‘Making the Brush Behave’ among the free spirits of the Albany Bulb

One of my favorite places to find peace of mind and inspiration in the East Bay is the Albany Bulb. Last Wednesday my most treasured spot there had some great new graffiti art to marvel at, and though a dog walker mentioned the snakes in the grass, I couldn’t wait to explore.  I’ve been reading a little book called ‘Making the Brush Behave’ (irresistible title) by Eliot O’Hara from 1936, and wanted to try out some of his exercises. As I looked around I could see so much to paint I didn’t know where to begin. The view towards Mount Tamalpais is always fascinating because as the light changes and the sun comes in and out, the distant range of hills seems to almost be alive with color. If the weather is calm, sounds of walkers and dogs echo around and the jolting freeway seems a million miles away. Pretty much a blissful time is always waiting here.

Albany Bulb Art, Fran Osborne

Albany Bulb Art, April 2013

On Wednesday however, the graffiti was beginning to whisper louder still and I couldn’t resist looking more closely. This litter bin was a great place to start, being so simple and striking. It was even signed by the artist, Feral, or was it Feraz? Anyway I liked his graphic style on this old, rusty oil drum with just a piece of chalk or soft oil crayon?

A little further on, this snake began hissing and I swear I heard that hyena on the left begin to laugh and snigger.

Albany Bulb Art, April 2013

Albany Bulb Art, April 2013

This guy just wanted to talk and talk and I had to sneak away when he wasn’t looking. You know the kind.

Albany Bulb Art, April 2013

Albany Bulb Art, April 2013

Don’t get me started on this dude …

Albany Bulb Art, April 2013

The art was new, it was loud and it was exciting. The wind was absent and the sky streaked with high cloud. The water of the bay lay calm and flat and I was finally ready to follow Mr O’Hara’s instructions (!!??*#) with a big fat brush.

2013-04-10 14.36.17

One of the magical things about using watercolor is how it changes as it dries. When you add a blob of paint with a quick, satisfying sweep and sit and watch it dry, everything about the hue and intensity of the color and the way the paper shines through the transparent pigment is a little miracle of chemistry. If your paper is rough then this can become an essential element in the process too.

Trees at the Albany Bulb, 2013

Trees at the Albany Bulb, 2013

What Mr O’Hara points out over and over again, is that confident strokes are essential and so I’ve started to really simplify shapes even more than I did before. This line of trees for instance, is painted in a few strokes of connected color, twisting the brush quite quickly to get the raggedy edge of foliage. I’ve learnt to start at the place I want to be the darkest (in this case the right side) and as the brush loses more color and the stroke becomes fainter, it can create a sense of distance. I took the sketch below straight to the studio when I got home and washed out the middle distance a little, repainting when it had dried. I wish I could do the same with the sky but I don’t think it would work because the pigments are staining. There’s always so much to learn as you inch forward with watercolor and at the Albany Bulb there can be an audacious freedom around that speaks volumes if you can tune in.

Albany Bulb, looking towards Mount Tamalpais, Waterclor, fran osborne

View from the Albany Bulb, looking towards Mount Tamalpais


Sacred art awakening

South Berkeley Artists Profile 2

On an ordinary Berkeley street just off Shattuck Avenue, in a typical lower-level studio, a unique artist works carefully, and with great focus. What is not so ordinary however, is that the artist is also a student and teacher of Classical Tantric Hatha Yoga, and his studio produces sacred art and images for meditation. Enter the studio of Ekabhumi Ellik, and you will step into the realm of a tangible and ancient spiritual practice and discover a complex and beautiful artform that is integral to the practice of tantra.

Yantra, by Berkeley's Sacred Artist Ekabhumi Ellik

Yantra by Ekabhumi Ellik

How is this kind of traditional sacred art developing within our contemporary western culture? Is this an artform we can appreciate even if we don’t share the faith, or can we best understand it as sacred craft? How do Ekabhumi and his assistants keep their hands steady when painting all those freehand lines? Still so many questions.

From artist to poet and back again

Like many artists Ekabhumi’s creative journey has been an unpredictable one. He went to art school in SoCal but became frustrated with the gallery system and wanted to follow a different path, one that would lead him away from visual art completely, into a twenty year career as a poet, emcee and organizer of poetry competitions, as well as a teacher and coach for poets of all ages. He returned to making art with his hands again in 2010.

