Category Archives: Art

Reasons to learn an obscure language

I don’t need to explain why you might want to learn Spanish or French. Travel, dining, literature, socializing, access to a vast cultural heritage . . . It’s self-explanatory.

Choosing to learn an obscure, difficult, and unconventional language, on the other hand, is an undertaking that offers rewards which the conventional languages cannot.

The opportunities of specialization

Picking a strange foreign language enables you to specialize in something that few non-natives have mastered. This can open up a lot of opportunities, given the lack of competition and surprisingly high demand for these languages.

Work opportunities

You’ll find there are a lot more opportunities for fiscally promising work if you know Farsi, Korean, or Kazakh fluently than there are for Spanish or French. Why? For one, these are hard languages, with few people who know them well outside of the native speaking population.

Some of these opportunities might be in very specialized fields—law enforcement, the military, the foreign service, intelligence work, etc.—while there will still be fewer openings for teaching and translating.

But they’ll often pay well and will bring you into an important position quite quickly.

Academic opportunities

These are similar to work opportunities. Although there are a lot fewer schools that offer programs in Czech or Estonian than in German, you’ll be a much bigger fish in a smaller pond. You’ll have a better chance of doing original research amid literature that hasn’t already been pored over for generations.

You’ll have openings for studying at foreign universities, translating works, giving readings, and working with clever, highly specialized professors and students. It’ll be a lot easier to pursue your goals if you choose a less conventional path.

In this case, I can’t guarantee a job as much of course, unless you’re willing to travel. (Which, if you happened to stumble upon this world-popular blog, I assume you are.)

Social opportunities

Every major American city has a little Serbian and Ethiopian community. Sure, there are plenty of Russians, Mexicans, and European exchange students too, but they’re often so large and diffuse that the community has little cohesion. If you pick a smaller community, you find it’s much easier to meet people and fit in.

My wife, for example, is Polish. You’d not expect there to be many Poles in the Bay Area, but there are a few of them, and they have a strong sense of community. We’ve met them through a number of events and have immersed ourselves into a unique tight-knit group. Could we have had that opportunity among the city’s large Hispanic or Chinese populations? Or, for that matter, among the Russian locals and German backpackers?

I don’t think so. They’re either too large a group, too independent and self-sufficient, or too much on the move.

Access to obscure knowledge

Everyone knows about Flaubert’s and Goethe’s contributions to literature. Everyone can read the Tales of Genji or Anna Karenina on their Kindle if they want to. We’ve probably all seen a couple Antonioni films. Internationalism has set in quite nicely—at least if you’re a big, culturally dominant nation.

But few people still have heard of Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai or Cambodia’s pre-Khmer Rouge rock scene. Choosing an obscure language, you’ll get to be one of the few who has this exciting, esoteric knowledge. If you’re lucky, you can be one of the first to find something new and valuable and reveal it to the rest of the world.

* * *

As you can see, learning a language can often be about how you want to invest in and add value to yourself. Although it may be tempting to pick something that will go the widest and farthest, you can often go farther choosing a language less mined and picked over.

But before all that . . . pick something you like.


Posted by on October 12, 2014 in Art, Career, Language, Literature


Cornerstone Sonoma: Gardens of Earthly Delights

This is an article I wrote for the Italian art magazine Look Lateral, which later decided to cancel their print version and my work along with it. Bummer, because it sounded like a great opportunity at the time. Having spent a fair amount of time preparing it, I’d feel it wasted effort to simply leave it filed away in a remote folder, so I’m sharing it with the world here. All pictures and text are my own copyright property.*

You see them, the huddled masses, bundled in their jackets, yearning to breathe clear air. Poor tourists, who voyaged so far to San Francisco, the pinnacle of California destinations, only to find that it’s not California. In summer, in particular, it’s smothered in an unending layer of dense fog. And, sad to say, it’s often like this during the other three seasons.

So where are Art Lovers, some of the most notorious visitants and bons vivants of San Francisco, to go for reprieve from the doldrums of a continuous white-gray existence and enjoy Artistic Experience, that essential to any life well lived?

The answer is to go north, to Cornerstone Sonoma.


I left just after breakfast. Getting out of The City was surprisingly harmless. Roaring over the Golden Gate I sped around the customary coterie of slow left-lane drivers, positioned just to annoy me. In no time I was rolling into the hills and valleys of the North Bay, a land known for its vineyards, climate, retirees, ample hiking and, last but not least, a population of well-to-do artists and intellectuals—not to mention their burnout hippie hangers-on.

