Discovering a Visual Shorthand: The Making of The Cartographer’s Dilemma

continued from part 1

A Series Of Dilemmas

“Cartographers use an illustrative short-hand to describe geographical features of the real world. This short-hand form of communication is designed to allow the viewer to have an easy baring on the contours and layout of the area depicted on the cartographer’s map. Exaggerated color palettes, lines of various weight and solid fields of color all act as simplified yet concise forms of communication informing the map viewer of the geography depicted. Instead of focusing on the actual details of the full terrain, the user of the map can rely solely on the map to find her way around the area.
“Spoken and written language serves as a way to describe the real world as well. Words are used as a concise method to describe all the vast facets and features of the world and the ways in which we interact with and within it.
“However, are words also just another form of short-hand, simplifying or exaggerating how we see the real word? A culture’s vocabulary has such a huge impact on how it’s members regard the world in which they live. Could it be that the more complex and sophisticated our lexicon becomes, the more removed we are from simply seeing the real world?”

– as described on

The ideas and dilemmas philosophy introduced me to were the perfect concepts for me to explore through my art. Creating art wasn’t about making a thing, it was about exploring an idea. Visual art in particular become a new voice through which I could explore the world. During the process of building The Cartographer’s Dilemma (TCD), the individual elements became metaphors of the different aspects of the theme I was tackling. With regard to the completed piece, the more refined the artwork was aesthetically, the clearer the question posed by the artwork’s concept became.

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Discovering a Visual Shorthand: The Making of The Cartographer’s Dilemma

The Cartographer's Dilemma

The Cartograper’s Dilemma

I’ve written how hesitant I am to explain the art pieces I create. However, this past year I have become more comfortable participating in conversations about my work.

While being on-hand during the hanging of the current show, I enjoyed a spontaneous conversation with Abel Floris, owner of Desert Signs and Graphics, and the artist responsible for creating the vinyl lettering for the exhibition. He was curious about my process; in particular how I came to create The Cartographer’s Dilemma (TCD). I summed up the amount of work that goes into each TCD sculpture into a few sentences. I wasn’t trying to be deliberately coy, I was simply eager to hear more of his thoughts on the pieces currently hanging in the show.

After my brief answer, however, Abel replied with a comment that arrested me with enthusiasm. I can’t recall his exact words, but the gist of his comment went something like, “…and just like that, you came up with the idea for the piece.” It wasn’t just the explanation on the concept behind the artwork that he was looking for, but the journey behind reaching the final presentation!
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Hanging The Exhibit

Today was the second day hanging the show. I knew I had dropped off a good number of art pieces for the exhibit, forty-two pieces to be exact. (I’ll steal a smile with Douglas fans, and don’t forget to bring a towel.) But walking into the space this afternoon with almost everything now hung on the walls made this whole adventure all the more real.

The moment that shifted my perspective was when these letters were revealed on the wall.

ImageThe show opens tomorrow, but here’s a sneak peek at some of the work featured in the exhibit.




If you noticed that The Cartographer’s Dilemma is mysteriously absent from this post, there’s a reason. It’s in the show, but there’s something additional involved in its presentation. I’ll leave you with a coy hint, an update is long over due for The Cartographer’s Dilemma page on the website.

Speaking of web updates, our local newspaper wrote up an article on yours truly. You can give it a read online at:

The LEGO Infiltration.

Since April, production on new artwork, music and writing has been locked in overdrive. So much so that about two weeks ago I finally hit a creativity levee. Calista and I had so many things on our plates that, for my part, something had to give.

However, the factors that have been pulling my attention in different directions are 100% positive.

Factor One: An Old Friend Returns.

A great friend of mine, Tyler Maxey, landed back in town for a brief time. He and I were philosophy students at the same college, and it was great to have him hang out with Calista and I, waxing philosophic about life, health, the universe, careers and entertainment. The three of us went on many hiking adventures before the summer heat finally baked us into staying indoors. A highlight of our adventures was spending one Saturday morning bombarding our senses with sonic frequencies.

