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Nina Karavasiles

Crow's Nest/Buddha's Rest
An "interview" of Nina Karavasiles by Robin Brailsford
Spring, 2004


Just as we had agreed, I drove from Dulzura to Boxer Canyon Road, to interview Nina Karavasiles of Public Address at her new home and studio complex. I traveled three hours, through the recently burned areas of the October 2003 San Diego fires. I drove through Honey Springs, Jamul, Lakeside, Santa Ysabel...and way far out as far as one can go and still be in San Diego County.

I get there, and the gate is locked. I assume that her partner must have locked it when he went to work...not realizing I was coming. I climb over the gate, march down the newly graveled driveway and through a grove of wind-stunted pines. They are set with plywood cutouts of Civil War soldiers - props from an Eleanor Antin film/performance piece,

I come upon a series of small buildings perched on the slope like Mesa Grande cliff dwellings. The view is pristine. I assume of course, that Nina is there. I cannot imagine that after driving three hours, that Nina would not be here. Expectantly, I go from one building to another, knocking on doors, peering into the front seat of a work truck, or at a careful arrangement of scrap metal.

I arrive at a large pre-fab metal barn...the last building. It is locked - no Nina!

Dessert view

As I walk back, I am still hopeful. I try all of the doors. I look inside the cabin. I find her bookshelf, a chandelier that she must have made as well, a black futon on the floor and a Spartan sink. I am reminded of a bleak television documentary of contemporary families, recreating 19th century homesteading in Canada. Homesteading!

So she's not here - no one is - not for miles - but I am prepared. I have brought food, a small tape recorder and a few props.

Lacking other options, I sit on the tailgate of my truck, eat, and ask questions on the tape. Then I leave the recorder, two ripe persimmons and a small early sculpture she had given me, in their galvanized mailbox. I raise the red flag, and drive home. I imagine their faces as they come back in the moonlit dark, and reach into the mailbox to discover my forgotten presence.


"Nina, I'm sitting here at your gate, having eaten delicious chicken from the Ramona "Stater Brothers," which I brought for our lunch. I am watching the sun go down over Shadow Mountain. I see you have just had your driveway graded...very nicely done, I would have to say!

My long drive had me thinking just what I was going to say to you when I saw you - how impressed I am at what an incredibly long way this is from anywhere, and just how strong in love, direction and certitude one would need to be to live so far from everywhere.

You have a beautiful 'pad'... a pure art piece. It makes me think about Andrea Zittel, the artist who lives and works outside of Joshua Tree National Park. I wonder why it is that she alone commands the art world's attention that she does, for integrating her desert life and art...when it's happening right here as well?

So, to act on my current circumstances and achieve my goal, of interviewing founding members of Public Address I will ask my questions of you, on Side One of this tape. I am hoping you will record your answers on Side Two.


My first question is, where is the gold Buddha? Could it be reached via that little path that twists and turns through the rocks and the vegetation up over the hill? I understand that you were looking for a Zen signal, to know what land to buy... and then you saw this Buddha.

Having now carefully examined your Web site, and your new home and working environment, it is more than just your public art in which I am now interested...it is your core aesthetic, as well as your public work.

You make art of your life and habitat...even of your hairdo and convictions about water usage and lifestyle. Your vision is beautiful....though a bit sharp in some ways, both physically and mentally - it has a 'cutting edge' - though neither of these is exactly the right term...

I am thinking, at the moment, of the pictures on your website...of the piece being readied for loading onto the truck, one of the few dozen commissioned "Urban Trees" for the San Diego Port Authority.

While other artists made recognizable trees, you made a tree of solar powered glass globes and sharp steel edges - materials whose character mimic the core processed and functions of a tree...while nearly negating its 'actual' appearance.

Another example is your chair sculpture at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California.   There are two seats: one with a rigid stem, affording the sitter a proud and honorable position. The other's pliable stem, sinks under the sitter's weight, casting them into a lowered, subservient role.

How does psychology influence your work? How do you pursue that level of intellectual exploration? What please your eye and how does it steer your work?

Your house, to me, is a very tiny, very beautiful shi bui Santa Fe/lighthouse. It is located about equi-distant between the Anza Borrego Desert, the Pacific Ocean, Tijuana, Mexico and Los Angeles at an elevation of 3,000 feet. The house is made of the same materials of much of the art. There are rusted-steel sides facing south. I am quite sure that this beautiful ochre façade is too hot to touch, more than half the days of a Southern California year.

