Click here to read an article about the Poetry Bench in The San Diego Union Tribune.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Click here to read an article about the Poetry Bench in The San Diego Union Tribune.
Sunday, May 4, 2008
Wattle is a woven backing. This dome-shaped woven backing was created from the ground up. Daub is a mixture of clay and cellulose. Traditionally the cellulose comes from the dung of grass eating animals. The animal's digestive system removes sugars, carbohydrates and proteins that we do not want in our wall, and what remains is cellulose.
I have found that most
The next step is to get some good sticky clay. We were lucky to have a pile of dirt scraped up by grading in back of the church, and it only took a few minutes to have my crew run it through a 1/4 inch rabbit-wire screen.
After this, we put the pulp and clay on a tarp and began mixing it in a fairly conventional manner. Normally we say that water cannot be pushed down into dry dirt, but in this case, wet pulp cannot be pushed down into dry dirt. Once the dirt and pulp are on the tarp, we roll the mix so that the dirt is on top, and then tread the dirt down through the pulp with our feet, roll the mix, and do it again, adding water as needed but not too much, because we want a highly viscous mix thick enough to span gaps between adjacent wattle.
As you can see, spaces were left between some of the wattle strips so that "truth windows" would let in light and allow occupants of the structure to peek out. In places where the gaps turned out to be too large, we wove in supplemental strips of bamboo to make plastering easier for my youthful crew.
Rolling and treading on a tarp created a sticky, uniform mix of paper and pulp. To a batch this size I added a gallon of Elmer's milk glue to act as a water repellant, and we began plastering.
The primary plastering tool consists of our hands. Balls of mud were turned into pancakes and lightly patted into place. We told the kids to press the mud into the grid and then pat it like patting a dog. Many light pats work much better to make the mud flow and smooth than a few heavy slaps. We then smoothed the mud. Plastic container lids like those on cottage cheese work well for this purpose. I like to embed colored plates of glass in the mud to form lights.
It took about three tarps of mud and one day to do a first layer on this structure. I like to plaster the outside on the first day and then let it dry. Do the inside and let it dry and then do the finish plaster. Because of the large number of kids I let some of them work on the inside as a team with someone on the outside. By pushing the mud from both sides I thought we could get a better bond and do both sides at once, but I think it tended to just make a mess and there was a lot of mud on the floor to clean up at the end of the day.
My preferred system is to plaster the outside and let it dry for a few days so that the mud is firm, but sill moist. I then plaster the inside with a slightly wetter mix. Instead of patting the mud as we did on the outside, I put a ball of mud in the palm of my hand and pump it into the nooks and crannies with a side to side motion using the palm of my hand.
Note on tools: The first and best sculpting tool, of course is your hands, but the second best are home made smooth surfaced objects from around the house. Lids from cottage cheese containers (cut off part of the lip for a flat smoothing surface and the remaining lip portion serves as a handle), spoons, butter knives bent into a Z-shaped configuration, short pieces of rubber tubing and many other objects found around the house can make great sculpting tools.
The clay can be screened through a 1/8 inch screen instead of a 1/4 inch to make a finer finish. Alternatively you can purchase something called “fire clay” at larger brick supply places or purchase clay from pottery supply stores. Often these places give you a variety of colors and since you do not need very much it can still be reasonably priced. The finish layer will have a higher percentage of white glue to make it more water repellant.
My crew appears in the above slideshow. They range in age from 5 to 65 and a great time was had by all.
Below you can see the truth windows. Note the feet seen in the picture are bricks placed between the vertical strips of bamboo which we jammed into the ground when we started to weave the structure. This foot pattern is repeated on the inside of the structure and besides being ornamental, it acts as a padding over the corners of the bricks.
When people ask me to teach natural building classes, especially finishing, I often feel a little bit overwhelmed because they often want to learn all about a natural building process in one morning or one afternoon. That is, of course, impossible.
Some things can be learned but not taught. For example, people are often fixated on recipes:. how many parts of this and how many parts of that to make perfect cob or earth plaster? The problem is that every part of the earth's surface differs from every other part of the earth's surface so a recipe that works well for my back yard might not work in my neighbor's back yard. I know when a plaster is not sticky enough, but how do I teach that to you?
Many things about finishing are a matter of preference. My favorite plastering tool for earth plaster is my hands, but I also like steel trowels and plastic strips like those made from the lids of cottage cheese containers, but some of my friends are just as convinced that wooden trowels are the best. My goal is to make a surface that is so smooth and non-porous so that water will hit the surface and run off. I want no nooks and crannies in the wall that will hold water, and no horizontal surfaces that will stay wet for a long time. For my money, metal or plastic trowels form a smoother surface that will shed water and dry faster, but is that fact or opinion?
I don't know what I don't know. I am convinced that shredded paper is superior to horse or cow dung when making finish plaster, but I have done no tests to conclusively prove this. I believe with a fair amount of certainly that mixing milk glue (Elmer's glue) with earth plaster makes the plaster more weather resistant, but I have done no tests to prove this. I don't know how much glue should be used with how much plaster. One coat of linseed oil seems to repel water two coats of linseed oil causes the surface to turn black with age.
