Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Photos from the Phoenix Library & Art Museum

From one of the fieldtrips the workshop took into Phoenix:



In the Phoenix Library—calling it a Library is almost an understatement. It's one of the coolest structures I've been in. It happened to be designed by one of Soleri's apprentices.



Some more lighthearted photos of Soleri's large sculpture in the Phoenix Art Museum. It is called Il Duomo, or something like that—if somebody knows the correct title please correct me, I think "Duomo" actually means "cathedral".



Saturday, May 23, 2009

It's Not Monsoon Time Yet

But it is time for weekend blogging!

I wanted to post this on Thursday as it was happening—basically live blog a thunderstorm in the Arizona desert. I couldn't only because the same thunderstorm fried our router, and we got internet back only on the evening of that day.

But I haven't seen rain like this since I lived in Florida. I'd forgotten what real heavy rains look like—so thick, in some cases, you can only see a few paces in front of you.

These are some photos out the door of the office, which is where I was when the downpour started:



I hear this is nothing compared to what the Monsoons are like here. After this initial day of rain, we had a couple of cold, drizzly days that made central Arizona look like Seattle. Now, things are clearing up and I won't have to lead tours through puddles. Arcosanti doesn't necessarily look its best when it's wet, I think—what with dead leaves and Olive pollen everywhere. But while many people welcomed the great cooldown, I'll try to appreciate it as best I can—because as it gets comfortably warmer, it will only grow to become uncomfortably hot.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pages Turning

My apologies for the lack of updates this past week. It has been a whirlwind lately, and between internet problems here at Arcosanti and running full-cylinder in my new capacity as a graphic design volunteer, I have rarely had the time, much less the brainpower, to collect my thoughts and precipitate them into an entry. I don't want to leave everyone hanging though, because even in the time of a week and a half, a lot can happen.

This past weekend saw the conclusion of my five-week workshop. Here is the workshop (what's left of us, we saw a few people leave unexpectedly part way through) as it is at graduation:

I'm off on the far left. It's hard to see, but not hard to imagine—I'm quite a bit tanner now, and a bit blonder as well. Construction in the sun gifted me with a bit of a richer appearance, both in terms of color and bulk. Melanie, the workshop coordinator, has sworn to make me "fat" by her cooking of potatoes, hamburger meat, beans, and copious amounts of cheese. Despite many valiant attempts (and many satisfying dinners) she has yet to succeed.

My new capacity as a volunteer, rather than workshopper, has given me a mental change about the place, as well as a physical change. One can proudly feel like they actually know where they're going around Arcosanti now, and I'm operating in most faculties here available to me—I work here, live here, eat here, give tours here, and am on the Community Council. I no longer live in the dorms, but the "belltower"—a concrete-and-homasote-walled cube at the bottom (note, the bottom, not the top) of the Crafts III building. In a way it is my first real apartment. Although I am not actively paying rent for it, the cost of rent for it is zero due to my position as a volunteer. So I am, in essence, paying for it. I will post pictures of this space. Although it is not necessarily the most "comfortable" space to live in, in the sense that it looks more like a very large concrete closet than a bedroom, it's the ideal artist living/working space. I've already begun to paint and draw with a shipment of art materials that arrived just yesterday.

On that point, I've found that the environment here is extremely conducive to creative pursuits. I've had many novel ideas just in the time that I've been here so far, and many chances to write on them. My only limitation here, it seems, is time and, on occasion, funds for art supplies.

Of course, the begging question in all of this, "will you stay, and for how long?" The staff here at Arcosanti are always anxious for new workshoppers who may grow to be more than just temporary students, but semi-temporary volunteers or more. This ultimately comes down to a personal choice. Arcosanti is not for everyone. Beyond its remoteness and size, the lifestyle is very community oriented and requires, if not by order than by necessity, for people to be willing to give to the project. Thus it becomes a balance between giving and taking—the environment here must feed the person, emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise, for them to feel like they can sustain the kind of giving the project requires—and there's no shortage of need here, in nearly whatever capacity one can think of.

