4/23/2010

He Did Build It, And We Did Come


Resilience is a beautiful thing. This is no news to those already involved in this phenomenon of brainstorms, reinvention, and rebirth we call the Phoenix Commotion. These dwellings, crafted with sincerity, screws, and sheet metal, have been expanding the minds of the nation’s freshly opened eyes for some time now—some would say for months, others would say it is but a new vehicle for that same echo of stewardship and creativity that has resonated through countless civilizations and our very hearts ever since a being was capable of care for those around them and the earth beneath their feet. It is a pulse of compassion and community, an echo of that both sustainable and pastoral, that small but unmistakable voice that compels you to build a shelter within which love and hospitality can incubate and bloom into a cherished home, giving warmth to all that enter its doors. And that delightful voice did finally trickle its way into twelve little Kansan ears. More specifically, ears from Lawrence, Kansas. I suppose that’s where I come in.
I am Matt Gifford, and I was given the opportunity to contribute to this wonderful project that has taken root in Hunstville, Texas, along with a rag-tag crew of dreamers with golden hearts and wide-eyes. Together we were six students and/or recent graduates from the University of Kansas:
Ryan Kuster – ’09 KU grad. Bee dissector. First-level Thai speaker.
Young Han Lester – English/Education student. Epic storyteller. THE Swiss Army man.
Emily Hane – Poli Sci Student/Creative Writer. Trip orchestrator. Super-cute sneezer.
Stevi Ballard – English major. Highway wrangler. Late night beat writer.
Chris Worley – Environmental Studies student. Dunk-slammer. Immaculate napper.
Myself – another ’09 KU grad. Metal-smither. Fast talker. In this case…narrator.

From Left to Right: Young Han Lester, Ryan Kuster, Stevi Ballard, Emile Hane, Chris Worley, Sir Daniel Phillips, and myself (Matt Gifford)

Organizing this endeavor was the lovely Emily Hane, having seen the Commotion’s work in a September issue of the New York Times. It is to her whom we all owe the fortune of this experience….thank you! Once she made contact with PC and let the rest of us know what all the buzz was about, we were hooked. We had to have more. We had to be a part of this.

So, we waited for the right time, deciding to head down during our spring break (being March 14th to the 20th of this year, 2010), and piled into the extremely intimate space of a donated Durango (courtesy of Stevi Ballard’s family….thank you guys!), and crawled out of the then-snowy Kansas plains towards the tropical promised land of Texas. As the mile count did rise, so did the temperature, adding even more teeth to our widening smiles.

With us, we brought gifts of recycled materials from the eastern Kansas area: collected bottle caps and wine corks from eight local Lawrence bars and restaurants, and seven seed bags full of cattle bones for the Bone House. We had scapulas, rib cages and femurs galore. We even nabbed a skull or two.

We didn't bring near all of this, but you get the idea.

We arrived to the open arms of Ms. Kristie Stevens, Commotion administrative guru and kitchen muse extraordinaire at the surprisingly expansive and delightfully eccentric Smither Company Real Estate, aptly dubbed, “Crazywood.” This was to be our new base of operations, where we would meet to strategize and pow-wow for lunch and dinner. John Smither was also generous enough to provide us with an OUTSTANDING lakeside bunkhouse just outside of town where we could lay our heads. To him we owe a considerable amount of gratitude (many thanks, you snazzy man you!)

A little view from our bunkhouse

After a wonderful first day of touring the Commotion’s previous projects and meeting and greeting all the friendly faces of the crew, including the mythical Dan Philips himself, we were divvied into two teams: one to take on the reconstruction of a garden bed from some charred remnants of a tree from the original Bone House layout, the other migrating to the workshop site to begin the massive undertaking of reorganizing and salvaging some TLC-lacking materials.

We constructed the stump-perimeter garden next to the Chevron stand.

