CalArts Graphic Designers Explore Shelter in the Wild

Last month, School of Art faculty Gail Swanlund steered her Graphic Design 4 class to nearby Towsley Canyon Park, a few miles south of the CalArts campus, to participate in a workshop led by wilderness skills educator Jim Lowery. Curious about this unusual “unplugged” design event, we e-mailed Swanlund and asked her a few questions.

24700: What was the idea behind this foray into the wilds of Towsley Canyon? An exercise in resourceful problem-solving and learning to think on one's feet?

Gail Swanlund: Yes, but maybe even more, I think it’s so important to appreciate where we live and work, and what is available to us all the time. I often forget that the canyon is so close to campus, though I drive by it many times a week. This workshop offered a moment to step away from our screens and to smell the earth, touch the indentation of deer tracks, and taste ground-up acorn flour. As graphic designers we need to constantly remind ourselves to get out, go look; to really examine a source. Our preconceived ideas or memories are not always reliable. It’s invaluable to experience something outside your area of expertise or familiarity.

24700: Why this workshop, specifically?

GS: Making, with hands, seems to create connections in the brain that we might not have stumbled upon, just sitting and thinking hard about something. Making and moving around jostles the thoughts around and loosens up ideas; switches and tosses up ideas for invention (or not; maybe it’s just a little refreshment). Exploring literal cul-de-sacs and meandering doesn’t mean that time isn’t productive. In the best sense, education for all of us is in opening doors, then opening more possibilities.

As far as surviving in the wild, the experience was practical and valuable, both for those who might need a temporary shelter (after an earthquake for instance), or if they find themselves outdoors and unexpectedly needing to spend a night or two. Good to know how to take care of ourselves.

And sometimes it’s good just to be outside; to go somewhere and not be so explicit about what students are supposed to learn or gain or expect—we can invent, or take (or not) whatever is meaningful (or not) from the experience. It’s like the CalArts line; you can make it anything you want it to be.

24700: Who is Jim Lowery and how did you find him?

GS: Jim Lowery, Wilderness Skills co-founder and nature expert, has taught a few practicums for the Art School. He is a gracious and generous teacher who clearly loves to share his knowledge and passion for nature, and a human being with a sensitive appreciation for our landscape and all creatures.

24700: Was this project a demonstration by him or collaboration between Jim and the students?

GS: Both. Jim showed us examples of shelters made from local materials, and we built the shelter together following his instructions.

24700: Describe the construction process for us.

GS: We trekked into the canyon, frequently stopping to sample edible native leaves, examine signs of recent wildlife activity, and scout out a favorable site to construct a shelter–in this case, a “debris hut,” an exceedingly locally-sourced, built on-the-spot structure in which an individual could spend a few nights in the woods if the need arose. The team set to work constructing the framework for the shelter. Using materials gathered from the site, a downed tree limb became the backbone and two sturdy branches lashed together formed a human-sized tent. Smaller branches and sticks were set in place against the ridgepole to create ribbing. For insulation and comfort, grasses were collected for the floor of the hut, and several armfuls of pulled grass were piled up to create the outside shell.

24700: Had the class researched other forms of shelter?

GS: We did look at others, CalArts shelters in particular: The Mud Hut, Alison Knowles and James Tenney's House of DustMike Kelley's Bird houses, Nobi’s Tower at CalArts, across from the Wild Beast /Earthwork Process 7 video of firing at CalArts and Allan Kaprow's A Happening at CalArts.

24700: What were the students' take-aways from the experience?

GS: One of the take-aways were burrs and stickers, for sure. The topic for the course revolves around shelter and structure, so in that sense, this workshop was directly applicable. But sometimes these experiences become meaningful much, much later (or not); or perhaps they’re moments and spaces between times of intense work. Or, maybe this just provided a opportunity for all of us to be out in the sunshine.

24700: Finally, how did the experience affect you?

GS: I had absolutely no idea that the experience of crawling into the shelter we’d just built together would be so profound. The odor of the grass, the coziness of the human-sized space, the sense of being of the earth—if only for a moment—was magical.

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