Introduction & afterword: art is...

– by Kiko Denzer (to read the full text, click HERE.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Earthwork Projects

– by Nobuho Nagasawa

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.

Woodburn High School

– film by Daniel Frenkel & Chelsea Sprauer

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Portable Cob

– story and photos (except where noted) by Janine Björnson

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 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

Story originally printed in the Cobweb, Issue #22 Winter 2006

Friday, February 8, 2008

Always Becoming

– Story and photos (except where noted) by Bill Steen

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 Washington D.C. Artist Nora Naranjo Morse of Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico who awarded the project, planned to create ephemeral sculptures out of natural materials that would slowly decompose over a ten-year period. Instead of aging or dying, the sculptures would be seen as “always becoming,” in the same spirit as Carl Jung who said, "In every adult there lurks a child—an eternal child, something that is always becoming, that is never completed, and calls for unceasing care, attention, and education.”

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 Obregon, Mexico with whom we have been close working partners since the mid ‘90s. They included seventy-some year old Juan Morales, his daughter Juanita and husband Emiliano and their 7-year-old son CheChe. Dax Thomas from Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico completed the crew filming the project for pod casts and a film. When not busy with his camera he could be found filling in wherever needed. The interface with the museum was nothing less than brilliant due to the museum’s project director Machel Monenerkit who seemed able to make anything happen that we needed—including providing us with two young helpers on a daily basis. Lastly, friends appeared to help us every day, from the around the country, and the world.

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 Mt. Vernon and the Aerospace museum. Stone of all types, sizes and colors were easily found. A few bags of lime were needed for stabilizing clay in the foundations. All in all, it was a very simple palette of materials.

In many ways, working in the middle of Washington D.C. wasn’t much different than working at home or any of our other sites except for the Independence Avenue traffic and all the pedestrians. Informal, it had an unmistakable atmosphere of what a good friend once described as "family construction." Clearly our roped off areas were far different from other building sites in the downtown area.

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 Mexico, and Canelo with countless talented people. If there is anything that we've learned it is keeping the methods and materials matched to the people at work.

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

Cob Goes to Washington

– by Sasha Rabin

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 . If you want to see some podcasts that were made about the project described in this article, click here.