Wednesday, February 25, 2015


At my writing group today I described an incident at the St. Vinnie's. I was buying a couple of cute little party dresses to cut up and update my costumes, and asked for my senior discount. Another woman my age was tickled by that juxtaposition, my really plain outfit, my grey hair and lined face, and these little glittery things I was buying, and said so. I told her they were for my Jell-O Art costumes and said a few more things about the show, when it was, and so on, slowly realizing she had gotten that look and shut down her delight.

Yes, she gave me that look that says "You crazy." I have seen it so many times it doesn't even hurt anymore. I just think about how much those people are missing because they don't have what I have with the Jell-O Art Show.

My writer friends, to my surprise, agreed that Jell-O Art is wacky. I was a little shocked, as I have passed completely through the idea that it is wacky. I didn't even notice when this happened. Maybe it was when Maude Kerns Art Center named the Radar Angels Community Partners. Maybe it was when I got the interview by Sean Cuellar of KEZI. Probably it was when I made that book in 2012 with my foot propped up, or possibly it was many years before that.

I can explain this, at length, the serious nature of Jell-O Art. I can go on about the creative process, connecting with the heart and soul, the techniques of the medium, the expertise gained over almost three decades. I don't even get why people don't get that, so I have to admit I was disappointed that I got the wacky label from my friends, but of course I immediately forgave them and felt that it was their problem, certainly not mine.

But my friend then sent me this, completely redeeming herself. I knew she got it, she just forgot. She found this on a website called Brain Pickings. The links are from there.

Margaret Mead recounts a particularly pause-giving dream. More than a mere record on the unconscious, it unfolds into a powerful metaphor for the meaning of life — for the beauty of not-knowing, for the soul-nourishment of wonder, and for the question of “enough” that Vonnegut once contemplated.

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a laboratory with Dr. Boas and he was talking to me and a group of other people about religion, insisting that life must have a meaning, that man couldn’t live without that. Then he made a mass of jelly-like stuff of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen — and he seemed to be asking us all what to do with it. I remember thinking it was very beautiful but wondering helplessly what it was for. People came and went making absurd suggestions. Somehow Dr. Boas tried to carry them out — but always the people went away angry, or disappointed — and finally after we’d been up all night they had all disappeared and there were just the two of us. He looked at me and said, appealingly “Touch it.” I took some of the astonishingly blue beauty in my hand, and felt with a great thrill that it was living matter. I said “Why it’s life — and that’s enough” — and he looked so pleased that I had found the answer — and said yes “It’s life and that is wonder enough.”

Monday, February 23, 2015

Creative Process

I think of the Jell-O Art Show as the first heralding of spring, the beginning of the art year. The season came early this year, in nature, and in Jell-O, when I got everything out and made the piece for MKAC and gave it to them on January 31st.  That broke my usual routine so the past month has not been so much about making Jell-O Art as about other things. I've been having a lot of strange dreams, though, so some force is working its way out from deep in there.

I've always liked my Jell-O Art pieces to be about my life, the progress of the past year or a direction I seem to be going. Once I observed that I had a creative process, I started to write about it and follow the whims. I often began with going to the as-is Goodwill to search for something interesting to use for a prop. I like the use of props to frame the Jell-O, and help to get the message across. Jell-O itself is notoriously hard to work with, if you have control in mind. It jiggles out of your arrogant boundaries and melts itself out of your plans. Often when I found the object, a whole new idea began to emerge.

I'm thinking of the copper-fronted pink breadbox. That year I was heavy into remodeling my house. I had used Fish-head Barbie for many years and that year she was remodeling the breadbox, in her little carpenter's apron and with her foot in a bucket of white gelatin plaster. I made little shingles and boards, lots of Jell-O details, and I put it on the pedestal I usually used, which is a set of legs that I can dress. Somewhere on the internet is a photo of it which I will try to find. (Alas, most of the old photos are gone, displaced by young people drinking shots, taking selfies.)

I used Fish-head Barbie as my alter ego until she fell apart one year. She was just a Barbie doll with the head of a fish, which symbolized me, a woman with a pretty hot body (remember, I was in my thirties when we started Jell-O Art) but a very different mindset. I was more than just a feminist, I was a radical. All that fades into my past but I still like to find a personal hook to build my art piece around.

