I have been an artist all my life. I usually work on paper and canvas. When I was in college I was exposed to art that was created on a massive scale. The wrapped works of contemporary artists Christo Javachef who wraps whole islands and architecture, the large spiral earth work in Utah by Robert Smithson, the mound builders in Ohio and the ancient works of the Incas; Nazca lines created in the desert using only the land. These creations using land as the canvas intrigued me. How many people does it take to move the earth in a noticeable way? How permanent will it be?
I proposed an idea for a landscaping beautification project for Unicamp; a place I hold dear as the artist in residence. The fire pit in question was an important place of gathering but, it was ugly and at night even dangerous. It had uneven ground around it, nasty wobbly benches and usually all kinds of wood debris to burn. Yet, it was a very important place of ritual, drumming, dancing and singing. I wanted it to be better than it was. I wanted it to reflect its roll in this Unitarian Universalist Community.
I had some obvious criteria. I wanted it to be level so when walking to the fire with no night vision you were safe from pitfalls and tripping hazards. I wanted it to seem welcoming not just because of a friendly crackling fire and laughter but the land would- invite you with paths of smooth white sand drawing you into the embrace of a circle. I wanted seating that was natural and smooth that called you to sit. This dream was discussed with many people with enthusiasm over the course of two years.
It finally came to fruition this Spring. My ideas on paper seemed easy, it only took me a few hours to draw it all out; but the magnitude hit when I ordered the wood, for benches and trim. It was amplified further with the cost, and it really hit home when we calculated we would need 2 tons of sand to fill just the paths in the space. This would require some serious digging, raking, shoveling and moving of earth.
We advertised this project as an “art earthwork and community-building project”. Over 50 people came out to help build 16 – 5 foot cedar benches, and move over 200 wheel barrels full of grass, rocks and earth. We elicited the help of a tractor with a frontend loader and large shovel attachment and its owner Ron. He dug and scraped and moved 4 inches of earth in a circle that was 40 feet across.
I had worked with group projects before involving over 200 people, but moving earth in the hot sun was a very different story. Everybody gave me his or her two cents worth of ideas. I invited the dialogue because the space was to be used by so many and in so many different ways. I wanted the work done to be efficient, lasting, low maintenance and not in vain but I also knew almost nothing about landscaping and the physical geometry it would take to build the wooden structure that I had carefully drawn on paper to hold the sand in place.
I wanted to do the work and be physically in the dirt. But I realized that although I needed to do that and set the example for others I also needed to direct those willing to help so they would stay keen and involved. I became the foreman, overseeing the work but also ensuring people had gloves, buckets, shovels, water, cut lists, plans ideas and instructions so the work would not falter.
When the circle was complete and bare we measured and drew out the designs for the paths, the circle for the centre fire pit and seating area. I stood in the centre and felt – something. It was not subtle or a slight nudge it was a full whack of power. This project had the good intentions of over 50 people and all easily witnessed the beauty of the curve, but the power was truly in the centre. It was a rush. I got others to stand there and some did -not even realizing it, but their resolve and energy was renewed by me and by the power I felt in that circle.
The people involved had willing hands, and needed almost no skill to move earth, we also had quite a few who were great with math and geometry, we had people with tools and know how and people with no tools and no know how but willing to learn. Many gained backaches and blisters and several learned how to use table saws, chop saws, drills and palm sanders. There was a wealth of knowledge and it was all freely shared. We had children as young as two helping move sand one small bucket full at a time and many hands to help move rocks and dirt to the right location. We had the smallest along side the tallest with feet dancing in place tamping down the sand to make it even and firm.
When looking upon these giant earth works I have a new found appreciation and reverence for what was involved. The word Community takes on a whole new meaning when looking at miles of pink silk or tones of moved earth in a Nazca line to create a six mile long spider, monkey or hummingbird.
When visiting Unicamp I invite you to visit the centre of the circle, join in the ritual of drumming, dancing and singing this space offers you. May you find reverence and wonder.