Union Tribune Article:
Poetry bench project brings women together
October 15, 2006
By Mary Curran-Downey
Ben Franklin said it back in 1757 in “Poor Richard's Almanac:”
For lack of a nail, the shoe was lost, for lack of a shoe, the horse was lost . .
Well, it goes on and on until a war is lost and an entire kingdom crumbles all because some poor beast doesn't have a proper horseshoe nail.
It's an elemental thing, Ben is trying to tell us, that makes all the difference. What could be more basic than a nail?
But what if you don't even need that nail? Franklin's words have been resonating with me this week after several women explained how they – with little or no experience – learned to build a sitting area in Balboa Park without a single nail, relying on a centuries-old technique reminiscent of adobe and mud pies.
Candace Vanderhoff is the architect, designer and den mother of the project, which sits at Quince and Sixth Streets under five magnolia trees next to the shuffleboard courts. To park authorities, it's a temporary art installation, to be removed in a year. To Vanderhoff and her team, it's a poetry bench, the first of what may become a series of structures all over the county.
It's also been an amazing learning experience, which was one of her primary goals.
“I've been going to workshops for six years,” said Vanderhoff, who has a master's degree in architecture and is drawn to using environmentally friendly materials that last for generations.
“And I really wanted to give back the knowledge, especially to women who do want to build. In many parts of the world, women are the home builders. That was a big part of it, to have a place where they could set up and do the work. When men would stop by, I said, 'It's leadership training.' ”
The bench is constructed of straw bale and cob, a mix of earth, sand and straw. Water is mixed in, using the builders' feet. Some cob houses built in the 1500s are still standing today in England and Wales. Their thick walls help to keep out the winter cold and the summer sun.
After she sent out e-mail messages to a variety of groups, 15 women showed up at Vanderhoff's home and formed the building crew. The bench was built over four weekends last month.
Jo Krischer-West of Escondido, a transplant from Santa Cruz, was one of the 15. A graduate student in clinical psychology, Krischer-West has spent the last half-dozen years working on her degree, so she hasn't had much time to connect with other women in the community. Building the bench sounded like a way to do that.
“I lost my mother in November,” she said. “And so reconnecting with the women's community is a way to deal with some of that grief. The building is the same thing. That kind of building utilizes your brain, but also your hands and your feet. It's about connecting with the earth, so that appeals to me as well.”
Brigit Santos lives in Rancho Peñasquitos and works in Oceanside, so the project in the park meant adding yet another freeway trip in her life. It was a journey she said was well worth the extra miles.
“Straw bale was something I was interested in,” she said. “And then I learned about cob from Candace. Physically, it can be difficult. Think of the 'I Love Lucy' show, stomping the grapes. It was interesting to see how it all came together. Women aren't always encouraged to do that; it was totally outside the realm of my experience.”
Santos also liked meeting women from all over the county in all walks of life. And that, too, was a big part of what Vanderhoff was trying to accomplish. “Benches are so people can gather and others can go and meet new people,” she said.
The first poetry reading will be held at the bench at noon Nov. 7, and you can see photos of the construction and get connected for future projects at http://poetrybench.com.
For future projects, Vanderhoff envisions a possible weaver's bench, or a quilter's bench, or a number of other possibilities that combine construction and art. She is convinced that the act of creating something new by a group of used-to-be strangers from all over the region has a power in itself.
“In the media,” she said, “it seems we are portrayed as how different we are. It's pretty rare to talk about similarities, when what we all want is a better life for our children, clean water, clean air, opportunities for people to use their talents in a way that's good for them and good for the community. That's what's we can do.”
That's a lot to ask of a bench. Then again, it's made of pretty strong stuff. As are its builders.
Mary Curran-Downey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org