Some years I stopped using a lot of props and simplified the process to focus more on the Jell-O itself. I began to try to find a new technique to try, as a challenge. The dried version is quite fascinating, but I like to work with molds, too, using lots of plastic containers and odd items to put the gelatin in. I made a lot of molds with wax or clay, though I didn't have much luck with real mold-making art materials. One year I made a rubber mold from an AR-15 (yes, an assault rifle) and buried the Jell-O from it in the ground in a coffin-shaped box. That was a peace statement of course. I made bullets and dressed the legs in camoflage. Something about a melting Jell-O gun delighted me.

Themes are a good start, but if the theme of the year didn't inspire me, I felt free to go beyond it. The personal was always my area of work. If I had something romantic going in my life, my Jell-O was lovely or cynical (usually cynical). One year I tried to make a mold of my face, and the theme was a Wizard of Oz one, so half the face was pink and flowery and the other was green and witchy with frogs. The title was something like "Are you a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?" A fun discovery was made by getting away from the t-shirt table and finding out that people actually discussed my Jell-O, trying to see my intent and understand my statement. Who knew it was really art? It took me forever to take it that seriously myself.

I like the Odyssey theme. It's very open. My dreams have been rather haunting this week, all featuring a boyfriend from the earliest days who dumped me eventually, saying "You'll thank me," despite my complete devotion to him. Naturally he was right but I wonder why he is back now. A dream I had when I was living with him was that Steve Martin came to town and wanted me to go off with him. He was willing to give up his career for me (this was in the King Tut days). I took that to mean that I was meant for a much better life than the one I was in. Now in the dreams I am again trying to get away from that boyfriend, usually on foot. One dream had me looking in vain for my shoes, but determined to walk home anyway, on a hot dirt road many miles from here. My son was with me in that one, at varying ages, but a companion and protector as well as someone I was taking care of. In another I was wishing I could take his child with me (he had a son, though it was a decade before I did.) This tells me about the contrast between real caring love and love for someone untrue. I'm ready to abandon all my possessions in these dreams, to strike out on my own, strong and independent just like I was in those days. Another had me parking my old cars in my storage room, and wondering how on earth I still had them and how I would get rid of them. Last night I was packing up some photographs and letters, but I didn't seem to have any furniture or clothes to take with me. One dream featured one of those large Victorian houses with all the staircases and little rooms upon rooms, filled and cramped, and me climbing up and down trying to get out, to find the bathroom or the attic, or sometimes a shortcut through the house to finish my journey. I used to think houses were relationships, but now I think I am dreaming about my life. I think I am exploring making choices when I feel that things are happening to me without my choice. I'm having to sign up for Medicare, do my taxes, go to a lot of meetings, and fly off to Australia. I may feel forced to let go of control, explore on my own, get back to the brave young me who would take on such a difficult lover and then not want to let go. I'm dreaming of the Odyssey I've been on, the interminable journey, but I'm the one making the decisions about where I'm going, and it's always to my own home, my safety, and my right to be me. I enjoy the Victorian rooms filled with the interesting objects of other people's lives, but I want to get out and walk in the grass and the woods. By myself. Free.

If I can follow this out, it might make for a fascinating piece of Jell-O Art. I'd better go off to the As-is store.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Many-Dimensional Show

Post-coronation, 2012
Writing the show with the rest of the Radar Angels is so much fun I'm really sorry I didn't get into it sooner. I always had the roles of making Jell-O Art, making the t-shirts, and writing blog posts about it, but being crowned as the Queen opened up a whole universe of new roles to take on. That year the theme was Occupy Jell-O and I think now that the theme was made to distract me so I wouldn't find out about the year-long plan to do a Queen-for-a-Day skit and crown me. I had a broken heel and surgery in March so I didn't really address the theme too much either, except in the snippets Indi told me about as she tried to keep the secret and keep my percoceted mind busy so I wouldn't ask too many questions. I made a piece that turned out to be an artist's book made of sheets of gelatin and was the best piece I ever made so far. They did the skit, I was surprised and shocked and more delighted than a person ought to be but they probably didn't expect me to take it so seriously. Immediately, the next day, which was April Fools, I declared that the position was permanent and there would be no other Queen of Jell-O Art. Not that anyone else really wants the title, but hey. It's me and mine now.