The advice below is to the best of my knowledge and should be taken with a considerable grain of salt. The plaster; like the finish material; contains a lot of paper; perhaps as much or more than the amount of clay. As your paper level goes up and the clay level goes down your mix becomes stronger, less prone to cracking and less and less sticky. Eventually it will not stick to the dry layer of plaster so I would say that if it feels good and sticks well it is good. If later it cracks try a thinner layer to cover the cracks. If it peels off add more clay.
An image in the collection above shows a primer layer of clay slip (the dark reddish brown color) followed by a red finish layer. I believe that the slip improves sticking. Slip should contain just enough clay so that when you dip your hand in it you should not see your finger prints. The clay contains one gallon of Elmer's glue with 20-25 gallons of plaster. The grey or light brown clay is from a deposit in my back yard, the red comes from a friend’s yard. The reddish brown slip is discarded clay from a place that teaches pottery. The contrast clearly illustrates the importance of keeping a sharp eye out for clays of a different color.
I noticed many cracks in the plaster layers covering the bamboo, but none in the finished plaster. To me this seems as it should be. You will notice that I have said nothing about sand. I did not add any. Paper fibers will resist erosion by water, sand resists wearing away by friction. While I would put a lot of sand in a floor I use little or none in the outer walls of my building. This may be another case of not knowing what I don't know. I do know that this will last for several years. I don't know if it would last longer with sand. I do hope that some day someone will sit down with all the possible combinations and do a series of experiments that will prove conclusively if sand improves the mix, but that is not something I have time or energy enough for at this time.
Several children complained that the inside of the house smelled bad when it was drying. Milk glue is quick to ferment this should be expected. Now that it is dry it does not smell. We have several cross purposes here. On the one hand I want to build a structure that will last for several years. On the other hand I want a structure that is so non-toxic that you could break it up mix it into the earth and grow tomatoes in the mix next year.
Let me finish with a true story: Around 60 years ago the United Stats Department of Agriculture made an amazing discovery. They found that they could chemically add extra hydrogen atoms to long chain hydrocarbons like peanut oil or cotton seed oil to produce a grease-like substance that never got rancid. This meant that they could make up cake mixes with flour, oil, powdered egg and milk and then make a cake by just adding water and baking. You could also add food coloring and salt and it looked and tasted sort of like butter. Both the "butter" And the cake mix had a long long shelf life because they never got rancid. The USDA called this new stuff olio margarine and/or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
The dairy industry objected to this new "butter" saying that since it was chemically manufactured it might not be good for our health, but the USDA overruled all objections with a doctrine of equivalence saying that it was generally recognized as safe.
Thirty years later, I was talking to a friend of mine named Price Faw in the Patent Office search room. He told me that no male in his family, in modern times, lived to retirement age. Fifty five years of age did not seem to be a particularly lofty goal since his grandfathers and their brothers had lived into their 70s and even 80s.
I did not know what to tell Price at the time. No one did, but unbeknownst to us, the Framingham Heart Study had already noticed a dramatic increase in the number of heart attacks and strokes in the
Our sense of smell developed over thousands of years to tell us what is good to eat and what is not good to eat. We should not extrapolate this to apply to our building materials. I once stayed at an adobe bed and breakfast in
I would not go so far as to say that smelling bad is good, but the fact that a finish material will ferment or go rancid from sitting around too long indicates that it is biodegradable. Mold is not good, but I have never had a problem with mold in any structure that remains out of contact with liquid water. I live near
I have a “thesis,” if you will, that natural building, and particularly earthen building, restores an important, practical relationship between beauty and utility: to be beautiful, life must be useful, and vice-versa. The combination of beauty and utility is our common, human art.
As such, being human requires an understanding for and appreciation of fundamental harmonies. All the parts must fit together well. If art is essentially about harmonious integration, then beauty is essentially how we qualify harmony; our knowledge of beauty is what allows us to determine the goodness or “rightness” of fit.
But our knowledge of beauty is limited when we lose touch, literally, with the world around us. If we don’t know the first thing about where we live, if we don’t know the soil, the plants, the animals, the stars, then how can we know harmony, or beauty? How can we make the right decisions? It’s difficult for many to even take the time to look — and I think knowledge of beauty requires time. One only knows beauty by direct contact; the more contact, the greater the knowledge — and vica-versa. I think artists in Western society have been given the reputation of being problematic, as individuals, partly because they may spend days or years in contemplation.
First, contemplation looks, from the outside, to be absolutely useless — it produces nothing! Except perhaps a painting, or a sculpture, or a poem, or a dance. What good is that if it won’t even put food on your table? But is there any such thing as an isolated, solitary action? Action is fundamentally a social phenomenon; it is the conscious practice of the butterfly effect. So even the apparently useless actions of a single dreaming human can be important to the life of the community. Second, contemplation is considered to be a solitary pursuit — because no more than one human is needed — but contemplation is how a single human can open herself to relationship with every one of innumerable members of creation!
The social status of “artists” aside, as living bodies that fit together well and work, individually and in groups, each of us has tremendous innate knowledge of our own beauty, our own relatedness to the beauties of the world. Even if we aren’t in direct contact with them through our hands and eyes, we’re all constantly in our own beautiful, useful bodies — and whether or not we’re mentally conscious of that, we are physically in contact with it.
