USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘folk art’

Rock Painting in San Clemente, CA

Subject: San Clemente, CA- Rock Painting



San Clemente Rock Close-Up of backside. This maker fully embraced the pun- 30 March 2018


San Clemente Rock Close- Up of frontside.


San Clemente Rock on San Clemente Trail in found position- 30 March 2018


Close up photograph of San Clemente Rock in found position- 30 March 2018


San Clemente Rock in new position. Moved by S. Taylor. 30 March 2018



Background Info: San Clemente, CA is the southernmost city of Orange County and consists of such beaches as Trestles, North Beach, T-Street, and Old Man’s Beach. The town motto is the Spanish Village by the Sea. Most of the city’s life revolves around the beach as the town’s main street, Del Mar, runs from El Camino Real to the pier. I have lived in San Clemente up until I moved to Los Angeles for college and return during the summer and winter holidays.

In January of 2017 an official city-wide club was formed to paint rocks to commemorate the life of Saylor Vorris, a junior at San Clemente High School when she passed away from leukemia. This movement was largely isolated to the Vorris family’s immediate acquaintances and the student body at San Clemente High. Members of the larger San Clemente population began to take notice of the rocks appearing at significant location in the north end of town. Then, in early 2018, painted rocks began appearing on beaches and walk paths in the North end of San Clemente in incomprehensible numbers. People who were not part of the original club nor aware of the significance began painting rocks and hiding them around town. The premise is then simple: if you find a rock, you can take it or simply move it to a new location. For many participants, if you take a rock it is then your responsibility to paint a new rock a place it around town.

Context: I encountered the San Clemente Rocks when walking on the beach trail in San Clemente on 30 March 2018. My dad explained that the rocks were first placed by members of the San Clemente ROCKS organization but now more and more people from town are painting rocks and putting them around town to spread joy. I photographed and then moved the rock with “Love” written across it. I, however, kept the rock with “San Clemente Rocks” written on it as a reminder of home when I went back to school.

Analysis: The rocks movement being adopted by more and more members of the community shows the active formation and reinforcing of identity. First, every time an individual makes a rock or moves one of the stones as part of the game, they are demonstrating through their behavior that they belong to the city of San Clemente. More than that, they are proud to be from San Clemente and want to publicly contribute to a culture of love, acceptance, and joy. The rocks work to actively define how citizens want to depict San Clemente to outsiders and allow them to fulfill that vision for themselves. With each rock that is painted, the idea of San Clemente as a community that cares about its residents is better realized and this identity is then embodied.

Second, to the San Clemente resident who is not participating in the rocks movement, they are the recipients of the joy that the painters are attempting to foster. The rocks serve as a reminder of what it means to call San Clemente home. As rocks are anonymous, it fosters an understanding that all residents are tied to one another on virtue of being from the specific place and participating in the culture of a small, beach town.

Lastly, I ask myself: “why rocks”. I believe the answer more complicated than rocks are easy to paint and do not prove an obstruction to the natural environment. Most people who live in San Clemente are anti-development and anti-graffiti but pro-environment. Painting rocks is a seemingly benign way of making a mark on the community in an artistic way, with minimal destruction. Furthermore, San Clemente has seen a significant natural depletion of its beaches sand in the last decade, being replaced primarily by small rocks. By painting rocks, town members are taking control of our land and tying us to the natural environment. Painters and spectators alike are asserting a belonging to the land that transcends merely living and going to work in within town lines, we are thrusting ourselves into the composition of the environment.


Scrimshaw – The Whaler’s Art


I was perusing the shops in downtown Lahaina, HI, when I wandered in to a Scrimshaw shop. Curious, I asked the shopkeeper, who had worked at the shop for more than 20 years, about the art.



Me: So what is scrimshaw, and where did it begin?

Informant: Scrimshaw is carved and dyed ivory – usually whale teeth and bone. It is New England whalers that scrimshaw is usually attributed to. It is a whaling art that the New England whalers started doing in the late 1700’s early 1800’s when they were out at sea. They were bored, they were uh, they wanted to make gifts for their family members back home, so the teeth and the bone were the leftovers from the whaling industry – the whales were hunted for their fat, their blubber mainly, which was used for, among other things, lamp oil. The bones and the teeth were leftovers, unneeded. And so, the whalers started carving them. The thing about ivories and bone, is that it is one of the oldest mediums that man has worked in general, you know, you get stuff that is carved out of woolly mammoth tusk. Though, so what they specifically attribute to scrimshaw is work such as what is done on sperm whales’ teeth. [See picture for an example of scrimshaw]. And it’s actually an engraving process, where the artwork is hand-engraved into the ivory, which is first polished. Then they take a sharp tool and engrave the design. And then they rub ink into it.

Me: Okay. And I noticed that most of the pieces here are nautical themed. Was that the norm for scrimshaw?

Informant: Yes. It was more often than not nautical themed, or, when you look at antique pieces it was often of things that reminded the whalers of home.

Me: Now, I know that Lahaina was once a whaler’s village, and by the fact that there is a scrimshaw store here, I would assume that when whalers had come here they brought the practice with them?