Parts of the Jell-O Art Museum 2009
At first it just seemed like an honor bestowed for making so many sculptures over the years. There are only a couple of us who have done it from the beginning, every year. Others come and go, but loyalty is worth rewarding. Never mind that I have this sort of character flaw of never wanting to change anything substantial in my life. I looked to Queen Scarlett for inspiration on the queening duties, since she was an excellent Slug Queen and continues to be regal and generous in her social presentation. She taught me how to air kiss, which I discovered is done so that the precisely arranged hair, make-up and accessories won't be mussed. Don't get too close to a Queen. Doubly so if she is wearing Jell-O---that stuff is pokey.

My typical Tacky Food offerings made from candy molds
But she and Indi gradually let me in on a set of expectations that came rather happily to me, a deepening experience that is quite rewarding. A Queen is dedicated to her role as promoter and cheerleader, never forgetting that as the public face of an event and organization, she must be dependably present whenever opportunity arises. I resisted at first. My idea the first year was to hijack the Slug Queen Coronation in August by strutting up to claim equal status and a Celebrity Judge position. I was going to do it with a lot of hoopla and noise, and this was actually welcomed by the First Lady-in-Waiting of the Slug Queens and sounded like a good idea for awhile, but I chickened out. It didn't fit my personality to be too demanding and arrogant, and I wanted a long-term respectful relationship with that other set of Queens. I know a lot of them and they can get offended rather easily in their own roles, which are generally very socially-conscious and not as silly as you might think. Anyway, at the last minute I did ask to be a celebrity judge because it was a good opportunity to wear my costume, which I had by then developed. If my memory is correct this all happened in 2012, the year I was crowned.

The most beautiful Queen there...2012 
I did succeed in being a Celebrity Judge but got rather dissed (in my humble opinion) because I failed to introduce myself properly to the emcees that year and they didn't have a clue about me. They thought I was lobbying for that oh-so-ordinary position of Slug Queen. Oh well. I always think those things are mostly a problem of my expectations and failure to set myself up for success (i.e. be controlling enough to make myself clear in advance, or seize the moment to my advantage.) Anyway the experience was less than thrilling. Oh, did I mention that the poor RG reporter who had to cover the Jell-O Art Show the year I was crowned had to leave before it happened and so missed one of the biggest events ever in the history of Jell-O Art Shows? Once the article is in, trying to correct or add to it is old news, so I didn't get my 15 minutes that year.

Early retail Jell-O Art
Nevertheless, I reflected upon Queenliness and by January of 2013 I was ready to start going to meetings and join the performing wing. I wasn't sure I could do it, having told myself for decades that I had stage fright and could never sing in public like that. Silly me. I had to admit to myself that such a limiting view did not serve me or anyone else, and now I had a public and admirers. Some kind man at the Slug Queen thing had told me I was the most beautiful Queen there! (I know, he said that to all the Queens, but whatever.) Anyway I had something that no one else had in my dried Jell-O work, which was the flexibility to have Jell-O Art all year round and I started retailing flowers and hair ornaments that spring and summer with my regular screenprinted work at Saturday Market, Tuesday Market, OCF (after hours) and at the Jell-O Show. When I was crowned I had that broken heel so I sold off quite a bit of Jell-O at that show, lots of pity sales anyway. Selling the stuff was a big leap and I just went along with it. I made blogs and Facebook pages and set up a website and tried to get myself famous. I created as much of a buzz about Jell-O Art as I could and have tried to keep that up, as one of the duties of my regency.
Making the Jell-O Connection 2013