What a surprise, then, to find that such a simple thing as shaping the mud under our feet can restore that contact and that confidence, that we are indeed beautiful, and that we can integrate beauty into our lives and our relationships. Plus, the “solitary” experience of making mud and sculpture almost immediately becomes the social experience of building something larger than all of ourselves, and we see the manifestation of our shared goodness, our common beauty. That experience confers authority, and authority inspires hope — for every individual, as well as for the community — in a context where our shared democracy is failing, our individual confidence is under siege, and the world seems to be falling in on us.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
The Free School community came together 35 years ago around a radical independent school in downtown Albany, NY to support the teachers who where getting paid next to nothing at best working at the school. The community is dispersed amongst a racially, ethnically, socio-economically, to say diverse would be an understatement, neighborhood. Our community consists of about 30-40 families interspersed throughout the 3 block radius ranging in age from 1month to 73 years old. The “elders” of the community claimed a vacant lot years ago and spent 4 years hand digging a sacred earth prayer space; they borrowed the native people’s term: kiva. For years this was a space of community gathering, prayer, blessing and unity. As of 2 yeasrs ago the space had not been used for over 20 years and had collected the offerings of urban winds with box elder and hylanthes trees gracing the edge of the 20 foot wide 6 foot deep hole. The space was perfect for our new project of renewal as our community.
The community has grown to include people from all walks of life seeking a very alternative life without abandoning everyday realities. In coming together this community has successfully created systems and institutions to support itself: child care collectives, multiple meal collectives, a community loan fund that has allowed very low income people to buy houses, group sharing circle, wilderness skills training, car collective, and not to mention running the
With this kind of growth in size, diversity and interest over the years, the community most certainly has taken on new and different shape and definition since its incenption. At the time of the bread oven project the community was in the midst of an often difficult and diviing redefinition of its identity.
With the blessing of the elders that once used the kiva, the vacant lot was tansformed into the site for our community bread oven project. The lot sits at the corner of a main street in the neighborhood. The project took several months headed by jonah vitale-wolff and with the help of countless volunteers from the community and school. We received several grants from local organizations that funded all materials and about half of labor expenses. A neighborhood organization partnered with the oven building as the umbrella organization. When all was complete, the oven sat in the south corner of the lot covered by a living roof structure and a cob bench to the side (that has since been a community replastering project in the warm weather).
Our opening ceremony was nothing short of magic. Community members brought offerings to build the fire while invoking the energies of the four directions. Elders to the north offered paper, children to the east offered tinder, worker-busy bees to the south offered wood fuel, and south grounding offered the fire. With the fire lit our community friend and nip pon mihogee monk offered her blessing of peace she has chanted across tens of thousands of miles of walking for peace, and declared our oven, “peace oven”. We all chanted the familiar na-myo-muo-ho-ren-gee-kyo as community members offered prayers, lite inscence and breathed in lisps of smoke fom our first firing. Later jun-san said, “of all the praying I have done, I have never prayed to an oven.”
The space has taken on a life of its own with regular firing days throughout the spring summer and fall where people gather and bring things to bake and share food. We have claimed an adjacent vacant lot for kids to play in. and the space is flourishing with the landscaping done with almost entirely scavenged materials.
We recently had our second, now annual, first spring firing. This year we offered blessings of spring, and lit the firing with a community version of a bow-drill, called a “we-drill”. Spring is here, its time to gather, the fire is lit.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
A Hybrid Structure with Mosaic Urbanite Foundation, Stick-Frame Walls with Cob Infill and a Living Roof
– by Kat Sawyer
Building with earth has always ignited my imagination. Ever since childhood I've been drawn to places that combine the safety and comfort of an interior space with the excitement of being outdoors. The desire to break out of the box and create living architecture is shared by many people in the field of ecological design.
When I look back to other inspirations on my path to being an earth builder, my family's trip to Mesa Verde in Colorado was a formative experience. Walking among the adobe ruins as a teen, I could not predict how strongly I would connect to the experience looking backwards.
My love for earth building was solidified when several things aligned themselves to make it possible for me and my colleague Surane Gunesekara to design and build a cob tool shed in a San Francisco community garden.
Many hands and feet took part in the endeavor including the gardeners and their families, bay area residents with an interest in green building, our friends, and many other random people we met along the way.
Some of the most memorable moments for me involve intergenerational relationships, like a grandparent playing in the mud with his grandson. Younger kids instantly connect with earth building. Teenagers usually don't want to get dirty at first, but once they take the plunge they end up having a great time just like the rest of us!
Earth building brings people together – it is a beautiful expression of community spirit. Building with cob is hard work and very labor-intensive so it requires a group to be done effectively. Earth building by its very nature must be done with the help of others.
The real fun of community art is letting the design evolve over time and with the input of the participants… Many elements of our earthen structure changed from their original intent, including the roof and the walls. The people who helped us build the cob tool shed left their own unique marks (dare I say footprints?) on it.
Sunday, March 2, 2008
– by Rainer Warzecha
Keeping the heritage of the natural alive!
