Interviewsand Articles


Bicycling to Mongolia:Fredric Fierstein and Guardian
by Richard Whittaker, Feb 23, 2011



In which: 
...we learn the origins of a mysterious and powerful public sculpture, reminiscent of an ancient Mongolian shaman archer/warrior 
...take a brief detour for commentary on puff-piece journalism a clear-eyed artist too self-possessed to waste his time struggling for an art career
...spend a little time with primitive Buddhist temple kung-fu in the far reaches of Malaysia
...contemplate a moment of revelation at the unlikely juncture of West Coast sophistication and the ancient life of a hill tribe poppy farmer
...consider some reflections on the sad vicissitudes of public art
...hear how one artist's resourcefulness, creativity and the democratic process thwarted the inertia, opposition and ill will of art bureaucrats
...ponder the difficulty of poetry and celebrate the discovery of hidden practitioners, visionaries and unsung heroes.
The Thing Itself and Some Unlikely Associations
Exploring the Eastbay shoreline one day I found myself at the foot of University Avenue near the Berkeley pier. That's where I saw it, a fierce warrior, bow drawn, astride a mythical beast like a huge Chinese fu-dog. The sculpture stands over fifteen feet high. Immediately I remembered having stumbled upon it years earlier when its squat magnitude had first mesmerized me. 
     But this time, I gazed upon it with new eyes having just read an advance copy of Peter Kingsley's astonishing book A Story Waiting to Pierce You. Kingsley argues that a mysterious figure mentioned in ancient Greek texts was a shaman who traveled from Mongolia to Greece where he met with Pythagoras to help the Greeks with his knowledge. Travel between Mongolia and Greece in that era was considered impossible, and what to make of the idea that the Greek logos might have been nurtured by the mysticism of Mongolian shamanism? 
      With such new ideas fresh in mind, I laid my bicycle down and walked over to take a closer look. A bronze plaque installed at its base read: Guardian, Fredric Fierstein-To Protect the Life Spirit
     Goodness! Kingsley's Mongolian shaman might have put it the same way. And the archer had a definite Mongolian flavor, too. Suddenly, I wanted to find this Fierstein. Without a doubt, it would be worth the effort. 
Plop Art and Puff-Pieces 
As soon as I got home I googled Fierstein. What I found were some photos of the statue and a few brief references to a scandal. For example: January 15, SF Chronicle, "In 1986 sculptor Fred Fierstein dumped a statue called The Guardian at the Berkeley Marina."  
     Dumped? I'd noticed that the four feet of the statue sat nicely on concrete pads. The writer continued, "In a city vote, fans supported the statue and the term 'plop art' was coined." 
     Can we digress? I recall encountering that term around 1992, soon after I began publishing an art magazine. A young man, on fire with enthusiasm-his name long forgotten-had contacted me; he was a practitioner, he declared, of plop art. Several disconnected flush toilets sat in the vicinity of Telegraph Avenue thanks to his efforts, as I recall. He thrust a folder of newspaper clippings into my hands, some perhaps even referring to Fierstein's Guardian. Always willing to find the hidden glitter of a diamond in the rough, I tried to see what was interesting in this young man's oeuvre-and came up empty-handed. He was attuned with the phrase, though. But to associate Fierstein's statue with plop art is just another example of a writer's tin ear. The Guardian was not dumped nor was it plopped. And it seems the phrase itself has disappeared. 
Finding Fierstein
     Google was no help in finding the statue's creator and I was temporarily at a loss. But what about the City of Berkeley? When inquiries there led to a name and phone number, I was excited. On my first try a man answered. "Ever heard of Fredric Fierstein?" I asked.
     "You mean Fred of Fredric's Electric?"
     Fighting off the feeling I'd entered some comic skit, I pressed on, "Is he the one who made the statue down by the Berkeley pier?"
     "Yeah, I think so."
     And that's how I found the artist--in the Yellow Pages under electricians. 
     Truth is, I got his voicemail. But now I also had a street address and the allure of driving right over was too much to resist. Even if the artist/electrician wasn't at home, just getting a look at his place would be revealing. What would it look like?
     A well-preserved panel truck from the early 1950s sat in the driveway, "Fredric's Electric" painted across its sides. The house was an older, two-story, brown shingle with a lot of vegetation surrounding it and even climbing its walls. But wasn't that an Asian temple entrance in front? The tiled roof with turned-up eaves was trimmed out with a couple of ornate ceramic dragons. And the entry walkway was paved with a mosaic of blue and white hand-painted, glazed tile. It all had to be the work of Guardian's maker, the mysterious electrician. 
