Introduction & afterword: art is...

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

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.

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