Our group of artists, united in the earthwork-artnet and Interglotz-team, has been erecting adobe playgrounds and sculptures made of clay and natural structures (using wood, bamboo, stone) since 1990. We are located in
In fact, our village is in some way reconnecting to the roots and heritage of architecture in its development. We use something very old: pure earth. In fact, the material has probably already has been built with at some point in the near or distant past. In any case, the resource is as local as you can get.
As in the old times, the time span between spinning and discussing an idea to a resultant building or sculpture is quite short. Also, children have the chance to erect something large, not the usual matchbox-size mock-up that is reserved for them in most cases. They get to experience shelter-building as a natural process, and get to experience the value of many hands working together. Our kind of teamwork supports a spirit of community and identification with the structure by the process of building a hut or house. The playground is made by those who are going to use it when it’s done.
Beneath the communicative, psychological and social experiences is the specific sensual attractions of clay. Often I heard that kids termed Lehm in their own words as Leben, which means “live“. And indeed that is a central truth of the material and element – earth – that we deal with.
“Makunaima” is a symbolic figure from South American religion and philosophy. Part of the philosophy states that kids are ‘elder spirits’, bringing in their own viewpoints, a heritage from beyond, when they come to birth. They have magic forces, as many of us who are parents will agree. This legendary figure Makunaima tells us more: we as adults should try to keep the child in ourselves alive (trying to follow this Bob Dylan song line “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now!”).
And so we do. Trying to keep it young, seeing things through the eyes of a child sometimes.
Clay or mud is an unformed, basic substance. EVERYONE can get it free, with no costs – or only cost of transporting it. Building shelter using the materials around us also is part of our human heritage. Hopefully we can retain this, just as we all should have the freedom to breathe fresh air and drink pure water.
In this way, we tap into the children’s fantasies, and reconnect to the past and the spirit of traditional native art of African, Mayan, and Aboriginal roots. Beyond the TV representations that we consume daily as we travel forward in modern life, here we look backward from time to time, to reconnect authentically with those human roots. As well, we try to reintroduce joy and play into the process of work, instead of keeping them separate! For example, music performances often flow spontaneously from periods of intense work.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
The year before I graduated from the Art Academy in West Berlin in 1984, I took the Trans-Siberian Railroad and traveled through Eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia, and China and returned to Japan after a six year absence from home. Inspired by the sight of the Great Wall of China vanishing into the desert, I built a sculpture of a wall in Japan that would gradually return to the earth, unlike the Berlin Wall at the time.
This project “Noyaki” (1984) became my first earthwork that involved extensive physical labor, firing, and the bringing together of community. During the last of seven days of firing, a curious meteorological phenomenon occurred, which led to later projects associated with the atomic bomb. Because of the intense and prolonged heat caused by the firing, I altered the local weather patterns and brought rainfall, just like the Black Rain that fell the day after the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima. Furthermore, the sculpture resonated with the wind. I realized that I had induced changes to the environment which were neither predictable nor controlled, and these surprises brought nature very close to my projects for the next few years.
In 1985 in Northern Italy, an earthen drum “Rain Drum” was created in nature. Focusing the sun’s energy through a magnifying glass, the firing of the drum began and continued for four days. After the firing, a canvas was stretched over the form. Only nature may decide when to drum, providing communication between humans and the heavens.
"Navel of the Earth" was my first reclamation project in 1985 in the ruin of a Jewish synagogue in Kreuzberg, a district of Berlin near the former Berlin Wall. My goal was to give new life to the earth that had been destroyed during World War II. Excavating the earth in Berlin was a dangerous endeavor. Bombs buried in the ground during the war could still detonate without warning. Needless to say, my proposal of excavating and burning the earth was intensely debated among the Jewish and German communities. The long process of gaining approval from the community and the city for the project became a "project" of its own. The debate was not only about the artwork, but also involved how to come to terms with the past in postwar Berlin. The following spring, the project was completed as life came back to the earth and the people embraced the site. The site still exists to this day as a community park in the reunited city of Berlin.
"Earthwork Process 7" was one of the major projects (and my seventh earthwork) that I completed during my residency at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1987. The goal was to work with the elements of nature, earth, air, water and fire. The material I used for the construction was an unfired green brick that I purchased from a local brick factory. I drilled eight holes on both top and bottom of each brick to increase the adhesion of the mortar (the same material that brick is made out of), and stacked the bricks until it left a very small opening on the top. The diameter of the tower is 16 feet in diameter (4x4=16, representing four elements of nature). The inside of the tower was painted with copper glaze, which was mixed with ocean water, and the tower was fired for four nights and five days continuously. This project attracted not only people from Cal Arts, but also a wide range of people from Los Angeles. It resulted in an event that involved several hundred people at its final stage, the four-day firing process.
In the fall of 1988, I was invited to create a site-specific project for the International Arts Festival in Ushimado, Japan. "Kiva" was an underground amphitheater (46 feet wide and 17 feet in depth) that also functioned as a sundial. By standing in the center of the "Kiva," your own shadow becomes the indicator of time. Dealing with the perception of nature, my goal was make environmental awareness more pertinent. The project explored the essentialness of the sun's energy to life and claimed for humans an integral part of the cosmic cycles. The highlight of this Festival was the performance of 82 year old Kazuo Ono, the founder of the Butoh dance, in the earthen theater. (The title "Kiva" refers to the Native American Anasazi underground ceremonial space.)