So, the Show. Getting in a big room with a dozen or so artists, actors, and musicians for a brainstorm is so fun the group has two or three of them to figure out a theme for the year and an outline for the performance. I took on the job of taking notes and tried to follow all the threads and help wrap them into a fabric. As it developed it became a little story about how Jell-O can turn a frog into a queen and I committed to sing a version of the Rainbow Connection dressed in a frog suit with my Queen outfit on underneath. Then I did it! I was astonished that I could indeed perform and that my sense of humor carried through in parts of the scripts and props.  That was the Jell-O Connection show, or i-jello, an exploration of the online world of Facebook, the contrast between virtual life and real life, and the joys of connecting. It was a great show (of course) and people loved us! It was illuminating to be onstage and feel the joy and fun we created reflecting back from the loving audience. I got how addicting performing can be and was quite high on that. Had a bumpy ride back to earth when I also realized it was highly insignificant outside of how it feels inside us. That might not be fair, because we can't really know the significance, which can develop over time. Anyway I had a little hissy fit the next day, tossing my wrinkled costumes and props on the floor in a pile and crying it out. Highs and lows that faded by the next year.

You really don't want to know so many things
The following year, 2014, we did Jell-O Jeopardy and that was an even bigger blast. I was getting to know all of the people who had been performing when I wasn't paying close attention (as you know, if you don't get up front you can't even really hear all the jokes and subtleties sometimes.) I saw how they created the magic from chaos. Just try to integrate zombie Marilyn Monroe, the ukelele wielding Wae Mest, and Shirley Temple (the young version) into a coherent skit. Somehow it all happens, rather of a mystery actually, and no one person has much influence on the final product. Even a Queen.

I knocked myself out on the props. In both of those shows I was determined to use my graphic skills to create a rich stage presentation so people would be more than delighted with the whole package. The Facebook year some of them didn't even get used as we scrambled to keep up. I learned that I would have to limit my visions to fit the space and structural limitations. Jeopardy went well that way, though I still made too many props. Fortunately Jacque joined us and helped with the logistics and started producing a slick and fabulous poster and images, and this year the poster is already done! I get to crib from it for the t-shirt design and that is a huge help. I don't have to wait until the last minute to get inspired about that.

Props from i-Jell-O 2013
I'm going to overdo the props again this year. I started sketching things out yesterday and it's hilarious fun for me to make big cardboard silly things and try to distill the important information graphically. I don't want a star role anyway, as the Queen is now a useful character who can come in for the deus-ex-machina when needed and riff off of any minor aspect she likes. Last year I sang a song saying that you don't want to know what is in Jell-O, which I just stole and took over from one of the musicians because it really worked for my character. She was supposed to do a commercial for Jell-O in the middle of the Jeopardy show, but she did that trickster thing, and it went off really well I thought. A little less ego last year, which made it a little more fun, too.

So of course I can't tell you about this year's show. Keeping it a surprise makes it a lot more fun and also allows us to change it as we go. Props, songs and characters will be inserted and thrown out over the next month and you don't really want to know everything. You want to be there for the moment and get the piece of magic that is yours to keep. It's only a three-hour show, a twenty-minute performance, and it won't be seen again (unless we get the recording of it back into place, which has been sadly missing somewhat. You can see a few snippets on youtube if you search Radar Angels and Jell-O.) It's the best when it's fresh and bright on the one night.

Now we are meeting weekly and everyone is writing their parodies, working up their costumes and character foibles, and we are well on the way to another great and original show. I thought since I already made a piece this year (the one I gave to MKAC) I would challenge myself to go back to the roots and make a jiggly one. Even though it has to be done at the last minute, I have to start now to get the right molds and be ready for the execution of the concept. It's a lot to do given that I will be going to Australia a couple of weeks later and of course Saturday Market opens the Saturday following the Show. Thank goodness it is not the same day as happens some years. I used to try to do both events, but clearly now that I am Queen the Jell-O  Art Show takes priority over making a living. Good thing I get that miniscule Social Security payment to cover my almost-paid-off mortgage.