     As I looked around, I noticed other details where creative modifications had been made and wondered what more would be revealed when I finally met the man. It took a couple of weeks. 
     On the appointed morning I drove over to North Berkeley full of anticipation. The man who answered the door was maybe five foot six or seven, of a certain age hard to determine, broad-shouldered and fit. He was wearing an astrakhan hat. Looking at me forthrightly, he welcomed me and asked me to take off my shoes. Following him through dimly lit rooms decorated with exotic works of art we came to a small table by a window where we took seats across from each other. 
     In the north light I got my first good look at him. It was something of a shock. How to describe why? First of all my Mongolian fantasy did not evaporate at all. His was a face I might describe as having a timeless, masculine, non-specific Asiatic beauty. 
     Usually such moments are forgotten quickly under the press of ordinary life, which soon sweeps over them. And as I write, that moment has faded some. But all my intuitions, as I'd stood looking at the statue at the foot of the Berkeley pier, have been richly confirmed. Whatever it was I saw in his face sitting across the table that first time remains as something from another order--whether it's one that's more real or less is hard to say. 
     And sitting there, besides the artist's creative force made visible in every direction I looked, there was something else I was not yet fully aware of, a palpable physical aura quietly radiating from the man across from me. It had to be connected with his long practice of the martial arts. A couple of times, I was given a glimpse of a startling fierceness not too far below the surface--not unlike what one sees in the artist's Guardian. 
Kung Fu Buddhist Temple Art and a Fundamental Moment
It was in the mountains somewhere near Penang that Fierstein first saw it, in a Buddhist temple managed by his kung fu teacher. The little figure stood out from all the other temple statuary. "It was about six inches tall. It caught my attention. I had been to so many temples, but this one seemed made by a person who had been inspired. I was attracted by its shape and thought wouldn't it be nice if this was larger in order to be able to look up at it." 
    Fierstein had practiced kung fu with other schools, he told me, but he liked this particular school because it was primitive. It was hidden away in the mountains. There was an old kung fu master there. The old master had sons. He divided his teachings among them. To one, he gave the iron hand; to another, something else. Fierstein was taught first by the third son and then, as he got better, the first. And they were shamans, too, it seems. The local people would go to the temple to contact their dearly departed. The first son would put one of the younger sons into a trance. And a connection was made with the other world.
     What was it he liked about it being primitive? I asked.
     "Oh, you can't find these people anymore. There's a certain soul there, and honesty. And they're not corrupted, polluted, by parking tickets, by a lot of things that we have to deal with." These were people you could talk with. First of all, as he put it, they were friendly. They accepted themselves. That's why he returned for several years to his kung fu teachers at that same out-of-the way place. 
     On a trek even further into the mountains, he described meeting a man tending poppy fields-not fields as we think of them. The rocks were still there. It was up and down. The field-tender's teeth were stained red and black from chewing betel nut. He lived in the ancient way in a hut about the size of a bathroom. 
     The trekking guide, who spoke Thai and a few local dialects, didn't know this man's hill tribe language. But Fredric found out, through sign language, they were the same age. And a revelation followed: "I realized that guy could have been me and I could have been him." He went on, "I was who I was from the fact that I came from one place, and he was who he was because he came from another place. But in a sense, we're all the same. It was beautiful to see that we're all equal." That sense of connection was fulfilling, he told me. It was like a religion. 
     But also, from this encounter, he saw that most people are more products of their society than "of something inside making them who they are. They're not products of themselves, in a sense." Not products of themselves. This gets close to something I felt in meeting the man in the astrakhan hat: this has not been his fate. 
Sitting at Fierstein's table everywhere I looked there was evidence of the artist's creative interventions: carvings, paintings, various objets d'art collected in his travels not to mention his treatment of windows, cabinets, counters and so on. I learned that he'd studied animation at SF State. His first films had gotten more prizes than has his teachers' films. But he lacked the financial resources to continue. He took up ceramics. "One of my teapots is over there," he said, pointing. I got up and retrieved it. It was good. Better than good, it was a treat to behold. San Francisco's Meyer, Breier, Weiss Gallery used to carry his work something like 30 years earlier. The gallery was a pretty cool place back then. At one point, he'd taken up watercolors.
     "Why don't you have an art career?" I asked.
     "Art career?" he said. "There's no such thing in this culture." 
     Strictly speaking, this isn't true. There are many curators, assistant curators, conservators, art writers, gallerists, art guards, publicists, administrators, art professors and whatnot. On the other hand, just ask an artist about his or her career. 