Ekabhumi Ellit, South Berkeley Artists

Creating sacred art

While this work uses the wide visual vocabulary of several traditions, he and his associates specialize in Tantric Hatha symbolism. The imagery one usually sees of deities such as Kali and Lakshmi often date from the stylistic dictates of much earlier times, with goddesses dressed in the royal garb of a particular kingdom. The challenge for a sacred artist today is to capture and embody the same essence and original meaning of the image but try and modernize a little for western practitioners. Updated depictions of deities such as Ganesh, Lakshmi or Kali have more humanoid physiques for instance. Though the visual differences from earlier times are subtle they are quite significant because, as with any religious or faith system, the visual stories they use carry a meta meaning, more than a sacred text can convey.

A book release for spring carries illustrations by Ekabhumi in Awakening Shakti, The Transformative Power of The Goddesses of Yoga, a book by Sally Kempton from Sounds True Press.

The grammar of yantra

While tantra refers to certain religious rituals and meditation practices that have influenced Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist traditions since at least the 5th century, of itself however, it is not a distinct religion. Tantra involves the use of the mantra, phrases repeated while meditating, and the yantra which is a physical and symbolic tool for meditation focus. Each geometrical element of a yantra has a specific meaning and the composition of the overall design may follow traditional configurations for deities or vedic astrological planets. I find it fascinating that the elements of yantra grammar relate very closely to the symbolism of other systems of visual language. Architectural yantras for instance may be used as the ground plan for temples and within this plan, basic geometrical elements have specific meanings and can be ‘dynamic’ or ‘static’.

Ekabhumi’s studio produces large colorful yantras, beautifully painted on wood completely by hand, and built up in layers so that the object has a clear physicality. All are created with the same kind of spiritual devotion and ritual preparation that are an essential part of their purpose and meaning. The pace of creation has to be slow, the intention clear and the mind focused in order to produce perfect lines and curves by hand. I wonder what kind of art we would all create if meditation were to become standard artistic practice.

If you need to know more, Wikipedia has some great information about tantric traditions and history and you can contact Ekabhumi directly here. For information on his yoga classes at the Yoga Tree on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, visit the main Yoga Tree website.

slideshow 5

BBC discusses the origin of angels

A postscript to Spiritual Serenity post

For all those Angel fanciers out there, I wanted to include a link to this great, if a little weighty, program about Christian angels, as discussed by Melvyn Bragg and friends on BBC Radio4. Seems they still function essentially as messengers … though they have a complex past.

If outside the UK, it seems the prog. is only accessible via this link and available as a podcast.  Scroll down to find but it might start playing automatically.


Lots of other interesting discussions via the In Our Time website, if you have time on your hands.

Spiritual serenity and John Lee Hooker

Fran Osborne, Chapel of the Cimes, Oakland, California. 2013

A typical view through the chambers and rooms of the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. Designed by Julia Morgan in the 1920s.

I love the idea of blues legend John Lee Hooker (August 22, 1917–June 21, 2001) resting in peace at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, as his music floats gently through the labyrinth of rooms and spaces in this extraordinary resting place.

By any measure this building reveals much about our attitudes to death and the afterlife here in the west. Functioning as a crematorium and columbarium, (a public place for the storage of cinerary urns containing ashes from a cremation), there are summer solstice jazz concerts  every year, and I’m sure John Lee Hooker approves.

Julia Morgan’s brilliance

Built in the early 20th century, and designed by California’s notable female architect Julia Morgan, photos or sketches cannot easily capture the intricacies of its architecture and layout, nor the silent peace and tranquility of its special atmosphere. The spaces are rooms within rooms, often with gardens and fountains. There are beautiful vistas, colorful wall tiles and textual inscriptions everywhere. Stained glass and mosaics pepper the moorish and medieval inspired interior, while steps up and down may remind the visitor of an M. C. Escher drawing.

Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland, designed by Julia Morgan

Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland, designed by Julia Morgan

Within each ‘room’ is a grid of enclosures with bronze-framed glass doors, housing an abundance of every size and style of dignified and restrained funerary vessel one could imagine. Each enclosure has two bronze rings for holding flower vases (provided). There are containers in the shape of books and buildings, elaborate greek and roman inspired urns, simple containers, large ones, small ones, plain and decorated. Most are engraved with the names and dates of the lost loved one, and very rarely, here and there, a small framed photo will remind us all that we are only here for a very brief time.

