Our work in Haiti was born from the often gut wrenching question - what can artists do to contribute in times of crisis?
How can we take everything that we have learned as creative problem solvers, and apply this thinking to problems much of a greater gravity and urgency than those that we might deal with in our usual making life?
I had spent the last ten years building improbable things in difficult circumstances; raising ungodly sums of money, independently, to make floating monstrosities move across waterways, and other absurdist/ wonderful endeavors, and always during these times, I found myself asking what could be accomplished if we were to apply all of this energy and resources to a situation of need.
When the earthquake struck Haiti in January of 2010, Ben Wolf, my creative partner was insistent that we make a trip. That afternoon was spent in investigation of where and how our energies could be most impactful. Within a week we had the rough outlines of a plan: learn the system of earth bag architecture developed by Nadir Khalili, see if it could be adapted to the Haitian climate, find an earthquake affected community to collaborate with, and construct at least one building.
Nadir Khalil is an Iranian born architect who spent the last twenty years of his life working to develop a design solution to the global housing crisis. His major contribution to the problem of sustainable housing is the super- adobe dome. These structures, which utilize 90% dirt and 10% concrete, are extremely resistant to earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, fires, and floods. They combine the strongest structure known to architecture, the dome, with locally available resources, like the dirt dug out from the foundations of buildings, to create structures which are incredibly strong, as well as being cool, and light filled. It is a building system that surpasses California earthquake testing codes, which are among the toughest in the world, and Khalili spent the end of his life making sure it could be easily learned and shared.
Our role would be to train ourselves in this building style, find a community for whom this technique might be useful, and who would be interested in working with us, then draw upon our resources within the art world, and artist community to make it happen.
We hoped to create jobs in the aftermath of the earthquake, as well as develop a skill share situation, teaching this highly resilient building style to communities who are vulnerable to many elements. We also hoped to team up with local artists and crafts people to make a beautiful structure, believing there to be a role for beauty and soulfulness in the rebuilding process, and that any new building system would have to be translated into the vernacular of the area in order to become something people could take pride in.
Our first step was to team up with Transformazium in Braddock, Pennsylvania, to build our prototype teaching dome. We spent almost three months that spring and summer training ourselves and many volunteers in the super-adobe dome building style. As it turns out - the work is grueling. We got two loads of clean fill from the foundations of a nearby house construction, and set about transforming that mountain of earth into a small welcome center in what will be the Transformazium garden. KT Tierny, builder, landscaper and ceramicist came on as our lead builder, and now we were a team of three.
Soon after we formed a network of artists, engineers, architects, and organizers in NY that would be a part of the fundraising and ground support team.
With this network in place, Ben and I were ready to make an exploratory trip to Haiti, to assess whether what we were learning indeed seemed applicable to the post earthquake situation, to look for a community to work with, and to determine whether all of the materials we needed would be available locally. A Haitian lawyer living in NY named Dana Vincent came along to consult and translate. Her powerful people instinct and utter unwillingness to take no for an answer when she's got a good end in mind were completely invaluable.
We determined that the dome building style would be most useful in rural areas, and we met with two different earthquake affected rural communities. First, the community of Fondwa which supports many independent initiatives aimed at sustainability, and then the community of Cormiers, in the Barriere Jeudy region, just outside of Leogane. Cormier was a smaller community without as much access to support coming in after the quake, and it was immediately clear that our efforts would be most effective and appreciated there.
Every architect that we had spoke with in Haiti had gave us the same advice. "If you are going to build something new and unfamiliar, make it a public structure first. Build a community center or a school, something that many people can work to build, and that people can become familiar with and interested in together. Even in a disaster situation, no one wants to be the first one with the weird house."
The mango grower's association in Cormiers had been wanting a community center for it's meetings and adult literacy classes. People were excited at the idea. It was a good fit.
We returned to NY, and to the work of building a support base of people who believed that an artist run initiative like this could work. There was a lot of skepticism at first. People wondered why we didn't leave this sort of work to NGOs and to the sprawling humanitarian aid structures pouring into the country. Our instincts told us that it was precisely our smallness, and our independence that would make us most effective in this moment. We were one small group of people who cared, connecting with one small village of people in a difficult situation. This kind of human scale relationship building work is the stuff that all of the community actions I have been a part of are made from, and I believed that it could translate across international boundaries, and into times of crisis.
We called on everything we had, and raised enough money to fly myself, Ben, KT, and photographer and logistics guru Tod Seelie to Cormier and begin the construction of a three room community center. We didn't have enough money to complete the construction, but we were determined to start, and to continue our fundraising efforts during the build.
Fritz Pierre Louis was our gracious host and champion who we would call on for all problems. Thanks to Fritz's forward moving energies, we had a crew hired, a site selected and ground broken on day one. Fritz had put out a call to anyone in the area looking for work, and 75 people had come to fill 35 positions. Not wanting to turn anyone away, we split the build into biweekly work shifts and set up a system within which everyone who came for work that day was hired to participate in some capacity.
Fritz, founder of the mango grower’s association, donated a site on his family’s ancestral land. We spent the first week just digging. There was a lot of laughter, particularly that tiblan one and tiblan two, KT and I, the "tiny little white ones" could do so much shoveling. The farmers, many of whom had been working fields together for their whole lives, had a beautiful way of falling casually in and out unison with the pick axes. Jumping into that rhythm when it occurred, it was incredible to feel how for a moment the collective momentum seemed to carry you through the hard work like the crest of a wave slowly breaking until it passed.
As soon as the real construction started, and work got interesting, with much excitement, all jobs were taken out of our hands. People learned tremendously fast and were powerful builders. Still, even with a build crew of 35, work was grizzly and days were long. It had taken us until July to raise enough money to start, and this left us building in the intense heat and rain of the apex of Haitian summer. Mud, tarantulas, heat rash, nausea, and the constant nagging worry that perhaps we were not doing enough in this incredibly broken country were what most mornings were made of As work progressed, more and more people wanted to join the crew. it was difficult finding ourselves wanting to embrace the needs and interest of the community but also needing to respect our limited capacity. Duckens, 22, soft spoken, an understated and yet hugely powerful leader of his community was my most important ally in understanding how to navigate all of these questions. There was a solidity, an honesty and a fairness to everything he did and said. Having him at the center of this chaotic process gave meaning and sense where we may have felt overwhelmed and lost.
Monique was one of the people who came along a couple of days late asking for work. she said she was pregnant, and didn’t have a way to take care of her baby. We put her on bringing people water, with Francois Tortelus, a woman in her 70’s who I adored like the sweet old grandmother I always wished I had, and who insisted on working, and carrying more water on the top of her head than I can bear at half her age.
Monique was much more pregnant than we realized, and had her baby a month into the build. When we went to visit her and the new little girl in a tiny tarp house that was about thirty thousand degrees inside. It became imminently as soon as I bent over baby Bessie in that heat that if we were able to continue building, a house for she and her family would be at the top of the priority list.
After 6 weeks, the community center almost finished, tod already left for home, ben, kt and I reached complete burnout, and made the decision to go back, leaving the final coats of plaster to the folks in cormier, who were well beyond needing any help from us anyway.
Driving back through brroklyn for the first time after coming home, I couldn’t help but superimpose the damage we had seen onto Brooklyn in my mind, and wonder what it would be like here.
Guypson healing help
Opening of the center in January 2012
Recent return – stoves porch compost toilet, next stages