The Mayday Experiment: Alone Again, Naturally

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Yesterday my friend Philip Spangler crammed all the belongings he came with plus one of Lawrence Argent's iconic blue bear statuettes into his Dodge Neon and hit the road to his new home in Chicago. Along with him rode my intern, Nico Larsen who is off to check out the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and choose her path.

I knew this day would come, just like I knew many other days would come, but it is still overwhelming. Because now, it's time for me to figure it out myself.

See also: The Mayday Experiment -- of Trailers and Hardware

This summer I was as busy as I've ever been, and it was terrible timing to begin the build, but it was the timing that worked for Philip to be here, post grad-school (where we met, at Ohio State University and pre-whatever. (If anyone in Chicago needs a dude who can make anything, including a tiny house...he's totally your guy.) As it was, he stayed on an extra month, and we almost met our goal before he left: We have a box on wheels, partially wrapped, and about half a staircase built. The loft is in, and the structure is ready for doors and windows this week, hopefully before any snow.

My unrealistic plan had been to do more of that work alongside him, but with two solo shows (one closes on Sunday, November 9 at Leon Gallery), teaching Professional Practices at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, doing a cover illustration for the Metropolitan State University Alumni Magazine hosting a couple of shows in the gallery in my studio, including Short Term Parking, I spent my days running between all those tasks and the tiny house, and my nights up until 4 a.m. working in the studio while Philip either slept through all my racket or took random late-night drives through the mountains, which completely captivated him, so different from the Midwestern terrain where he'd spent his life. My mother missed me and complained frequently, and I slept maybe four hours most nights. Somehow I thrive in this kind of chaos, and while I was exhausted I was also happy and creatively energized.

As a result of my overcommitting (not the first time, but maybe the worst), I fortunately wound up with an amazing amount of help. Jessica Joy, my previous assistant who kept me organized (insofar as such a thing is possible), introduced me to Cory Brown, an electronics whiz who helped with several sculptures and who completed the family with Philip and Nico.

As different as it was for me, I loved this new temporary life, with the studio abuzz every day with activity and laughter: Philip working on the trailer, Nico working on molds and castings, Cory working on electronics and wiring, and me jumping back and forth between them and dodging the two cats, Vinnie and Monkey, who sucked up as much attention as they could from all of these new humans. Many days I'd cook lunch or dinner in the studio and we would gather around a table or flop on the couch, decompressing. Once everyone went their ways at night, I would head into the studio, grateful for both the work done and the time alone to focus. Keep reading for more on the tiny house project. This created an interesting design dynamic for Philip and me. When Philip arrived at the beginning of August we looked online at other tiny houses and plans, intending to buy some and follow them. But we found that we didn't like any of the designs all the way and, not only that, most of the plans didn't include the systems -- rainwater, electrical, etc. - that would have made them most valuable to us. So we decided to just do it ourselves. We would talk for hours about roof lines and argue about whether or not a tub was a practical idea or not (Not, but doing it anyway.) My early designs had attached a chicken coop to the back of the tiny house, an idea Philip hated on the grounds that the chickens would be unhappy, a fact I couldn't necessarily dispute. He, being a fan of porches, insisted that we build a deck, despite my lamentations that I considered it wasted space. Of course, we also argued about ludicrous things too: the pronunciation of the word "chile", for example, or how rainbows were formed. We joked often that by the end of his time here we were going to hate each other, and more than once I feared that prediction might come true.

But I also had wanted to leave the design open-ended for exactly these reasons. I'd spent hours poring over tiny-house porn on the Internet, pinning the best to Pinterest and fantasizing about fanciful, impractical ideas that all involved complicated mechanics. But there was a reason I wanted to work with Philip in the first place, and it had a lot to do with how we were able to work together in graduate school. Despite our difference in ages and backgrounds, we became not only good friends but fairly fluid at working together and brainstorming, something we did late at night on our projects in the Sherman Studio at OSU. He helped me figure out how to build a custom hive for my bees; I helped him design and sew bags for his garden installation at Roy G. Biv , a popular gallery in Columbus. We also spent a fair amount of time pranking one another and taking Google Earth "vacations" in front of the computer, and more than once I came into my studio to find the browser on my laptop set to meatspin.com (trust me, you don't want to look).

