Ricky the one and only

Ricky Persky’s head doesn’t reach very much higher than the seat of his pennyfarthing. A smile turns up the corners of his bushy, horseshoe moustache as he steadily mounts his vintage-style bike with a 28-inch wheel in front and a frame that swoops way down and connects a much smaller wheel in back. Persky carefully pedals along the sidewalk through Spanish Landing Park dressed in authentic knickers with knee-high, skull-and-crossbones socks pulled taut, a straw boating hat, suspenders, a vintage Winnie the Pooh tie and a vest with the gold chain of a pocket watch dangling out. As he rides through the crowd, everyone turns to look. Small children giggle and point. Couples snap photos. “Look, honey, I’ve never seen one of those in person before” is heard. Some folks even applaud.

“People enjoy a warm feeling, a glow, a smile,” says Persky, who’s quick to offer a ride or hand out his business card, which identifies him as “Ricky the I & Only,” co-founder of the San Diego Penny Farthing Club. “Penny-farthings are the transport vehicle of the galaxy that makes people smile.”

Persky calls the penny-farthing the original fixed-gear bike. It has only one gear, and the bikes used to be raced on velodrome-like tracks in the late 1800s through the early 1900s (originally, it was thought that the bigger the wheel, the faster the bike). Persky likes the simplicity of the bike’s design. He digs sitting upright and slowing down to two, maybe three miles an hour so he can sit back and relax.

“Life opens up when you just slow down a tiny bit,” Persky says. And he means it.

It was about 15 years ago, not long after his father’s death, that Persky had an epiphany. He was at his first woodcarving class, really enjoying it, and he thought to himself, Why not try new things more often? Why not do things that make him happy and others smile, no matter how odd?

“I vowed right then and there that when I get the inspiration to want to do something, I simply do it,” Persky says. “because there’s no tomorrow.”

Since then, the longtime San Diegan has built himself a busy and creative lifestyle guided by his every inclination and desire. In 2006, Persky retired from his professional life—first as an ad man for a San Diego handyman company, then as a field biologist for the Department of Agriculture. Along with starting the Penny Farthing Club, he’s allocated most of his free time to his hobbies, volunteer work and offbeat interests. A peek into the cab of his truck, which is covered in white vinyl lettering of quirky quotes he came up with himself or took from someone else, reveals a banjo.

“I’m terrible at it,” he says. “But I’m having a lot of fun learning.”

Persky’s also apprenticing with a topnotch saddle maker at Downtown Saddlery in Santee, learning the art of leatherworking. Sometimes you can find him hanging out with the swashbuckling crew of Klingons, pirates (or Klingon-pirates) performing sword fighting demonstrations as part of Stranglehold, a local nonprofit that tours California participating in costumed events. Other times, Persky’s pounding away with the Verona Drum and Dance Circle, an activity that helped him earn the Native American “Screaming Eagle” pendant that he feels honored to be wearing around his neck.

“I’m being accepted by a number of walks, and it’s really kind of cool,” he says.

Last July, the Maritime Museum of San Diego embarked on building a full-sized, functional historical replica of the San Salvador, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s flagship that’s touted as the first European vessel to reach the West Coast. Persky knew he’d fit right in. He signed on as one of the project’s volunteers, and is absolutely pumped that he has the chance to work shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the top wooden-boat builders from around the world.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says as he gives a tour of the construction site at Spanish Landing Park and introduces the workers one-by-one, each meeting Persky’s enthusiasm with a handshake and a chuckle.

“This is that big; that’s why every time I step on site, I’m in a state of awe.”

Persky says he does a bit of everything at the San Salvador build, but his biggest contribution has been coming up with a way to use small wooden scraps left over from the dowels and frame. He’s made friends with the on-site blacksmith, so he puts together the scraps in interesting ways and then has the blacksmith brand the wood sculpture with a line drawing of the ship.

He shows off his latest handmade San Salvador keepsakes, which are being sold in the site’s small gift shop, hands me one and says, “Oh, you’re going to love this,” a preface he often uses when discussing the ship, his penny-farthings (he has eight in all) or anything else he’s into at the time. It’s hard not to fall a little in love with whatever Persky’s talking about—his passion is contagious.

“Ricky’s just done a lot,” says Cathy Hannon who, with her husband Ray, runs the Downtown Saddlery and has gotten to know Persky through his apprenticeship. “Really and truly, he’s probably already lived about 10 lifetimes, you know what I mean? He’s definitely passed a lot of us up. He’s just willing to experience whatever there is to experience.”

Persky knows he leads a unique life, but he certainly doesn’t consider himself special. He says anyone, whether they’re in their supposedly quiet twilight years or not, can take advantage of life the way he has.

“I embrace the fact that it’s not retirement; it’s simply a change of your job description,” he says. “We’re all totally free and capable of doing it. My only advice is have a smile on your face and have a lot of fun doing it.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat on March 14, 2012. Follow Kinsee on FacebookTwitter or shoot her an email. 

San Diego Michael Jackson impersonator bares it all

It takes almost two hours for Devra Gregory to become Michael Jackson. The makeup’s first. She starts with a brown cover-up base and then blends in lots of white. She’s the ’90s Jackson—pale with a long Jheri curl. After she gets the perfect skin tone, she spends a good chunk of time on her nose, using makeup tricks and techniques to give it the unnaturally pointy, slender look of Jackson’s surgically altered olfactory orifice. Her eyes have to be enlarged with the help of heavy eyeliner. To complete the look, she carefully draws in new eyebrows and adds a cleft to her chin. She slips on her wig and next comes the challenge of making her female body male.

