February 1, 2015

It was a day for contemplating freedom, or the lack thereof. You’ll see why in a sec.

It was a day in four parts (not counting the usual and very satisfying brunch in Davis, in which Kari and Jim run into numerous friends and impress the visiting Jay with Davis’ smalltownness… and also not counting the commute to the Bay Area, in which the lollypop trees–shot through the backseat window at 65mph–are particularly lovely).


I think the trip from Pier 33 to Alcatraz counts as Part I, because boat ride.

From said boat, San Francisco Bay on a beautiful, warm, windless day.


Part II, Alcatraz tour. First time here for all three of us!


Gotta say, it was truly fantastic, creepy and grim. The audio tour was particularly well done. I was fascinated by the voices of inmates, correctional officers, and guards, and moved by the ambient sounds of clanging, slamming cell doors and wind howling through the cellhouse, all of which transported you a cold, dank and despairing time. I also got a kick out of the tour’s clever choreography–the way you were lead up and down the cellhouse rows in a very non-linear way, each person seeming to be on his or her own completely different tour.

Here are some quick facts about “the Rock”:

The island is 1.5 miles from the mainland.

The land was first developed in 1868 as a lighthouse (now the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast), a military installation and a military prison.

Alcatraz operated as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963 (29 years).

The island was occupied for 19 months in 1969 by a group of aboriginal people as part of a wave of native activism. In 1972, it became a national recreation area and in 1986 was designated an historic landmark. It is now operated by the National Park Service.

Al Capone, Machine-gun Kelly (George Kelly) and The Birdman of Alcatraz (Robert Stroud) were some of its more well-known prisoners.  

There were an average of 260 inmates at any given time. It was, however, never filled to capacity. They caught most who tried to escape (34), but five were never accounted for. The most famous escape was the “dummy head” escape in 1962, the subject of the movie, “Escape From Alcatraz.” 

Alcatraz had 4 cell blocks (A B, C, and D). They didn’t use A for some reason, and D (42 cells) was the isolation unit. B & C had a total of 336 cells.

Here’s a picture of Jim in one of the cells in “The Hole,” part of the isolation unit:


Remind me never to go into the Hole:


Here’s where the general population stayed:


The inside:


The kitchen:



For fun they played cribbage and bridge (not bad!):



And baseball in the recreation yard:


After having sailed around it countless times over the years, I was surprised by how spacious it was.  It is a huge hill and requires lots of walking around (challenging for those with a torn ligament).

Here it is from a distance (postcard shot):



Lots of stairs:


The views were, of course, stunning:



There were gardens (who knew?):



Here’s a close up of the lighthouse:



There are lots of old buildings. This was either a warehouse or what used to be the officer’s club.. now just a bird hangout:



Okay, moving right along.

Part III of the day was a tour of the Ai Weiwei exhibit, also on Alcatraz and spread out among a number of buildings. We definitely gave short shrift to this fascinating artistic/political statement and will come back before the exhibit closes in April, I hope.

Ai Weiwei, born in Beijing in 1957, is “internationally renowned for potent and provocative work that defies the distinction between art and activism.” He designed this exhibit especially for Alcatraz, but couldn’t be on hand to install it because, a vocal critic of the Chinese government, he is not allowed to travel outside China. He developed the art pieces in his studio in Beijing and they were assembled by hundreds of volunteers and park staff on site.

We only saw four of the seven pieces.  Three were in the New Industries Building (and maybe the old laundry facility):

With Wind, is a rendition of a traditional Chinese dragon kite that hangs from the ceiling…


….and is composed of wooden panels with messages written on them, like, “Every one of us is a potential convict” (Ai Weiwei).  This sheet has an Edward Snowden quote:



In the next room, Trace was a sprawling carpet made of legos that depicted the names and faces of 175 “heroes of our time,” people from around the world who have been detained because of their beliefs or affiliations. This was fantastic.. I took dozens of pictures.. here are a few:



How it’s constructed (this is the mouth):


And what it looks like when backed up:


One more:



A friend, Naomi Williams, commented, “I was amazed by this installation, especially by the way it stretched the definition of ‘art’. It’s not just a cool Lego mosaic: it’s also an enormous research undertaking (determining whom to feature), a writing project (drafting and editing the write-ups about each individual), a computer design endeavor (pixelating and assigning colors for the Lego-ized faces), and a complex logistics problem (the actual Lego panels were assembled by dozens of volunteers on-site using schematics from Ai’s studio). Many, many people were involved in the  piece from beginning to end, including the paid docents who staffed the room and had to remind clueless visitors to please not walk on the installation.”

Here is an artsy fartsy shot Jim took of me looking at the Lego piece:


Refraction was a massive sculpture of a bird’s wing that, “uses imagery of flight to evoke the tension between freedom–be it physical, political, or creative–and confinement.”

Naomi said of this, “Again, there was the irony of being on the grounds of a notorious prison, a prison which not one person is known to have successfully escaped, looking at something so obviously suggestive of flight.”

I didn’t get good shots of this, partly because to view it, you had to look through narrow slots of broken, rusted out windows.. which was part of the message of the piece, I think.. liberation, freedom is elusive. You feel trapped and unable to fully embrace the beauty of your surroundings.

We saw one other part of Weiwei’s show in the dining hall of the Cellhouse, not realizing that it was an interactive part of the exhibit. You were invited to choose a postcard addressed to a prisoner of conscience somewhere in the world and engage in a global conversation, speak to that individual and let them know they are not forgotten. We did not understand this and blew right on through.

We managed to make the last ferry off the island, having spent nearly four hours on the two tours. The views returning to the embarcadero were beautiful:




Here’s Jay on the boat in an intense conversation with Jim. Peter opted out of the day in order to watch the Superbowl with friends.



And finally, Part IV of the day was a great Italian dinner in North Beach. The restaurant was virtually empty because it was everyone was watching the Patriots-Seahawks game somewhere.

Great for us.

Great day all around. Great day to be free.

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