It soon became our daily routine to stick together as one group, break bread at the bunk house, then proceed to the aforementioned workshop to keep with the reorganizing. This apparently used to be Dan’s residence, but due to increasing momentum of the Commotion, and consequently, increasing donations, this site had become a storehouse for many generations of metal, tile, wood, and glass. We spent many lumbar-bending hours enacting triage on what was still usable and stacking tiles and stacking tiles and stacking tiles. One had to keep thinking, “It’ll all get it a home someday. It’s worth it.” Hopefully they’ll make their way to somebody’s floor or walls or ceilings or entire backyard (we were convinced you could tile Dan’s entire yard with it all). A whole lotta tile, it was.

This chandelier may be old news to some, but it still blows my mind every time.

After throwing together some lunch back at Crazywood, we would make our way back to the Bone House, where we became in charge of filling all the holes we could in the mirror-mosaic studio. It was great to swing from the rafters and be a part of something which we had all read so much about and drooled over innumerable hours online. It was like walking right into a photograph, which I learned do not do the real constructions justice. Also, we made sure to leave a few Kansas shapes in the mosaics. See if you can find them.

Ms. Hane, arduously....working....on some pressing matter.

We managed to find some time early one afternoon to slide back to the workshop and make a piece of art for the house, as such a task was issued as a challenge from Ms. Kristie. Aptly enough, we decided to make a phoenix to mount somewhere around the property. It was made from an old school desk frame, piano keys, and other random stuff we found about the premises (and lots of wire). The effort was spearheaded by misters Worley, Kuster, and myself, although the entire team helped out with the project (Team work makes the dream work!) Dan PROMISED it’d be in Architectural Digest, so we’d better see it in there soon, or he owes each of us twenty bucks. We’ve got our eyes peeled, Daniel.

Presenting the new mascot for the Phoenix Commotion.

Detail of his vicious, but well-loved wing

Smile pretty now (clever girl....)

But, before we knew it, the time had flown out from under us, and we were due back to Kansas in a few days. So, we sadly said our goodbyes (over a few beers at the Stardust Room, why not) and headed back to the snow packed plains of Kansas. And, as if the gut feeling of, “No! Stay! Stay here!” wasn’t enough, we had the lucky opportunity of driving back through what was declared blizzard conditions passing through Oklahoma and Kansas. We literally crawled (at least as literally as possible in a vehicle) back home, our average top speed an eye-parching 35 mph. I declare, the fates were indeed trying to convince us to stay.

Oh, and it just so happened that all the snow melted about a day after we arrived home. What beautiful timing.

So what did this previously-described group of rag-tag dreamers take away from all this? It’s a little hard to put into words. To me personally, it was overwhelmingly a sense of confirmation that a solution is out there. We are blessed to live in this land of plenty, but too often the world treats the plenty as if it holds no repercussions—that somewhere someone isn’t going without so you might go with more, that there aren’t hectares of trees being cleared daily, that the planets temperature isn’t rising, and that people don’t feel like squatters in the one place they shouldn’t: their own homes. It’s too common in our society today that people hold no intimacy with where they live or the objects they own, which contributes immensely to the waste we produce.

This isn’t to say that Dan Phillips has all the answers (though he has my vote in 2012), but the ideologies of hard work, creativity, resilience, resourcefulness, responsibility, community, and humility that he and the other Commotion folk promote through everything that they do is enough to make you get butterflies. Their efforts have refused to be put down, and they are turning so many heads out there because what they are practicing actually makes sense. There’s a certain brilliance to it that just feels right, and I think people are finally picking up on it.

Being amongst the minds and hearts churning in Huntsville makes me believe it is possible to have a positive influence on where the next leg of the human equation will span, to help preserve and beautify a place for our kids to grow and learn and prosper—and to be a part of this team makes you feel very, very good inside, and we (I’m sure I speak for the entire group here) can’t thank them enough for the experience. Kudos to you all, from the bottom of our hearts. Keep building, and stay beautiful.

"Ya'll come back nah, ya hear?"

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