“I learned some tricks with foam rubber,” Gregory says.

“Sometimes, you have to add to take away.”

Her hips are easily hidden by thickening up her middle with the rubber padding. She has a whole body contraption, in fact, which she’s devised over the last 12 years she’s been playing the part of Jackson. It fits nicely under the costumes she often makes herself. But even with the man suit and makeup mask on, she still has to work hard to take on male mannerisms—men walk differently and stand a certain way, she says. Even more difficult is capturing the epic aura, quiet ego and massive charisma of a man whose fans hail him as a king.

In terms of looks, Gregory is in the upper echelon of the hordes of Michael Jackson impersonators who, especially after his death in 2009, have been able to make surprisingly decent livings performing for private and corporate parties. She’s a little on the short side, but when she’s on stage executing Jackson’s signature dance moves close to flawlessly, that’s when she sets herself apart. Gregory’s a lifelong, trained professional dancer and admitted perfectionist. She rehearses while facing a mirror with the reflection of a television showing Jackson concerts behind her (she wants to be sure to inverse the flipped image on the screen so she can mimic the moves exactly right).

When people show up to Gregory’s upcoming, self-produced show, WoMan in the Mirror, A Dancer’s Journey, they’ll get the Jackson they want. She’ll kick things off by doing the high-energy performance that’s earned her national attention. But stick around for the second act and you might be surprised. Gregory, a native San Diegan who’s left the city on wild adventures many times only to find herself back again, leads an odd and interesting life. She wants to tell an audience all about it in a 90-minute show that combines dance performances with acting, audience participation and jarringly honest storytelling that’ll illustrate her life as a dancer, a woman, a practicing Wiccan and, of course, MJ.
She’ll appear as a ballerina, a burlesque dancer, a stripper, a kids performer in a corny SeaWorld show, a backup dancer in a drag show, a solo drag-queen star at Lips San Diego restaurant. And, yes, everything in WoMan in the Mirror is something Gregory culled from her spontaneous real life.

“Sometimes, as a professional dancer, you take whatever job you can get,” she explains from her rehearsal space in National City. “Sometimes, life gives you the unexpected so you can’t really plan for anything.”

When Gregory first decided to produce her own one woman show, she began the script-writing process by inviting a group of friends over for wine and telling them her life story. She recorded that night’s conversation, had it transcribed, weeded out all the ums and uhs, tweaked it and eventually came out with a working script. She hired Jessica Bird, casting director at San Diego Repertory Theatre, as her director and, together, the two have created a polished piece of work.

At a recent rehearsal, Gregory managed to immediately suck me into the show. She was going over the part of her life when she went from being a performer in a vaudeville act to swinging around a pole as “Lacy,” the sweet-but-sexy girl next door, at a strip joint. She talked about her Jewish mother and father, demonstrated a Wiccan ceremony she learned after being invited into her first Wiccan covenant and remembered how liberating it was to attend an acting class.

Her acting, by the way, is good, Bird says. Bird’s been impressed with the ease with which Gregory’s been able to quickly memorize the lines and unflinchingly tell the narrative of her alternative life.

“Her story is very intriguing,” Bird says. “I think the story of her life and the religious aspect was actually more intriguing to me than the Michael Jackson thing. I know that’s what’s going to bring other people to the show, but hopefully they stay engaged through everything else.”


Woman in the Mirror, A Dancer’s Journey, May 18 through 20 , 10th Avenue Theatre 930 10th Ave., Downtown


Originally published in San Diego CityBeat May 16, 2012. Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com. Follow Kinsee on Facebook and Twitter.

Work of My Hands goes all-in for ArtWalk

Inside a timeworn Hillcrest home, Rachel Eva and Shawn Michael have been busy collecting discarded, dilapidated scraps of various sorts and storing the finds in their narrow side yard. They’re starting to look like hoarders. Recently, the fresh-faced young couple scored a rusted steel pole from their neighbor’s old clothesline. They like how the paint has naturally chipped away over time. Eva and Michael revive the bits of tattered metal and wood in their small home workshop by piecing things together in unusual and unexpected ways—she’s often responsible for adding the organic-looking elements; he’s usually the one pushing for the industrial look. They then affix antique-style light bulbs, transforming the odds and ends into freestanding, functional sculptural lamps.

The sculptural lighting is just Eva and Michael’s latest project in a constant stream. They’re always working on something big out back in the workshop or painting studio. It’s been like that since they met in 2006. They played it cool for awhile—the whole “just friends” thing—but eventually decided to give in, get married and become partners in their art ventures. First, it was mostly painting. They called their first art show Work of My Hands, a biblical reference that communicates the idea that both good and evil can be done with one’s hands, and it’s up to the individual to decide which to pursue.

They liked the title so much that they kept it as the name for all the projects they do (workofmyhands.com). Together, they’ve produced two of the Port of San Diego’s “Urban Trees,” the large-scale, treelike sculptures that lined the embarcadero until the program was ended last year. Their most recent urban tree, a large, rusted steel trunk and branches with flowing orange, yellow and red leaves streaming down, was a clear precursor to their subsequent work.

“I definitely think the urban trees activated that three-dimensional desire,” said Eva, who, with her tall, thin frame and full lips looks a little like Don Draper’s newest wife, Megan, on Mad Men.

Plus, Michael, who was sick of showing up to art shows that didn’t have the right lighting or wall space, had already begun incorporating built-in light and wall stands for his paintings.

