An extension of the self. Just what you loved to do.
We don’t jam with Sarah Simon at Chapel of the Chimes.
There is a floor of Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes—I think it’s the third floor—that looks a lot like the inside of a mall I grew up near. It is high-ceilinged, with marble walls and greenhouse skylights pouring light on tropical trees in tiled planters built into the floor. It reads to me like a place that could reasonably be close to the great beyond. A sort of paradise waiting room. And, whereas the mall I grew up near was a home for Payless Shoe Source, Sears, Pacific Sunwear, Orange Julius, and Sbarro—Chapel of the Chimes is a marble apartment house labyrinth for the cremated remains of the dead.
“This is actually my first time here,” Sarah Simon, of Magic Magic Roses and The Thing Quarterly, tells me as we enter the space. I’d asked her if we could meet up to talk about what she’s been up to since The Thing closed its doors earlier this year, and she suggested this place. I’ve also never been somehow.
Ahead of us are branching staircases around a series of ascending open courtyards, each planted with maidenhair ferns and waxy-leafed trees. We head through an arched doorway into a narrow chamber, about the size of maybe a small, surreal bedroom. The room is floor to ceiling glass cases each displaying a brass urn. It really is pretty breathtaking and I understand immediately why people like to come here. I spend a few moments in the first room just kind of saying, “Whaaaat,” before I can get it together.
As our minds adjust to this strange space and we wander deeper into the labyrinth, we point out materials and processes—the hand-set tile, the engraved columns, the statues, the plaques, murals, urns. It’s a lot. We wonder what other world it all came from. “Did you notice how a lot of the urns are shaped like books?” Sarah asks, pointing out several made to look like fat tomes bunched together on a shelf. Like a bookshelf of a person’s life. We lean in to read the texts, etched onto the spines in ornate lettering styles. “Do you think people got to choose their own type,” Sarah wonders. We joke about choosing a really intimidating typeface to so your offspring would remember what a badass you were into the great beyond.
It makes sense we would talk about craft. About how things are made. The Thing Quarterly was a magazine of finely crafted objects and Sarah spent five or so years as their managing editor. Being the managing editor at a print magazine is a pretty straightforward proposition with pretty well-defined expectations—at The Thing, it was anything but that.
The first big project Sarah worked on was a twenty-four-hour wall clock by Tauba Auerbach. In order to make the edition happen, they had to find the right clock manufacturer. Their office quickly had sample clocks on every surface. “At one point we were this close to working with a manufacturer who only hires people who are legally blind to produce their clocks—that would have been so cool.” Once she had to source ingredients to something called “Thompson Cream” for author Ben Marcus’s issue. “It was basically a salve containing herbs and supplements said to increase concentration.” The cream contained bacopa monnieri and gotu kola, among other things traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine, she explains.
For a while, Sarah ends up asking me more questions than I ask her. She’s interested in how the magazine is coming. How the new shop is working out. We talk about building community and working with artists. She tells me about her recent trip to Los Angeles. We marvel at John Lee Hooker’s ornate headstone. We pass workers in coveralls tinkering with a mechanical lift in an alcove. A sign in an archway reads “Supplication.” Below it is a light switch.
“I was able to experience all these different approaches to working through ideas and iterations at The Thing,” she says. Sarah wanted to find a way to tell the stories behind the things people make. She started inviting artists to present or perform aspects of their work, talk about their influences, or just share things they were excited about. In her time there, they hosted some amazing artists—Kronos Quartet, No Age, Leonard Koren, Brian Roettinger, Amanda Ross-Ho, Sam Green, Christine Sun Kim, and many, many more. “I’m really proud of my role in cultivating that piece of The Thing.”
Now that The Thing has shut down, Sarah’s been branching into new spaces and projects. One of those spaces is high end green tea. She’s been helping design a space for Stonemill Matcha, a tea cafe and shop. Sarah’s focus is, of course, the things that will go in the space—the tableware, ceramic mugs and whatever else people will touch, interact with, hold. In contrast to her previous work, the Stonemill project is rooted in a deep history. “It’s kind of nice in a way,” she says, “because it has a direct place it comes from. So much of the work of The Thing had been about expanding the possibilities of an object—and this is about getting something with a such a specific history and context right.”
We head deeper into the labyrinth, not really sure how big it is or where we might end up. As the floors go up, the glass window placements give over to opaque marble placements with names in raised letters. Some with photographs affixed to them—full color, printed on sort of like, metallic buttons. Sarah points out a picture of an older man standing next to what must be his wife, or maybe his sister, and between them is a life-size Hello Kitty. They look a little stiff, but they’re both smiling. It looks like it must have been a happy moment. Along a marble wall, high above, it reads, “PRAY CONSTANTLY” in tall capitals.
After a while, we head into the cemetery for some air. It’s hot out, but in the shade it feels pretty chill. Groundskeepers zoom around the hilly cemetery roads on lawnmowers. There are between three and, it seems, maybe twelve or twenty. They are all wearing long sleeve shirts, neon safety vests and wrap around sunglasses. I can’t tell if there are different groundskeepers, or if it’s the same couple of dudes just going back and forth over and over. They ride the lawnmowers in an upright, standing position—though the lawnmowers are the kind that you usually sit down to ride. They are standing up very straight. They glisten with sweat, zipping in and out of sight.
We talk about music and how it relates to art. How Magic Magic Roses, the band she founded nearly ten years ago with Kate Sweeney, has been something that’s really helped her connect with the art community. We talk about how their sound has evolved. How what felt so insular on the first record has turned, I think at least, more outward and open up with subsequent records. “Neither of us are shredders,” she says. “It’s all about scaling the complexity back.” Stripping away each element of the music to its more essential form.
“I actually quit music for about a year,” she says. “Energetically, it just wasn’t calling.” Recently, it seems she’s been following musical energies, but in new directions. “I borrowed my sister’s bass,” she says. “I’ve been exploring building songs based on rhythm.” And she’s joining a new band. “A friend invited me join—he wants it to be really witchy. The plan is to write an album based on the solar eclipse and the circle of fifths. We’re supposed to get together Friday and jam.” She pauses. “But I don’t know if he knows this—I don’t jam.”
So, a new band, new work, new ways of inhabiting the world. It’s a lot. People ask what she’s been up to, and she feels like she has to launch into her quest. Like she has to have something to show for herself, and that thing is usually some version of steady or challenging work. “In an ideal world, work would be an extension of the self. Just what you loved to do.”
“Now that I’m spending my time and energy on a whole new constellation of things, I find myself wanting to define work more broadly,” she says, “I want to figure out how to continue to integrate it into my creative practice, my activism, my relationships, making a living, traveling, and all the other things we all want and need.”
Walking out of the cemetery, we continue to talk about work and change. How you work hard forever perfecting something—adding things on, building skills, figuring things out, whatever—then something changes and you see yourself in a different way—your skills and all you’ve learned extend in new directions. You have to look for new spaces to fit into in new ways. Right now Sarah’s working on a ton of stuff, trying to figure out how it all balances out. The band, the design work, her relationships, trying to just be a person. I ask her how she defines herself now. “It was hard enough trying to explain what I did at The Thing for five years. For now, I’m calling myself a producer—it’s a broad enough term that it can encapsulate all the things I want to keep making.”