Painted Canyons Painted CanyonsPalm Desert: 6:25am 97°
I’m not much of a new-age soul, but the experience was well worth the drive to Landers, CA.

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A Suboken Project Special Report

We hope you can join us on November 25th, 2013, at the Palm Desert Community Gallery for the opening reception of a two month solo exhibit featuring The Suboken Project’s: The Cartographer’s Dilemma and In A Place: Coachella Valley.

The exhibition runs from November 25th through January 21st. Gallery hours will be from 8:00am until 5:00pm Monday through Friday. Calista and I are hoping to organize a couple of artist talks during the show’s run for anyone interested in touring the exhibit with Suboken (that would be me), and share in a conversation about the process and themes featured in both projects.
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Is The Osteodontokeratic Hammer Built Or Grown? part 3

One day I was sitting in the Palm Springs Art Museum, waiting for Calista who was attending a Leadership Coachella Valley meeting. I had some lined note paper, a mechanical pencil, a healthy dose of boredom and an eagerness to push the design of the ODK Hammer into something more exciting than it currently was.

Up to this point, the differences between each hammers’ shape was pretty extreme. I wanted to create an internal system or structure that they could all share. I imagined what the skeletal system of an organically grown Osteodontokeratic Hammer could look like. How would the bones fit together? How many bones would the hammer even need? Would there be areas or spaces for internal organs? Most importantly, how would the entire osteo-donto-keratic concept be distributed throughout the tool.


It’s uncanny how the very first sketch of a concept often ends up being the final design, even after hundreds of sketches have exhausted an artist’s exploration of the subject. So it was that the first sketch of the skeleton of the ODK Hammer became the structural system I would base the core shape of every subsequent hammer sculpture.

Mostly comprised of bones, the sketch included the antler-claw, a ribcage section, a small spinal column as well cartilage and ball socket joints to help absorb shock impacts. What was missing was a system that would suffer the blunt trauma in the use of the hammer’s head.


The business end of the hammer needed something special to express the purpose of the tool. I imagined that a great deal of scar tissue would accumulate in and around the impact area of the head. What the hammer needed was a substance that could be strong enough to withstand hard impacts. I’m not sure why the answer took so long for me to discover, but after mulling over my copy of Grey’s Anatomy for a day or two, the answer became clear. Teeth are the hardest elements of our skeletal system. Of course the hammer head would be reinforced by teeth, molars to be more specific.

In the time between discovering the fractures in the second set of hammers and Jonathan’s suggested solution, I decided to turn the sketches of the hammer skeleton into an actual sculpture (I guess I just needed to make things harder for myself). The challenge of pulling off the skeleton sculpture did help reignite my excitement for the whole project.

IMG_0766Each skeletal element is sculpted individually and assembled after the baking and painting process. Similar to the fully realized ODK Hammer, there are medium gauge wire frames to which each bone is sculpted over to give the pieces extra reinforcement.

The only thing missing from these versions of the ODK Hammer is a sturdy yet unobtrusive display stand. I’ve designed several different structures, but non of them really show off the sculptures in a flattering way. There’s always work to be done.

That pretty much brings us up to date with the whole project.

IMG_0875Ten full ODK Hammer sculptures will kick off the official production of the project. Five wall mounted fossil art pieces will follow next. Depending on the response from these pieces, five to ten full skeleton hammers will be created along with another five wall mounted fossil sculptures. Then, to wrap up the entire project, a final set of ten full ODK Hammers will complete the project.

If successful, I may eventually revisit the Osteodontokeratic project. I have a stack of sketches where I’ve applied the ODK concept to a large inventory of common tools, screw drivers, saws, wrenchIMG_0067es, pliers, files, e.t.c. However, as with In A Place, I need to make room in my schedule for new projects. Currently, I have a strong interest in further exploring The Cartographer’s Dilemma as well as an all new conceptual project involving the creation of a brand new species of life. Not to mention the continued production on my next two albums.