Angel, Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland

Angel, Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland

The angel as a point of departure

Painting there with my buddies several times over the last few months has had quite an impact on my work, and I’ve been busily engaged in a whole range of paintings inspired by a plain and simple angel statue of bare molded concrete with beautiful turquoise and gold mosaic wings. Normally I would shy away from anything to do with angels but something about the shape and decoration of this one kept drawing me in. After sketching it a few times from different viewpoints, a simple rendition of the scene seemed completely inadequate. The angel as an ancient and mysterious symbol, and all that it represents seemed to require paintings that incorporated more feeling, passion and abstraction.

Angel, watercolor, pastel, sumi ink, Fran Osborne, 2013.

Angel Peter

The mixed media sketch I’ve called Angel Peter (because it reminds me of Pete Townsend) began life as a watercolor, with several layers of pastel and ink added at different times. None of this seemed to be working either because the image was far too literal and illustrative. At least, the ‘angel’ was a useful point of no return, and suggested digging deeper and taking more risks.

I decided to detach from my usual approach and began using Sumi ink in bold strokes, applied directly onto recycled canvases. I like rescuing old canvases and re-purposing them because the previous owners leave traces that are useful, and I like working on things that have been blemished or thrown away. By some strange coincidence, my husband came home with five he’d found on the street that morning and I greedily snatched them from him and quickly covered them in gesso. I had some large unprimed boards that I also wanted to use and an assortment of small and medium sized canvases of varying ages and quality, as well as an old board that had been nailed to cover the broken glass in our front door by previous owners.

Work in progress, March 2013, Sumi ink on canvas and board, with oil paint, Fran Osborne

Work in progress, Sumi ink, oil paint on canvas

As I worked, I knew that I wanted to make bold strokes that were quite repetitive, emphatic and deliberate and that this was expressing a familiar basic urge to ‘make marks’ on something, anything and everything, using strong pigment and a simple tool. The repetitive strokes were satisfying to make and while some paintings became notional landscapes others are clearly related to feathers and wings.

Recently, I’ve been reading about some of the rituals performed for clearing space of any stale, lingering or ‘dead’ energy. I decided to have a ceremony in my studio, and set fire to a whole load of redundant old notes and scribblings. I realized that not only was I clearing the energy in my studio but that I could use the ash in my paintings in some way.

Work in progress, Sumi ink, oil paint and ash on reclaimed board

Work in progress, Sumi ink, oil paint and ash on reclaimed board

The ash linked back in a very direct way to the purpose of a Columbarium, although this link was not immediately obvious because I was still struggling to express  the intangible responses I’d felt at the Chapel of the Chimes. All of this work was done in quite a rush of play and focus.  I started to paint over the bold sumi ink marks with oil paint and rubbed the ash into some areas, smearing the sooty residue over the surface. A few are left in their black and white raw state. All this is still very much work in progress, and these are fuzzy snaps from my phone. I’ll post more when they are complete.

The painting below does seem to be complete. Elements of native American Culture have crept into this one, and the text is a phrase from a Cherokee syllabary I bought in a thrift store a few years ago.

Get into the Water

Get into the Water

My hubby and I have been thinking about walking the pilrim route to Santiago de Compostella, not for religious reasons but because it seems like a wonderful way to explore Spain and have a great adventure. There are a growing number of people walking the missions here in California and maybe my visit to this incredible and unusual building has been a gateway to a deeper, inner journey. I also came across the work of local scholar Kayleen Asbo whose work centers on myth, music, and art, and readers might enjoy her webinar on ‘Life as a Pilgrimage’.

Now I’m seeing physical representations of angels everywhere. Here is a window from local store ‘Tail of the Yak’ spotted yesterday. Fascinating where a visit to sketch can take you isn’t it?

