Monday, February 27, 2012

Backyard Woodworking: Response to War?

Rustic woodworking has always been marginal. That's good. It's always been something anybody can do... and for a wide variety of reasons. Rustic work in America has peaked after every war. There was the urge to do things a different, simpler way. Few tools,working alone, contact with nature. --Low Tech-High Touch--We are now in Year 12 of our Longest War. Good time to drag the Rustic back out and see what it can do?? I'm re-positioning my "Rustic" workshops as "Backyard Woodworking" to see what happens. Here in the Northeast, we are brimming with the downed trees, limbs, brush from the freak snowstorm in October. Material is NOT a problem. Tools are ordinary. So what can we make? Almost anything! Stools, Tables, Outdoor work. Got access to Driftwood? Start Building! Do you think this is a side or starter business?? It may be!

Bigger work, you say??

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Case Study in Working Rustic

I've been volunteering in a local elementary 5th grade school class to bring the rustic artist's approach to a conservation project. There's a derelict interior courtyard that could turn into a model of contemporary sustainability. As one part of this, we have talked about what to do in a dark corner of the courtyard. There is interest in some natural structure... as something unusual, something natural, something from recycled materials. The Brush Hut or Debris Hut is the current focus. This is one of the oldest structures on earth. It is a temporary shelter made by nomadic peoples.
Hikers and survivalists know well the rather immediate lean-to version.
A semi-permanent, moveable form of it is the Yurt
It's next evolution was more permanent as a "Longhouse".
Here's another more or less permanent form that was at Hillhold in Orange County for a few years.
Here's an artistic interpretation in an orchard

Making Rustic is a dance between the available and the desired, the engineered and the cobbled. It is an profound exercise in the good enough. I've spent 30 years dancing like this. So how to work with fifth graders?
First, they were enchanted with the vague idea of such a structure. It appealed to their primitive selves. It didn't seem like a "school project."
The teacher took the entire class to a nearby woods on school property and they all hauled out wind blown branches into three piles. I was invited to look over these piles and see what I thought was appropriate.
With six students in tow, I looked over the branches and limbs of the blow-downs and selected and trimmed six to drag back to the courtyard as a possible understructure. Some of the branches had already been give names--"Bella" was a particularly beloved branch-- and there was concern that they be handled with respect.
Back in the courtyard, I set-up one branch as a sample and then left four boys to figure out the rest. In just a few minutes, they had finished piling, unpiling and re-piling the branches into a passable structure. But it stuck out a bit into walkways and didn't seem quite big enough on the inside. We tried tying some of the branches togetrher with twine to see if we could steady it. It was obvious to us all we needed MORE. We only had a half hour left but we went back to the woods.
Side Adventures are a essential part of the Rustic Way
The four boys and I got a bit distracted by a big beautiful oak tree which they offered to climb and jump out of; then two boys were off to a nearby stream. They found a stick and asked for the extra twine I had in my pocket and made a fishing pole. After a few minutes of fishing in February, skipping stones seemd just the thing to do. After that, I said they could all go swimming --- but just for an hour or two. They looked at me. Really? By that time, another two boys had found a cache o rusted metal parts near the stream and were hauling out some part of a tractor drive shaft, swearing to me it was either a urinal or part of an old moonshine still. I was speechless. It was too heavy for them to carry back so Daniel Mack carried the urinal/still back to the courtyard for use as a.. planter?? That day was over only after I was made to promise another trip to the woods next week.
Later, as I got thinking about the Brush Hut,I realized that there was a Great Opportunity. I emailed the two teachers:
It was a great day Friday with the Debris Hut. We brought back several large pieces which could become the understructure of the hut. The first batch when piled against the corner, were OK, but created just too small a space inside. And then we noticed the metal light pole near the corner. Something already anchored into the ground!
Now we have some elements and information to do some planning. Oh yes, there’s planning in ART.
The way I build is organic. First there’s the excitement of an idea (mine or the client’s) or the lure of materials Then there’s the refinement ( that’s the “too small” reaction, and noticing the upright lamp post). It’s a dialogue between my Irish and my German ancestor/selves. One knows how to work with what’s around... the sustainable Mick and the other works hard to make it sturdy and beautiful, the responsible Kraut. (Left Brain Right Brain?)
So, this is a great opportunity for each of the groups (or even each student) to do a maquette of what the corner Debris Hut could look like.
I’ve cut out eight model cardboard corners and have eight miniature lamposts. I’m thinking a 1/2 in = 1 foot scale... Each group/student gets to design what a debris hut might look like and come to understand the engineering and construction challenges to be solved.
It will be great to see all the possibilities.... and each group to realize that they have to work with many, many kinds of skills
I’m guessing some will just pile up twigs in the corner; others might find a way to put a ridgepole between the corner and the post. You can use the small branch tips as the building materials with gravity or hot glue.
This will also serve to help them all “see” what sizes and shapes of sticks they will need to make their design work. Many such shapes will not be easily available. Then what? Lesson in accommodation, compromise, frustration, delight, adaptation. What more is Life??

So during two weeks at the end of February about a dozen models got made.
Much hot glue was sacrificed and young fingertips were seared! In the next few meetings, I tried to get the students to connect what they discovered about the size, shape and engineering of the materials in the maquettes and the big outdoor version we were about to build. I tried. I tried again. The models were, well, models. End of story.

So on a rather cold early March afternoon, we returned to the very same corner of the Courtyard and the very same branches we'd left three weeks before. We got them up in place, much like we had then and all agreed that we needed MORE. We only had a half hour, so there was no time for the delight of the side trip--no climbing, no fishing. no swimming or scavenging-- Got It! We (They) dragged back several more large structural branches and forks and the understructure got pretty much done.

As a last desperate attempt at a "lesson", I asked the teacher to have all the students visit, crawl in and out of our skeletal hut and then write about "what they liked about it and what they thought they'd like to change."