Interestingly, the salt marshes of Massachusetts, from whence you come - are absolutely, and totally opposite, of Boxer Canyon Road, the place you have chosen now to roost.   These bi-coastal landforms have very little in common, except perhaps the sky, scale, drama, color and texture - and the absolute opposite extremes of available water.

Just how did you find the site and design the complex of buildings? How was the present arrangement decided and curated?

There's the sound of a crow and some wind overhead....

Mail art

In your mailbox you will find an art piece that you made and sent to me ten to fifteen years ago. This piece and others in its series, occupies public space by moving through a public system. These may be among your first actionable works of public art.

Another striking impression...how clean everything is - as manicured as a Zen garden. Everything is in its place. Not a single element that has not been thought through....from the positioning of scrap steel, to the direction of chairs on the balcony, to the architecture of the corrugated metal coverings over the skylights. I know your partner works at a university running a shop, in the art department... That must mean that he is a very good builder with a clear vision. It seems that in this remote location, lights and other signs of human habitation are absent. Yet, the space the two of you share is a minuscule. I would like to know more of how your partnership is collaborative...and your art is life.

When I met you twenty years ago, you were working at the University of California at San Diego for Harold Cohen. Was he an influence?

Ironically, as a committed public artist, people do not figure in my own life as importantly, as they may in some. I assume, from the environment you have chosen, that you may be of like mind. Yet, you moved here, from absolutely the heart of an old San Diego barrio, which is teeming with people...and on the edge of the largest freeway on the west coast, where 125,000 cars a day...all passed directly by your front yard!

It was a very intense neighborhood - filled with people. Now here you are, just about as far from the 'teeming crowds' as it is possible to get! Even though our art is intended for 'the public,' I think it's ironic, that this separation of audience and community that we have both chosen. Why do you think we have chosen to do PUBLIC art? Has it something to do with education? ...politics? ...compassion? Perhaps we need the balance of rural and urban to see issues clearly?

Your La Mesa, California trolley station, of course, is presented in a very biting (and sadly humorous) way on your Web site. You chart...as I think we all wish we had the courage to do ... the good and viable ideas you initially had for the project, but which were then removed by a committee... by the very people who hired you... but who know far less about public art than you do. Does making such a daring statement gain you respect and artistic credibility... or does it perhaps, give a voice to lost ideas?

My final questions have to do with our public art advocacy group. What has Public Address done for you? You have been basically our president. You set up most of the meetings, keep the 'ball rolling.' How can we have greater influence and allow Public Address to really excel?

I would like to start chapters in other cities. Or perhaps we could team-teach a course in the Public Art Program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles?

So that's it. I think you're going to be surprised to find this tape in your mailbox! I put the rest of your mail underneath the carved wooden cherub (the only thing Buddha-like, actually, that I could find in your entire mountaintop environment!)

I'll speak with you soon."


Nina: "Robin, it's Nina. First, let me say that I was completely mortified to see the tape, the persimmons and the cardboard sculpture that I had sent to you years ago. I was mortified because that meant that something had screwed up, most likely me. And indeed, I had written a different date for our meeting time on my calendar. I was in the city working. It does not happen too often that I am not here....I do spend most of my time up here now. I was disappointed and felt really terrible that you had driven all that distance ...and I had missed you.

Thiis actually the first time I had gotten 'a read', so to speak, about this environment from someone who did not have my running monologue to direct it! And so that became really interesting to me, because people are guided as to what they're supposed to think when I am telling them, 'Oh, Then we did this...and then we did that....and THAT'S why thishappened,' and thus and such.

As this piece of land is on the side of a hill and there are lots of big rocks, I developed a strategy. It was simply impossible (and I thought, environmentally gross) to make one big area, i.e. 'the ideal studio.' So, I decided it would be much better to have lots of small buildings with different functions, between which I would be moving all day. When I look at old people (and I'm starting to look at them more and more as I am becoming one!) I analyze what is it that's keeping them healthy and active. I have concluded that active is the operative word.   Thus it seemed to me that if I had to literally FORCE myself to go from one building to the next, it would indeed keep me spry and active...   you know, up and down the hill.... As I move over it!

That little cabin (that you call the house) was an existing structure, but it was existing in the most hideous of ways! When we first came here, my partner and I had to move into that space because we had to move fairly quickly.

It sounds very dramatic, but the adorable two-story Victorian house in Barrio Logan where we had been living, was responsible for our early move. A friend approached me and said, 'I would love to buy this house, and I know you are interested in leaving; however, can you do it right now?'