Angel seen in Elmwood store window

Angel seen in Elmwood store window

Maj-Britt Mobrand weaves jazz

South Berkeley Artist Profile 1

Maj-Britt (pronounced Mybritt) Mobrand is an expert weaver and teacher of weaving, and a founder member of the South Berkeley Artists. I used to drive past her very enticing Glimakra Weaving Studio, and wonder who worked there, and how they were making a living as a craft weaver in the 21st century. I was very fortunate to meet Maj-Britt, as part of the East Bay Open Studios 2012, and she shared some of her work and process with me.  She came to the US in 1961 and learned to weave in classes at the Berkeley Adult School and in Sweden. It’s perhaps no surprise that she comes from a family of weavers and textile people from the south of Sweden.


The Code of Weaving

Many of her pieces are inspired by her love of jazz, and often use strong colors and abstract forms that seem to reflect her dual heritage as well as her love of practicality and order. Maj-Britt explained that the weaving loom was a precursor of the computer and I began to understand and marvel even more at the parallels and relationships between mathematics, music and weaving. She often uses complex repetitive, graduated rhythms, varied textures and subtle color progressions, though some pieces are more subdued and earthy.  I noticed as she worked in her studio, that even the sound of the loom in operation has its own soothing musicality. “You start a weaving and see where it will take you” she told me.

Maj-Britt Mobrand, weaving, Berkeley

Maj-Britt takes weaving to the streets


Being a craftsperson and artist can often be a solitary and all-absorbing activity but Maj-Britt also teaches and is not shy about bringing her art to the streets. The vintage image above dates from the 1970s when the Berkeley Coop was in full swing, and note that she still wears that groovy hand-woven dress.

Maj-Britt Mobrand, Watermelon Man, 48" x 58"

Maj-Britt Mobrand, Watermelon Man, 48″ x 58″

One large abstract piece welcomes visitors to the studio. “Watermelon Man”, a well-known Herbie Hancock track, began life as a small watercolor by one of her grand-daughters and she found it so unusual and wonderful she wanted to use it as the basis for a larger work. The original design was quite small and Maj-Britt had to enlarge it to make a huge and distinctive weaving at 48″ x 58′. 

In addition to the freeform weaving shown here, she also takes commissions and produces beautiful hand-woven scarves and wraps in a myriad of colors and combinations.

A short blog post can only be a taster of her work, and photographs do not easily reveal the variety of colors and textures or the beautiful natural yarns that Maj-Britt uses and so I urge you to visit her studio during one of the weekends of East Bay Open Studios, June 1,2 and 8,9 2013.

Her studio is at 2728 Martin Luther King Junior Way, Berkeley 94703, or call 510 549 0326. You can email her at glimakraweavingstudio@comcast.net

Sketchbook squash and the temple of food

Acorn squash, watercolor, sketchbook, Fran Osborne, 2013

Acorn squash, watercolor, sketchbook, Fran Osborne, 2013

In 2007, when we were thinking of moving to Berkeley, we kept coming across references to the Berkeley Bowl in articles and property listings. ‘Close to BART and Berkeley Bowl’ they would say. ‘4 bedrooms, quiet street, close to Wholefoods and walking distance to Berkeley Bowl’. ‘What’ we wondered, ‘is this local magnet that seems so essential and so desirable? Why did everyone mention it? At least we knew that BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) was the train into San Francisco, so maybe BOWL was Berkeley Old Women’s Lounge, or Berkley’s Oldest Wildest Lodge. I never imagined it might just be a grocery store. Admittedly, a grocery store like no other but, well a food shop when all is said and done. Here in California, food can be almost a religious experience and shopping for food is akin to visiting the house of your god. When so much processed food is rammed down the throats of Americans by gigantic food corporations, as so well documented by foodbabe, the Berkeley Bowl is a place to absorb the energy of huge amounts of fresh, gorgeous looking food, and marvel at the sheer invention of mother nature. I went there the other day and they had about ten different kinds of squash, sweet potatoes and onions, overflowing but neatly and beautifully arranged. You can read more about the store on Berkleyside and the comments section will give you an insight into the customers, specially those who don’t bag their own groceries. How I wish every impoverished area and food desert had better access to fresh vegetables and fruit, and the joy of looking at such gathered beauty. Being English and polite, we always bag our own of course.

Butternut squash, watercolor sketchbook, February 2013, Fran Osborne

Butternut squash, watercolor sketchbook, February 2013, Fran Osborne

Squash, watercolor sketchbook, Fran Osborne, Berkeley Bowl, 2013

Squash, watercolor sketchbook, Fran Osborne, Berkeley Bowl, 2013