“Temple” was a brick structure in the form of a gateway, sited deep within a pecan grove. While walking through the masonry passageway, one can reclaim myth and travel in the land of imagination. In the summer months, the temple hides beneath a canopy of green, awaiting discovery.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Last summer in Northern California, Cob went mobile. Cob has made its indelible stationary mark on the alternative building movement in the last decade, so it was time for it to show another face.
In the spirit of Portland Oregon’s City Repair Project, the first ‘Placemaking Project’ occurred in Santa Rosa last June 11th. The City Repair Project is group of citizen activists creating public gathering places and helping others to creatively transform the places where they live (see www.cityrepair.org). Directed by Joe Kennedy, the Junior College neighbourhood and the First Congregational United Church of Christ hosted; speakers, music, informational kiosks, and Samoan pig roast (wow!), all interwoven with the construction of an ephemeral plaza. The ephemeral plaza included a chalk intersection mandala and a cob bench.
The church was progressive enough to entertain the idea of a bench made of earth on its property, but they were not able to commit to a permanent location at the time. Therefore, the bench was called into existence but it didn’t have a home. How can we give the community this healing, playful experience of clay, sand, straw and water all gooshing between their toes without a place for it to live? Joe and I decided it was within in our reach to make a portable bench. This would meet everyone’s needs until the permanent location was chosen.
Joe and I worked together to design a basic wooden structure that a skilled volunteer could build. Made of 2x6’s, 2x4’s, Peter Crone made a strong, simple wooden foundation on wheels. It had all the necessary components: sturdy wheels that locked, eye bolts attached to the underside so it could be locked down in a specific location, a perimeter foundation made from 2x6 fir with 16d nails driven in to the top side to act as a keying element for the cob, and a seating area made from wood that would allow water drainage. It was a lovely little foundation on wheels 5’ long, 2 1/2’ feet deep and 16” high. It was a tiny bench that could be finished in one day. The bench would have a cob backrest and cob armrests.
The shape of the cob bench unfolded, as did the day. Our main criterion was to create a bench for the community that they could relate to. We did not want to alienate anyone with earth and straw, we wanted to make friends. Therefore, we chose a very simple design that resembled a conventional ‘loveseat’. Who can turn their back on love?
Thus, the cob loveseat on wheels was born. The proud builders gathered around their overstuffed creation at the end of the day to admire and celebrate this new face of cob. Cob on wheels! What next?
We were the last ones to clean up at the Placemaking Project therefore, there were only four of us to move the bench off the sidewalk and take it to another location to dry. Two men, two women, all fit and worthy, there we were hunched over this loveseat, hands on the foundation pushing with everything we had! IT WOULD NOT BUDGE.
1-2-3 Puuuuuuuuusssshhhhhh! Our little bundle of love was a wet hippopotamus and she didn’t want to move!
Fortunately, we are brainy group and managed to thread a garden hose through the undercarriage of the foundation, which acted as a pulling anchor. The four of us turned into horses and tugged until we had her going full of momentum and headed to her temporary home.
The lesson? Wet cob is much heavier than you can imagine. The glory?
The first portable cob bench!
For more information on the portable bench contact Janine at firstname.lastname@example.org.Story originally printed in the Cobweb, Issue #22 Winter 2006
Friday, February 8, 2008
This project, “Always Becoming,” was the winner of a competition sponsored by the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian to create outdoor sculptures on the National Mall in
Nora asked us, Athena and Bill Steen of The Canelo Project to oversee the project because of our expertise in natural building techniques – and because Nora is Athena’s aunt.
Construction started on the five tower-like forms that would stand anywhere from six to fifteen feet tall. In the month that followed, each sculpture was built by what might be called a creative collaborative effort. The sculptures unfolded and took form in response to the skills and talents of all those involved and the materials that were available in the area.
The core group that worked on the project was composed of Nora, ourselves and our children Benito, Arjuna and Kalin. We brought with us the Lopez Morales family of
The D.C. area defined the primary materials we would use. There was an abundance of clay to be found, colors ranging from basic brown to beautiful yellow and red. The little straw we needed for plasters, cob and blocks was easily acquired from plant nurseries. Black locust poles were provided from one of the Smithsonian sites and bamboo came from the botanical gardens in
In many ways, working in the middle of
Initially we had thought that cob would be one of our primary methods. We invited our friend Sasha Rabin of Seven Generations Natural Builders to help coordinate the cob effort. Cob is a mix of clay soil with some sand and straw that can be shaped and molded in place while wet. Sasha was very effective at including people in mixing the cob, inviting them to take off their shoes and hop around in the mud. Cob proved to be a fabulous material for people passing by, groups of school kids and museum employees.
We had never really considered making adobe-like straw/clay blocks because we did not think they would dry fast enough in the D.C. climate. To our surprise, they became a vital part of the process. Cob, a wet material, requires drying before more can be added and so cannot be built very high very fast. In contrast, the straw/clay blocks could be produced in volume and this made the work progress more quickly. The straw/clay blocks were a beautiful sight drying on the on the curving wall bordering the sidewalk and drew frequent comments from many Latins who were familiar with adobes.
