Tule Wave

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David Brower Center, Berkeley, CA

2010 – 7′ x 7′ 25′ high, Tule Reed, brass beads, string, steel and one electric motor.

The Tule Wave was commissioned by the David Brower Center, in Berkeley, California. A small electric motor located overhead rotates a pulley that imparts movement to 241 Dacron strings. The strings then pass through brass grommets in a tension grid and descend to support 1140 sections of Tule Reed and more than 3000 brass beads.

We live in a world where it’s easier to buy aluminum and plastic at the corner store then it is to use material that grows under our nose. Although I knew that Tule Reed was used extensively by California Indians, and I had a hunch it might be both light and rigid enough for this sculpture, I am embarrassed to admit I wasn’t sure what it looked like. After several unsuccessful forays into Aquatic Park and Tilden, where I collected an assortment of sedges and rushes which cracked and exfoliated when dried, I called my dad, Malcolm Margolin, who suggested I call artist Charlie Kennard.

Charlie invited me to his house in Marin to see some Tule and discuss if it would be a suitable material. After giving me directions he said I would know his house because there was Tule growing in front of it. Still not wanting to let on I didn’t know what it looked like, I ended up driving around until I saw someone wetting a huge bundle of reeds, in preparation, it turns out, for a boat building class. In front of his house grew a thicket of tall slender stalks with whimsical brown tufts on top – the exact same plant that grows in a tank in front of my house. I had been walking by it every day without even knowing!

Inside Charlie had an assortment of native plants he uses to make gorgeous baskets. Hanging from the ceiling were several bundles of dry Tule. It smelled great! I cut off a section with scissors and found I could easily run a piece of wire through it to make articulating ends. Its diameter varied between 1/4 and 1/2 inch, and its color between a slate green to tan to brown. It looked very promising. Charlie offered me a bundle, but I explained that part of the idea of using a native plant was that I would have an excuse to tromp around the outdoors. But then Charlie started to explain the challenges of harvesting Tule: if you don’t harvest from the same place year after year, there will be dry old stalks mixed in with the fresh stalks preventing you from cutting an armful all at once. And there won’t be a cleared path allowing you to remove this armful intact. In many places you’re not allowed to harvest Tule, and on top of that there will be lots of blackberry bushes to contend with.

He offered me a bundle again. Aware that I didn’t know the first thing about Tule, I had been consciously trying to keep an open mind about it, and it occurred to me that maybe Tule and generosity somehow went together and I should accept the gift. So I thanked Charlie and left with a ten-foot long bundle containing hundreds of stalks. It smelled delicious the whole drive home.

Thanks to Richard Vertz for helping cut and string all the Tule Sections, and Chris Potter, Jason Kral, Tina Chinn, Ashley Jones, Lindsey Jones and Lisa Fay for last minute help with the installation, and everyone at the Brower Center for a warm welcome, especially Peter Buckley, Amy Tobin, Julene Freitas, and Michael Anzalone.