As a result we ended up having to move more quickly -- a bird-in-the-hand kind of thing.

We moved into the little cabin, which was not equipped with 'regular' conveniences... like running water and electricity. It was a fun adventure, but aesthetically it was pretty hideous.

We lived there for a couple months. Since then, we have built the ag. (pre-fab metal agricultural) barn, which is my studio, and in which we 'live' right now. That gives us the opportunity to refurbish the cabin to our liking. The cabin could still be lived in, albeit small. It will eventually function primarily as a library. We clad it in metal.   I wanted it to have   a rusted look, as a comparison to all of the stone everywhere. We put down some old oak flooring. The bookshelves were a collaboration.I wanted something open, with an angle to it - everything has an angle!

The tiny area one might call the 'kitchen' is poured-in-place concrete. The sink and the stove (which work nicely) we found here on the land. The land by the way, had heaps and heaps of garbage dumped on it. There were close to 20 tons of garbage that we had to cart away before we could really begin with our vision....!

I did write down the questions that you asked.

'Where is the gold Buddha?'

I think perhaps you answered that after you had made the tape and drove down the road, to find that there's a Viet Namese meditation center - with a 50-foot reclining stone Buddha, and giant bronze bells, and things like that, which seem completely incongruous to their neighbors - like the llama ranch next door! The Buddhas are not gold, but they are quite amazing.

You asked about my aesthetic and materials... for instance, laundry and fingernails and solar power and water and community. I think the most I can say about my aesthetic is that I tend to like things clean and plain -- sometimes. The biggest driving force to my aesthetic is 'content.' Perhaps the most negative influence against my having a 'regular' art career (aside form my troublesome last name...) is that I am content-driven, thus not easily categorized, recognized... or enthroned!   Though that lifestyle suits some of my friends, a career of that sort would not suit me.

So we can talk about certain of my art pieces and say that they're plain, with no detail.

The Urban Trees piece, 'Solar Illumination,' was commissioned by the Port of San Diego, which tends towards only 'happy' art pieces. I knew, in designing for them, that they would love something poignant, symmetrical, colorful...and apparently devoid of meaning. The fact that it lights up is a visual perk for them, and adds environmental consciousness, for me.

'Social Circles' is the chair piece in the sculpture courtyard at Southwestern College. This sculpture entices one to become an actor rather than simply a viewer. When an onlooker sits down, he has no idea what is in store for him. The piece looks like a regular pair of chairs. However, once you have sit down, on chair forces you to sit up, very straight. The other is lower and forces you to curl over.

My goal was to manipulate the hierarchy in conversation with this sculpture. Perhaps one is astute and will notice a difference....Or, perhaps one is not, and does not. It has that sense of futility, as well as a bit of unexpected hilarity to it, as happens frequently in real life.    Forcing one's body to experience it is, I think, rather wonderful.

You asked about that cardboard piece I sent to you, and that you put back in my mailbox today. It is a piece in a series of maybe 9 or 10 that would get artwork out and about, particularly through the mail. I liked the idea that unsuspecting mail carriers had to handle and think about art.

When I first saw this piece again in the mailbox, I thought, 'My god, why is someone returning this art piece? ... and how did it get through the mail again?'

Of course, I figured that all out. The piece that I had made for you so many years ago...   it also has all of those stamps, stickers and such on it - which I carefully selected and applied for their decorative potential -- small details like the very fine bound and knotted string which appears to be holding this center part together - but of course it is just decorative.

That box has an unlikely curve where, if you look carefully, you think... 'What the heck kind of item would be in this? Who would ship such an elaborate box?' I hope some postal worker somewhere had that thought. It has its form, and its form is sort of dulled, perhaps, by what the thing inside is - but what is that? The truth is that there is nothing inside. It was the form itself, in which I was interested.

The piece I made for my partner was the complete void of a mailbox - of our Barrio Logan mailbox. I had made it to slide inside, completely filling the interior. Not even another envelope could have gone in with it. It was so tight, that it needed a pull chain to get it out. After a time of mailing these things, my postal workers began to know me, and you could hear them say, "Here she comes...". They all seemed to love that one particular form over any other, which I thought was just hilarious. They did not even understand that it was the shape of a rural mailbox. They didn't seem to get that, but they just loved that shape.

