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Eathly Matters: Earth Art

Natural building and earthen structures were introduced with Myths and Mirrors in the spring and summer of 2006. ‘Cob to Live’ workshops were hosted by local stonemason Gino Cacciotti in the building of earthen cob oven structures with local young parents and children.

A project in partnership with Better Beginnings, Better Futures followed lead by local young artists and mothers Rebeccah Reimer and Tanya Ball, using the cob method to build a sculpture representative of the things the community had shared and learned together about the state and fate of the earth. The sculpture was a mythical creature created by the children of the Flour Mill who engaged in dialogue around soil, gardening, food, nutrition and health, and was created in partnership with Better Beginnings, Better Futures.

COB to Live! Community Built Earth Oven Workshops
Earth is universally and easily available. It is an easy to learn technique based on locally available resources using a mixture of clay, sand, straw and water. Building Cob earthen walls are extremely durable and create no pollution or disposal problems for future generations. Clay acts as the glue, sand hardens the structure, and the straw works like rebar to give the walls tenacity and strength. Cob structures are well suited to a variety of temperate climates. They can withstand extreme temperatures, won’t catch fire, are energy efficient, using little wood and inexpensive to build. It has been used as a building material throughout history and in most cultures around the world.

Recycling: Natural building is the use of free or inexpensive local, non-toxic, low energy, and low technology materials for construction, built with a sand-clay-straw mix known as “cob” or “monolithic adobe,” which is mixed by foot and applied by hand. This building method takes materials out of the waste stream and uses them to create structures.

Material supply list: Many of the materials have been acquired for free. Straw is currently a waste product of farming that is often burnt (rice straw best, barley straw good, straw alternatives are string, baling twine, sawdust, dry grass clippings, pine needles). Rocks and concrete chunks that will form the foundation will come from ripped-up sidewalks or highway blasting that usually make their way to the landfill and possibly sharp sand (crushed sand provides more flexibility) from excavations. Tarps (lumber tarps can be found free at lumber yards). Buckets (old wine bucket size). Clay was found in local waters. Fire brick (needed only for cob ovens or kilns). 3/8 screen used for screening/sifting clay. Depending on what your building, from an oven, time wall, a sauna, to a greenhouse other materials can be added such as driftwood for window and door frames, or old windows from the neighbour’s home renovation.

Cob foundation (footing): Foundation depth is just above frost line or below frost line. The width of the footing is double the thickness of the wall. Rubble trench: Rocks (round rocks are best), starting at the frost line for drainage and earth movements, working up while using cob to fill in small holes between your rock wall in the outside edge of the foundation.

Filling the centre (for ovens and kilns): Fire brick, torn up road cement waste, crushed glass, bricks, earth bags (feed bags filled with stabilized soil which is 95% soil, 5% cement powder). You can use pretty much any waste cement or rock you want to get rid of and can use to fill the walls of your oven until elbow height where you begin the floor of the oven.

Cob Recipe: Soil, sand and clay (ratio:3:1)
Straw: Several handfuls
Water: A brick size hole in your tarp size mix
(The right amounts for the right consistency (!))

The mixing of cob is one of the body’s natural movements. Mix all dry ingredients on the tarp with two people moving your feet and swinging those hips from side to side while holding the tarp with both hands in order to mix the material. Like the dough of bread would be kneaded and folded so would your cob recipe in the tarp. First pour your proportions. Using buckets 3 half full soil to 1 half full clay. Mix the dry mix. Make a small brick size hole with your heel in your mix and pour water into it. Mix again, swinging body from side to side. Fold your mix by folding the tarp and uncovering the bottom dries of your mix. Add more water until right consistency and mix again. Mash the mixture together with your feet by dancing in it. Add handfuls of straw into mixture until you have the right consistency.

Building your wall: Take a loaf (brick size) of cob and put on top of the rock foundation. Sew the straw in the cob “bricks” together by mending your thumbs into the brick. Do not pat the wall or pack the cob together without mending, as this will cause the water in the mix to seep out and the wall to splooch (sag).

Straw broom: Take a handful of straw, half will wind around the rest laid flat in hand. Soak in a bucket of water before plastering or before leaving an unfinished cob structure over night.

Oven thermal layer ingredients: 50% sand to 50% clay.
Sand dome: 100% sharp sand.
Plastering/fnishing your wall/oven: Plaster is 50% clay, 50% sand and water.

Make a golf ball sized ball with the plaster. Use the heel of your hand to spread. Use plastic container lids as trowels (cut the edge of the lid off to make a smooth circle) to smooth over surface. A cylindrical movement over a semi-dried surface will smooth out your surface.

Edges: Try using a plastic bag soaked in water and smoothed over the edges to and find your shape.

Sprouted wall: Seeds are added to cob mixture and the plant will sprout from the wall.
Time wall: Add seeds each year onto existing sprouted wall structures.

Please feel free to visit the ‘Earthly Matters: Earth Art’ project photographs here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mythsandmirrors/sets/72157615786995146/

Please visit Gino Cacciotti’s website at naturalbuildinginstitute.com for more information about the Natural Building Institute of Ontario.