Our other clay-based method was rammed earth, used for the central core of one of the sculptures. The striated colors of the different layers eventually disappeared waiting to be revealed again in the future when the outer shape of the sculpture fades away.
Most of the work with the poles and bamboo was done by our Mexican contingency. The bamboo was patiently split and used as lath in “wattle and daub” applications.
A month and a half later, Athena and I returned with Nora to apply finish plasters and clay paints. Each sculpture was treated differently when it came to deciding what type of stabilization would be used. One sculpture received none, others a treatment of diluted raw linseed oil, another got an emulsion of casein and linseed oil mixed with the plaster and the final one an application of a potassium silicate or waterglass sealant. The idea was not to make them totally resistant to the D.C. climate, but simply to slow the erosion process.
DC was a very different and satisfying way of working compared to having one person in charge. We were all continually changing roles and jobs. Sometimes it was directing others, sometimes working alone, partnering according to the needs of the day or providing the spark of insight needed to let a sculpture move to the next step. Everyone's role constantly shifted. Formal decision-making was secondary in importance to the movement and flow of the work. Perhaps one might liken it to the swarm behavior of birds, bees and ants.
In the end much had to do with how materials were combined into the mixes that were used. We kept everything simple, the result of 14 years working in
For a more in depth look at the project check out the pod casts that were created by young talented film maker Dax Thomas from Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Have you ever had a moment when you see yourself from the outside, and what you see is a scene you never could have imagined– a scene in such sharp contrast with the rest of your life that it gives you pause? While mixing cob just off the Mall, with the Capitol behind us looking like a fake movie backdrop and our adobe blocks lined up to dry on the concrete wall, that feeling has been frequent. There are also a surprising number of moments when I find myself focused on mixing cob or making blocks and I forget entirely where I am. I could be at Canelo, or back home, or at any number of beautiful country locations. Then I am abruptly reminded where I am by the twelfth person that hour asking me what we are making. During the time I have been here my answers have dwindled from long explanations to simply "sculptures." The next question, of course: "sculptures of what?" "Abstract earthen forms" is the short answer, and from there I can say one of two things, depending whether their interest seems genuine and if I feel like talking. "We are building five sculptures out of all organic materials, two here and three over there. This one represents the female, with the phases of the moon here, mimicking the phases of the moon on the plaza" and I point to the moons the passersby are walking across that no one has noticed. "The three sculptures over there represent a family – a mom, a dad and a baby. Nora Naranjo-Morse is the artist, the woman over there in the bandanna." Or, if my patience for talking to strangers has completely given out, that's when I invite them to come join in, "anyone is welcome to help," and inevitably they all retreat.
Nora Naranjo-Morse was selected out of several applicants to build sculptures outside the National American Indian Smithsonian Museum. The title of the installation is Always Becoming. Nora is the aunt of Athena Steen of the Canelo Project, and I was lucky enough to be asked to come lend a hand with the cob, and whatever else needed doing. Working on the sculptures has been a wonderful way to expand the way I think about building and remind me of some of the most important aspect of natural building. Since the idea with these sculptures is that they are going to erode away over a ten-year period, we had to pay equal attention to all the layers, from the very core to the final finish. In many cultures where craftsmanship is valued more strongly than here, this attention to quality in unseen details is common. In the culture I am from, it is rare. This feels like a strand that I could benefit form weaving into all aspects of my life. The sculptures are intended to relate to the idea of permanence in much the same way as Tibetan sand paintings. The impermanent nature of the sculptures also served as a wealth of lessons and reminders, reminding me that all that we do and build in life is temporary, and the more fully I remember that, the better off I am.
The sculptures range from about eight to fourteen feet tall. Two of them were built over a tipi-like structure of woven bamboo, with intricate patterns that may someday be exposed, covered in a thick earthen plaster. One of the sculptures is all cob, one a combination of cob and adobe, and one mostly adobe with a rammed earth center column. We are using different materials to try to achieve different erosion patterns, knowing that some will erode faster and some slower, although I have a feeling that they will all erode slower than expected. We dug some of the clay directly from the site. Two of the sculptures are under a huge, very old tree, so the soil there is actually the original soil of the area. Their foundation holes had to be dug with a large air compressor to avoid damaging any roots. The rest of the soil we got from an excavation site down the road where a Sizzler is being built, and the sand came in from just outside the city. We were allotted a few parking spaces to store the materials. The main crew is Bill and Athena Steen, their sons Benito and Oso, Athena's Aunt Nora, and a wonderful Mexican family that Bill and Athena have worked with for years: Don Juan, Emiliano, and Juanita. The main construction is to be completed in five weeks, with some final plastering to come later.
