“Artists have the skills to make something out of nothing. Use that skill!”
Five years ago I took a workshop in Brooklyn about financial literacy for artists. It changed the way I think about money as an artist in an expensive city like NYC. The workshop, given by Art Home stated that banks and credit cards work for YOU…NOT the other way around. This was very formative for me and a provided a fresh take on the ‘starving artist’ paradigm and I have kept the notes I took from that day.
A year ago, a friend introduced Sarah and I to Esther Robinson, the presenter of those workshops and she’s still at it. Teamed up with Guy Buckles of ArtBuilding, (who is responsible for the designing and building of the Elizabeth Foundation– which is the largest subsidized workspace for artists in ny) they were looking to talk to artists who were building their own spaces, with a particular interest in tiny houses as artist-studio urban infill. One thing lead to another and Sarah and I ended up writing a white paper on tiny-spaces, which covered topics from design, technology and site specific implementation for NYC. Some of these chapters we’ve re-purposed here and here on SeedsWithWings .
After working full-time designing and building under the expert eye-of-Guy for the better part of a year, they did it! Last week my friend Young and I and went out to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens to see the new Tiny Art Studio (which in NYC might just be redundant).
Even though I neither built nor conceived it, I felt very proud when I saw this little beauty sitting on the lawn in front of the Queens Museum. These are “small mobile workspaces that let artists, social-service providers and micro-businesses work in new ways and in new places.” Art Built Mobile Studios has partnered with the Queens Museum, Corona Park and Patrick Rowe of Mobile Print Power to support the community around them. They are finding out what the park needs by asking passersby to draw their ideas into various large sketchbooks with questions on the covers like, “What is the most difficult thing to find in the park?” or “What is your favorite part of the park?” then implement them through the designing and making of signs for the public. The suggestions ranged from better signage to the bathrooms (we had a hard time finding them too), to putting the rainbow (which shows up every sunny day at the Unisphere from 4-6) on a daily events calendar.
This Saturday, July 11th from 1-5 pm, they will be unveiling the new concepts for signs for the park that have been created at the People’s Design Laboratory. Also, bring your own t-shirts, tote bags, and other things that you want to print on! Here’s a link to the event which will also feature music and performances by Aztec dance group Danza Azteca Chichimeka and Ecuadorian dance group Ñukanchik Llakta Wawa Kunas-Wawas Sumags
Here are some more pictures:
A little more background on the key players here. There are two non-profits at work. ArtHome.org (Esther Robinson) and ArtBuilding.org (Guy Buckles).
“ArtHome’s mission is to help artists build assets and equity through financial literacy, homeownership, self-sufficiency and the responsible use of credit.” They are “committed to building a vital new support system for artists: one that fosters both cultural vitality and economic stability.”
“ArtBuilding is a dynamic non-profit business that harnesses the power of built spaces to create economic security, professional stability and financial assets for artists and creative professionals.”
The mobile art studios are a combination of the two and a unique solution for the rising cost of living and working as an artist in NY (and beyond) and they are being used to support dialogue within communities. I think it’s a perfect use of the tiny house movement, embodying some key factors like community, responsiveness (mobility) and sustainability. These can be utilized as urban-infill mobile community centers that can go anywhere and provide services that are most needed to places that most need them. Like creating signs for a park, social service centers, arts-education and beyond.
Do you have any ideas for these? How can you see these working in the world?
In the next series of posts, we will explore some nuts and bolts of tiny house technology and share resources that have pointed us in the right direction. We will also share information on electrical loads and a nuanced discussion of the embodied energy inherent in many ‘green’ technologies. The research we’ve done has included an understanding of the embodied energy required to manufacture the product, as well as the latest research about their sustainability. Embodied energy is “…the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the mining and processing of natural resources to manufacturing, transport and product delivery.” (www.yourhome.gov.au).
We would also like to acknowledge the ever-changing nature in the building field, as new research constantly comes to light. It’s not possible to be “100% green,” a phrase too often left unsubstantiated in the building industry, and which has been co-opted to mean the same as “sustainable” without taking into account long-term social, environmental and economic impact.