The location was easy enough to find. Right on Highway 121 a large “Cornerstone Sonoma” sign appears, accompanied with a “Turn here” directional guide, for those too dense to read between the lines. An oversized blue chair also sits outside near the road and just at the entrance to the main plaza by the parking lot.

Shortly after arriving, I met Teresa Raffo, the co-founder. I immediately found her friendly, bubbly, warm and ready to tell me anything I wanted to know about Cornerstone.


What struck me first of all, as I basked in the warmth, was that the grounds were not limited to just the gardens; rather, it was almost like a small village, with shops, galleries, a restaurant and wine-tasting rooms. Telling her I was surprised all they had to offer, she said, “Yes, there’s something here for everyone. A lot of people get dragged along and don’t want to go to the gardens for some reason, and prefer to go wine tasting. A lot of people will also order lunch here and take it out to eat in the gardens to enjoy a picnic.”

Which is to say—don’t worry, you can even bring your philistine family members along and drop them off at the watering hole.

After heading out to explore gardens, Teresa cued me in to the history of Cornerstone.


Co-founded with her husband, Chris Hougie, the couple got their idea from a visit to the International Garden Festival at Chaumont during their honeymoon in ’96. Entranced by the spectacle of land art, they went on to buy a plot of desolate farmland and begin threading their way through the labyrinth of California’s zoning laws—a Borgesian process that lasted three years—while the artists were able to complete the first gardens in a couple of months.


Naturally, there were more than a few changes and bumps in the road. The idea of charging for an event and ripping out the gardens each year did not transplant from France to America very well. Instead, many gardens were left in place for several years, admission was free, and visitors would contribute simply through shopping, imbibing or making donations to the artists, as well as for usage in weddings and events. The grounds morphed into an embodiment of that Northern California ethos of “bourgeois bohemianism,” combining the contemporary art in the gardens and galleries with the entrepreneurial spirit in the artisanal shops.

However, I in no way want to dissuade the more anti-commercial or avant-garde among you from making a visit, as the gardens themselves are not a “commercialized” experience. Rather, as you stroll through them you are within the work of serious artists, recognized internationally for their exceptional craftsmanship, social consciousness and idiosyncratic artwork. I’ll touch on some of the current highlights and the impressions they made on me.

Red Lantern by Andy Cao and Xavier Perot features a gigantic lamp sunk into a pond with a railroad track leading down toward it. The garden symbolizes the exoticness of the Chinese in the old west and their role in constructing the American railroads. As I walked along the railroad toward the lamp, I felt as if I were descending a plank into the early American world as experienced by another culture.


Garden of Contrast by van Sweden and Associates meshes between three distinct environments, beginning with native, dry plants at the exterior, transitioning into semi-arid plants, and then, at the interior, to a moist, shaded environment. Over the course of a short walk, I felt a seamless alteration between the environments; once arrived, I felt peaceful, as if resting after a journey.

The Garden of Visceral Serenity by Yoji Sasaki, apparently styled on a very traditional Japanese design, is so simple and static that one can view the miniscule changes with ease. As I sat in the metal box in the interior—something all visitors should do, even if it feels a little like time-out—I viewed the feet of passers-by in relation to the trunks of trees, seeing both the rootedness of humans in the environment and their transitory existence in relation to trees.

And, of course, there was Ecology of Place for Phil Biaggi by Suzanne Biaggi, who gave me a personal tour.


Suzanne was radiant, a little shyer than Teresa at first, but talkative once we walked over to her garden and I posed her questions about her work.

Having started as a sculptor, how did you come to landscape architecture and what do you feel you can better express through this medium?

“I serendipitously found myself doing gardens a while after getting my MA in Sculpture. I enjoy the sculptural landscape you can create with gardens, as well as how interactive they are. I like that you can express ecological concerns more effectively and to a larger number of people through gardens, and that you have more elements at your disposal.”

Standing in her garden, she told me to listen in for a low sound in the background. I recognized it instantly. She told me it was a non-verbal track cycling through her deceased brother Phil’s voice, accompanied with Neil Young’s singing. She went on to say that the garden is dedicated to him and is her way of keeping him alive.

The garden also captures the importance of having a sense of place. Composed of two sections, the front contains the current ecology of the environs just around Cornerstone. A path curves over small puddles that represent the remaining wetlands. On both sides, amid a white terrain made of oyster shells, stand vineyards created with wire, which look gnarled and corrugated. Instead of grapes, rows of aluminum flaps, cut in identical rectangles, run over their tops in an equidistant, industrial pattern. When blown by the wind, they create a light sound that accompanies the low hum playing beneath.