Eva and Michael needed to set a goal in order to jumpstart their transition to sculpting. When you’re a young, hip artist who’d rather hang up your brushes for good than paint watercolors of seagulls, there’s a lot to make fun of at the big, annual Mission Federal ArtWalk in Little Italy. But they decided not to scorn it until they tried it, and they settled on applying for a booth. It gave them a deadline and a space that would need to be filled with new work.

The pair got rejected the first time around but was accepted on appeal. The number crunching began. Given the high cost of materials and new tools and the renovation of their workshop, they needed more money. Like many artists looking for cash these days, they turned to the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

They’d met their goal of $5,484 by March 31 and surpassed it by the time the campaign closed the next day.

“We got really good feedback from people we didn’t even know,” Eva said. “That was encouraging.”

The space that the couple renovated as their workshop is small but just right for the job. A mix of old and new tools hangs on the pegboard wall alongside machines and other equipment. A small window looks out over their backyard—a lush, somewhat overgrown plot of land that looks like a scene from The Secret Garden. As birds swooped in to feed on the birdseed hanging from a large tree in the middle of the yard and a fat chipmunk took advantage of anything that spilled below, it was easy to see how Eva and Michael hit upon the industry-meets-nature theme of their work. Even their house, a weathered-but-strong, cottage-style home built in 1911, is the perfect backdrop for their creations.

“We wanted something that has this American handmade quality that will last through time,” Michael said.

The work that the pair has completed so far simultaneously recalls the past and reaches toward the future. They have a knack for spotting interesting, beautiful textures in the objects they find and combining them in balanced and striking compositions.

At ArtWalk—which is happening in the heart of Little Italy from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 28 and 29—Eva and Michael will be in Booths 151 and 153 (on Beech Street just west of India), showing their new work to the public for the first time. If things go well, they’ll continue in the direction they’re going, or perhaps they’ll branch off to something new. One thing is certain: They’ll do whatever they end up doing side-by-side.

“I know it’s rare, but we just want to do things together,” Michael said. “I think there’s more of an impossibility of us not to work together. We both just operate this way.”

Originally published in San Diego CityBeat on April 25, 2012. Follow Kinsee on FacebookTwitter or shoot her an email. 

Reintroducing the ‘Infamous Babes’

Armando Muñoz Garcia needed money. “La Mona,” his famed 58-foot, habitable concrete sculpture of a nude woman towering over run-down homes and streams of garbage in a Tijuana gully, requires steady maintenance and upkeep. Plus, the self-taught artist needed to fund his newest creation, “Eve of the Sea,” a sculpture of a mermaid sprouting up from a hillside in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico.

Perhaps it was the border region’s ubiquitous Bart Simpson coin banks or the plaster surfing monkeys that gave Muñoz the idea. He made a 23-inch mold of “La Mona” (officially titled “Tijuana III Millennium” because she was built in 1990 to mark the third millennium and Tijuana’s 1989 centennial) and began the laborious process of churning the miniatures out en masse, then selling them to tourists for $20 to help fund his larger-scale ventures. He’d leave his workshop with 10 freshly molded sculptures in tow, but by the time he’d driven several miles on pothole-ridden roads to get to the kiln, he’d have only three or four left intact to fire.

“But I just kept doing it,” Muñoz said. “One thing I recognize about myself… when things turn really difficult, I’m comfortable there. When things are really easy, I’m bored.”

That unyielding drive and willingness to take on seemingly absurd challenges is part of what San Diego artist and arts educator Bob Matheny likes about Muñoz.

Early one April morning, Matheny led me to a packed storage room he calls his art vault. He dug through shelves filled with his diverse works of art and soon found a miniature “La Mona.”

“This is one of the first ever made,” said the retired Southwestern College arts professor, holding up a beautifully detailed statuette.

Dozens of modified “La Mona” statues stand on the shelves. There’s a gluttonous version of actress and singer Lillian Russell with a corn cob in her hand and several more stuck to her belly; samba singer Carmen Miranda stands out with a tall headdress made of fruit; and Betty Boop looks dazzling in her red-sequin gown.

Matheny first met Muñoz in 1996, when he tagged along on a trip to Mexico with then-San Diego Union-Tribune staffer Welton Jones. By that time, Muñoz was already receiving worldwide attention for his sculptures. They visited both the mermaid and “La Mona,” and an impressed Matheny went home with a miniature as a souvenir. On a subsequent trip to see Muñoz, Matheny impulsively bought another 25. 

“I liked Armando,” Matheny said. “I just wanted to help him economically so he could continue with the mermaid.”

Matheny helped Muñoz buy his own kiln (a loan that Muñoz paid back), and he helped organize a fundraiser in La Jolla, selling the statues for $100. Matheny bought even more and ultimately got an idea for an art project. Together, Matheny and Muñoz decided to transform the statues into famous women, both real and mythical. They titled it “Infamous Babes, Chicks, Dames, Dolls, and/or Statues of Liberty and Freedom,” a humorous, somewhat controversial title that Matheny thinks might have banished the modified statuettes into relative obscurity.

Matheny transformed about 100 of the “Babes,” and Muñoz, busy with the big mermaid, managed to finish just six, including a surrealistic version of French educator Maria Montessori. After about 200 sculptures, the mold finally broke; not one blank has been made since.

