Aug 31, 2009

Wishing on a Starr

One of my favorite places in Colorado Springs may disappear in the coming months. For decades, I and thousands of others have flocked to Starr Kempf's house on the edge of Cheyenne Canyon to be wooed by the mystical kinetic sculptures that dominate his yard. While the sculptures are well beloved, they've been the subject of an on-going legal battle. According to grandson, Joshua Kempf, the sculptures will soon be removed and the house will be sold.

Starr Kempf was born in 1917 to a family of backsmiths and carpenters near a Menonite community in Ohio. He attended the Cleveland Institute of Art, served in the Air Force during WWII, then settled in Colorado Springs with his German-born wife Hedwig. He built a home and foundry on a small plot of land near the historic Broadmoor Hotel, nestled beneath Cheyenne Mountain. Building a career on small bronzes and paintings, Starr eventually graduated to large wind-powered sculptures called Monumentals. He committed suicide in 1995 at age 78.

The thing that I've always loved about Starr Kempf's house is that, wrapped in mystery and echoing silence, it somehow illustrates the darkness, the talent, the private life of this nationally-renown artist. It is the kind of place that commands quiet respect and whispered awe. I've been to the house several dozen times and until yesterday, never seen anyone there.

When a friend visited from San Francisco this weekend, I took her (as I take all my special dates, adventurous friends and out-of-town guests) to see Starr Kemp's house. I was immediately horrified to witness two of the Monumentals lying on the ground. We saw a truck and heard noise from the garage and decided to boldly inquire. We met Joshua Kempf, Starr's grandson, who appeared to be cleaning out the studio garage and were immediately won over by his warm smile, lilting British accent, and openness to our query. While he was rather secretive about the plans for the property and the art work, he confirmed that the sculptures are indeed being dismantled and moved; the house is for sale.

Admirers of Starr Kempf -- those that know the story and love the art -- have waited with baited breath for over 10 years to see what will become of his contested legacy. Soon after his suicide, Starr's daughter made steps towards turning his home into a museum. Disagreements with the neighbors turned into multi-million dollar lawsuits and infighting between the family. The daughter has now sued both of her siblings and her nephew several times over and has reportedly connived Hedwig (who suffered from dimentia) into signing over the rights to his giant sculptures. Evolutions of the scandalous tale is often reported in the local news; its regionally known, and yet the City of Colorado Springs has been surprisingly passive in helping settle the dispute. The family made the City a deal some years back, hoping to find a more neutral venue for the sculptures, but it was turned down; in fact, the City has never adequately celebrated the career and artistic brilliance of Starr Kampf and owns only one of his sculptures (which was incidentally a gift.)

Some years ago, when I lived in Albuquerque and made frequent trips to Santa Fe by way of Interstate-25, I noticed a few Starr Kempf sculptures on the edge of a deserted parking lot. Near Algodones (the middle of nowhere), at the largely defunct and sprawling Traditions: A Festival Market (a failed factory outlet turned tourist "Indian" market) there they stood! The whimsical sculptures of my childhood were exiled to a culturally bankrupt strip mall! On my last trip past Traditions, I noticed that the Kempfs had been removed. Now as grandson Joshua packs up and shuts down the Cheyenne Canyon estate, the legacy of Starr Kempf seems particularly volatile.

In this town of military bases and mega-churches, Starr Kempf's house has been a respite of artistic inspiration and hometown pride. I don't understand how a family drama could lead to potentially devastating cultural loss. Why has the City been so passive? Why have no local patrons or foundations come to the rescue? What will happen now? Will Starr Kempf become part of the legion of forgotten artists? Hearing more about the legal battles from Joshua yesterday, I was reminded how little the law supports art, that zoning and liens and permits are not contrived to make things happen. It's sad.

When I asked Joshua what he'd like to see happen with the Monumentals, his response actually gave me hope. "I'd like to see them as the basis for a large sculpture park," he said with a flash in his eyes, "I can't tell you what we're up to, but come October or November you'll know!" I guess we'll just have to wait and hope and see and enjoy Starr Kempf's house before it completely dissolves.

Learn more about Starr Kempf and the ensuing battle about his legacy here.