I hope I never lose this joy and duty that makes my life so rich and fun. How else would I survive the dark winter fogs if I didn't have Jell-O Art? Now that I can sing more, I have a life focus that I always wanted but didn't think I could have. Way back when I used to sing in a garage band, I had two songs mainly, Sea Cruise and Love Potion #9. I won't be fronting the band this time, but I will tell you the secret info that we will be using Sea Cruise in this show. I cannot wait to sing the ooh wee baby again. It's going to be the best *three hour tour* ever. Save the date, March 28, and don't be late, because we will be there to pick you up at seven. Around seven. We have to make sure our aprons are tied in a nice bow and our Jell-O is on straight, and I guess the Slug Queen's benediction this year will be super special. The show starts at five. Come see the Jell-O, try some ridiculous Tacky Food, and watch some magical musical fun. Make some Jell-O Art too! It is a simple entry, makes you a real artist showing in a real gallery, and is way more fun than you might think. You can take my word for it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


The Radar Angels jumped into the Jell-O Art pool
   yesterday with both feet. Felt like a cannonball, but the water was warm and inviting.

About twelve or thirteen of us crowded onto the stage at MKAC yesterday and entertained the annual meeting of their Board with a few short songs. I was so grateful to all of us for showing up in style and being so easily expressive. The musicians of the moment, Larry, Wren and Marty and Sunny, really carry things through and are extremely easy to work with. Dependable, cheerful, supportive...I could go on. I was sick all week with a terrible cold and had to miss the one rehearsal we had for this mini-show, but I'm guessing you could hardly tell. We stood up there with no mics, no strict procedure set up...we winged it. I think it sounded pretty good, though I tend to not hear anything much when I perform, being in an altered state of hyperpresence/absence because I'm an introvert and not an experienced performer. But maybe it's the costumes or all the low-key family singing or just the supportive group of Angels, somehow I get up there and sing loud and don't care and just do it like it comes naturally. Indi often has to tell me obvious things, like look at the audience, etc. but really, I amaze myself when I get up there and do that.

It would not be possible without the accepting nature and the high level of support of each one of the group. While singing and playing an instrument at the same time is an astounding skill, it is no less important to put on a wig and some ruffles and get up there to just be part of the group and sing behind whomever is singing. The one who has my undying gratitude and is really the one who gets the most credit, is Indi Stern. She is the glue that keeps it all together. Each and every one of the lovelies who showed up was fantastic in their own right, so a big thanks to Karen, Nan, Annemarie, Jacque, Mark, Sakti, and the ones who wanted to be there but couldn't: Ariel, Tania, Ruby, Sherri,Teresa, Jorge, Noah, Liliana, Jennifer, Angela, Joanie, and the rest of the sixty or so who call themselves Angels. Thanks also to those who came in support, Bee, Clare, Jude, Ben and Terry, and more. Huge thanks to the Board and Staff of Maude Kerns Art Center for thinking of us and the opportunity and their cooperation. Over-the-top cooperation as it turned out. I offered the chance for people to wear a Jell-O flower on their heads and since there were 20 flowers and about 50 people, I figured a couple would do it and the rest would stay in the box. Wrong! I should have brought more. It was so thrilling to look out over the audience at so many men and women wearing Jell-O. No one seemed to be too sophisticated to try it. That was the best. What a great community. And here I have to say a word of thanks also to the dearly departed, especially Gil Harrison, who was always there, and is sorely missed. And my still very-much alive mentors Leslie and Celeste, who always were able to make looking professional easy and possible. And still do. And Mom!

I had of course been quite nervous about our reception and my speech and giving a piece to the gallery, but with all the support I tend to try to just live with the anxiety and know that the crowd will be forgiving. It's like a lot of Radar Angel things, you put on your apron and put some Jell-O on your head and pretty soon you're Marilyn Monroe without the tragedy. It's like a lot of Life things I suppose, and I think I'll expound upon those in my other blog, where I write about the more personal side of it all. This is the Jell-O Blog and yesterday was a Big Jell-O Day.