After sharing in this journey, reading how this conceptual art project evolved, I post the question to you. Is the Osteodontokeratic Hammer built, or is it grown?


Is The Osteodontokeratic Hammer Built Or Grown? part 2

A five or six month hiatus can move by pretty quickly. I tend to have three or four projects going on at the same time. The summer months, as hot as they are, can be the perfect time to focus on some of these other projects.

Trapped inside a heavily air conditioned apartment, I focused on producing my fifth album, Three Sides of the Same Coin. With the summer sunshine in abundance, I set off to non desert locales to find more In A Place scenes. IAP benefitted twice that summer since I was also focusing heavily on the layout of the art book. Sherry Wisener joined the IAP project as the book’s editor. By the time the fall colors started to arrive, In A Place: An Art Book was finished.

During the summer months, four of the five ODK hammers were packed away in a foam lined cardboard box. I kept one out so that I could figure out a method of displaying the final sculptures. The finished hammer was sturdy, and I thought two stands would look nice supporting each sculpture.

Enter Barrett Hoffman.

Barrett and his wife Rhea are close family friends of ours. Barrett is a skilled and inventive metal worker. Barrett also has an avid interest in my creativity. So it didn’t take any convincing when asked if he would like to help with the project. He had me draw up a few sketches of what I wanted, and about a week later he had crafted some solid yet aesthetically appropriate metal stands for the hammers.

IMG_0751It was great to finally display a finished ODK Hammer on the book shelf. However, when I was setting the sculpture on the stands, I discovered something that made heart break. A tiny hairline fracture had formed near the seam where the lower handle joined with the neck bone. I carefully applied pressure to see if the hammer was loose at the joint, but nothing budged. As I examined the sculpture further, I found two more fractures. I had no clue as to what would cause the cracks to form. Concerned, I went to check on the other four hammers that were packed away. Yup, all five hammers were damaged.

My initial assumption was that when the pre-baked core went through the cooking process a second time, the shape must have warped. This could explain why the surface layer would develop the fractures. I thought that the sculpture needed a stronger core solution, something that wouldn’t allow the clay to warp during the baking process.

IMG_0851Using a metal core, a length of rebar perhaps, should be strong enough. I again turned to Barrett for help. He cut and shaped several pieces of rebar based on a template I drew of the overall profile of the hammer. I built up the core layers of the sculpture over the top of the rebar. After baking this core, I then applied the detail layer, just as I did before. With the rebar serving as the new core of the sculpture, the new hammers were absolutely sturdy. The added benefit was that I no longer needed to caution people how fragile the sculptures were.

Yet, after a week, the fractures started to appear again.

I put the ODK Hammer project on hold for several months. I needed a break, and Calista and I were gearing up to launch the In A Place Kickstarter campaign. It felt good to focus all my attention on the Kickstarter page. I was excited to put my work out there for a larger audience to see. However, once the clock started ticking down on the campaign, I needed a distraction to keep me from obsessing over whether or not the funding of In A Place: An Art Book would succeed. (spoiler alert: it didn’t succeed)

One night, not long after the Kickstarter ended, Calista and I had invited our friends Emily and Jonathan over to see the new house. As we toured them around, we spent some time discussing the ODK Hammers, three of the hammers were on display over the fireplace mantel. Emily and Jonathan both have significant backgrounds in science. Jonathan knew immediately what was causing the fractures in the sculptures.

Put your science caps on, friends. This is about to get real.

The cause of the fractures had to do with the coefficient of linear thermal contraction. Those of you who guessed this earlier in this blog entry get a gold star. To put it simply, I was cooling the clay too fast. Jonathan read an article describing the importance of creating a cooling schedule when baking ceramic products multiple times. The consequences of not developing such a schedule would cause the clay products to fracture, just like my hammers.

IMG_0842Armed with knowledge, I came up with a strategy that would bring the temperature of the sculptures down gradually, about twenty-four hours longer than I had previously been cooling down the sculptures.











It worked!





The next hammer I created didn’t have, nor does it have any hairline fractures at all. It even survived being shipped from Palm Desert to San Francisco without any damage.