We’re trying to do our best to be aware of our choices, avoid “soap-boxes,” vote with our dollars, and know that “purity” in building can’t really exist. No one is perfect, most builds are not without those sheets of plywood trucked in from afar, and the rabbit hole of “100% green” is very deep.
The first step we took was to gather information on electrical loads of common appliances and calculate a tiny space’s electrical needs. From this we discovered just how much power we’ll need to generate, collect or plug into. Here’s a resource on solar load calculation/determination with an empty chart to work from.
Here’s an interactive resource to calculate how many kilowatt-hours (kWh) one might need to generate for construction, which for us is significantly more than for day-to-day usage: Here’s one for day-to-day post-construction usage.
We are trying to use Energy Star-rated appliances when possible (www.energystar.gov) and LED light-bulbs that require a significantly lower wattage than incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs, with the same amount of lumens. Here are some recommended LED light-bulbs.
Sarah and I have decided to go solar for the whole house. Now that we’re living in a cabin with Solar we really get to experiment with our electricity usage and are finding that we don’t use much. LED’s cut down on our usage in a major way and aren’t as harsh/blue as we thought they would be. The biggest appliance we have is a juicer, which tends to be used only in summer with plenty of sun in the sky (winter feels cold to be juicing and veggies are in shorter supply).
In terms of good solar options for tiny houses, the “Classic” unit from Sol-Man costs $4995 and can power one tiny house without an electric heater. The Sol-Man has all the components one needs with 2.4 kWh, inverter, charge controller and batteries. It is an easy plug-and-play system that can roll around to adjust to the sun’s location. Sol-Mans units seem almost too big for our usage unless we decide to heat our home or hot water with electricity.
Though the initial investment is large a solar electricity system requires less maintenance and pays for itself in saved electric bills over the years AND in some states you can sell the excess electricity back to the grid. Solar technology is also improving rapidly and as the market widens costs come down significantly.
Michaela O’Connor Bono and I met when we were both Zen students at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center the summer of 2006. Michaela was coming right out of post-Katrina New Orleans, and I was just touching down from years of human rights work in Colombia; we bonded immediately and have been friends ever since.
I just returned from ten days in New Orleans working with Michaela, her partner Koji, and their Zen Center. In this interview, I talked with Michaela about their growing Buddhist center, building a community, and how it is to work with your partner on your life project.
Michaela is now a resident priest at Mid City Zen in New Orleans, and has been practicing Zen Buddhism since 2003. After evacuating New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, she lived and trained at both Tassajara and Green Gulch Farm Zen Centers. Michaela was ordained as a Soto Zen priest in September 2010. Besides leading a Buddhist center, she is active in restorative/transformative justice.
I was in New Orleans to help Mid City Zen set up some systems so they can do their work more easefully. As we worked together to build the structure of their organization I found myself thinking a lot about structure. When I’m at home, our tiny house build feels very tangible to me–it’s about boards and beams, nails and screws. But out in New Orleans, I was able to see the big picture again, and remember that this build is not just about building a house; it’s about building our life together.
While we talked, Michaela made lunch for us (black-eyed pea salad with dill, sautéed kale, grilled cheese) and I sat at the kitchen table taking notes.
Sarah: What are you guys doing here at Mid City Zen in New Orleans?
Michaela: We’re trying to balance religious life with secular life, for our own benefit and the benefit of everybody else we talk to. Right now we’re operating a zendo out of our house, offering daily meditation, classes, and visiting teachers. We’re simultaneously building a temple from the ground up, which will offer more of those things, and a residential life. Having left the cozy, loving, and disciplined monastic Zen practice lifestyle that supported us for many years, we wanted to see if we could take that into New Orleans.
Which aspects did you want to take with you to New Orleans?
The supportive community and the benefits of Zen practice. I wanted to share those things outside of the monastic setting.
What kind of benefits of Zen practice?
Seeing your own thoughts, mind, and heart, and being grounded, And just having a practice.
What does community mean to you? What are the things from your previous experience that you’re trying to bring to life here?
Sharing resources, sharing common goals, supporting one another to have a spiritual practice. It’s really hard for me to achieve anything on my own. So it’s important to find a way to work together and be in harmony with each other so that it supports all of our spiritual practice. That’s why people go to a church or go to a temple. People can have their own spiritual practice but it’s more supportive when it’s in a group with others.