I had a lot of inquiries about the dried gelatin art itself and if you look back there is a lot of expostion in earlier blogs about the technique. I'll say it again here: it's really simple. I get gelatin powder, which I buy in bulk but for a start you can get the Knox stuff in the little packets. You mix it in cold water, and for the dried stuff or wet stuff you want to make art with, you mix it stronger than the package directions. I've settled on a formula about 12 times stronger than the 1/4 oz package meant to mix with a cup of water (or 3oz per cup). I think it would work 6 times stronger or anywhere in between, so just try something and see. The gelatin content makes it strong, the water makes it workable. After you mix it in cold water, let it sit for at least 10 minutes to "bloom" or absorb the water. I do it in a canning jar, because then I put it in the microwave for a minute or two to melt. Let that sit a bit too, then skim off the foam, add a little color (I just use liquid procion dye because I work with textiles and have a lot of dye around, but you can use food coloring or whatever you want) and then pour it into dishes in thin layers. You can also melt it in a pan if you don't want to use the microwave.

This is a jiggly one by David Gibbs
You can pour it into molds if you want shapes, but for the flowers I use glass pie plates and baking dishes. I will warn you that you have to dedicate those to Jell-O because the stuff is so strong that sometimes the dried bits will pull off actual bits of glass, so you don't want to later use the dish for food. Make the layers as thin as you want, from a mere coating to about 1/8 inch, depending on the result you want. Stuff that is too thick won't dry fast enough to avoid mold. Stuff that is too thin needs attention pretty soon or you won't be able to get it off without re-wetting it. I also swirl it around in bowls which makes a lot of interesting things happen.

I put the dishes on top of the furniture where it's hot and come back in a few hours to tend it. I generally run my fingernail or a knife around the edge and then pry it out, in one piece or several, and then flip it over to dry some more. I make petal or leaf shapes at this point, sometimes laying it over the edge of the dish to bend or curl. You are going to have to experiment according to what you want as a final result. I have tried to keep it flat sometimes, which is pretty hard, and I also use textured surfaces sometimes, like a plastic lettuce leaf bowl I have that makes nice flower and leaf replicas. Sometimes I'll stretch it or cut in a spiral so I can pull out a long string to make boingy things. I twist it and shape it or just let it do what it wants. You have to tend it for a couple of days depending on your heat, or less, so you have to pay attention. If it changes texture in a weird way, remelt it. I've gotten rid of mold with bleach, but once its moldy you might as well throw it out and start over, as the animal origins tend to emerge with a nasty smell you don't want to add to your smell memory bank.

To make the flowers I just select pieces I like, hold them together in various ways and then stick them together with melted gelatin (not too hot, it can burn like crazy and sticks on you). Sometimes I'll clamp with a clothespin or just hold it together (for at least a 60 seconds) and then set it up again to dry. If you don't like it, you can pry it apart or get it wet and take it apart, or remelt the whole thing. It's really up to you to work with it and get to know the limits or the open qualities it offers. You can use objects in additional ways, like wire stems or toys or whatever you think helps your piece say what you want it to say. It's art! You are the artist and it's your job to work with the medium and your creative process to make something from nothing. That's an incredible joy for a lot of people and worth a try for everyone. You are an artist if you create.

To me that is really simple at this point but like I said yesterday, I feel like it took my whole life to get here. Jell-O Art made me an artist. I started out with my box of Cherry or Berry Blue and went from there, and you can do that too. The wet jiggly kind of Jell-O Art has its own delights and in fact I think I might challenge myself to make a wet piece this year. That also has its own demands, mostly because it will only last a few days so you have to do it right before the show (which is March 28 this year.) If you want the jiggle you can't make it as stiff, but you can use the Jell-O brand if you want and just add in a bit of Knox or less water, and those pieces have lots of charms too. That type of work is actually harder than the dried, in my opinion, but can also be quite rewarding. Perhaps another blog post.

This was made in a complex process and I'll tell you someday
So that should answer the basic questions. This will be the 26th or 27th Jell-O Art Show, so there is a long history with a lot of legends and stories to discover, and some of it is found online here and there if you look. There have been other Jell-O artists and shows, as you will see, but we can give ourselves (and I include MKAC in this) a lot of credit for keeping it alive. We do it because it adds joy to our lives and warms our hearts and gives us something happy to do while we wait for spring. Please do participate. This is a thing to do, not just view, and it is above all, supposed to be fun. So have some. Make Jell-O Tonight!