There is nothing like a rainbow over a Colorado mountain valley. I had to pull over - not, mind you, for the rainbow, but for my new friend, a drifter named Apache who had first drained a Gatorade bottle full of whiskey and then attempted to drain his bladder into said Gatorade bottle, to my increasing alarm. My truck, Bertha, may not be new and she may not be pretty, but up until this point she had only smelled of diesel and Axe Body Spray, and despite an absence of fondness for either smell, they were both infinitely preferable to urine. I'd met Apache while renting a box truck in Grand Lake in order to move what had turned out to be a gigantic stack of 2 x 4's that I had won in an auction. I was moving this mountain of lumber with two kind sexagenarians who had stepped up to my Facebook plea. So far, however, this expedition had gone terribly wrong, with a late start, too much rain and my own poor spatial skills misjudging a grainy .jpg. With only an hour left to load more wood than my F250 could hold, I had offered Apache a ride down to Denver and some cash in exchange for his help. Facing a two-hour bus wait he obliged — not knowing what he was getting himself into. But then, did I know what I was getting myself into? Do I still? How did I even get here?
Tilting at windmills.
I've been arguing with people on the Internet about climate change for twenty years. Arguing on the Internet is folly, to be sure, as anyone who has read a comments section online surely has noticed. But what I've come to realize is that our dialogue is irretrievably broken. We post links at one another that we've scarcely scanned and stand steadfastly by our beliefs, in part because we live in information bubbles. Your beliefs and mine are upheld by cherry-picked Google searches, made especially for us to find what we want...even when what we want is an unfounded opinion not based on fact or science. So how do we have a real conversation any more?
The media is no help. Setting up "debates" between scientists and climate-science deniers as though they are presenting two sides of an issue, when in actuality they are representing a minority opinion - outweighed by 97 out of 100 climate scientists. So what is left to us? Face-to -face conversations. Conversations in which we listen to one another and present what we know, explain why we believe it, and don't wind up calling each other "asstards" and posting memes. Is it crazy to believe that this could create change?
Artists talk a lot about art changing the world. To that end, the majority of my work is political and environmental in nature, exploring issues such as Colony Collapse Disorder in Bees and nuclear disasters such as the Fukushima Daichi plant. As my work is so heavily research-based, I read a lot...and read a lot of very, very depressing stuff. And I have come to the same conclusion as have so many scientists, though I am just an artist: The future of the human race is in urgent danger. It may sound alarmist to say that, but if we can't change what we are doing, human extinction is definitely on the table. It's hard to wrap your head around that — especially when we talk of "saving the planet" or "saving the whales" without ever thinking that perhaps the next great extinction event may just include humanity. No wonder we're obsessed with Miley and Kimye. But how are we going to face this and have an actual conversation about climate change while misinformation and propaganda swirls around us?
About eight months ago I had a realization: I can't just make art about this any longer. I won't stop — compulsions are compulsions, after all, and I am what I am — but though I love what I do, I know I am only preaching to the converted, that the dialogues I begin with my work, though very rich and satisfying, are only reaching people who are basically like me and as such, pretty much already believe what I am trying to tell them.
I want to do more.
At the time, I had also faced a difficult choice. Newly divorced and deeply in debt after a former studio-mate skipped out on rent, I had to choose between not losing my studio or getting an apartment after moving out of our house. So I moved into the only available space in my jammed-full 500 square-foot studio: a 112 square foot closet with no windows or heat. I stayed warm enough with space heaters, and managed to squeeze in a rudimentary kitchen, my bed, my clothes closet and my office. I spent a lot of time in there, and began to realize...it wasn't all that bad. In fact, it was cozy, and even felt— dare I say — kind of spacious? I had pared it down to the basics, and I had almost everything I needed besides a bathroom, although the kitchen was more frustrating to use than the primitive facilities of my early twenties warehouse-living days: I cook a lot, and all from scratch, so not having a stove or oven got old quick, despite creative approaches that often blew fuses.
And what's more: It changed my habits. A lifelong slob, I suddenly became tidier. Upon getting a new pair of shoes, I pondered which had to go...something I had never done before. (I could rival a young Imelda Marcos on shoe hoarding, I'm sure.) I knew where everything was, and I questioned every new object that came into my room. And suddenly, I began seeing pictures of tiny houses popping up everywhere. I've always been intrigued by small spaces (I'd lived for fifteen years with my ex, a large dog, and four cats in a 700 square foot brick cottage.). And then it hit me, like an epiphany: the plan that changed everything.
The plan? To build a tiny house on wheels as a model of sustainability, get off the grid, and travel the country showing people what that looks like. To have real conversations at everything from schools to churches to farmers' markets about what it takes to be on solar, where your poop goes, and how to use grey water. But not only that: I'd also explain how scientists see what they see in ice core samples and plants uncovered by melting glaciers. Discuss why glaciers are calving, and why the forests of the west are burning. Answer what questions I could and check in with climate scientists and experts along the way. And in the process, make a film about these conversations around climate change, gentrification, sustainability and the future. About what we can do together, before it's too late.
Do I know how to do any of this? Hell no. But I'm willing to learn. I haven't known how to do most things I've embarked on in my career, and so far things have turned out okay. Currently I'm spending my life savings (and running out fast!) on building the house with my friend from grad school at The Ohio State University, Philip Spangler. Neither of us knows how to build a house, but being sculptors, we have most of the necessary skills, although we are definitely winging it. We have converted a twenty-foot dovetail trailer into a flatbed and it now has four framed walls, with a floor going in. I've gone all in on this...I have no backup plan, no exit strategy; this is now my life. And the project has a name: The Mayday Experiment. A name that encompasses both the hopefulness of spring and a call to alarm. And it is definitely an experiment, but I believe in the power of people connecting, one on one. Despite the mass media's insistence that we are a divided country, we are all in this together. And it's time we started listening to one another and sharing what we know. It's time for conversations.
So, consider this an invitation to join me as I figure all this out, build the house, get off the grid and travel around having conversations with ordinary people. Along the way I'll be documenting the U.S. now, including things like the drought-ridden towns of California and the shifting of fortunes in Detroit. But this is also an invitation to dialogue: Tell me where I should travel, start discussions on topics that concern you, or share your own tiny house stories. I'll be posting weekly to this blog while we wrap walls, figure out rainwater plumbing, learn about solar loads and, in the midst of all that, making some art. It's already been a strange, interesting journey, and it promises to only get stranger.
And yes, we will pull over for the rainbows.
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