I sent one to a curator at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. I figured it would then be considered part of the collection of the museum. That curator has actually been the recipient of two guerrilla art pieces, if you want to call them that. She has never, ever mentioned either, not once! Nothing!

I made a bronze sculpture, and I slipped it into her home at a party. It has my name boldly on it. I have no idea what she's done with it or why she has chosen to never mention it - and, of course, I don't either.

I sent one mail art piece to a fellow artist, whose teenaged daughter was so excited about getting such a weird box that she opened it. It was only then that she called her father to say that he had received this really cool thing. In essence, she had ruined it by opening it, because there was no putting it back together. So he called her a De-Constructivist, which I thought that was pretty funny.

Bellamine College, in Louisville, Kentucky, has a beautiful gallery space where the gallery director asked me to do an exhibit. I thought it would be great to mail things to them. And it was. I designed a sculpture to be constructed out of large boxes, shipped with packing slips. With these instructions, the gallerist had to assemble them into my nine-foot tall sculpture.

In a lot of ways that was the end of my box making. There were so many of them, I worked myself out if it.

You knew me then as a very messy person - an artist, making things, throwing everything else over and not looking back. My house had just small paths to pass through the helter skelter of debris! Then, my orderly boyfriend moved in. I learned to function within his system of clearing off the bench, so that when you are ready start, to make a new piece in the morning, it's clean. It has had a surprising effect on my work...sometimes good, other times bad! Just the same, I can find tools now that I could never before, and that surely, makes working so much easier!

He and I collaborate on things... though he does not call it that. He is very against the idea of being a designer, even though, in many cases I believe he is. In some...he isn't. He likes to have things symmetrical and would probably gravitate toward something he has seen before...then recreate it. However, he is very willing to do my designs.

In terms of our working style, he is definitely the studio assistant. He is always running just behind or ahead of me, making sure that everything is picked up...or prepping for me and the such. He does whatever I lack the skill or strength to do. I take care of all the designing. We each do welding, sandblasting, concrete, road leveling, house building, gardening, electric, plumbing...whatever it takes.

He's now the Facilities Manager for a university Art Department. He is very aware of tools and how to make things work properly. Although he is surrounded by some of the country's best talent he finds more true innovation in what we do at home....By home, I mean more than just our art. Because he deals with facilities, he also deals with facilities here. We're completely off-grid...solar, and a well from which we pump our own water. We do everything. We are the 'mayors' of our town -- well, not mayors, but we run everything. We are very self-sufficient...and away from the things that make life easy.

For instance, when we first came out here, if I washed our clothes with hot water, I had to , first of all, pick up the sticks, heat the water, soak and agitate the suds...wash the clothes, hang them out to dry, fold them...all of which, sometimes took me the better part of a day. Your questions inevitably started to arise as....'Perhaps it is a subject worthy of artwork, ' as it is a task you find so important that you would not even consider going to a Laundromat?'

Each laundry day, mineral deposits on my black chem-sink would arrange themselves differently. Because I was spending so much time thinking introspectively about the wash, the spots started to become important to me. Not from a divining standpoint so much, but visually. So I began photographing the spots... and then writing. Eventually I found a venue - an international artists' book show.

I wrote about the environmental issues of laundry, and how you go about buying a washing machine that fits within those convictions...and how, when you go to the store, that information is not available...at all! It is a huge amount of research. What kind of washing machine is compatible with solar power?   Asking someone in the store - they look at you like you are crazy. It goes further. The factory workers who make it... are they happy? Where is it made? Have recycled materials been used? How much does it cost to buy this thing? Is it actually worth it? And then we bought one - and my partner figured out that it is going to cost us $30 a load... for the next eight years!

... And that seems kind of crazy - but my God, it's worth it! It's really amazing to go from not having a washing machine, far less a dryer, to taking possession of this thing!

I planted a garden in its 'outflow', but it uses so little water, that I actually now have to water that riparian area because the machine, does not use enough water to even keep the Juncus alive! (7.)

I was insistent on planting Juncus so that I could weave baskets. That has also been an area of my research - California native plants - as I need to make bronze baskets for the La Mesa trolley station. I want cast them from Juncus originals I have made myself; from materials I have grown myself. You know, I get a little obsessed.

So yes, I have made artwork from my laundry, and pieces that are based on my height and various other personal aspects of myself. There's a lot of undercurrent to the content. The pieces are often very minimalist, and conceal their impetus. Materials are always very important to me - the look and feel of them.