The “Infamous Babes” were shown at the Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) from Dec. 7, 2001, through Jan. 14, 2002. After that show, Matheny shopped the exhibition around to several venues in the U.S. but was never able to generate much interest. He declined one offer for a show in Northern California that would’ve been rushed and offered no compensation for shipping. A curator from the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego stopped by to see the Babes, but Matheny said she left after commenting on the size of their breasts. In the end, he showed a few of them at the Southwestern College Art Gallery, which he helped found. After that, most of the Babes were stored away indefinitely. The best catalogue and exhibition of the work continues to be Matheny’s own online gallery.

After Matheny dug out more of the “Infamous Babes”—Olive Oyl, Dorothy Dandridge and lucha libre wrestler La Ultima Dragona—we headed down to Puerto Nuevo so he could give his longtime friend the mermaid Babe that had been stored in the art vault for years. Matheny was also curious to see the big mermaid, which has been in-progress since 1995.

“He’s almost done,” Matheny laughed. “Well, we joke about the date. He’s been talking about an unveiling every year for five or six years now.”

As we pulled up to the mermaid, Muñoz greeted us with a smile and zipped us around on a tour of the five-story, hollow sculpture he currently calls home.

“I used to have my bed over there in one breast before the rest was finished,” he laughed.

Muñoz told us the sculpture was almost done. On April 27, he said, he’ll open it as a restaurant, celebrating with a public photography show and party. He’ll run the restaurant for awhile, but he eventually wants to sell the mermaid to fund his next project—a 150-foot piece that would be the largest habitable sculpture ever made. He calls the U.S. “Upstairs America” and said his next project could help overcome the recent drop in tourism, brought on by the drug wars and the negative perception of Mexico among tourists.

“I don’t want to say I’m the savior of Baja or that I’m the only one who has the salvation,” he said. “I’m just going to propose my work as something that could be iconic for Baja… I’m convinced that this kind of creation is very attractive to foreigners, because people keep coming to see [it]. Besides, what else can I do? There’s nothing else to do in this world. Why not?”

At lunch, a multi-course meal overseen by Muñoz, also a skilled, self-taught chef, Matheny made fun of his friend for being a sissy wine sipper, and Muñoz teased Matheny for being a macho-man tequila drinker. From friendly quips to art philosophy, they shared the kind of banter only old friends can.

“This project has lasted 17 years already,” Muñoz said, looking up at the bare breasts baking in the afternoon sun. “Seventeen years. Can you believe that? It’s a lot of time, but I enjoy it because…. now I have all these stories and interesting friends.

“Like Bob,” he added, patting Matheny on the back.

This story was originally published in San Diego CityBeat on April 18, 2012.    Click here to view a slideshow.

Foreclosure photography in San Diego

A cozy three-bedroom home. A clean, white SUV. A husband, kid and a dog. It’s easy to look at photographer Amanda Dahlgren—with her wavy blond hair, shiny wedding ring and hip glasses with little half-moon ivory details on the rims—and think she’s living the American Dream. But Dahlgren can’t keep herself from focusing on the dreams of others—and doing a little dreaming herself.

“I have this, sort of”—Dahlgren pauses as she checks her GPS coordinates on her phone and turns her steering wheel in the right direction—“twisted love affair with real estate. Driving around a neighborhood at night, and it’s cool outside and the lights are on and it’s all warm in the houses, and you just think, I wish I lived there. I don’t know, there’s just something—.”
Dahlgren pauses again, glances at the GPS and speeds up. She spent a week researching her next shot location, and now she’s racing to get to the spot when the light is right—just after sunset is perfect. We head northeast from Dahlgren’s neighborhood in Bay Park to Scripps Ranch as the sun quickly sinks lower in the sky.
A few weeks ago, Dahlgren stopped by a home show in Carmel Valley. The development company markets houses one at a time, then invites the prospective buyers to a “viewing party” in hopes of creating competition.
“They say they don’t have anything available,” Dahlgren explains. “And, instead, they hold these parties and they lock the doors behind you and create this fake urgency. They’re sick, they really are.”
A small part of Dahlgren is still interested in buying a new home, but, mostly, she’s just feeding her inner real-estate geek. Dahlgren admits to spending her free time touring model homes for fun. She’s been known to surf the Internet for long stretches of time, too, looking through hundreds of listings and fantasizing about moving into a bigger home in the perfect neighborhood. And while the rest of her family is content where they are, a few years ago, her desire for a better life got so strong that she started pushing her husband to get serious about buying a house.
That was right before the real-estate bubble burst, and now she thanks her husband for being so stubborn. Click here to read the full story.

Beautiful Precision


When Michael Carini’s out in public, he looks tense. At a café a few months ago, he sat down on a couch and pulled plastic-covered pages from his portfolio and a printed artist statement, then looked at me intensely, trying hard to gauge my level of approval.

“I kind of live a life of seclusion,” the 26-year-old says. “I don’t go out much. I have a neurological condition so I really don’t feel comfortable going out in public.”

Carini has Tourette syndrome, and, along with some of the negative symptoms—anxiety, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, mood swings and physiological tics—it’s part of why he’s so prepared for the interview. It’s also a big part of why his paintings are so technical and precise.

“Part of Tourette’s is that you want to control everything,” explains Carini, who’s surprisingly honest and open, partly because he seems oblivious of social norms.

The artist has produced three bodies of work. The first, The Lost Shepherd, a series of paintings depicting German shepherds set against backdrops of colorful grids, he completed while in college at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The paintings are big and painstaking in their precision (he used a single-hair brush to paint individual hairs on the dogs). But people didn’t seem to understand the work. He became known as “The Dog Guy” even though the dog was merely a symbol for his idea that even someone like a shepherd can get lost. Carini quit—partly out of frustration and partly because the detailed, figurative work was bringing out his obsession with control and perfection.

