Introduction & afterword: art is...

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

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Poetry Bench

– by Candy Vanderhoff

Women join together to build the poetry bench in downtown San Diego. Built of of strawbale, cob and superadobe, over four weekends in September 2006, the bench continues to serve as a meeting place for a monthly poetry reading.

Click here to read an article about the Poetry Bench in The San Diego Union Tribune.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Bamboo Dome Project

– by Ed Raduazo

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 US citizens do not like working with dung. Dung is not a part of the US culture and experience, but sources of cellulose are everywhere. One of the most easily accessible sources of cellulose is shredded paper, which I have been able to turn into pulp by soaking it in water while treading it by foot. It takes a little time and patience to work with light weight crew, but every once and a while I turn the pulp with my hands and check it by treading it for a few minutes to speed the process along.

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 United States. They would later conclude that saturated fat the cause and then later amend that to say it was all or mostly the partially hydrogenated oil that was causing heart attacks, but that information was 15 years too late for Price Faw, who died at the age of fifty four.

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 Texas. The house we stayed in was more than 100 years old, and the owner was in the process of building an additional unit with "stabilized adobe". His main objection to the new adobes was the $1.00 each cost. My objection was that they had a very faint smell of crank case oil. I asked owner what the blocks were stabilized with and he did not know.

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 Washington, DC on the Potomac River, a place never known for dry climate. I would regard the persistence of a bad smell or the appearance of a bad smell after many years of no odor as a sign that something needs to be done, but it is not a reason to avoid natural building materials.

Beauty and utility

– by Kiko Denzer

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 bread oven - Peace Oven

– by jonah vitale-wolff

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 Albany Free School (grades pre-k thru high school).

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

Dig this! (What I learned while playing in the mud…)

Earthen Tool Shed, White Crane Springs Community Garden, San Francisco
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


Clay village and seasonal educational training camp for the cultural heritage of earth-building in Berlin

– 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 Berlin’s beautiful park area, Britzer Garden. From this beginning, our activities have spread across north and south Europe.

In creating structures, arranged in village-like groups, we interact with kids of any age, playing and building with earth. Our work serves as a magic kind of service towards cultural heritage. This work is important in our big cities, where so many inhabitants have lost their connection to the dirt beneath their feet. Our standard art-earth-construction-workshop – open to anyone – lasts 6 weeks during summer holidays. We have run these workshops every year since our first offering in 1990.

In the beginning, our activities were simple sticks and mud constructions. We continued with archaic huts, like people might have built in the stone age. Quickly, we developed our own style of sculptures: buildings in the form of large animals; earthen heads in the style of Mayan culture; and igloo-shaped huts.

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.

The adults engaged in this process also learn a lot about how to work in a creative and joyful atmosphere, an experience mostly lost in today’s modern working world. Through this contact with the genuine heritage of mankind, we regain something lost: togetherness, support and brotherhood. And some of this do-it-yourself spirit may be taken home, after having worked some hours or days with the artist team. Even architects are astonished and almost convinced of the qualities that a simple building with clay can make clear. This is an important realization, in fact: simplicity! I can do it myself! We are so far from that point in the complex world of today.

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.

To this point, our work with clay is more an example, a model of continued heritage and a joyful experience of the new. The effort to maintain a building and make it last over decades is another issue. However, we have already begun to survey and service the art space we have created. This garden and village-like settlement has been growing into shape over the last decade and a half in Berlin’s Britzer Garden. It will be maintained, as we care for it through the seasons.

Often we are asked whether we are imitating various African traditions or tribal architecture. In fact, we are not! But we do know about them, and understand that all these methods cultivate community and togetherness, as well as traditional skills and handicrafts. The concept that guides us may be related to ‘native’ philosophy, as it is grounded in the belief that every creation has some spirit living within it too. This is why many of our works are creatures with faces, showing “embedded souls”.

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.

Interglotz - art network erects adobe playgrounds, single buildings and sculptures made of clay and natural materials, foremost wood, clay and stone.

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.