Aug 21, 2009

Wondering about the Waterpod™

One of the more auspicious yet mysterious projects going on the New York Harbor these days is the barge-turned-commune known as the Waterpod. The mastermind of artist Mary Mattingly, this solar-powered, water-collecting, food growing, waste composting, glittering and domed spectacle has been afloat since June 12 and generating a bunch of interest, press, and amplifying hype. Read the recent NYT article here.

The Waterpod is an extension of Mattingly's work that articulates visions of the future through designy photos and sustainability plans. Since 2000, she's been showing far and wide, primarily presenting photographs of wearable homes called “Nomadographies” that are "autonomous mobile systems of living that are low-tech, ad hoc, and adaptable." These photos are poetic and haunting in their connoted narrative, bringing to mind a more fashionable Robert Parke Harrison. Learn more at:

Three years in the making, the Waterpod is a major collaboration now sponsored by the likes of Columbia University, The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the United Nations Inspired Futures and is managed by a 22-person staff. The waterpod hosts a jammed calendar of events and workshops, produced in part by their revolving group of artists in residence. This project is huge!

One guideline is that as a resident you don’t need to stay on board; but while on board and off, residents are encouraged to catalog their activities. Mattingly states, "Everyone will have to help out with repairs, gardening, cooking, and composting. Basically, everyone will learn how to take care of everything. I think this is really important––as the first industrial and technological age in the developed world is drawing to a close, people need to relearn how to do a lot of things."

And the Waterpod is certainly about learning to do things. It appears that Mary Mattingly has learned how to make massive things happen in the name of art and science. Part of what makes this project interesting is that it serves several public functions; it is a grounds for partnerships with schools, community groups, and is self-described as a "public access barge" with "aims to collaborate, to share knowledge, and resources to share problems." Sounds great! My question then arises when visiting the project website ( to note that the Waterpod is actually "the Waterpod™." At every instance, the title of this project is followed by a Trademark symbol. With all this discussion of open ideas, resource sharing, not to mention the undeniable communalist legacy of which this vernacular belongs, I'm confused; why the need for a Trademark symbol?

After a little wikipedia research, I learned that
"the essential function of a trademark is to exclusively identify the commercial source or origin of products or services, such that a trademark, properly called, indicates source or serves as a badge of origin. In other words, trademarks serve to identify a particular business as the source of goods or services. The use of a trademark in this way is known as trademark use. Certain exclusive rights attach to a registered mark, which can be enforced by way of an action for trademark infringement."
It would appear that The Waterpod™ is a trademarked product or good and any knock-off or replica of this product is defensible by law. But surely the Waterpod borrows technology, style, form, and concept from numerous other scientists and makers. What about Andrea Zittel's Pocket Property? Robert Smithson's Floating Island? Swimming Cities' fleet of floating sculptures? Not to mention the Biosphere and various NASA experiments.

Isn't the experiment of sustainability an open source endeavor? Is not the project of merging art and life something to be shared? I'm sure there's some part of this story that I'm missing, but I must admit that I'm rather disheartened to see that a project like The Waterpod -- with all its great ideas, intentions, and resources -- would feel the need to speak the language of profit, ownership, and otherwise greedy business. I guess you could say the Waterpod has sparked my curiosity about the what, why and how of major art-and-life projects. Perhaps trademarking art projects is part of what makes them sustainable; if this is the case, I really begin to wonder...

Aug 17, 2009

Tesla in Colorado Springs

Since moving to Colorado Springs a week ago, I've become more interested in one of the city's unsung heroes, Nikola Tesla. A serb, born in 1856 and whom lived all over the world before eventually becoming an American citizen, Tesla was an inventor who made revolutionary developments in the field of electromagnetism. He devised what later became known as the X-Ray and the radio and also experimented with the first wireless energy transfers. In 1893, he and George Westinghouse introduced the world to AC electricity at the Chicago World's Fair. Tesla spent only nine months in Colorado Springs, yet it was here that he made some of his most significant breakthroughs of his career. He moved to the Front Range for its wide open spaces, fueled by dreams of sending wireless telegraphy from the top of Pikes Peak all the way to Paris. Tesla's experimental station was a contraption with a roof that rolled back to prevent it from catching fire, and a wooden tower that soared up eighty feet. Above it was a 142-foot metal mast supporting a large copper ball. Inside the strange wooden structure, technicians assembled an enormous Tesla coil, specially designed to send powerful electrical impulses into the earth.