True to form, the pranking continued in Denver, when I woke up November 1 to the Tiny House having been TP'd...something Phil admitted to later, which prompted a lecture from me about how much toilet paper we use, although secretly I found it hysterical. Our collaboration works well because we are both natural problem solvers as sculptors from completely different directions: his in the linear, practical realm of wood and metal, and mine in the more biomorphic and mold-driven area of plastics and silicones. Between the two of us, I was confident there was no problem we couldn't tackle, and after watching him build a miniature version of his childhood home for his thesis show in the spring, I was sure a house would be no problem.

But the reality is that neither of us actually knew how to build a house, much less one on wheels and off the grid, completely powered by rain, solar and wind. No clue. We both make stuff...but houses are way more complicated than sculptures.

I've always approached everything by saying, "How hard could it be?" The reality is often: very damned hard. But other people do it, and I believed that we could, too. After all, we had YouTube, books, blogs, videos and phone calls to Philip's dad, whose expertise in diesel trucks alone saved us more than once.

Everything had to be considered before we could draw out our elevations. Where did the water collection go? The greywater tank? Where would the solar panels sit, and what effect would wind have on them? How high was the loft? (We decided on 6'3" - one inch of clearance for Philip and more than enough room for my 5'5" to occupy.) We had some spectacular blow-outs and screaming matches, but in the end always came back together, lucky for a friendship that had been forged in typical grad-school drama. Keep reading for more on the tiny house project.

It ultimately made more sense to find our windows and doors first, and draw the design from that, as opposed to looking for specific sizes. Ironically, one of the things that held up our process the most was finding appropriate windows. Our original roof-line design incorporated a narrow horizontal row of windows at the peak, but I was committed to the idea of using reclaimed windows and doors. In the end, our roof-line is unique amongst the tiny houses I've seen, with an offset, modern peak front-to back and a door on the side, and little ornamentation or dormers. But finding the narrow window for the original roof-line became impossible, so we changed to follow the direction suggested by the doors and windows we were able to find. After a week of scouring every used building-supply store in town, we finally had all of our windows, including two I had pulled from the dumpster behind my studio. Because the loft windows were so small, we had to buy basement windows new if we wanted them to open. Once we had all of our parts, Philip began drawing the elevations in Illustrator. We had done some sketching by hand, and I kept promising to learn Google Sketch-Up (and still need to), but mostly, we have been winging it.

Of course, "winging it" the way we have been is exactly what any expert would tell you not to do. Your material costs can wind up higher due to mistakes, and it's difficult to communicate what someone else needs to do from pictures in your head. We were bolstered, however, by the gigantic stack of 2 x 4'x I had won at auction and most stores' fairly liberal return policy. Between our sketches, conversations and late-night brainstorming, I'm pretty sure we both have a similar picture of what it will wind up being, despite the lack of anything resembling physical plans that another person could understand. And even though it's now time for me to take over, I know Philip is always a phone call away.

When he first arrived, we joked a lot about the "Curse of Chief Niwot" -- namely that "People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty." I joked that Philip would fall in love with Colorado and never want to leave, which would have suited me fine. And it seemed as if some unknown force was conspiring to keep him here yesterday morning: A loose wire on the battery of his Neon that had long been giving him troubles finally broke. When I went to rescue him and Nico, Bertha almost didn't start (a running theme lately), and while he was packing the car he got a nosebleed (another running theme of our lives, with all the sawdust around).

But at about 2:30 p.m., we finally said our goodbyes. As we gave each other a hug, Philip said, "I don't hate you." And I said, "I don't hate you, either. "

And now? This sister is doing it for herself. With a little help from my friends.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, will be blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell.

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