“I still do technical work,” he says. “I just don’t do representational work anymore. With my condition, the abstract allows me to be done when I want to be. The [shepherd paintings] were too much. I would not leave my house. I would even skip work and class because I had to paint until it’s done, and then when it was done, I had to immediately start something else.”

Read the rest of the story.

The Bear Dance’s Romantic Side

Click here to listen to the Bear Dance story.

Originally aired on KSUT Public Radio 5/21/2009.

DJ Intro: The Southern Ute Bear Dance is set to get underway this weekend, and for some, the traditional social dance has a romantic side to it. KSUT independent producer Kinsee Morlan talks to a couple who met at the Bear Dance 43 years ago, and has been happily married ever since.

Kinsee Morlan: The southern Ute Bear Dance is really a beautiful thing to see. A dance steeped in meaning and tradition, it’s a lady’s choice dance, which means the women take the floor first. Then, when the singers give them the signal, the women move across the floor toward the men. They remove their traditional shawls and swat the men lightly with the fringe, which means it’s time to dance. The men typically oblige, because if they don’t, they have to pay; literally, with whatever the girl requests: money, a nice beaded necklace maybe, but mostly the men say yes and the dancing begins.

Mathew Box: Occasionally these women travel together and they’ll hit you with that shall, that’s how they pick you. It won’t hurt. Laughter. Kinsee: That was Mathew Box, the Bear Dance chief, at a workshop earlier this week. Matthew concisely laid out the Bear Dance etiquette to a crowd of a hundred or so at the Sky Ute Casino. The three-hour long workshop touched on a lot of the ins and outs of the dance, which is steeped in tradition and meaning, both social and spiritual. But what he didn’t get to mention to the crowd was that his parents, Eddie Jr. and Betty Box, met and fell in love at a Bear Dance over 40 years ago. Here’s Eddie Box Junior.

Eddie Box Jr.: The Bear Dance has always been a part of my family, my mom and dad, and that’s how I learned the rules of the Bear Dance. When I was young, that’s when I learned that the importance of the Bear Dance was mostly directed toward the female, she was the one that had, I guess you call it, the gift to choose who she wanted to dance with.

Betty Box: His looks. Laughter. I always tell him I’m married you for your looks. Laughter.

Kinsee: That’s Betty Box on why she picked Eddie from the crowd.

Betty: Us women when we hear it just getting started, that’s our que to go and get our shawls and just hope that no one picks the one, like me, with my lover, that no one picks him. I just admired him and I would pick him constantly. I even remember us two always dancing the last dance. So the singles dance. Yes, and there was no one to relieve us because I didn’t want anyone to relive us. Or at least I didn’t. And, I just remember, that’s how we actually got to know each other.

Kinsee: That Bear Dance Betty described happened in 1965. In December of that year, the two got married. And now, almost 43 years later, when they go to the Bear Dance, they aren’t allowed to dance together. Bear Dance Ettiqute doesn’t allow relatives or spouses to dance with one another, and as both Betty and Eddie explain, it’s a tradition that has actually helped them in their happy marriage. Eddie: After we got married, we couldn’t dance together anymore. And that comes to the second teaching that I think helped me. We’d both go down there to help my father and she would dance with other males. And I think that’s the second teaching, that if you see your honey or your wife dancing with another man, you got to not be jealous and it kind of builds your love for each other.

Betty: It teaches you to respect each other as men and wife and sisters and brothers and blood brothers. And in our Indian way, we are related to each other. But when you’re really, really related, it brings the family together. The jalousies, the things that happen in real life, they disappear. And you learn how to really love each other, what love is all about and peace and harmony and the respect for the man and the respect for the women and it teaches you that.

Kinsee: There’s a lot more to the Bear Dance than the social, romantic side.

There’s a spiritual side and a more that can be observed when the Bear Dance gets underway this weekend. Reporting for KSUT Public Radio from the Southern Ute Indian reservation in Ignacio, Colorado, I’m Kinsee Morlan.

The Grandma institution: Grandma Chung cooks her way from Korea to Durango

Grandma Chung peeks out from behind the deli at Durango Natural Foods. Throughout the years, Grandma has shared good food and good health from locations all over Durango. /Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Originally published in the Durango Telegraph on May 19, 2010

Food means more to Grandma Chung than it does to most. For Chung, selling food became a survival tactic during the Korean War, then it became her piece of the American dream, and now, making and selling food is what keeps her healthy, alert and alive.

“I love it,” says Chung from behind her shiny marble countertop in her home east of town.

Chung’s home is modest, but her kitchen is as nice as they come. An expensive stove and refrigerator, a special room for all her pots and pans, lots of cabinets and a big lazy Susan – when Chung is in her kitchen, she’s at her best.

In her somewhat broken English, Chung continues to explain why she spends most of her time with a pot or pan in hand. “Nothing else to do,” she says straightforwardly, a reference to her empty nest, which was once filled with five kids and a husband who’s since passed away.  “Clean up the kitchen. I stay all day in the kitchen, you know. All the time I cook. I just love to cook. I look at the TV show, at the cooking show, and I say, ‘Oh, that’s junky.’”

Grandma Chung scrunches up her nose in disgust at the very mention of things like butter.