Was your intention of the aluminum pieces to represent the effects of a massive monoculture imposed by the wine industry?

“You know, sometimes you do something and subconsciously it connects, but I was only thinking practically then—in terms of the sound. I should mention, though, that there are a lot of wineries that practice sustainable agriculture, and I think they should be recognized. My goal is to encourage us to move forward into a more sustainable future, which is represented by the second section of the garden.”

That area, hidden behind hedges, is oasis-like, with lush greenery abounding in it. At its center stands an enormous, stainless steel tree—product of the New Zealand artist Regan Gentry. Modeled on the California Buckeye, native to the area, the tree is a symbol of restoration as well as a sublime monument and superb work of craftsmanship.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe garden was still undergoing some changes. The brilliant plan to have a water pathway running along the sides of the walkway, 18 inches deep and capable of rising and falling in tune with the tide, had had to be filled in with rocks after visitors bumbling around with cameras fell into it on the first two days after opening. The only other option would be the usual clutter of bells, whistles, flashing warning lights and mandatory hazmat suits.

After the gardens, I went to A New Leaf Gallery where Brigitte MicMacker, the owner, gave me a walkthrough of the works in the current exhibit, Red, Black, White. Many works were from renowned artists, such as Mary Shaffer and Steve Maslach, though there were quite a few from upcoming artists as well. The only requirement was that they be “artists working in a contemporary mode, whether more experimental or classically inspired” and that they “demonstrate exceptional craftsmanship,” both of which were indeed true.

Having appreciated plenty of art, I found my stomach no less empty, so I decided it was time to wine and dine with Teresa and Suzanne.

Vegetarian and “light” options abounded at Park 121 restaurant, but I was feeling particularly sinful, so I went with a grass-fed hamburger and a glass of Pinot Noir, while Teresa and Suzanne nibbled on sushi rolls. It was pleasant to unwind after a few hours of discussing art and simply relax outside in the warmth.

All in all, I spent an extraordinary day at Cornerstone, a location that combines Northern California’s assortment of eco-consciousness, wine-drinking and bohemian funkiness. And not only was I away from the fog of Bay, I was among nature, art and some fascinating individuals, and enjoyed some spirits and food in the process—a trip well beyond the quotidian.

Daniel Bablinskas, August 2013

*Contact me at dbablin-at-gmail if you are interested in purchasing or republishing the article, or any of the content.

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Posted by on December 13, 2013 in Art, California, Culture, Going out, Tourism, Work


9 Nations of North America

The Nine Nations of North America is a book written in 1981 by Joel Garreau, suggesting that these regions better represent the main cultural “nations” of North America.  Each region has its own music, food, ethnic makeup, values, ideals and capital, or defining city.

Canada shares all of the Northern cultural regions with America: New England, the Breadbasket, Quebec, the Foundry, the Empty Quarter and Ecotopia. Latin America shares two regions with the USA, the capitals of which are both inside the USA: Mexamerican Los Angeles and Island Miami.

I come from Ecotopia and, without a doubt, the culture of Ecotopia is strong there. Most of my friends worship the environment (I like it myself, but I’m not going to start counting my carbon footprint or feeling guilty for my polluted human existence). Ecotopia, capital San Francisco, is bordered by a much larger region, Mexamerica, capital Los Angeles. I’ve written a bit about the culture of Ecotopia, which actually has a small enclave in Los Angeles and reaches as far as British Columbia.

Currently, most of my family lives in the Empty Quarter where there’s plenty of land and friendly people, but not much culture or things for young people to do.

Later, I think I’ll post some defining music and art for each region.

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Posted by on April 23, 2011 in Anthropology, Art, Culture, USA


Madrid’s Big Three Museums

I finally completed going to Madrid’s three biggest art museums.

Madrid’s big 3 or “triangle” of museums – the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen – are conveniently located on the Paseo del Arte (Avenue of the Arts).

I highly recommend them all. I preferred the Thyssen (the least popular), but it may have just been because I was in an especially good mood that day.

Madrid boasts about the same amount of quality visual art as Paris or London, but unfortunately there are far fewer small galleries and, as far as I know, no “art walks”. A lot of modern art is hit and miss—too much shock effect—but it’s nice to see new fresh things; nice to know people are still attempting to create new things. Madrid does have most of the works of Picasso and Dali, two of the greatest “modern” artists, but modern art is quite old now.

My favorite Spanish artist? Goya, sin duda. And a close second is Dali.

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Posted by on March 28, 2011 in Art, Madrid, Museums, Spain