In the Colorado Springs lab, Tesla observed unusual signals that he later thought may have been evidence of extraterrestrial radio communications coming from Venus or Mars. Tesla had mentioned before this event and many times after, that he thought his inventions could be used to communicate with other planets. There have even been claims that he invented a "Teslascope" for just such a purpose. During one of Tesla's major experiments, assistants threw power switches causing huge arcs of blue electricity to travel up and down the center coil of the lab. Bolts of man-made lightning more than a hundred feet in length shot out from the mast atop the station. Tesla's experiment burned out the dynamo at the El Paso Electric Company and the entire city lost power. The power station manager was livid, and insisted that Tesla pay for and repair the damage.

Tesla left Colorado Springs on January 7, 1900 following the richest experimentation period of his life. It is unclear to me why or in what state he left Colorado. The lab was torn down and its contents sold to pay debts. He went to New York and conducted experiments from which developed flying machines, "directed-energy weapons" and various electromagnetic patents. When he was eighty-one, Tesla stated he had completed a "dynamic theory of gravity." He stated that it was "worked out in all details" and that he hoped to soon give it to the world. Yet the theory was never published. In fact he died alone and destitute in the New Yorker Hotel on January 7, 1943. His closest friend was a pigeon. As Tesla confessed: "Yes, I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me."

There is virtually no trace of Tesla in Colorado Springs and yet the world (and certainly the military industrial complex) thrives here as a result of his inventions. It's interesting to me that Tesla chose to come here in the first place -- he must have sensed something special, beyond the open space, perhaps the same thing that has lured the military, the evangelists, the new agers, Ute Indians, and tourists. It's certainly no coincidence that NORAD and the Christian Right have been speaking to the heavens from Tesla's same vantage point. There's a peculiar energy here in this city that sprawls beneath its giant mountain. As I write, thunders rolls down the Front Range and out towards Kansas. Tesla's words feel bold tonight.
"There is no thing endowed with life—from man, who is enslaving the elements, to the nimblest creature—in all this world that does not sway in its turn. Whenever action is born from force, though it be infinitesimal, the cosmic balance is upset and the universal motion results."

Read more about Tesla's experiments in Colorado Springs in his journals from this time, called Colorado Springs Notes, 1899–1900 (ISBN 8617073527), compiled and edited by Aleksandar Marinčić and Vojin Popović.

Aug 12, 2009

Tent City vs. Art Exhibition

It's interesting to note two simultaneous projects involving domed tents in NYC this summer.  

One is Fritz Haeg's installation at X Initiative in Chelsea that involves 8,000 square feet of domed tent space made available for spontaneous, temporary habitation.  Haeg's letter, widely disseminated to his "dearest friends in New York" is an invitation to "make yourself at home." THE DOME COLONY is populated by four large geodesic tents that can be "taken over, squatted, colonized. Set up a clubhouse, a headquarters, a home away from home, a temporary studio, a living room, a lounge, use it as a place to host friends, stage events, make work, rehearse, organize an on-going series of meetings, or regular gatherings, performances..."  Until October 24th, anyone can participate in any "legal" activities within these dome tents.

The other tent city is Nils Norman's project commissioned by Creative Time for their new initiative PLOT09: This World & Nearer Ones.  Placed among the architectural ruins of New York's Governor's Island, the tents are abandoned and empty, intended to resonate with the "nomadic, impermanent architecture of activists-from the sixties counterculture movement to the 2005 camp in Crawford, TX that protested the war in Iraq-as well as the homeless encampments that have recently emerged in Sacramento, Portland, Reno, and other cites." Norman's tents  are intended to act as "a reminder that once-vibrant strategies for activism and alternative living have passed into obscurity, and that structures are sometimes as malleable as symbols."