Throughout the entire process, the look of the ODK Hammer has been constantly refined. The current iteration will likely be the definitive design. Slight variations such as skin tonality, hammer length, unique details of the antler-claw and even small hair follicles will remain. However, the overall profile won’t vary too much. This is due to the design of the conceptual skeletal system that I developed to make the ODK Hammer seem even more organic. More on that in part 3.

IMG_0886 IMG_0887 IMG_0889 IMG_0883

Is The Osteodontokeratic Hammer Built Or Grown? part 1

Developing the ODK Hammer as a structurally strong sculpture while achieving an organic look has been a long process.

Once I had decided to use the various types of Sculpey to create the hammers, I began crafting some small test sculptures to see what techniques would work best to produce a realistic skin surface. The polymer clay I was focused on using, Super Sculpey, already went a long way in achieving a defused, skin-like luminance. However, there was still a great deal of work that could be done to push the medium even further towards appearing like real skin. I was hopeful to have the majority of detail sculpted into the clay to pull off the final look.

The early tests started off as solid pieces of Super Sculpey. I would push in a texture stamp to create realistic looking wrinkles and pores. After baking the clay, I used thinned out acrylic paints to add color variation and heightened surface details such as veins, freckles, and sub-dermal colorization. Since the post baked clay was already hard, painting in such details tended to sit right on the surface, not sink in to preserve and enhance the translucency of the surface layer.

Back to the drawing board.

As I was tackling the colorization issues, I was also brainstorming ideas on how to maintain the sculpted surface details while holding the hammer. An early solution involved a set of three armatures the hammer would rest on while I applied the texture stamping. The points of the armature that were in direct contact with the hammer would also have texture built in to preserve the details. This didn’t work out though. As I sculpted the base form of the hammer, the heat from my hands caused the clay to flex and bow under its own weight. (Remind me to talk about the heat issue again later. There’s a specific season that is ideal for making an ODK Hammer.)

My solution was to create a core form that would be baked without any surface details. Once cooked and cooled, I would then apply the surface texture without the issue of the hammer bowing. After a couple tests, this seemed to be the ideal technique. Yet, I still had the colorization issue to figure out. Then a solution finally dawned on me! I could make the core sculpture more detailed with color regions that simulated the muscle tissue, vein structures and bones. Then the surface texture wouldn’t need as much paint to pull off the full effect of looking alive.

Confident, I went into a mini production of five hammers. I sculpted and baked the five cores, plus the horn/claw portion for each hammer. After these elements cooled down, I sculpted on the skin texture with a greater detail and baked the sculptures a second time. These hammers looked amazing, better than I had expected.

I just realized that out of context, all these references to hammers must read as a rather peculiar blog entry.

With five completed ODK Hammers finished, I went right back into another production of five more.

However, it was now May. The Coachella Valley is home to an obscene number of golf courses and resorts. A large percentage of the population only reside here during the winter months, which for us is “The Season”. The Season ends around mid May, and the Snow Bird Exodus begins. Want to guess as to why? If you remove all the resorts and golf courses, take away the track homes and swimming pools, the Coachella Valley is actually a desert in southern California. May usually sees the onslaught of tipple digit temperatures. Those of us who live here year round can do so only through the prolific assistance of climate control technology; air conditioners! Yet, the AC only creates the “air” of comfort (pun intended), through the actual blowing of cool air. The heat still remains at the core of everything. If the cool blowing air stops, the heat becomes all too apparent.

Sculpey doesn’t work very well in the heat. It becomes too soft and slightly gummy. It’s near impossible to work with Sculpey when the heat kicks in, especially if you’re trying to add texture detail. There is a season for which an ODK Hammer (produced in the Coachella Valley) can be created. It is the winter.

Production was put on hold. It would have to wait until the following October, when the temperatures start to fall.

ODK Hammer Prototypes 02ODK Hammer Prototypes 010042542000000-st-01-super-sculpey

Osteodontokeratic What?