Chung’s food is healthy – that’s one thing most who’ve laid lips on her culinary creations can agree upon – and her cooking technique is both basic and experimental. Necessary ingredients for the feisty old chef include fresh vegetables, tofu, ginger, a tiny bit of olive oil and a whole lot of garlic. Her experimenting can be seen in things like her Southwest-meets-East Green Chili Tofu or her reliance on new-age ingredients like agave nectar and wheat-free soy sauce.

“I know what I need to make healthy people,” says Chung, who, despite her short stature, yields respect due to her confidence and uncanny ability to say exactly what’s on her mind at any given time. “Ginger is good for, you know. Garlic is good for. You look at American people, their food, and they have all this butter and sour cream and all this kind of stuff, you know. I just don’t like that – living that way.”

Over the years, Grandma Chung, whose given name is Hwa ja Chung, has become a well-known figure in the Durango community. Lots of people know her from her days as the owner of Grandma Chung’s restaurant on Main Avenue. More people know her from her time spent in the deli of Nature’s Oasis, and others know Chung from when she briefly owned an Asian market and deli near Fort Lewis College.

These days, Chung can be found behind the small deli case of Durango Natural Foods (DNF) a couple days a week, cooking her specialty stir-fries, putting together her spring rolls with homemade peanut sauce and doling out her kimchi, which she will sternly tell you is the secret to long life and wintertime health.

“She’s a very nice person,” says Ben Trufanow, a former board member at DNF and a lifetime member of the cooperative, “and she’s quirky. She’s always straight, and I wouldn’t want to get on her wrong side. I remember when she had the restaurant on Main she’d be in the back cooking and she’d only come out if something wasn’t right and she’d straighten it out right away … She’s an institution. Durango’s so lucky to have her, and I wish I’d see her more here at DNF.”

Chung is 78, but you’d never know it by looking at her. She says her own health and longevity are tied directly to the food she eats. While touting the benefits of eating natural foods, she shuffles off to another side of her kitchen and brings back two jars, one filled with dried pinto beans and the other filled with dried fruit.

“This, I eat,” she says, offering up a sample. “Very simple.”

Chung got her first job at the age of 14 at a sewing factory making children’s clothes. She quit at 16 and took a job at a suit-making factory, where she says she was treated like a slave. “It was pretty hard,” recalls Chung.Grandma Chung says she learned how to cook the hard way – by relying on limited resources in a war-torn country and doing what she had to do to feed herself and her two young children. Chung was born in North Korea to a family with a dozen siblings. Her mother died when she was young, right when things were getting bad in the north, so she was secretly sent to Seoul, South Korea, to live with an aunt. Chung lost touch with her family, and, to this day, has yet to reconnect with any of her brothers and sisters.

When the Korean War hit, Chung was just a teenager. She was pregnant with her first child and sent to a refugee camp outside of the city. “We had to get out of Seoul city,” says Chung, “so I walked. I don’t know how many miles I walked; I just walked and walked.”

Chung had her first child in that camp and, soon after, in the middle of winter, was told to walk back to Seoul. She returned to a city in a state of total destruction and devastation.

“So many people dead,” Chung says. “So many people I see. Everywhere – just so many.”

Chung eventually got pregnant with another child, and to make ends meet, she started a food stand in the front of the house where she was staying. “I sell the pancake,” says Chung. “Make the pancake and sell for 10 cents or 20 cents.”

It was then that Chung started memorizing recipes, using simple ingredients and relying on hand measurements, which she still does today.

Life changed dramatically when Chung met a young American soldier by the name of Jerry Dickenson. After just a few months of arranging paperwork and working on getting a marriage certificate, Dickenson returned to South Korea to bring back his new bride.

Chung’s experience in the United States, though, wasn’t much easier than it had been in Korea. Dickenson got shipped back overseas, experienced hardships of his own, and Chung was on her own again, only now she had five kids to feed.

“So,” explains Chung, “all by myself, I tried to survive here. (The kids were) doing really good. They go to school all by themselves. I worked 80 hours a week and tried to help them as much as I can. Life is hell, but I don’t want to use food stamps. Five kids, myself raised, and look now – I have a house. I worked so hard.”

To put food on the table, Chung took another factory job at Ampex, an electronics company in Colorado Springs. After 24 years, when the kids were grown, she retired. A shoddy-looking clock – a retirement gift from Ampex – hangs on her living-room wall.

That first retirement didn’t last long. One of Grandma Chung’s sons, Jerry Dickenson Jr., convinced her to move to Durango and open her own restaurant. She did just that, and for three of the eight years she ran it, she lived downstairs.

“I stayed there,” says Chung, “downstairs. I had one mattress. The money (I saved), that’s what built the house, all this.” Grandma Chung motions toward her beautiful kitchen and pounds her fist down on the countertops with genuine pride. She then goes out to the garage and retrieves two bottles of Grandma Chung-labeled garlic sauce and peanut sauce and explains that she is now selling her secret sauces in markets throughout Durango.

“I always good at that stuff,” says Chung, “using my brain.

“Right now I’m pretty happy,” continues Chung, “but I want to win the lotto. Give to poor people. Give to my kids. I don’t want to take the money with me, you know. But for now, (I’m) still cooking. That’s all I know, you know. That’s all I know.” •

The Politics of Planting

Life on an organic farm isn’t as peaceful as you think

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/15/2006

Barry Logan starts most of his days at 6 a.m. with a cup of organic, fair-trade coffee mixed with a splash of fresh goat’s milk. With KPFA-FM, a liberal free-speech radio station based in Berkeley, streaming loudly from his laptop sitting nearby, he sips his coffee and plans his day. The sole owner of La Milpa Organica, a 20-acre organic farm in Escondido, Logan has a lot to do between sunup and sundown-and he’s got even more on his mind.