The comparison of these two projects articulates a divided reading on the cultural potential of tent cities.  While there is a certain appeal to action in Haeg's indoor work and a resounding echo apart of Norman's outdoor installation, I'm not sure what to make of either project.   Do they do what they intend to do?  How do they operate within the context of an art exhibition?  What is the rift between actual use and symbolic gesture? What is the social history of the tent city?  Is it a collective story or is the cultural significance of tents and tent cities as divergent as these two projects? 

This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land!

On July 29, my sister, Nina, Nancy Zastudil (in absentia) and I became co-owners of a small parcel of land! Our dear friend Steve McFarland (see earlier posts about Project:Unknown) encouraged us to attend a land auction during which arid parcels leftover from a World's Fair land scheme were being sold.  Our team of 8 worked hard for days deciphering maps, listings, GPS, and conflicting information to prepare for the two-day long auction.  It was a stressful but exciting few days, at the end of which our team walked away with neighboring plots and smiles all around.

40-some miles from Taos near the village of Tres Piedras sits our own little patch of sage brush and chamisa.  There is not water or electricity.  The road is rough, but not long.  Powerlines loom nearby and the highway is slightly audible.  From our sloping tierra are views of the Sangre de Christos, junked cars, giant sky, a new-ish yurt and a beautiful in-progress dome home.  Most people would think this land a waste of money but for us it presents great possibility.  

It will be a challenge to work together to sketch a plan for the land.  The harsh environs, our lack of funds, the tight-knit community of locals, and the regional vernacular (hand-hewn homes built from cast-off materials) present all kinds of hurdles for the development of our own place.  But if I can speak for our little team of land owners, this acquisition is not about ease or luxury, it's about the process of figuring it out and figuring it out together.  Stay tuned....! 

Creating an Outpost

Signal Fire is an artist residency program based in Oregon.  Created by husband and wife Amy Harwood and Ryan Pierce—a program director for a forest conservation group and a visual artist, respectively -- what sets them apart is their innovative connection between endangered wilderness and dwindling support for artists.  Their answer to this predicament comes in the form of Outpost, a mobile Do-It-Yourself wilderness-based residency program.  

The Signal Fire website states: Signal Fire provides week and two-week long residencies in the Mt. Hood National Forest to selected artists from a range of practices. Each artist has access to a remodeled trailer studio stationed in a selected location, while maintaining a camp in the public forests of Mt. Hood. The artist is left with maps, a bicycle, adequate food supply and some provided tools for their practice. The residencies from each season culminate in a group show in Portland, displaying works by the selected artists.   

In addition to lending their racing-striped vintage trailer, they provide artists with workshops and hikes knowing that seeing nature firsthand is one of the greatest methods of inspiration and conservation.  Learn more at 

Dreams of Depaving

This week I moved from San Francisco to Colorado Springs and among many culture shocks, I'm astounded by the amount of pavement, parking lots, and un/mis-used public space in this town of nearly half-a-million.  

Synchronistically, I recently learned about a Portland-based organization called Depave.  Their mission is to remove unnecessary concrete from urban areas and in those reclaimed spaces, plant gardens. Here's how describes the rationale:

The problem is concrete. Paved surfaces contribute to stormwater pollution, whereby rainwater carries toxic urban pollutants to local streams and rivers, greatly degrading water quality and riparian habitats. Pavement also disconnects us from our natural world.

For instructions on how to rip up pavement and clear away parking lots, visit  I wonder if we could plan a depaving day here in Colorado Springs?

Number One and Two

Last week I visited Steve McFarland, Izumi Yokoyama, and Dave at their amazing place on the Taos mesa.   Dubbed Project Unknown, the place lives up to its name.  It's raw and fresh and completely elemental.  Construction has been going on rather continuously at Project Unknown for the last two summers -- a fence has been in progress, a large shipping container acquired and moved to the land, and a very nice studio building is nearly finished -- but I was lucky to be around for a few of the foundational moments the evolution of this place.  

After sleeping under the stars in the back of a giant Chevy truck (above), my sister and I moved into a semi-abandoned camper.  

We didn't have electricity and lived by the light of fire, headlamps, starlight.  We cooked on a propane stove in an outdoor kitchen, ran power tools off a generator and charged our cellphones in the car.  