The term Osteodontokeratic (ODK) was coined by Raymond Dart (1893-1988), an Australian anatomist and anthropologist, best known for his involvement in the 1924 discovery of the first fossil ever found of Australopithecus africanus. During his field research in South Africa, he theorized that pre-stone age humans, more specifically Australopithecines, may have utilized a tool tradition referred in part as the osteodontokeratic tool culture; a culture based upon tools made of bone, teeth, and horn.

The idea to mash-up this ODK concept with modern day tools was too exciting for me to pass up. Within fifteen minutes I had sketched up a set of variations on how a common hammer would look if grown from materials derived from human anatomy. The first of these versions still looked like a standard hammer with rigid 90∘ angles. I soon realized that the whole idea called for something more organic. In the next set of sketches, I left out any and all straight lines.

After the sketches narrowed down the design, I started testing different sculpting materials to render the final product. I was experimenting heavily with polymer clays. I had constructed several toy concepts using Sculpey and was satisfied with working with the product throughout the entire process, from sculpting, to baking, to assembling the pieces, and finally painting the final builds. However, I wasn’t sure if I could simulate skin and horn with the polymer medium.

Allow me to rewind the clock a bit to provide some personal history.

When I was growing up, I LOVED science fiction movies and television shows. I was enthralled by the craftwork that went into creating the special effects. This was long before computers became the industry standard. Miniature photography of model sets and props, stop motion animation, foam latex and gelatin prosthetics, I wanted to learn and master them all.

One of my fondest memories from childhood was my family’s annual trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, CA. This was before the park started using Warner Bros. licensed characters. Instead, the mascots were a group of fur covered trolls named Bleep, Bloop, and Troll King plus a random Wizard (I can’t recall the wizard having a name). Sure, I loved the roller coasters. But, there used to be a store toward the back side of the park that was truly magical. The store sold these FX makeup kits produced by Imagineering. The kits contained amazing foam latex prosthetics that could be cut down to fit the wearer. Also included was a small makeup palette, an adhesive, a container of fake skin that looked like wax and cotton, and the best part, lots of fake blood.

One such Imagineering kit my parents bought me included a prosthetic thumb with the tip severed off. (by the way, it is thoroughly appropriate to blame my parents for all of this) So, one day, proud of what I could do with the makeup kit, I prepared the thumb to share with the kids at school. I hid it in my Star Wars Thermos lunch pail, and when the day’s first recess started, I quickly glued it on over my thumb and blended in the seams. With the utmost eagerness to impress, I began showing it off to my friends on the playground. Well, that didn’t go over as well as I had imagined it would while getting ready for school that morning. However, the praise from those willing enough to closely examine my handiwork gave me the confidence to continue with FX makeup as a hobby, and eventually a career.

I would watch every special on TV about movie special effects. Mom bought me a brick of plasticine modeling clay and I began sculpting prosthetics for my Halloween costumes. I “mastered” a technique using plaster molds with liquid latex. The latex was an industrial grade liquid rubber purchased at the local hardware store. It was intended to be used for the backing on rugs. So sure, why not on my face?

One TV special specifically covered monster makeup effects. It was during this show that I learned about alginate, a compound used by dentist to make near perfect dental impressions. That goop the dental assistant puts in your mouth that tastes like bubble gum or mint; that’s alginate. The makeup artists used it to make accurate and detailed molds of an actor’s head and body. Finally, something beneficial to come from having to wear braces. During my next small talk session with the orthodontist adjusting the hardware in my mouth, I asked about alginate. He told me how it worked and as a bonus, sold a pound to my mom for me to use! I’m withholding his name for obvious reasons.

I’ll skip ahead now, and happily report that I’ve been producing makeup effects as a freelance artist for most of my adult life.