On a recent fall morning, Logan’s first after-coffee task was payroll. As he clipped together stacks of cash to pay his two apprentices and six field hands who help run things, he broke down the basic economics of La Milpa.

“Little farms are really expensive to run,” explained Logan, 51, a compact man who wears his hair in two long braids that frame his face. “Water’s expensive, maintaining the equipment is expensive, seeds are expensive, labor’s about half my cost, insurance on all the vehicles is expensive, and gasoline is outrageous with me driving six days a week to farmers’ markets and restaurant deliveries.”

A former computer programmer who got so fed up with mainstream America that he once shot-literally shot with a gun-his television set, Logan is fully committed to a life of grassroots activism and counterculture living (not to mention a life without TV). He’s a vocal critic of the so-called Green Revolution, the increase in agricultural production by use of new technologies like pesticides, fertilizer and mechanization that began in the 1940s, and has decided to absorb the extra costs and work that comes with operating a 100-percent-or as close to 100 percent as he can get-organic farm.

If you ask Logan about the meaning of the term “organic,” he’ll refuse to give you a straightforward answer. He agrees, somewhat, with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program standards, a dizzying list of requirements and regulations put in place in 2002 that includes ecologically based practices, an emphasis on sustainability and the ban of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers-but he says the standards fall short.

“They don’t talk about process,” Logan said. “It doesn’t talk about your relationship with the land.

“One of the things about organic growing,” Logan continued, “we don’t feed the plants; we feed the soil.”

That means chemicals like Miracle-Gro are a no-no. Instead, Logan and his crew rely on traditional farming practices. They rotate the crops, use chickens and beneficial bugs (like ladybugs) to help combat aphid and other insect infestations, collect compost and rock dust to use as fertilizer and-as Logan’s dirty jeans and cracked hands demonstrate-they get down on their hands and knees and pull weeds one by one. “Organic is the hard way to do things,” said Logan.

But he wouldn’t have it any other way. Logan says communities need small farms like La Milpa so people can know exactly where their food is coming from.

“The stuff you get at Vons,” Logan said, “we call that old food from far away.” He crouched down and grasped a bright purple eggplant growing on a vine in front of him. “Look at the color of this guy-now, see, these are really alive. What you find is that the quality imbedded in this living food, when you eat it you get the benefit of that, and the further it travels away from the plant, it diminishes, it diminishes, it diminishes….”

Logan has company. According to the USDA, certified organic cropland for grains, fruits, vegetables and other crops more than doubled from 1992 to 1997, then doubled again for many crops between 1997 and 2003. A report released this year by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), one of the largest and oldest USDA-accredited organic certifying agents in the state, says the number of organic farms in California is growing by approximately 100 new producers and processors a year. Louis Christie, the local CCOF regional service representative, estimates the current number of certified organic farms in San Diego County at 150. “But that number’s growing because a lot of people are transitioning,” said Christie. “It’s a hard number to keep track of.”

But while the organic market keeps growing-especially for vegetables and fruits-and places like Wal-Mart continue adding organic-labeled foods to their grocery aisles, the overall adoption level remains low. According to the USDA, less than half of 1 percent of all U.S. cropland was certified organic in 2003.

There’s another trend in U.S. agriculture that may be helping keep that number low. While some farmers are going organic, others are turning to biotechnology. More and more U.S. farms are growing crops with altered genetic material, Genetically Modified Organisms, known as GMOs or transgenic crops.

The U.S. is the largest producer of transgenic crops in the world. A high percentage of all U.S. crops of cotton, soybeans and corn are transgenic-according to the USDA, 85 percent of U.S. soybean acreage in 2004 was transgenic.

Logan cringes at the mention of transgenic crops. Earlier this month, he hosted the Zapatista Corn Harvest Festival, a fundraising event sponsored by local nonprofit Schools for Chiapas, to raise money for a program that supplies GMO test kits to the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico. Logan is among those who say the traditional maize (corn) seeds in Chiapas and other parts of Mexico are getting mixed in with the United States’ transgenic corn, which is not only illegal-the planting of transgenic crops has been banned in Mexico since 1998-but has vast cultural implications. About a third of the indigenous people of Chiapas are of Maya descent, and because of Maya mythology, they consider themselves “The People of the Corn.”

Logan stood in front of a small patch of Chiapas corn planted on La Milpa as a symbol of his support. While a row of small black ants marched across the brim of his faded mint green baseball cap, he decried the spread of transgenic crops. “It’s not only scary,” said Logan, “it’s sacrilege.”

Whether or not transgenic crops are mixing with traditional Mexican maize is still up for debate. A controversial study published in the science journal Nature in 2001 found traces of transgenic corn in Mexican maize but was later retracted by the journal, which stated that “the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper.” Another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year found that “transgenic maize seeds were absent or extremely rare in the sampled fields.”

But Logan and Schools for Chiapas founder Peter Brown, who lives part-time in Chiapas, have no doubts that Mexican maize is being “contaminated.”

“The way people [in Chiapas] are finding it now,” Brown said, “they go look for the shittiest looking corn in the fields and that’s the corn with the contamination.”

Both Brown and Logan are committed to helping the people of Chiapas eradicate all transgenic corn. “I’m a professional Don Quixote,” Logan said. “I’m this eccentric guy working on a farm sustaining 11 people, but someone’s got to do it. You just got to get up and keep doing it every day.

