Mendocino Stories

portrait of James Maxwell
James Maxwell

James Maxwell is currently working on a four part book on cement and concrete as fine art expressions.
        Best known as a painter, Max has always had a love of sculpture - remembered for his cat renditions. He is also a writer and as an artist/educator focuses on illuminating concrete as an unsung 3D media.
         “The Concrete Gourmet’s Cookbook” by James Maxwell is a recipe book to complete objects and projects that will introduce the reader to cement, bonding agents, aggregates, together in mixture for fine art. The concrete recipes cover fine printmaking, sculpture, contemporary fossil stepping-stones, food-safe bowls, platters and plates, sinks, fonts, vases, jugs, jars, planters and paths, planned to enlighten the artist/reader to art concrete.
        This twelve chapter illustrated book represents the first in a projected four book series.

        The following is an excerpt from a diary recording his days work on one of the sculptural planters featured in: "The Concrete Gourmet's Cookbook."



James Maxwell

Painting - a big picture

James Maxwell


Cheshire Book Store





4Eyed Frog





Family Hands





The Bookstore


A Conversation Not Lost on Swallows

Planter detail #1Don't go any further. Leave it be – it's perfect, I tell myself. Move on.

I am hesitating between actions; paused deciding my next move on this planter. The cylinder is formidable. Nearly two feet tall, a foot in diameter, erect it rotates on my lazy susan so each of my applications I have to face or change. I've erected row after row, one on top of the other composed of teaspoon-full daubs of concrete individually applied. Each time I do this routine: one pallet knife of concrete, I make my decision to act, if not sincere then honest, then attach the daub skillfully but with no artifice and move to the next empty space along the row. The study of by-rote behavior on consciousness is what interests me.

When I use up this tray of wet concrete, I will mix more and start a new row on my companion cylinder. I've come to consider that no artwork should ever be made to be alone, so I set up conditions to create fraternal twin planters at the same time. There is method in my madness.

Why a cylinder? It is pure, too classic to be a simple planter. So, I've chosen it for its utility, useful like one's arterial system dispenses life. I've forsaken the idea to celebrate simple beauty in favor of making this to be a recording device. Like how the needle abrades the surface of a turning wax cylinder to record sound, for me it will be mud piled on top of mud, (concrete). The cylinders will be overwhelmingly textural. Indulge me please. As an artist I have something to contribute.

I once saw a documentary concerning the scientific discovery that a beam of light could be converted into sound. In this instance, the light focused on a ceramic jug from the an ancient Mediterranean culture. The scientists set up conditions when the object was created, placed it back on a potter's wheel. As the wheel turned a laser pointed at the jug recorded the vessel's surface variations. The beam followed the contours from the base to the rim and back. The technicians recorded it in this manner from a number of points of reference. The scientists determined that the ambient noise that vibrated in the environment when the jug was created, played back when the light tracking the surface was converted to sounds. One could hear muffled voices in the crackle of the background noise – two thousand years ago. The discovery caused me to pause.

Planter detail 2

These aren't the first cylindrical planters I've made. These are the first I've created with the intention of recording my time. If not for you now, who later??

I've chosen the behavior of swallows building nests using mud mixed with their saliva as my methodology to record who I am by what I do. My actions are not continuous as the potter's but are individual, sequential, rhythmical almost digital.

Swallows. To be safe the birds pick almost impossible building sites for their homes, high-up under freeway bridges, in the eaves of houses. I want to understand how they build their nests. Each flight from river to nest is to gather mud, they mix it in their caws, they place each mouthful in a row like adobe bricks laying each daub down with their beaks. This behavior records that moment in the swallow life. Conditions in the environment are there in the mud, the invention the bird uses to attach the nest and the direction it goes with it from there is in the form. We know its function. Each line, by each daub of mud and spittle, though regular in it's application and spacing, differs ever so slightly than the last. A discipline I can identify with my own. Their nests reflect their lives – simple, subject to change yet consistent, uncluttered, reverent in their task – humble. Nests are built to last long after their chicks fledge, new families build onto the ruins of those abandoned. Is so social a bird colony a simple culture? These nests are as beautiful as pre-Columbian pottery.