Izumi and I had the awesome experience of building an outhouse.  We dug a giant hole amidst the chemisa, built a frame, walls with a big window, a burly roof, and enough room for toilet, sink, storage, and peace.  To celebrate the near-completion of the new outhouse, we burnt the previous latrine.  

I was reminded of a few things written by artists involved with the communes of the 1960s. For instance, Bill Voyd wrote in Shelter & Society (Praeger Publishers, 1969):
The greatest impact on communal life upon the artist is the realization that all community activity is equal, that digging a ditch carries no less status than erecting a sculpture; in fact the individual often discovers he is happier digging a ditch, sculpting a ditch.  Life forms and art forms begin to interact.
I have been honestly, truly happy digging ditches these days.  


I have been to Project:Unknown and it has changed me forever.  On July 23, my sister and I stopped through Taos  to visit some acquaintances from San Francisco, Steve McFarland and Izumi Yokoyama.  We'd heard a tiny bit about their endeavors on the Taos mesa, something called Project:Unknown.  With a balance of curiosity and trepidation, we showed up with plans to spend 24 hours or so.  I ended up staying 2 weeks.  

Izumi is an incredible installation artist whose consideration of the world is influenced by her childhood in Japan. She went to the San Francisco Art Institute with my sister and although they were not (yet) close friends, they shared a love of New Mexico.  Check her out at:

Izumi's boyfriend, Steve, studied sustainability in college and has been trying for years to "reconfigure the standards of living."  He came to Taos several years ago and quickly snatched up a few acres of land for cheap. He immediately set about building his dream -- a retreat center for artists and musicians that is not only a refuge from society but a testing grounds for experimental building practices and a think tank for like-minded folks who strive to live outside the norm.  With a few structures on the land including an abandoned schoolbus, an artist studio, an outdoor kitchen, an airstream trailer, a sleeping cabin and a defunct storage container, this outpost is beginning to take shape.  

Unknown is situated on Taos's far west mesa amidst sage brush and chamisa.  I've never seen a bigger sky nor as many rainbows.  It's raw there.  The weather is intense; the wind and sun can be oppressive. The surrounding hardscrabble community is comprised of outlaws, hippies, renegade homesteaders, experimental builders, addicts, crazies, recluses, and red necks.  People talk about how to find water, where the gooseberries are ripe, who stole whose firewood, the days when people wove houses out of river willows and the summer of vengeful arsons. They help each other move dirt, build fences, wrangle horses, get high, sing songs. It's a challenging place where the measure of someone's character is based on their ability to survive and survive well.  

I intended to spend only a night at Unknown but ended up spending two of the best weeks of my life there. Something shifted in me.  I helped build a fence and an outhouse.  I harvested water from a spring.  I got really, really dirty and acquired many tiny splinters.  I shat in the ground.  I woke up early.  I learned to identify wild asparagus.  I rode on the handlebars of an old cruiser bike down a rutted dirt road in the dark of night.  I started a large and dangerous fire.  I felt free.  One of the best things about my experience at Unknown is how I was invited into the mesa way of life without needing to leave behind my intellect or criticality.  In fact, there was even more space for thinking clearly, for imagining bigly, because the intention of our hosts was to enter into each of these survivalist moments with artistic inquiry.  They fostered a situation that was real, raw, thought-provoking, open, and genuinely fun.

Project:Unknown is such a vibrant and important experiment.  It left me with a lot of questions  and convictions (as well as a piece of land on which to begin building answers with actions).  How can we create places that put us in touch with the raw elements of life?  What emerges from experiences that mesh intimate survival with creative amplification? How can we provide places for artists, musicians, and thinkers to encounter a different way of being in the world, a refuge from the need to make money; how can we provide a support structure for people thinking outside the box?  How can simply being in a place also help to build it?   How can artists help sustain an outsider lifestyle and culture, one that supports and interacts with the local old-timers and preserves freedom?  How might local skills and stories be harnessed to fuel a new generation of homesteading artists? Who are the people that crave this kind of experience? How do we do all that we'd really like to do; is it even possible? I suppose that continuing this endeavor -- that which is the impetus for Project Unknown and also for Red Legacy -- is the same as building an outhouse or starting a fire.  You just make it happen as you go.