potrero Hill, when it was still an active industrial district. There were no condos, galleries, or jewelry marts. Our neighbors were companies like Forderer Hollow Metal Products, Best Foods, Kilpatrick’s and Hostess Bakeries, Crown Zellerbach Paper, Lone Star Concrete, Hamilton Hardware, and diners; lots of little diners that fed the factory workers, truckers, and trainmen. Most streets in our part of town were embedded with train tracks, spur lines to the area’s industries, and at night we were often serenaded by the soulful chimes of Western Pacific air horns as switching engines shuttled raw materials and finished products to and from the factories. Much of Initiation on King Street was filmed near the Southern Pacific train depot, within a cobble-stoned labyrinth of low, wooden warehouses between King and Berry Streets, stretching from Fourth Street almost to Seventh.

It was the end of an era and I deplored its passing, so to live amidst the industrial remnants of that era was a little slice of heaven. It breaks my heart to think that nearly all of Curt’s and my documentation—motion pictures, photographs, and sound recordings—has been lost, for it captured the zeitgeist of that too-brief moment in history, of which only my memories now remain.

*The film foretold Curt’s untimely death, and included an eerily prescient scene of my own mourning.

shameless horn tooting

The vivacious and multi-talented Julie Michelle recently interviewed me for the excellent photo website Caliber. If you’re at all interested in photography (and San Francisco), it’s a website well worth visiting.

julie michelle

Julie Michelle, self-portrait

“The City” at 1:AM

"The City"

Roman Cesario has been doing some fine work in the central city and past shows at his gallery (corner of Sixth and Howard) have been worthy of note. I have seven pieces in this show, including some new cityscapes, all of them previously unexhibited and all most definitely for sale. I hope to see you at the opening—it should be a lot of fun!

art from the heart

By drawing pictures in sand on a light table, Ukrainian artist Kseniya Simonova tells the story of the World War II German invasion and occupation of Ukraine. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Prepare to be amazed. This young woman possesses a rare talent that will take your breath away. If you’d like to learn more about Ukrainian art and how it reveals that country’s tragic past, uncertain present and hope for the future, I highly recommend spending some time at the excellent website ArtUkraine.com.

the bogeyman

A couple of years ago I stumbled onto a place to which I sometimes return for an infusion of mirth and wonderment. Behold! monsters drawn by children, then redrawn by talented and sympathetic young adults on the Kid Creatures page at the delightful DrawerGeeks.com.


by Mark Behm and Chase


by ? and Deanna Molinaro (for nursemyra  –tobymarx)


by Caleb Conrad and Marco Bucci

getting lost in another world

My inner life, fueled by my imagination, is so real and engaging that were it not for my fascination with the world around me, I could easily live out my life as a hermit, immersed in the pages of old books and manuscripts. Sketches of Japanese Manners and Customs is one such book. Written by J.M.W. Silver, Lieutenant Royal Marines, Light Infantry, and published in 1867 by Day and Son, Limited, Lithographers and Publishers, London, Sketches is a first-hand account of Japan in the days of the Mikado as seen through the eyes of an English officer; a skilled observer whose military objectivity was tempered by his obvious fascination with what he saw. The book is filled with exquisite chromo-lithographs that are “fac-similes of native drawings” reminiscent of the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Hiroshige. It is, for me, mental aphrodisia.

Below are a few of the plates, along with excerpts from the text to explain them.


Some of the tea houses in the vicinity of large towns are much frequented in the spring-time by large parties, on account of the beauty of their gardens. The chromo-lithograph opposite represents one of these parties, some of whom appear to have been indulging too freely in saki.* The fellow dancing and waving a fan about is apparently addressing a love-song to the lady opposite, whose husband is evidently desirous of putting a stop to the flirtation.



The baker’s shop opposite affords a good specimen of the wayside scenes, and conveys a fair idea of an ordinary Japanese house. It will be noticed that the puppies in the foreground, as well as the cat in the girl’s arms, are very differently delineated; but such animals are the especial stumbling-blocks of the native artists, although they faithfully represent birds, fishes, and reptiles.


Some bath-houses have the women’s lavatory separate; and one of these is the subject of the illustration. This arrangement, however, is more for convenience than in compliance with the demands of modesty as is evidenced by the fact that a male attendant is supplying water; and that his presence is plainly a matter of perfect indifference to the women bathing, with their children, in his immediate vicinity.

A high resolution scan of the entire book is available for download here.

all is fair game

This blog will be about whatever I feel like posting at any given time. Although it will undoubtedly include some of my own writing and photography, it will also be a platform for exploring other people’s ideas and creations. Nearly everything interests me; my penchants are expansive, and I haven’t yet placed any limits on possible subject matter.  Not knowing where this will lead is half the fun of doing it.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been keeping tabs on a very talented young man from Berlin. If you’re not already familiar with the work of Peter Fox, allow me to introduce you via one of the most visually and sonically compelling music videos I’ve ever come across. (More videos can be found here.)

Update: I have added a translation by Benjamin Stürmer.

I come out of the club, it was great in there
Reek of drink, blasted, it’s a beautiful life
Step over booze-corpses rotting in my path
I see the rats stuffing themselves full in the shadow of the Döner shops
Trudge through the puke at the Kotti*, the junkies are fogged
Homies drooling around, misbehaving
Scene brats searching desperately for the scene
Pierced girls who want me to read the Straßenfeger**

Half o’ six, my eyes are burnin’
Step on a dude kipped out among dead pigeons
Hysteric chicks flippin’ out in a panic, ’cause on the corner there’s stress between Tarek and Sam
Tarek says “Shut it, or you’ll get it in the face.”
Sam shitless, but can’t just stay quiet
The red soup drips to the asphalt
I feel sick, I zip up my jacket because it’s cold.

Good morning, Berlin
You can be so ugly, so filthy and gray
You can be so wonderfully horrible
Your nights consume me
Yeah, it’s best for me
That I go home to sleep it off
And while I walk through the streets
Black slowly turns to blue

Tired figures in the neon light
with deep wrinkles in their faces
The early shift is silent, each keeps to himself
Frustration builds as the bus doesn’t come…
and everywhere lies shit, you’ve really got to float
Everyone’s got a dog but no one to talk to
I just breath through my mouth, that’s part of my life
I feel unhealthy, need something pure to fight it

I’ve got a hell of a head, I need a juice
I could really use some Bagdads Backwaren***
It’s warm there, there I can lose myself in my dreams
With Fatima, the sweet baker
R ‘n’ B ballads pump from a parked Benz
It’s quitting time for the street gangs
A hooligan lies sobbing in the arms of a woman
Hey, this city just isn’t as tough as you think


I am blasted and I rub your dust from my eyes
You aren’t beautiful, and you know it
Your skyline screwed up, you don’t even look good from a distance
But the sun is coming up now
And I know, whether I want to or not
That I need to breathe you

*The Kotti is an area in Berlin.
**The Straßenfeger is a homeless newspaper.
***I think this is a pastry shop.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: