Persistent. Prankish — she made as if to disappear for good, even stayed away for the longest time, until suddenly arising in another spot.
Whatcha doing? she asked, or seemed to. Can I play? Can I, huh? Huh?
I tried to ignore her. This was serious business, designing the artwork that would go on the swim caps for the 24-hour Swim Relay in San Francisco's Aquatic Park. I was swimming in it, and director Suzie Dods asked me to come up with something.
Artist at work. Do not disturb. No fun allowed.
I made lists (sometimes the same list redone in different ink and decaying penmanship), checked them thrice. What was legible became pegs on which to hook ideas.
The solution had to say, "This is the first attempt of the craziest damn swim in one of the most beautiful places on the planet!"
It all but bellowed "TIME and SPACE and NOVELTY!" like few others could.
Would I hear it?
Regardless, the solution had to be different, and swimming is a prickly client. Photography may do it justice, but graphic design often fails. Swimming is all slash of arm and splash of water and sliver of rubber-swathed head. Most it it happens out of sight.
Swim logos, as a result, often look like the ransacking of traffic safety signs: Round head, zig-zag line for an arm, two or three wavy lines for water — presto! Logo.
The swimmers in these logos by necessity display bad form — for freestyle anyway, they're almost vertical — to show the head and sometimes facial expression or features.
This event called for something different. Now, to work.
First, time: That's the marrow of this shindig, a 24-hour grind, day passing into night and back again, the feel of it. How to convey it? The movement of sun and moon, an ever-widening whirl? A watch? A Dali watch? Literally the words "24 hours?"
All of the ideas sketched, considered, set aside.
Now, place: A marvel to us outsiders, San Francisco is just as much a jewel to its swimming locals. The City must glimmer in the art.
Next, novelty: Since Herb Caen, late great columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, called The City Baghdad by the Bay, I tried that for a bit, dipping into visual history and mythology to make visual links to the sophisticated city The City is.
Leander, swimming across the Hellespont each night to be with his lover Hero. Assyrian bas-relief, swimmers prostrate and flailing, fully clothed and behatted, as if seen from under water.
So began a spate of sketchy sketches, suggesting the rough hew of the ancient artist. Swimmers formed a circle, suggesting the passage of time and completion of laps.
Nah, I decided, too esoteric. Too far away from crazy damn swim, the unforgettable place.
I was going around in my own circles on this, getting nowhere.
Then look who showed up! The wee sea lion, wanting to play. Up she rose, I realize, from my subconscious.
The sea lion suddenly answered everything for me, time and place and novelty. It's wild, like this swim, and welcoming (not that I'd like to cross a cross one). Sea lions dwell on San Francisco's piers and roam Aquatic Park.
I saw one from afar on my swim of the park; one day I hope to see a sea lion pop up close from the green murk of the Bay, as other swimmers tell, watch it watch me, then watch it swim away.
She became the hook for this idea. I built The City around her, the water and waves and tides.
Ultimately she had come to play with the swimmers.
I managed to fit in Coit Tower, the TransAmerica Building (a useful landmark for swimming the homeward route that weekend), the Golden Gate Bridge, the sailing ship Balclutha tied up next to Aquatic Park — even the flag buoy known well to swimmers there.
Circles became slash and splash and sun and moon. Swirls suggested a timepiece, a stopwatch, the endlessly circling crazy damned swim — I dunno, I might have enshrined a cliché on that last bit.
On the cap, the sweeping shape is meant from a distance to suggest horns or Hermes' wings.
Addendum: I reacquainted with an elementary school classmate, Jim Bock, at the 24-hour swim. He's a lively member of the South End Rowing Club now, living lifelong dreams in San Francisco. When I introduced myself by social media, he sent me a copy of a chart he had made way back in 5th grade, written on pulp lined paper. It lists the class' and teacher's birthdays. Each student and teacher recorded his/her data, and Jim somehow kept that paper all this time. He and I just happened to have signed on subsequent lines:
We were adamant about adding fractions to our ages. Even then, I notice, I was playing with a logo for my name.