The Mayday Experiment: Maiden Voyage

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The tiny house has made its maiden voyage. Invited to collaborate on a project at the Wittemyer Ranch overlooking Boulder by curators Petra Sertic and Alvin Gregorio , Philip Spangler and I decided that, though it was not necessarily an artistic collaboration in the truest sense, using the tiny house as a site to play with seemed a logical approach.

For the past three years, Petra and Alvin have curated Launch Pad, a site-specific project that asks artists to create works of art in unusual locations. John and Jenn Wittemyer, collectors and art supporters, have generously allowed the use of their land for this purpose, which last year culminated in a mile-long hike among dozens of artists' installations, ending in a community potluck with music and friends. Having visited the Wittemyer Ranch for Launch Pad 2 (one of the best art events I've ever seen in Colorado), I was excited to be included, and especially to have the chance to work with Philip on something besides the house. The curators had chosen the theme of "Secrets and Herbs," so Philip and I began having conversations about secrets and how to incorporate the tiny house into a collaboration that would reflect both of our respective interests.

See also: The Mayday Experiment -- Alone Again, Naturally

Part of the problem of using the unfinished house as a work of art was determining who "owns" it as an object. Philip, the main person building it at the time, had no connection to it as a work of art and didn't see it connected to his studio practice at all; he saw it as a work for hire, which made complete sense to me: I would have felt the same way, as I know from past experience working for other artists. For me, however, the entire project is a work of art. Ultimately, the timing was unfortunate, as the tiny house was taking this journey the week before I installed my show at Leon Gallery. As a result, many wild ideas will forever remain just that. We finally decided to play with the idea of Chief Niwot 's curse. Since Philip was a visitor and I live here, we titled our installation "Niwot's Sepulchre" and constructed a statement that referenced both of our interests yet was open-ended enough to provide both mystery and wiggle room. Since the structure was not quite yet a house, we scrambled to attach braces to the stick frame construction, creating temporary cross-beams, putting in extra hardware, and rushing to screw down a plywood floor over the Styrofoam. My friend Dave Seiler came over and helped, and each day we tried desperately to foresee what our problems would be if we were to keep the house from splintering into an expensive pile of useless wood on the highway. The night before the journey, Philip announced that it just wasn't safe enough, and I went to bed expecting to have to come up with a new installation plan the day of the event. I wasn't eager to disappoint Alvin and Petra, but as Philip pointed out, it wasn't worth risking the entire Mayday Experiment.

I woke up on October 4, surprised, to the sound of a saw: Philip had decided it was do-or-die, and had a plan. We were on!

But then came the question that will haunt every move from here on out: What is between here and there? What route is safe? Keep reading for more on the tiny house's maiden voyage.

The legal limit, height-wise, for a tiny house is 13'5". Because we knew this would constantly be a problem, we went a little lower, coming in at 13'3" (without the roofing, which will add another half inch or so). However, in my very neighborhood, there are two bridges that only have a 13'3" clearance, which meant carefully planning a route out to larger roads. This journey made me realize that Google Earth is my new best friend. While Philip put the finishing touches on the braces for the house, I "drove" each potential route on my computer, finally coming to the conclusion that, though counterintuitive, the safest bet was to drive under I-70, a known truck route. Given that we didn't feel safe taking the house on the highway yet, we avoided I-36, instead preferring long routes through the suburbs.

Even though I had checked out the I-70 underpass online, it was still a squeaker. At one low, unmarked overhang near the Coliseum, I slowed to a crawl...would we make it under? My phone rang: Philip, watching with Nico from his car behind me, expressed the same doubts. We all held our breath as I slowly inched Bertha forward...and made it by just a hair. It wouldn't be the only moment of holding our breath: Low wires, signs and traffic lights were also worrying, and more than one tree was inadvertently pruned as we passed.

Driving on Indiana Street toward West 120th Avenue, I began to experience what will add to the stress of driving this house: the wind shear. The wind coming across the vast expanse of prairie caught the skeletal house like a sail, pulling Bertha to the side and forcing me to wrestle with the steering wheel. But once we got to Boulder, we still weren't in the clear: We were driving straight up Sunshine Canyon, then up a dirt road. It had only taken us about two and a half hours to drive from Denver to Boulder (at about two points I reached 55, but mostly I didn't go over 40), and I was worn out by both the stress and the physical work of the drive.

Still, by the time we got to the long, dirt driveway for the house, I got cocky: Before I knew it, I felt a wheel slip off the side of the road. I corrected quickly, but not before dinging a fender against a giant boulder at the side of the road, which I didn't even realized had happened until Philip told me and I saw the scratch.

Thankfully, John Wittemyer had ample experience driving tractors and offered to park the house for us in the driveway in front of their gorgeous modern house. With a giant digital projector borrowed from a friend, we covered one end of the house in a shot of Philip's work, while my work was represented inside by a pile of resin antlers covering a fluorescent light, which cast an eerie glow. We managed to get our entire installation set up in under an hour, as guests arrived. The big window at the end framed a gorgeous view of the Boulder valley, and burning sage wafted up through our makeshift roof, beckoning visitors into our "contemplative space."

It was a beautiful night, which included music from Roger Green and some fantastic art from a variety of artists, including the surprise team of Ken Hamel, a local arts writer, and Adam Gildar, a gallerist. The Wittemyers were wonderful hosts, and their teenage daughter even contributed an impromptu photo shoot that she had done that afternoon with her friend. When we gathered around the tiny house, Alvin and Petra prompted questions and conversations, and I talked of my plan in public, for the first time since I first announced it -- without having planned to, at an artist talk at Mai Wyn Fine Art in April. People responded warmly, and for the rest of the evening, I answered questions about everything from axle load to solar load.

When we got back to Denver that night, tired, and with the tiny house still hovering above the ground on its jacks gazing across Chief Niwot's land, I had a renewed sense of excitement about this, despite the fact that we still had to make the drive back. I mulled over lessons learned. That night, I posted this on Facebook:

Top ten things I learned driving the tiny house to Boulder and back:

1. I need a new truck. I love you, Bertha, but I'm not sure you're gonna be able to do this all around the country. But I know you did your best.

2. I am now that asshole driving slow with an enormous line behind me. I'm sorry.

3. Wind is very, very strong. And so are my forearm and calf muscles now.

4. Missing your turn is a really, really big deal.

5. To that end, U-turns, while not preferable, are also not impossible.

6. There's a lot of low-hanging branches that need to be cut. You're welcome.

7. Google Earth rocks.

8. Bigger mirrors are going to have to become a priority in my life.

9. Uphill and downhill are both stressful, in entirely different ways.

10. A fine touch with the brake adjustments is a good skill to cultivate.

This Friday, I will repeat the adventure, albeit traveling a shorter distance and without Philip's help: The Tiny House will be at ArtDenver for the weekend, on the second floor of the Colorado Convention Center, an idea which still seems inconceivable to me but which I am assured is completely doable. If you've been curious to see this crazy thing in person, please stop by and climb inside!

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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