My place in this has been one of deep soul-searching, as fairly early on I had decided I wanted to stay on past the workshop for three months, or thereabouts. The three month timeline was made because it was in August that University of Maryland's fall semester began, where I have an opportunity for free tuition and finish off my undergraduate degree (mostly for resume purposes). However, the confirmation came in just a few days ago, and now I have the option to confirm my attendance to UM in the fall—or, by contrast, in the spring semester. My deadline for this decision is in two weeks.

It's quite a tearing decision—to stay for three months, or at least twice that length. Especially because I truly feel like this place has and will continue to enrich me personally, and allow me a great place to pursue projects in art and writing. Before the workshop was even finished, I had finished the editing process on my first ready-to-be-published novel, Children of Falin, which had been sitting on my desk for months. And I have the energy, creativity, and inspiration to pursue the subsequent novels I've had ideas for, even ones I thought up years ago and never made any full-bodied drafts of.

More than that, I want to see Arcosanti succeed in my own, small way. Graphic and web design may not be direct construction of an arcology, but for people to understand the concept of an arcology or what Arcosanti itself is, that information has to be conveyed some how in a visual way. That includes text layout, typography, image manipulation, print layout, and the implementation of rich media on the web. These are all the duties of a graphic designer. I know that, even if I can do all these things, still it will be only a drop in the sea, and yet seas are made of drops of water. So my decision will rely on a number of factors. But on occasion, through the busy workday, I get to take the opportunity to sit on top of the vaults, or stop and look at the Ceramics Apse. It's easy to forget how special and unique this place is when you live here and work here, day in and day out. And in that way I'm glad that I do tours, since outside people remind me of how unique it is. But, at times, it's the sheer beauty of the structures here that does it—and the vapor of Soleri's writings and thoughts that surround the structures that also encourages me to explore, study, and push farther than I had before.

I don't think I'll be here forever, but I do feel like I may be here for a considerable amount of time. I have the feeling that this place for me is going to be a formative place—especially in my post-church exile state. It will allow me to do many things I've always wanted to, and it will bring challenges to me that will teach me how to communicate effectively with myself and others. All that sounds rather dry and dull, even semi-romantic. But now that I'm twenty one, it's as if a chapter in my life has closed, and now a completely new one has opened—one where I feel many of the things I've wanted to do are within my reach. I'm quite happy to see this place be the setting for that next chapter.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Places We Find Inside


I had another interview with Stephan today, our French documentarian. I'm always interested in giving a fellow videographer/artist some good material to work with, so I sometimes may give more complicated, lengthy answers to otherwise simple questions.

One particular question caused me to go into a certain area of my life that I have not mentioned yet on this blog—namely, my fluctuating identity as a Christian/Agnostic, and the influence Arcosanti has had on this identity. Since this aspect of my life will sometime this year be broadcasted across Europe, I figured I should at least give the readers of this blog a preemptive reading, so that they don't have to find out about it on DVD.

I have only mentioned on occasion to people here at Arcosanti that I have a deeply religious background, and even in those conversations the depth of that sea may not be fully measured (maybe measurable—even I sometimes gloss over it like it's a backyard pool, rather than roaring, distant ocean).

More than just a religious background that I later rebelled against, I could be classified as a "Church Exile"—a little-known category of ex-Churchgoers, but not necessarily ex-Christians. This includes my immediate family (I have no siblings), and we all worked in the ministry in one form or another. Dad was a Music Pastor since I was a toddler (or music director depending on the denomination), and Mom's online multimedia service is to this day targeted to Churches. I attended a Protestant Christian elementary and middle school in southern Florida, but a public high school and, later, a very "secular" fine arts school.

To cut a very long story short over the course of three family moves (from Canada to Florida to Maryland), uncountable discussions, a lot of personal transformations, and maybe a few intangible injuries along the way, we became convinced that the bureaucratic, systematized nature of an institutional Church and its theology was at odds with the actual teachings of Jesus. Maybe that's too fine a point—I only want to speak for myself on this matter, and not my family. But either way, at this realization, and with all the situations that led up to its formation, we decided to leave the Church, with no set date on when we'd return, either within the ministry itself or just as simple attendees.