Informant: Yes. How Hawaii comes into play, is that when the whalers started whaling in the Pacific, Lahaina became the whaling capital of the Pacific because we are a natural three-sided port. So they had safe mooring out here by the road stead, the Lahaina road stead. And uh, they didn’t really whale in Hawaii, the whalers just wintered here. Where the actually whaled was around Alaska.

Me: Okay. That makes some sense. Follow the migration patterns.

Informant: Yes. And because of the ice floes, they would be up around Alaska for much of the year, as all the ships were wooden hulled. So they would sail back down to Lahaina, because back in that era, when they sailed into the Pacific they would have to sail all around the southern end of South America and back up. So it took them months to get into the Pacific and so they didn’t want to try and get back to New England every year.

Me: Makes sense.

Informant: Yes, thus Lahaina became the home base, if you will, for the Pacific whaling industry. So most of the whaling vessels around Hawaii were at sea for around 2-5 years. Some of them might have been inspired by the tattooing, the Hawaiian/Polynesian tattooing they saw. But, scrimshaw as an art was not inspired by the Polynesians, as they did not work bone and ivory in that way.

Me: Awesome. So who would the whalers give these carved and dyed ivory pieces to? And do any of the pieces tell stories or have stories about them?

Informant: The whalers would often give these to people back home. Sometimes, when you see the antiques, they will often be documents of the whaling voyage, of things they saw along the way, or sometimes, women were a popular subject matter.

Me: Yeah, I’ll bet.

Informant: Yes, and so there was a small genre of pornographic scrimshaw, but that was more rare. It was more often with those that they would take pictures from magazines or similar things and essentially copy such pictures onto the teeth/bones. As most, if not all, of them did not have any art training, you know, most of them were illiterate whalers just thinking about their family. So most of the scrimshaw pieces do tell of some kind of event or something similar. So I hope that is what you are looking for.

Me: Yeah, this is great. Thanks a lot.

Informant: You’re very welcome.



Carving ivory, as the informant said, is one of the oldest known practices of mankind. Carved mammoth tusks and bone have been found at prehistoric sites all over Europe. Ivory was most likely used because it is so malleable, and an easy medium to carve or engrave. Scrimshaw, in particular, is probably the best-known example of colonial American folk art. It was created and performed by people who were bored, had no training in art, in engraving or carving or even drawing. Whalers were often illiterate, or at the most slightly educated. They simply put to use the tools and the materials they had on the ship to commemorate a voyage or event on a voyage. Furthermore, with the demise of the whaling industry, the only material now used for making modern scrimshaw is fossilized bone and ivory, which is rather rarer and more expensive to acquire. So, though it began as a true folk art, it is now mostly made by professional artists who can afford the raw materials used as the medium.


The Martini

In this image my informant holds up a slate for a video project titled “Two Portly Guys.” There are martini glasses drawn around the shot number “2” – this is meant to indicate that this shot will be the last shot captured on that shooting day.

It is a strange paradox of working on film sets that the experience on the set has little to do with the subject matter of the film itself. There is no way to extrapolate from a finished film the experience of the crew members working on the set.

In a set environment at a film school, students who have known each other and worked together for several years are often thrown onto crews together for a project. The familiarity of the students with each other creates a unity to the entire filmmaking process, from pre-production (planning of the film) through post (editing and sound designing the film) that does not exist in the film industry outside of school. For instance, on a USC project the on-set crew will likely know the students who will be editing the film. However, at the USC film school in particular, the way that some classes are organized require that the editors of a film not be present on the set. This results in some pranks played on the editors within the footage.

My informant (in the image above), who had held the slate for a USC undergraduate thesis film prior to the “Two Portly Guys” project, told me that drawing martinis on the slate is one way to bring the editors – friends of the set crew – into the set experience, albeit after the fact. “The martini” is the name given to the last shot of the day before everyone goes home. There are various stories about why the last shot has been named this, but it is an accepted and recognized term. It is common among film students at USC to indicate the “martini shot” on the slate by drawing martini glasses onto it. The slate, as the marker which tells the editors what shot and take of that shot is being captured after the slate has been shown, should be (if the shot was taken correctly) the only indication throughout a single shot that the film crew is there, thus it is the only time that the crew can communicate with the editors as fellow filmmakers.

I feel that the martinis on the slate can also be an indicator of set morale. On the “Two Portly Guys” set I noted that the crew was greatly enjoying their work because the scenes they were taping were humorous. My informant seemed excited when told that the last shot had arrived and quickly draw the martinis. However, my informant also told me that there were days on her undergraduate thesis set that she did not draw the martinis. Though she did not connect this to crew morale, she also told me that there was rarely a day on that set that she didn’t feel tired or stressed by the miscommunications among the crew, or the slow pace of the work. Thus I believe that a crew that is working together well and runs into few problems throughout the shooting day will be more likely to be in good spirits by the end of the day, and have the energy and inclination to take a moment to draw the merry little icons onto the slate. If the last shot of the day lacks martinis, it might be an indicator that by the end of the day the crew was too burnt out to have any fun with the slate.