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