This was approximately four years ago. My journey in this matter has been different, dare I say more formative for me, than my parents. In many ways, if you gave me a multiple-choice test to determine my spiritual/religious beliefs, I would probably come out as an agnostic, maybe an atheist (if it was a bad day). I should be thankful to have the tact to say, and believe, that I often try to turn my back on this Christian heritage, but know that such an act is futile. Brian McLaren, a well-known Christian speaker, writer, and once-pastor, once said to me that the gospel was "deep in [my] bones". That was around when I was around fifteen. Years later, I would be fooling myself if I thought, even now, that I could separate the teachings of the Nazarene from my beliefs, however you want to classify them, like I could the calcium from my skeleton. But I read the Tao te Ching now more than I do the Gospel of John. I find more comfort and lessons in Zen than I do Psalms or Paul's letters to the Mediterranean churches, which for me are so old and dusty from a life gone past, with maybe a bit of bitterness from what they once meant and how they were abused by others, that they ring hollow, if not simply irrelevant to my current aspirations and life.

But it was Paolo Soleri who not two days ago said "we always return to our origins" in answer to a question of mine at School of Thought. Granted, he meant Hydrogen—but I was thinking of a different kind of origin.

Everyone's beliefs evolve and change as they grow older. It's natural to rebel against your heritage, if for a time—only to come back to it again once you're wiser about it. And this was the answer I gave to Stephan in his to-be documentary.

There is a very odd, but distinct similarity between the churches of my youth and Arcosanti. I like to call them "ideologically-centered communities." Put it this way—both Arcosanti and a church, for example, are held together not by profitmaking or livelihoods, but by belief in a cause. This cause does not have to be religious. But whatever this cause is, it is optimistic—it may have some degree of spirituality (not because it is divine, but because it cultivates the human spirit), and it creates a lot of friction. Friction, because everyone wants to contribute to a communal effort with all that they have—and not everyone may agree to how those efforts should be synthesized into a whole. This creates politics. But it is a good kind of politics—it is the most healthy kind, because it is (usually, hopefully) a selfless kind of politics.

Before coming to Arcosanti I was secluded to my parents basement—at not fault to them. If anything, a fault of mine for not "going out and getting a job"—which, to my credit was really less practical than it was appealing or "normal" (and I did get a job). But it was the social aspect that affected me, and in a larger sense of identity than loneliness (I am an extreme introvert, so loneliness is a gift usually, rather than a plague). It was the lack of a community that cultivated the spirit that was lacking. And, now that I think of it, I think that is the "hole in one's heart" that Evangelicals appeal to in unconverted people—not knowing that it is the binding community of the church that heals them, rather than its doctrine and theology.

Despite my agnostic stance, or maybe veneer, I actually tried going back to our old Church back in February. It didn't stick. I was in a community up in Baltimore that was post-denominationally Christian, but I was landlocked from Baltimore after college. I knew that I needed a community of friends and common believers—but I could not believe the same things that my old churchgoing friends did—and even if I could, I was too much of a philosopher and skeptic to believe it consistently, like a good little "saved" person.

This was one of the reasons I came to Arcosanti, and why I feel so comfortable here. It is ironic—that a desert community built by an atheist would feed the spiritual and communal needs of a post-Christian psuedo-agnostic. But it fit. The community here is searching after something, and they're all doing it in their own unique, differing ways—and that is the glue that holds it together. Soleri's architecture and passion for "curing" urban sprawl is only a loose focusing lens. Arcosanti does not have a mission statement or 10 points of unequivocal doctrine. If Soleri is a spiritualist, he believes in the possibility of a God in the far future, which may be in the process of retroactive self-creation (that's how I interpret his "Mystero Tremendo"). There may be a God, but not yet. That possibility, yet undefined nature of the divine turns the orbit of this community on an interesting path. Out of a million chances, perhaps, it happens to be the right trajectory for me, a wayward comet, to fall in step with and be nurtured by this gas giant of vision that has a very small solid core of concrete and clay.

It is funny to think that most Evangelicals need, and say other humans need stability. I need stability, yes—but a kind that can allow the consistent (inconsistent) nature of instability to invade my life and propel me forward—the ability to change and evolve. It is only by walking forward, by evolving, that we come back to our origins, and that much wiser.