     "I make art for the pleasures of doing it, not for any other reason. And I don't want to have to fit myself into a mold. In the art world, they don't like that." Talking about it all his face took on an expression of distaste. "I didn't want to prostitute myself." 
Unauthorized Art
     But let's get back to Guardian, the artist's monumental copy of that six-inch statue from the hidden temple. At first he considered making it in clay and firing it in place. But there were too many ways that could go wrong. What about ferroconcrete, they way they make boats? That seemed more feasible. No matter that he had no experience in that medium. (It's not so common nowadays to find someone confident in his capacities to make things, to figure out methods, to shape and craft materials, to trust in his hands and natural intelligence. This orientation towards the world must have been, and still be in many places, far more common than it is now. And no doubt many artists still feel some measure of this.) 
     When he finished the piece it stood in his driveway between houses. The impulse had been to build it. He would worry about what to do with it later. And then that later arrived. It happened that Berkeley had just created an art commission, and so he took photos to the commissioners. It was the first piece to be offered to them. But after six months, the art commissioners told him they didn't want it. 
     I imagine that during the months of waiting to hear from the art commission Fierstein looked around for locations that might be good sites for the sculpture. And he found the perfect spot, which is where the piece sits today. The course it took in getting there, however, was via uncharted territory.
    As Fierstein put it, he and his friends talked it over and "it was decided that the piece would end up where I wanted it to be. We decided to just put it there." The rights and wrongs of such an approach are debatable. On the other hand, I suspect a lot of artists would find what followed a deeply satisfying tale. 
     From that point on, the history of Fierstein's sculpture-an unauthorized piece of public art-was to follow its own path. 
     The man who gave me the lead that led me to the artist happened to be a Berkeley art commissioner, David Snippen. A few weeks later I happened to run into him at an opening at the Berkeley Arts Center. I learned he's an architect and also serves on the center's board of directors. We had a very pleasant conversation. 
     "Did you find Fierstein?" he asked.
     "Not only that, but I've interviewed him and he's amazing."
     "The arts commission was blind-sided by that thing," says David.
     The whole Guardian episode took place before Snippen's time, he explained. 
     Several days later, I found myself thinking about that phrase: the art commission had been blind-sided. I was riding along on my bicycle again when suddenly the phrase lit up. I'd been thinking about public art. Suddenly "blind-sided" and "public art" seemed like two peas in a pod. Do they go together? Maybe it's because of the process through which public art becomes public. Over the years I've talked with several artists who have been through that peculiar ordeal. The tales I've heard feature generous amounts of frustration, absurdity, senseless delay, unreasonable revision and ultimately, when the pieces do become reality, pitiful financial results for the artist. And what does art look like that's been processed by a bureaucratic committee? Mostly we know the answer because mostly, that's what's out there. Of course, there are a few exceptions. In Albany, for instance, there's Carlo Ferretti's piece, poetry miraculously intact. But Carlo's tale exemplifies the realities of the process.
     What had suddenly lit up as I was mulling over the phrase "blind-sided" is that maybe the blind part of "blind-sided" is just something built in to the way public art gets done. 
Pulling It Off
     It wasn't exactly a simple thing to pull off. But just as Fierstein was never shy about diving into new mediums, he was equally inspired by other challenges. A little research revealed that the city of Berkeley didn't own any heavy cranes. All they had were cherry-pickers-good for tree trimming, changing bulbs on lamp posts and the like. He'd also, gained insight into how things get done through official channels. If he did place the huge piece himself, then the same bureaucracy that had refused it, would have to trip over its own shoelaces in order to get it removed. 
     But how to get the piece from his driveway in the Berkeley Hills to the Berkeley Marina? The height of the piece would threaten to tear down utility wires. So Fierstein rigged a bamboo pole to his car at that exact height and began a driving survey until he found a viable route down to the marina. 
     One Sunday Fierstein and a friend went down to the marina to prepare the spot they'd chosen. Working quietly, no one questioned them as they placed Guardian's four steel-reinforced, concrete footings at the foot of University Avenue in an open space facing across the bay to the Golden Gate Bridge. Then they let a week pass before the next step. No ripples. 
     On a Monday morning, they loaded the massive piece in a rented trailer and covered it with tarps. No incidents occurred as they threaded their way down to the marina. They waited nearby in an empty parking lot for the heavy crane they'd hired. 
     The next steps were straightforward. Get crane in position. Set out the orange cones. Pull the trailer into position. They strapped it, lifted it, and swung it carefully over the footings and lowered it into place. The whole thing took about fifteen or twenty minutes once it was unwrapped. Then everyone took a look at the results of their work. 