It's been interesting to note all the different reactions from people who have never seen anything like this before. We have two little muddy work areas, surrounded by concrete on all sides. Many people pass by and don't even look our way, as if we are so far out of their reality that they can't see us. At other times I feel like an animal in a zoo. Most people ask their questions from the clean concrete, but sometimes a few join in the work. At times we have had a dozen kids mixing cob. In many people's minds the project inherently has some esteem because we are building it on Smithsonian ground, but you can tell that many don't understand what we are doing or why. I don't know that I can fully answer that question even for myself, except that sometimes in life you know that you need to do something, and you do it. So here I am, mixing cob in the middle of Washington, DC, surrounded by concrete, cars, motorcycles, and the government of the nation.
Often we don't know why we are doing something until much later, but some parts of the why are gradually becoming clear. I spend so much of my time being saddened by the actions our government and by the current global situation, while feeling helpless to do anything about it. Being part of this project, right in downtown DC, with the Capitol looming in the background, felt like something I could do to bring a bit of calmness and peace into the middle of the craziness and chaos. No matter how small or large an effect it may have, to me it has served as a good reminder to do what I can, and who knows what effects the ripples from our actions my have down the road.
Sasha Rabin lives in Arizona and teaches cob and natural building workshops with Seven Generations Natural Builders. Email her at
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
I cannot remember the exact moment when I first learned about cob. I do know that when I came across a description of a building material composed of sand, straw and clay, all my senses took notice.
It is my incredible good luck to live down the street from
Art is many things, but here what I mean by “art” is that kind of experience by which humans learn.
Working with mud, sand, and straw is a way to teach geology, engineering, physics, history, drawing, composition, and design. It is also a way to teach social skills, like cooperation. But more important than just what it teaches is how it teaches:
Jon Young is a wilderness educator who takes kids into the woods, and teaches them to identify and track wildlife, among other things. He cites Microsoft research suggesting that tracks in the mud were an original source of writing, that alphabets are like birdprints, and that reading a set of tracks, from a brain science point of view, is the same as reading a bunch of symbols written on a page in ink.
He also says the kids who do best are those labelled “ADD,” or “Attention Deficit Disorder,” who are too wound up to sit still, but who can develop total focus on a set of tracks because the tracks require them to move. The excellence they develop for this kinetic reading reliably transfers into the classroom, where their grades improve. Young concludes that kids don’t have “learning disorders,” schools have teaching disorders.*
As an occasional “artist-in-residence” in schools and other public settings, I’ve come to much the same conclusion. I gave one second grade class some simple drawing exercises. All the kids set to work. I stood back and watched, waiting for the rare question. The teacher stood next to me appreciatively, and asked if she could make some copies of the exercises. “The only time they’re ever this quiet is when we do art,” she said.
I was too stunned to ask the obvious question: “why not do more art?” But it occurs to me now that part of the problem is that art is treated as a separate subject, rather than as a method.
As method, art is simply a way of learning that requires greater physical involvement than reading and writing. And while it can be done at a desk, it gains force with greater involvement.
For example: at a treatment center for at-risk youth, I and the writer working with me were warned that it was “one of those days,” and we might have to cut short our session due to behavior problems. We were building a model village, out of earth. The kids had drawn designs for their houses, developed stories about the characters who lived in them, mixed mud, and roughed out the homes on 2x2 foot pieces of plywood. Only finish work remained.
The kids lined up, single file, military formation, for the hundred yard silent walk to our “shop.” An extra adult or two (for a total of 4 or 5) ensured adequate supervision for 7 kids.
They arrived and set to work in palpable quiet and concentration. Gregg and I attended occasional calls for help or materials, or technical discussions about design and engineering. One of the most sullen kids volunteered a positive remark.
Staff were amazed at what seemed to them a remarkable transformation. I was amazed that what was obvious to me seemed hidden to them: we were engaging the students in something outside themselves. Rather than trying to “control negative behaviors” we had engaged them in a positive, collaborative effort to achieve a shared goal.
Unfortunately, in the field of public health, and as a socio-economic category, “youth” is often associated with disease, and not just in “treatment centers.” Violence, drugs, alcohol abuse, and fear are daily fare at school, and even healthy kids who exhibit “negative behaviors” are evaluated to see if they’re “at risk,” as though early diagnosis will prevent infection.
It seems to me that art, as a method, is a healthier preventative that accepts reality as it is rather than trying to deny it. Finding and claiming beauty, which can be done even in the midst of war, is a fundamentally positive act that helps unite a fragmented world, and makes sense of harsh and confusing realities.
As Wendell Berry writes: “When all the parts of the body are working together, are under each other’s influence, we say that it is whole; it is healthy. The same is true of the world, of which our bodies are parts. The parts are healthy insofar as they are joined harmoniously to the whole.…”+
Art helps join us, harmoniously, to a whole. It is a way to understand our place in the world. That it has become, too often, a rarified expression of some unique individual vision is, I think, evidence of fragmentation, not art. But if we look a bit deeper, we find art in every basic activity of everyday life.
John Wesley Powell put it another way that makes immense sense to me. He said, “the greater part of knowledge is always preceded by generations of doing.”* Powell explored the Colorado River before it was tamed, and knew and respected the way that native peoples lived in harmony with land, life, and other creatures. At the start of the 20th century, he wrote that phrase to introduce Frank Hamilton Cushing’s classic ethnographic study, Zuñi Breadstuff.