Conversations with the Earth
How does a population deal with the knowledge that their air, water and earth are poisoned by the very industry that employs them? The answers to this global question are crucial to our survival. Unfortunately, throughout our history, humans have a lousy track record in this regard: two recent best-selling books, Ronald Wright’s and Jared Diamond’s, both look at civilizations that literally self destructed due to their inability to adapt and change their short-sighted behaviour. These human tendencies are a complicated mix of denial, fear and hopelessness; and in the longer term they are obviously very dangerous to our species and the planet. In the shorter term, our refusal to engage with the reality of our poisoned environment is killing us.

Sudbury, Ontario is a prime example of this human quandary: over a century of mining activity has radically affected the air, water and earth of a city that would not exist without the mines. The scarred landscape features blackened rock bare of trees, miles of slag heaps, and the ever-present swath of sulfurous smoke in the sky. Study after study show that Sudburians have higher rates of cancer and heart disease than the national average; and yet those same studies also show higher rates of smoking, obesity and drinking. Of course, many resources are expended in promoting a ‘healthy lifestyle’, with little mention of the environmental hazards that surround us, as if there are no connections.

This project was based on the premise that promotion and commercials designed by health care professionals that focus solely on lifestyle changes are not enough. Unless people are actively engaged with their environments, particularly when it may be posing a threat to their health, the stress of the denial itself is enough to drive them to drink, smoke and eat more. Many Sudburians internalize the ill health that is reflected around them, and feel as hopeless about changing their lifestyle as they do about the metal levels in their backyard garden soil.

Please feel free to visit a slideshow of photographs from the ‘Conversation with the Earth’ community projects that follow leading up to the March Equinox Community Celebration of 2009 here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mythsandmirrors/sets/72157615698261881/


Utopian Longings: Romanticism, Subversion and Democracy in Community Arts
Thesis presented by: Laurie McGauley for the Master of Arts (M.A.) in Interdisciplinary Humanities: Interpretation and Values.
Thesis Supervisor: Dr. Lucien Pelletier
Laurentian University, 2006

This thesis looks at the philosophical and theoretical foundations of community art practices and their connections, if any, to radical political praxis. Starting with the theories of affirmative and hegemonic culture that instigated the counter-culture movements of the latter part of the 20th century, I situate these practices as a particular turn in the oppositional traditions of modern art. Initially a reaction against the commodification and reification of art, and the atomism and radical individualism of society, I look at how collaborative art practices have shifted their focus in the wake of their institutionalization, particularly towards ideas of “building community,” individual and social resolution and utopian aspirations. Tracing these developments to Romantic assumptions, the thesis analyses Kant and Schiller’s aesthetic theories, in particular their ideas on the relationship between art and freedom, morality, authenticity and utopian resolution. From this foundation, I deconstruct the problems that stem from the Romantic aspirations implicit in these practices, and the reasons that they are so eagerly and easily incorporated by dominant ideologies. Reformulating these practices according to dialogic and democratic theories allows us to salvage possible directions for a new radical practice that rejects a transcendent ideal of utopia towards what Miguel Abensour calls a new utopian spirit and a savage democracy, based on the idea of individual judgement.

Congratulations Laurie!


IMAGINE: An External Review of the Canada Council for the Arts
Artists and Community Collaboration Fund
Submitted by Laurie McGauley, February 2006

Imagine: You gently maneuver your way around the dance troupe as they cavort through a satire of exhausted commuters, and get off the bus with a smile on your face. Stopping to buy your regular take-out coffee, you linger on the sidewalk to watch a hiphop performance being videotaped by a group of intense looking teens. Across the street there is another mural being painted: so far it seems to be a celebration of the colour yellow, but it’s still too early to tell. The painters look exhausted but quite pleased with themselves. You decide to finish your coffee in the writer’s garden, where you add a couple of lines to the silly, sometimes disturbing poem that is three pages longer than yesterday. The high, sweet sounds of a choir are wafting from inside the women’s shelter next door; poignancy grips you and influences your next line. On your way back to the street, you pick up a pamphlet about the next legislative theatre session at city hall: this one is about housing, and you determine to go.

The shortcut along the mosaic path brings you into the middle of the Sun Festival committee’s annual transformation of the park, with the sculptures, banners, lanterns and puppets that everyone has been working on for the past month. Along with the regulars such as the community horn band and the youth stilt and clown troupe, special features this year include the opening ceremonies with the Native Friendship Centre’s Traditional Dancers, a new intergenerational Celtic orchestra and the much-anticipated play about the history of the area that the neighbourhood has been working on for years. You stop to help a group of seniors set up their shadow puppet screen and to admire their puppets.

The kids are busy as usual when you go to pick them up at your neighbourhood community art centre’s after-school program. They’re getting ready for a big multi-media opening of their “Home Show,” an exploration of the idea of home. Your son has been driving you crazy taking photographs of lint and dust – he says this is his homage to home – and your daughter is determinedly working on her hooked rug for her elaborate installation. This project has led to many great discussions about what home means; but right now, you just want to get them there. It’ll have to be a quick dinner, because you’ve all got tickets for a dance performance. Ever since your daughter was involved in the creation workshops for one of this company’s past shows, the entire family has been devoted fans.

Although this scenario may read like a fictional utopia, it actually illustrates just a few of the projects being funded…

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