You can find La Milpa produce at the Oceanside, La Mesa, Poway and Hillcrest farmers’ markets. http://www.milpaorganica.com.

From idea to invention

City Heights’ Fab Lab is a place where anybody can make damn-near anything

By Kinsee Morlan, first published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/18/2008

Behind an unassuming storefront on 43rd Street in City Heights, a group of people squat around Rita Roberson, popping up every now and then to use the laser cutter behind them. “Let’s try this,” says Cathy Herbst, an architect and professor at Woodbury University, as she places a small cardboard creation on the armrest of Roberson’s wheelchair.

“Always good to have an architect on hand,” says Katie Rast, as she watches Herbst slide Roberson’s cell phone onto the cardboard holder for a near-perfect fit.

While the group focuses on turning the cardboard template into an acrylic cellphone holder for Roberston’s wheelchair, a mom and her two young children work on designing vinyl stickers on a few of the computers available. On the other side of the small room, Brian Kosedal, a young computer-chip designer who lives Downtown, types away on his laptop, working on his own invention, which uses software he’s designing for the ShopBot, a robotic precision-milling machine that cuts wood (among other things) and sits in the corner of room, taking up a good chunk of the small, bustling space.

“This is it,” Rast says after things calm down a bit. “The Fab Lab is sort of a place for people to experiment with stuff.”

Rast, a thin young woman who wears earth tones, hiking boots and striped scarves and exudes an contagious enthusiasm, helps run the Fab Lab with Xavier Leonard, a multi-media artist who was neck-deep in the dot-com fervor of the ’90s and has always been interested in the so-called “community technology center movement.” The two run the Fab Lab under the auspices of Heads on Fire, a nonprofit organization that goes by the slogan “Dedicated to bridging the digital divide” and often uses the made-up word “Technoliteracy” to describe its goal of making sure everyone—the poor and underserved, mainly—is part of the technology revolution.

Leonard started Heads on Fire in 2002 after he traveled to West Africa and Bolivia, two places he saw as having the necessary technology to help people affect wider-spread change (he describes Bolivia as being so wired that he could get wi-fi access in the middle of the jungle) but lacking in terms of putting the tools of technology into the people’s hands.

“I just realized that these people would never benefit from technology,” Leonard says. “The Internet was all around them, and it wasn’t changing lives…. It made me realize that there really needs to be some people or agencies or groups that are really picking up the benefits and taking them directly to the people, because it’s really not happening on its own.”

Heads on Fire (www.headsonfire.org) started off working with schools in underserved communities, introducing technology and multimedia art to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity. Late last year, though, the organization changed its direction when it was tapped by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to site and run a Fab Lab in San Diego. Fab Labs, or Fabrication Laboratories, are located around the globe, everywhere from rural India, where community members invented a bicycle that converts kinetic energy into electric energy and powers an entire school, to Norway, where one guy used the lab to invent a sheep-tracking device. The Fab Labs started as an outreach program run by MIT’s Media Lab, which describes the purpose of the labs as putting the proper tools in the hands of average people in hopes of inspiring inventions that tech nerds would never think of.

“You never know where the next genius is going to come from,” says Kosedal, the computer-chip designer. “Who’s to say if things had been different, Bill Gates could have come from rural Africa.” Kosedal’s been going to the Fab Lab pretty much since it opened six months ago, and his idea for an invention was actually inspired by the ShopBot, a piece of equipment he couldn’t afford on his own.

“I think the Fab Lab is great,” he says. “It’s given me the opportunity that normally I wouldn’t have. The problem is, I’ve always had great ideas, but I’ve never had the tools to do it. The Fab Lab gives me a workshop where I can experiment to make my dreams come true; without that, I couldn’t bridge the gap from idea to actual product, and that’s a huge barrier for any entrepreneur—getting your idea into a product you can show people.”

While people like Kosedal and Roberson—who says her disabilities have given her idea after idea for inventions because the world isn’t built very well for her and her wheelchair—swing by the Fab Lab and immediately get to work, using the tools the lab provides (everything from laser cutters, 3D scanners, computers, printers and open-source software to double-sided tape, scissors and glue), others take some time to catch on. They walk in and receive the “you can make almost anything” speech by Rast or Leonard, but their eyes tend to glaze over. Instead of heading toward the 3D scanner, they head straight for a computer and, at least at first, stick with what’s familiar.

“There’s an interesting understanding gap,” says Rast, who was recently on crutches for three months and ended up using the Fab Lab to invent three things that made life a lot easier (a foot prop that folded out from the crutches and allowed her to rest her leg, crutch saddlebags that took the place of a purse and a third invention she’s keeping quiet because she says she may end up marketing it). “I’ve explained plenty of things to plenty of people plenty of times, but usually they’re like, ‘Oh, there’s a community center and there’s lots of computers—cool, I need to check my e-mail.’”

“Yeah,” Leonard agrees, “you can talk and talk and talk to people, but they really don’t get it—like, really, really don’t get it until they’re actually here seeing people make stuff or being involved in making stuff themselves. We’ve realized it’s not this thing that you can just plop down and say, ‘OK, the doors are open.’”

The two are hoping to solve what they’re calling their “communications challenge” by setting up a mini Fab Lab in the next City Heights Farmers Market (4440 Wightman St., 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22). After people see what goes on in the Fab Lab, maybe even make a sticker or a wooden plaque themselves, Rast and Leonard think things will take off.

“I want to see lines out the door,” Rast says, “people waiting to get their hands on stuff.”



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