So all this I spilled out to Stephan's camera this morning—perhaps in a much more succinct way. But no less integral, or vulnerable, when speaking about my experience here.

I do not know what the future brings. These formative experiences set me on a path I can not fathom, especially when I am in the throes of it. But perhaps I don't need to run anymore. The refusal of what we are is the "perception of manifestations, promulgated by our desires," as the Tao teaches. And it is what this place teaches, even if it comes only to the issues of human evolution and urban planning. But if that place of origin is an immeasurable sea, at least I can be content that I am at a place where I can grow in the (im)possibility of life and God, of virtue and gross humanity, of simplicity and optimistic vision, all in the face of oppressing reality. We are not playthings of our heritage—we are heirs to it, and we do with it as we see fit. We engage with it, and more. We are forged with it and it is in us—we just oftentimes forget that it is as living and breath-filled as we are.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Arcology Archaeology

The past three days saw the workshop group go to Cosanti in Scottsdale, the sister site to Arcosanti. Cosanti does not have open WiFi like Arcosanti does—it is really not much more than Paolo Soleri's living complex, administrative offices, bellmaking studios, and a visitor gallery. However, we were kept busy by Roger and Mary, who pretty much shipped us around the area or (in Roger's case) kept us busy with much-needed jobs around Cosanti.

Today in fact gave us an interesting experience. We were excavating on the area between the bell display apse and Soleri's house. This is an area built up with dirt to the roof of the Soleri drafting office, which is just between the two structures (roughly). We were to clear out most of the dirt around this apse to waterproof it, as it had never been properly sealed, apparently. So there was more dirt, more digging, and more treecutting. My particular job was to remove old, haphazardly placed insulation on the roof of the drafting office, starting at the edge of Soleri's house and following to the beginning of the apse. It was a very porous kind of psuedo-concrete—I'm not aware what the material actually was. But whatever it was, it was old enough to crumble in my hands.

I also got to climb on top of Soleri's house to remove some wooden supports (also looking to be defunct) which were in the way of our excavation. Thankfully he had left for Arcosanti by then, but it was a strange experience crawl-walking on his roof, underneath low tree branches, with a giant drill and extension cord in my hand.

Now, all of this is only worth really mentioning because Roger had a hidden purpose in making us excavate. Rumor had it that broken or deformed bells were used as void material at Cosanti (void material is filler material for concrete like boulders, and it was a technique Soleri inherited from Frank Lloyd Wright)—particularly at the place we were digging. And, sure enough, about three feet in we hit a stockpile of 40-some year old bells and broken ceramics, all fired in the original (and now defunct) Cosanti kiln. Our mission became modified—not only dig the trench around the apse for waterproofing, but also dig the trench all the way to Soleri's house, where a stockpile of such ceramics would be. Roger has a book in the works with a large publisher, and he plans to take photos of these old bells, mostly because the carvings on them are all done by Soleri himself and are pristine examples of Soleri's artistic style. I mentioned to Roger, of course, that I'm a graphic designer and that he should give me a call if he needs help with the layout or designing of the book.

The three days also included a visit (and dinner) at Taliesin. We got the in-depth tour, and saw a lot of places most other visitors never get to see, including the Wright living quarters, bathrooms, etc. Not to mention dinner. And a number of the student-constructed shelters around the site, which in my opinion were just as interesting as Taliesin itself.

My favorite visit though had to have been the Phoenix Botanical Gardens—but not because I don't get to see enough flora at Arcosanti. That day happened to land on a Chihuly exhibition in the gardens themselves. We arrived just after sunset, so we got to see a spectacular Chihuly showing scattered among desert plants. All of them fit in perfectly—it was striking how similar some of the glass forms could be to things like century plants and Saguaros. I've seen Chihuly before, and though this is not the largest exhibition I've seen, it had to have been the most striking, just due to the way the plants looked in contrast to the forms, and vice versa.

As of writing this, it is dinnertime and I'm back at Arcosanti. I hope to catch up on a lot of entries I've been meaning to write in the next day or two.

Me next to a Chihuly light form, made of warped fluorescent tubes.