You ask why I moved from the heart of San Diego to this mountain completely away from people? In some ways, it feels like an accident. In some ways it feels very deliberate. I had grown tired of being in the middle of a city. In some ways, it was the people... yet; in other ways it was the pollution. When I first moved to the barrio, I used to be able to go out into my back yard and do 'Tai chi..' And my ears started ringing -- from the freeway roar. I even petitioned for...and got...a Caltrans sound wall to be built - an eight-year project, to try to mitigate that sound problem. Unfortunately, it had already affected me. Living in the city was all feeling just a little over the top, a little too much all the time.    I was feeling a sense of useless overpopulation.

And there were the oddities. I had a man who had a crush on my trash can - he was stealing her regularly and then dancing with her. It was amusing...but I do not want to deal with that sort of energy anymore. I also did not like the fact that I had a number of nuclear submarines 'parked' about three blocks from my head, from my physical being. That was troubling to me.

Was there worse stuff? I do not know, but we wanted to be out here. I suppose our desire to live a more authentic lifestyle prompted the whole thing. My partner and I bought the land, with the idea that much later on, when we retired, we would move out here.    However, it just seemed like a better thing to move, when we got the offer for the house in town. What was to be gained by living in the city? Cultural aspects of San Diego did not seem worth the sacrifice. One can create art anywhere.

Currently I have a project in Los Angeles. It is the Kofax Bridge, for the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. I have a lot of work and business to take care of in San Diego. Most of the time I am just up here and working at the studio... and it does not feel very isolated.

Harold Cohen: He is a 'founding father' of artificial intelligence and computing in the arts. Oddly enough, I worked for him. I say 'oddly enough' because I am not a technology-based artist or person. Nor am I particularly a painter...I worked for him for five years in the old water tank - which housed the studios of the UCSD visual arts faculty. Harold is now an emeritus professor.

He is pretty curmudgeonly (thats a good thing) - there is something wrong with everything, there is a fight around every corner. So much of the times he was just flat-out right. I learned about the dance of arguing from Harold. I learned a lot about professionalism and attitude too.

He is a methodical and very hard worker. That was interesting to see. He would never take time off from his work. A lot of other people devote more to the 'artistic lifestyle.' He taught me a lot about persevering, Both of us are excessively different in our approach to everything, but we still seem to get along just fine.

What is wonderful about this tape recorder is that, maybe, you are hearing the water on my metal roof? It is probably just misting outside, but this ag. building actually accentuates weather. We are finally getting a little rain after those hideous fires. Rain on a metal roof always sounds more severe than it is.

I like the idea of educating the public about what public art is all about...if just to say, 'Please open our eyes and look at the world around you.' I think Public Address can do that. Of course, there is our camaraderie and the idea hat you can call up another member and say. 'Hey, what do you think about this vender or that product?'

Public Address is a group of very creative people. We ALL have great ideas. That is what we excel at...and making things. We can do that. But when any of us get busy on a commissioned project, we often let go of the volunteer Public Address task. It can be uproarious to contemplate how some aspects of our group really shine - like brainstorming or field trips or networking or creating reading lists - and other areas not! Many other organizations could use some of our forward thinking energy, and we could use some of some bookkeeping and management expertise.

In 2000, my La Mesa trolley station was having a number of ups and downs - chiefly related to the fact that the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture pulled out of their obligation with the selected artists to make four stations be wonderful collaborations between the Metropolitan Transit Department Board, the architects and the communities.    Public Address formed, in part, because Anne Mudge and I were calling each other.... saying, 'Yikes, what do we do now? We have to understand these contracts, and we have no advocacy.'

Advocacy is one of my big hopes for Public Address, and I think we are achieving it - just look at the members who came to La Mesa City Hall to speak out for my project when the committees were trying to change it. I think it is important to set groundwork that actually empowers all public artists, and we can do that with Public Address. The project can only be as good as the client is. That's what the chart is about. I believe public art needs assistance contractually and visually. City governments put together lot of committees that don't necessarily understand the arts, but who wield a lot of power. This can lead to disaster for the art. Unfortunately, probably all the members of Public Address can cite important concepts, pieces or elements of

their work that have been altered or removed through the efforts of a self-serving individual or a powerful committee. If Public Address can change that, we will have really achieved something!

So that's about it. I think this audiotape interview is very interesting... almost like talking to a person. I told my partner that I was able to 'yammer on' about myself for quite some time., making me feel very self-important... as though I were a university professor! So, thank you, and Goodbye!"

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