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Isolation With a View

An idea coalesced when I was assembling structures out of driftwood several years ago. As it materialized, this was an open structure of natural wood joined with plastic strips cut out of detergent jugs. These were wrapped around the ends of pieces of wood and attached with screws. Two or three overlapping plastic strips made for a strong joint and added an unexpected element of color and repurposing or recycling. I wanted the structure to be large enough that one could walk through it, having two openings and an “S” like tunnel. Covering the open framework with burlap stapled to the inside of the wood would finish the effect I was after. A person disappeared as they traversed the tunnel and, once inside, could see out through the burlap “screen” while being hidden from the view of those outside. I envisioned this as an immersive experience from inside the light bathed structure, providing a voyeuristic respite from the crowd normally mingling at an exhibit.

One of the advantages of the construction was the ability to take it apart in sections for transport. As it was, the idea got fleshed out but only the inner chamber was built. The concept stayed with me, however.

Last year, 2020, as the pandemic changed our lives and quarantined us at home, I began playing and experimenting with clay as a binder for my wooden joints. Through my collaborations with Robin Croft, I had re-familiarized myself with wattle, a building technique used for centuries by weaving sticks into walls. Since we were making more involved forms than walls, I used twine to join larger pieces of wood that could not easily be woven. Twine ties loosens and degenerate with exposure. Thinking of ways to solve this problem I considered wattle and daub which was used in low income housing where I grew up in Brazil. Packing with mud could be a way to strengthen wood joints. Robin and I were collaborating on large ephemeral driftwood installations and I saw this as a way to make them last longer.

Since many of my structures involve tying pieces of wood together, I tried packing mud around the joints, covering the “splices” or twine ties. The dried mud protected the twine and hardened the joint making a strong connection. Mud tends to crack as it dries, though, and research suggested an ancient use of lime in the mixture, along with organic fibers to strengthen and solve this problem.

The wood I use for my structures is found in abundant quantities near my studio, on a Potomac River beach at low tide. The river is affected by the lunar tides as it flows into the relatively close Chesapeake Bay. This driftwood washes down from forests discarding their dead fall.

Making use of my quarantine, I revived my old idea scaling down the structure and built it on a wooden deck built to keep it off the ground. The “S” shaped tunnel was large enough that I might crawl through it on my hands and knees. Ultimately, my small grandchildren could walk upright through it. Once I tied the joints and started daubing them with mud, I also embedded strips of burlap in the clay mixture to strengthen and add bulk. Since this obscured where one piece of wood started and stopped, the flow of lines became continuous and the hard angles of junctions were smoothed out by forming curves with the daub. By attaching burlap sheeting to the inside of the framework, the structure remained visible with all its intricacies. Some of my friends who saw pictures said it reminded them of dancing figures.

To prolong resistance to outdoor elements, I applied water sealant. This soaked into the dried mud and has lasted for about a year. Of late it is wearing off and the clay is washing out, exposing the twine. I will let the installation deteriorate and continue documenting its progression through photography and video.

As experiments go, I’ve learned a great deal about ties, clay mixtures, textures and structure. Trial and error works out problems and opens other possibilities for future projects. I still hope to build a similar installation, on an adult scale, for a public space. Being able to walk through it and experience isolation while maintaining an outward view is worth replicating.

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© 2020 by Marcos Smyth

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