Is supporting spiritual practice the central thing that community does for you?
Community is an alternative to the alienation that a lot of people feel in their daily lives, and to the highly individualized way we sometimes live our lives. It’s about sharing a life together as opposed to everybody living separately and doing things separately.
Any thoughts about community in New Orleans specifically?
Well, it’s been quite an adventure to try to promote discipline in this city. There are so many more fun things to do than sit still. But I think people really appreciate taking a break from the chaos to check in with themselves and to meet other people who are interested in meditation. I had always had the dream of having a zendo here but doing it with a partner is amazing. I can’t imagine doing it on my own.
Tell me more about working with your partner.
Even right now, Koji just went away for three weeks and I notice the difference; it’s so much easier to share the responsibility. Also there’s that same thing about not being able to do things on your own, being in a relationship is like a mini-community within a community.
Can you put into words how it’s different to do something like this with your partner rather than with someone else?
There’s two aspects of it–what’s it like to be in a relationship when you have a shared goal versus when you don’t? And–what’s it like to work on a project with your partner as opposed to with not-your-partner.
Yeah, I am really interested in both of those aspects.
What’s it like to be in a relationship and have a shared goal? I don’t want to sound negative but it’s really hard. You have to figure out a way to work with each other and not let your relationship dynamics get too much in the way. On the other side, knowing each other’s dynamics so thoroughly can actually help your working relationship. Everything that’s a challenge about being in a relationship and working together is also a benefit. The things you know about your partner, how you’ve communicated in your relationship, can help you communicate about the project you’re working on. You are always learning how to communicate–communication is the biggest thing, in the relationship or the project, at least for us.
It’s tricky when you ask someone to do something for the project, you have to be aware, you have to check, “Why am I asking them to do that and how am I asking?” You need a lot more awareness. And, it’s a real joy to have a partnership where you have a shared goal. A lot of couples come to that point of, “Are we compatible? Do we have a shared idea of what our life is supposed to be like?” Some people answer that with having children or living in a certain place or a job. For us it’s really amazing because it’s a shared spiritual path, it’s a shared location path, and it’s a shared existential path: why we do what we do.
That is really great.
Of course we have discussions about the details of what that will look like but we don’t have to spend too much time wondering what’s the most important thing.
Or negotiating what the thing is.
Right. We have this really solid amazing tradition that’s been handed down to us for thousands of years, and we can rely on that and trust that, and we also have to make it our own. And I think we’re doing that in our relationship as well. We have a shared understanding of how to treat each other, how we can study ourselves and take responsibility for our own minds and hearts, and take care of each other. That understanding comes directly from our tradition and our practice. And we have to make that our own too, “What does that look like?” But we have a solid, ancient support system.
I feel that in my relationship too.
It’s amazing. I can’t imagine it any other way. And a side note, I have this constant faith and trust that my partner is always working on what they need to be working on, in the personal, internal… that they’re always going to be self-reflecting and taking responsibility. I don’t ever question that, which is very different than in other kinds of relationships I’ve been in.
We had that conversation the other day about how you and Koji are building a Zen temple and Joseph and I are building a tiny house and they seem very different, but there is actually this similarity. We are each doing what is true to us, somehow our paths are sprouting from the same place.
It’s setting up a place from which we’ll do the work in the world that we need to do. It offers us an unconventional alternative to the conventional options. You can use the tiny house in many ways, especially since you’re building it off the grid. You can take it to where you want to go which is important to how you want to live. And for us we want to live sharing our lives with a larger community, with more people, so we have to set up the space we can do that.
I think what I’m trying to get at also is how we are each responding to our different causes and conditions. And the response looks different because the conditions are different, but we are actually doing the same thing, which is to find what is truest and deepest, what is at the root, and to try to prioritize that. And for you that is being in New Orleans, living with other people, and sharing a Zen practice together. And for us that looks like financial freedom which allows for creative life, mobility for now, and also having a home. So those responses look different, but for each us they are the true root response to our conditions. It sounds obvious now that I said it, but I actually just realized the similarity being here with you. I had thought we were doing very different things.
If you want to learn more about Michaela and Koji’s project, please visit: midcityzennola.blogspot.com. Their website is in development, so check back often for updates.