I'm using sand and plastic cement mixed with a liquid polymer binding agent to make my planters. As I read a swallow's nest to get a clearer picture of the bird, I ponder will someone see and interpret the applications I've made to speak of my life and culture? I intend to place my twin planters on either side of my front door. A sign of “Welcome those interested in conversation.” I will plant them with a ground hugging succulent that when grown will spill over the cylinder's lip. The message of these next to my door is: life is inherently free, and will evade, break out of any rough concrete constriction. There is a beauty in this ambiguous idea. I did warn you, “. . . madness . . . artist.”

Move on.

My concrete is drying out. I have to force my knife against my thumb sized daub to bring moisture to the surface, assuring me a bond is made with the previous application. Pulling my knife away a track shines in the surface revealing I used a tool.

No! I don't want that. Lava in microcosm, that's what I'm after, or a spill of mud that halts as it dries. I push the daub up to where the next row will begin breaking its surface tension, sand shows through in the texture, then I push it down back into position. Right. The way mud works from the force of gravity. I recall what Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us see the truth.”

As I work behaving like the swallow, daub after daub, building onto the previous row my mind wanders. Thoughts arise, they get in the way of my task; I let them pass, when gone I am relieved to get back at work. Emotions emerge, they jack up my energy as memories have me involved. I have to stop – I don't want that energy recorded. I can go on working when I forget everything but the here and now. The phone rings. I don't answer it. I wonder who it was, a worry scratches at me like a cat's arm scratches at the air under a door, my heart beat demands I speed up. I halt right there. I take some time to look closely at what I've done today. That calms me down, my marks are regular nothing stands out as extraordinary. I laugh at myself, the driver of my blood pressure wears the cap of my worry-wart. I don't want to see any of this in my work.

I consider the swallow's purpose. Those nests do not reveal that close call the tiny bird may have had escaping a hawk, a fox or a snake by the river bed that might have struck while he was gathering the mud for his nest. How swiftly they fly, dart through the sky. They swarm in a spiral over the creek, turning they disappear for an instance, reappearing higher up in the air. I love to watch them. In their nests there is no presence of fear recorded, no anxiety, none of the fun that is so obvious in their flights. Each nest is constructed the same; any anomaly is due to a change in the mud. The nests in the colony do not compete with one another, there is no, “My nest is grander than your little poultry nest.” Or, do those birds who had slammed into my window and lived to fly away, build that near death experience into their homes. What would their chicks learn from their environment if their nests were decorated with cataclysmic events. Is love absent? Or is it restraint I read in their discipline.

Maybe “love” and “being able to fly” are inter-mutable and are meant to be learned as we grow.

While my whimsical fantasy machine and my inner critic are busy entertaining and lecturing me as I am at full-stop, a hummingbird suspends its work sucking nectar, turns to face me. He hovers, we make eye contact. I send him thanks by my smile and a nod. Hi! Nothing like a friendly pause.

Resuming work I have a run of uneventful and pleasant distractions. A sweet scent arises off the creek, must be new blossoms sending invitations. I feel really good. Last week I dealt with aches and pains. Insects hum. There is no chill to the air here in the shade of the wisteria. This is a beautiful day. I'm half way finished with today's work. I'm suddenly aware, grateful.

Now that I'd like to record. I picture scientists inventing a future device to be able to read my work today.

I say aloud just for them while at work with my little concrete daub, “I am amazed and grateful. There is no greater gift anyone could ever give me than life.” Then, as it really doesn't matter if any person in the future can read or hear the sound of my voice, let alone understand my language, as I work on the next daub, I say for whatever record, “Thank you so very much.”

Swallows in mind, I move on.

Planter 1
Planter 2


James Maxwell – June 15, 2009

Painting - a big picture

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