     Just at that point, as they were all were admiring Guardian in its new venue, the head of the Berkeley parks and recreation department, showed up. It was pure accident. 
     What the hell was going on? As Fierstein tells it, somehow he happened to have on his person a letter with a City of Berkeley letterhead granting permission for this act. Montgomery pocketed said letter and left promising to find out about this.
    After that, the renegade artist and his crew headed off to a nearby restaurant to celebrate the morning's work over breakfast. 
Art Littering, Campaigning for Art and Falling in Love
As told to me, it wasn't long before the artist received a letter charging him with littering. Thus began the next chapter of this saga. My notes are sketchy. Trusting to his calculations about the city's lack of cranes and the bureaucratic delays in getting things done, Fierstein left town for a vacation. A friend was keeping an eye on things just in case. Then, in the middle of his vacation, he got an urgent letter. It looked like the city might pull it off soon-literally. Fierstein cut his vacation short and returned. 
     As it happened a citywide election wasn't far off and inspiration struck. What about placing an initiative on the ballot? Let the citizens of Berkeley vote yea or nay about keeping the new statuary. Signatures had to be collected ASAP: at least 2400 that could stand up to challenge. Done. And so the course of events, having proceeded thus far outside the box, now came back inside. 
     As the artist put it, "Posters were made. Speeches were made." There was opposition, "which was the art commission." But lots of people in Berkeley liked the statue. Either that or, as the artist surmises, they "liked the act of placing it the way I did." 
     To those who objected, "It's not art" Fierstein responded, "No, it's just a study of art." Then others argued, "It's going to fall over, get rusted. It's not right. It wasn't safe." The fuss-budgets. Finally the art commissioners said, "We can't let this happen because a lot of other people might start doing this!" 
     The artist had an answer: "Gee, wouldn't that be wonderful?" 
     And Guardian had something more going for it. Fierstein describes this way: "If a thing comes out and it breathes, if someone-or if many-get something from it, you know you hit it! Which doesn't happen often. You get inspired. You do it, right? It's passion. It's not like math, which you can pick up and do the next day. When it comes, you act. Not everything a person makes, including me, is art. There are plenty of failures. That's just the way it is. It's like falling in love with somebody." A lot of people loved it.
The People Say Yes, but the City...
     The ballot measure passed. The people of Berkeley voted to keep Guardian. But the story wasn't quite over. Behind the scenes some continued to smolder. And a few weeks later Fierstein got a letter from the city attorney: based on a technicality, the people's vote did not insure against the removal of the statuary. The city still intended get the piece removed. 
     Did she want to get more egg on her face? He asked. The City of Berkeley had already gotten its share. He would fight the removal all the way down the line if need be- county, state, even further. Go right ahead, he said. It was the last he heard from the city attorney. That was over twenty years ago. 
About Invisible Things
What I'm trying to get at in relating these fragments has to do with an impression this artist made on me. I was reminded of something Terry Riley said in a radio interview several years ago: "I'm sure there are lots of better musicians than me out there and we will never hear about them." That made me like Terry Riley even more than I already did. 
     The reward in tracking down the maker of Guardian was in finding just such an artist, unseen in the world except at that magical point at the foot of the Berkeley pier. And his sculpture resonates with a mystery beyond the person I met in the Berkeley Hills. After all, Guardian is a copy of another figure. What hidden story remains untold behind the original figure that had such uncanny power it sent a stranger from the West Coast on such a sustained journey? Is the echo still there in the larger figure? 
On a recent visit with Fierstein, I found him playing speed chess on his computer with someone in another country. We chatted about chess for a while. I'd come over to take a few more photos. Afterwards, standing in his kitchen, a custom granite backsplash caught my attention. The stove was unusual, too-all stretched out in a line so there were four burners divided by a grill in the middle. 
     "I've never seen a stove like that." 
     "Oh, that was a top of the line O'Keefe and Merit. I cut it in half and rearranged it." And he had. Now new and improved, it was perfectly suited to the kitchen space. 
     More about the artist's decades of martial arts practice and his other travels off the beaten track will have to wait for another time. The same goes for his life in the Philippines where he still owns a home he built there, plus the story of his little island coffee shop and bookstore business there.
     As I was leaving, happy with the new photos, Fredric stopped me to share an idea he'd been thinking about. There could be a magazine that featured the cartoon drawings of local high school kids. These kids don't get any recognition, he said, and a lot of them actually have talent. He couldn't do the magazine all by himself, but he has a background in animation and a love of cartoons. And he'd love to work with a few people on such a project. 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.


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