Which brings us back to figuring out how to make the ODK hammer look real. I thought about using gelatin to simulate the skin. Gelatin doesn’t last very long though. It looks amazing and is reusable, but it breaks down quickly after being exposed to heat and moisture. I wanted the ODK hammer to be a lasting art piece. I ran a few test in using molds to produce a foam latex skin, but again, it would be vulnerable to damage if not stored in a sealed display case. Foam latex can look fantastic on camera. In person and up close, on the other hand, it can easily look flat and merely painted. I eventually decided to give the polymer clay a try.

The first hammer was a solid piece made entirely from a brick of white Sculpey. After the baking process, I used Kryolan theater makeup to set the color. It looked fine, but it didn’t have any inherent translucent quality. Even though I had built up the layers of the makeup to simulate the effect of translucency, it just wasn’t working. I knew I could come up with a better solution.

More research was conducted. This time I searched the outer-webs for possible answers. And low and behold, I found a blog entry from an artist named Andrew Scott who at the time was making trilobite sculptures out of what he referred to as PVC gel. His sculptures looked amazing and some of them had that translucent quality I was looking for. PVC gel? I need to try this medium. Who makes this gel? Where do I buy it? I couldn’t find any reference to PVC gel beyond Scott’s blog. Then, after scrutinizing over his blog for more clues, the mystery was solved. In a production photo illustrating his process, a box of Super Sculpey is sitting on his table. SCULPEY! The very same product I was using, except the version of Sculpey he was using was already translucent, not solid white. Admittedly, the fact that a box of Sculpey is in a picture next to a sculpture doesn’t mean the sculpture is actually made out of Sculpey. But I had already loved working with Sculpey, so why not try a different version of their product and see how would it turn out.

Every hammer since then has been crafted using Super Sculpey as the final layer of detail.

In our next episode of The Chronicles of The ODK Hammer, we’ll briefly walk through the building process of an ODK Hammer; with pictures! Plus, I’ll show more detailed images of the three different versions of the sculptures.


Return of The Osteodontokeratic Hammer

In college, I would often incorporate the subject matter of my science and humanities courses into the concepts for my artwork. Philosophy wound up being the perfect muse for my creativity. However, other fields of study such as astronomy, biology and anthropology offered great topics to help enhance the thematic focus of my projects.

It happened by coincidence that my 3D Design instructor assigned a project for us to realize a common object made from an unassociated material the same week my physical anthropology class was learning about Raymond Dart and his theorized Osteodontokeratic tool culture. My imagination ignited in wondering what a common everyday tool would look like if the materials used in its manufacturing were restricted to bone, tooth and horn. Having a background in special effects make-up, I had a fairly clear idea how to pull off the sculpture and make it look like a living object. After a few days of sketching out the design, I went to work sculpting a hammer that appeared to be grown from flesh.

The backstory for the ODK Hammer was a satire about the preservation of scarce resources. Rather than regarding the ODK Hammer as an item from prehistoric origins, it was an object for the future. The hammer wasn’t just crafted by finding bones and wrapping them together with skin or leather. The entire hammer would be grown using advanced bioengineering techniques based on stem cell research.

It took a week to sculpt the first hammer. I used polymer clay as my medium, and finished the coloring of the piece with Kryolan theater paints. When I debuted the hammer in class, it was received with intrigue and disgust. A couple weeks later, I was asked to present it at the Palm Springs Art Museum as part of student exhibit/competition.

Unfortunately, while packing up the sculpture to deliver it to the museum, the box it was stored in fell on the ground and the ODK Hammer cracked. That night, I immediately went to work on a brand new sculpture. The second version incorporated some new design features that made the design look and feel more organic. This second version was included in the La Quinta Art Foundation Scholarship Fund exhibition at The Walter N. Marks Center for the Arts in Palm Desert.

Although I had drawn up some addition designs for the concept, I put the whole project aside to focus on newer projects.

Fast forward to the spring of 2012. During the layout design and editorial phases of the In A Place art book, I decided to take on a separate art project to help keep me from constantly tinkering with the In A Place tables. Returning to The Osteodontokeratic Hammer project was the perfect alternative.

In the next couple weeks, I will post blog updates highlighting the different aspects of the full project. For now, I leave you with these additional preview images.