Powell called Cushing “a man of genius” because as a teenager, he had learned from indigenous sources all the skills needed to transform the stuff of wilderness into the stuff of civilization — tools, vessels, shelter, clothing. His manual skill became the basis of immense scholarship, won him membership and a place of leadership in the Zuñi tribe, and made him into a teacher of future generations, a conduit for the re-creation of culture – all based on simple acts of doing.
By contrast, when I was a kid interested in stone-carving, I found materials in art shops and bought small chunks of cut stone off metal shelves. What I couldn’t buy was a fundamental knowledge of the essential wholeness that any art tries to express: the forces and landforms that made stone and quarry, the taste and sources of water filtered by layers of ancient rock, or the human stories that linked me, my stone, chisels, and the animal shapes I made, to the rest of my world.
Though I loved the doing of it, “being an artist” seemed shallow and dull. “Success” meant selling stuff to strangers. The reward was just money. Artists were middlemen, trapped by things that had nothing to do with art: the “market,” galleries, critics and collectors. Where was the joy of doing what I loved? Meaning and beauty? Inspiration and communication? I turned cynical, and abandoned art as cut off from people, place, beauty, culture.
Working with earth for the past ten years, however, has changed me. Everywhere I step is a quarry. Everywhere I dig, I build relationships. The result is not sculpture or architecture, but home: beauty that I share by inhabiting. When ethnologists call pottery one of the first indications of human civilization they are merely naming the obvious — when we shape the earth, we shape ourselves.
I felt this wholeness long before I knew or began to work for it as an idea – and I had work at it for a while before I understood it. First, I started to garden, and to eat from my garden. Then I knew – by my hands – that I came from the earth. When I started to work with kids, I knew by experience that the act of making is more important than the thing made, or the maker.
Recently, a friend asked me to make a container for the ashes of her late husband, Jack. Being a sculptor and not a potter, I offered to contain the ashes in the material itself — to mix earth and ash, and make them into something that would be “beautiful to look at and friendly to live with.”
She said yes, and delivered a small plastic box. Inside was a plastic bag containing a few pounds of bone-grey gritty ash. There’s not much left after a body is incinerated (a process requiring thirty gallons of propane — enough, at our house, to cook our meals for 6 months!) The bulk of the tissues — primarily carbon, nitrogen, and water — all return to the air to be re-synthesized by green plants. The part that comes from the earth goes back to the earth looking alot like sand and grit.
Familiar as I am with sand and grit, this was Jack going through the screen that I used to separate coarse from fine particles. He watched me from a photo on the wall as I worked. It slowed me down. It seemed disrespectful to just let bits fall on the floor, so I was careful not to drop bits; I paid extra attention.
Materials speak. They tell you what they can and can’t do. Sand varies according to the mountains it’s made from, how it’s worked by weather and water: rain, stream, river, or ocean. Ash has qualities too, peculiar to its sources and the river of time and technology that carries it through life and death and back to life. Jack’s ashes behaved differently than sand — felt different, stuck to and pulled differently on the trowel, differed in how it came to the surface when polished, how it reflected light….
All the time, I had in mind that this was Jack.
Then I remembered what the red men tried to tell the white men who demanded the right to buy and own their land: how can we sell you the bones of our fathers and mothers, the bodies of our children? Land, people, life are all one — a gift from a generous creator, and one that finally returns to its source.
A shovel feels different now. I dig with respect; I pay attention.
William Morris suggested that the highest duty of the artist is to make a beautiful home. I don’t know if he meant a house and garden, or if he meant home in the larger sense of our place on earth, but my wife and son and I share a small house in a large garden which feeds us vegetables and beauty. A few years ago, planting and fertilizing and eating out of my own garden for the first time, I realized that my purpose is to make compost — to go back to the ground that grew me. As obvious as that may seem to read, it took a couple cycles of doing before it became tangible enough for me to know that my small part is worth doing, to feel the comfort and confidence that my life will have value when I die, that somehow, it will be in harmony with others – animal, plant, soil.
All of this reassures me that art is not a thing, it’s the who and how and why of all my making: not “pieces” and exhibits and money, but children and relationships and home and family and community and neighborhood and citizenship – including taxes paid (or not, because a garden isn’t taxable)….
Kathleen Norris writes that “there is but one creator, and ‘creating’ is the very thing that artists cannot do. The gifts of the human imagination that artists employ operate equally in science and scholarship, teaching and philosophy, business and mathematics, ranching, preaching, engineering, mothering and fathering.” She goes on to suggest that the goal of art may just be for the artist to “come to a mature understanding of their communal role.”++
Mud has given me a communal role, because it invites participation and promises pleasure as well as beauty. By simplifying the doing of art, mud offers a direct and simple connection to wholeness – a wholeness that seems to me more durable than bronze or marble.
* Interview with John Young, by Christina Bertea, in Newvillage Magazine, no. 3, 2002, p. 60.
+ from The Unsettling of America
** In the Foreword to Frank Hamilton Cushing’s classic exploration of Zuñi food and culture, Zuñi Breadstuff, Heye Foundation, 1920, p. 13-15.
++ The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris, Riverhead Books, NY, 1997. Norris is a poet who, among other things, works as an artist-in-residence teaching poetry to children in public schools in South Dakota.