Athena & Bill Steen  @  ChelseaGreen

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Mud Woman Begins to Roll

Posted on Monday, December 20th, 2010 at 10:18 am by Athena & Bill Steen

Funny where the world takes you at times. A desire to upload this blog before going to Mexico tomorrow and trouble with the internet at home took me to none other than McDonalds in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Clearly it is not someplace I frequent, but the WiFi is free and the coffee not too bad. The experience came complete with a birthday party right in front of me as I configured this post. Being a military town near the border makes for a really interesting place at times. The party today seemed to be for a teenage Mexican girl, attended by friends - Asians, Mexican, African Americans and Anglos. The escorting father - a captain from Ft. Huachuca in his camos with a Latin wife. What an experience - McDonalds, the iced mocha and the birthday party.

What I’ve written today is an account of our recent trip to Denver to begin wok on the project “Mud Woman Rolls On.” Our trip began with a brief overnight stop in Tucson, where we were part of a presentation at the University of Arizona architecture school with friends Peter Warshall and Gary Nabhan. Distinguished company to say the least, would take too long to tell you who they are – appropriate info sources would be Google, Wikipedia although fitting descriptive words include Whole Earth Catalong and Review, Anthropology, Claude Levi Strauss, Ethnobotany, Native Seed Search, alternative food systems.

By plane we traveled the next day to Albuquerque, New Mexico to rent a truck and drive to Santa Clara Pueblo, north of Santa Fe to spend the evening with Athena’s mother, sister and brother. Dinner, we laugh a lot, collect tools we had stored there and drive ourselves and supplies to Denver on Sunday to begin work on the Denver Art Museum project.

Left to Right - Athena’s brother Cleo, sister Roxanne, mother Rina, Athena and nephew Porter.

Driving through the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado.

My first memory of Denver was finding the Mexican (state of Chihuahua) maid cleaning our room. The short story goes like this; she broke into tears as she told me that her daughter was in intensive care at the hospital the night before due to being sprayed in the face with a computer cleaning solution. She was talking with friends on the sidewalk when a car drove up, sprayed her in the face and then drove off. She’s not sure whether it is better to be in Denver or Mexico.

New wing of the Denver Art Museum.

Roxanne, Athena’s sister was awarded the commission to construct a very large sculpture inside the museum out of unfired clay. In that it’s 10 ft tall, 15 ft long, the know-how to construct needs us. We add to the clay she normally works with, straw wattles, chopped straw, sand and whatever other natural fibers and bamboo may be required. Plus, she and Athena, who enjoy each other’s company a great deal, get to work together on an artistic adventure. I try to add to the process by making good mixes, finding materials, working hard, once in a while coming up with a good idea and keeping track of receipts. The work will happen on the 3rd floor of the old wing of the museum and will be open to the public as it is happening. The official public opening is January 30th. Come see us.

The room as we found it, white panels on the walls ready for plaster.

Our first job is to start the project off by plastering the walls that will be the backdrop for the piece. We’ve brought everything with us, including tools, powdered clay, chopped straw that we had to freeze for two weeks to meet museum requirements, the sand we bought in Denver. To help us, Atsushi and Ogin, a young Japanese couple whom we know, joined us at the museum. What we didn’t know, we’ve never worked with them before, is whether or not they would be the kind of help we need. Enthusiastic offers to assist us on projects sometimes make more work for us. In this case, they were flawless in every respect, next to perfect – just enough plastering skill be to be useful, willing to learn and be coached and easily rated 10+ stars plus when it came to cleaning up. I’ll take them anytime.

Not only were Ogin and Atsushi extraordinarly super when it came to cleaning tools at the end of the day, their presentation was on the level of what one would expect of a fine sushi presentation.

I think one of the most fascinating things about our work is when it involves a mix of different cultures, especially when several are together at the same time. This time is was really that of contrast having just left Mexico a few days before, and then on to Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico and onto Denver to work with a Japanese couple. No time or space to say more, but perhaps you can imagine something about the sequence. And now, we are on our way back to Mexico.

At work with Athena, Kalin, Ogin and Atsushi.

We needed one day to gather materials, 3 days to plaster the wall panels. The week went fast. Plastering over drywall is fairly easy work for us, the surface is flat and easy to cover. And yet, we finished without minutes to spare. For those interested in the plastering details, I’ll do another short post on the mixes we used and how we did it. In short, it was fun and thankfully, the museum made us vacate the space at 5 pm, which for us was a great measure of control in that we’re not the best when it comes to stopping work at a reasonable hour.

The walls of the museum in progress.

I will say one thing about the staff at the Denver Art Museum, each and every person we dealt with was absolutely fantastic. I look forward to working with them. We arrived with our work site totally prepared as requested, they were immediately responsive to our every need and request, cordial and complimentary.

Stepping out of the 3rd floor elevator, one encounters the sculpture location. The room as we left it, plaster drying on the walls.

Anyhow, finishing at 5 gave us time to enjoy Denver in the evening. The downtown area is easy to negotiate. 16th street is closed to traffic with the exception of shuttles that ferry people from Union Station to where the street meets the state capitol. More than enough restaurants, the usual kind of shopping opps that one would expect in that kind of setting. Everything, including the museum where we worked, restaurants, Peets coffee, were all within easy walking distance from our hotel. Kalin found his ultimate mac and cheese at Noodles and Co. Holiday lighting makes any city look great at night, Denver was no exception.

16th Street at night.

Denver City and County building.

One dining highlight for us with eating at the restaurant, North. It is part of the Fox Restaurants group of that offers some very innovative menus. It’s the kind of place that stretches my pocket book and more than likely would not be on my list of places I frequent to eat except that my eldest boy John is the regional manager for Arizona, Austin, Kansas City and Denver.

“North” in Denver.

A day’s drive took us back to Santa Fe to spend a night with Athena’s daughter Arin, husband Kory and two grand daughters. A flight the next day brought us back to three days of intensive meetings with officials from the city of Obregon, Sonora, Mexico and two other groups from CEDES and Conafort. After several years of not working in Mexico on building projects, looks like we’ll be back at it in the near future.

The flight home.

To follow this post will come the technical details of the plaster we applied in Denver.

Read the original post at The Canelo Chronicles.

beautystrawbale Bill and Athena Steen are the authors of, most recently, The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes.
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