It’s always hard to know where to start a story but this one has to start pretty far back before it get’s to it’s point, so just bear with me.
The year was 1971. I was 26, a Vista Volunteer assigned to the University of Hawaii’s Curriculum Development Center developing creative educational materials for the schools of Hawaii. Since I had a degree in design from Pratt Institute they assumed I knew what I was doing. They were wrong, but I was a fast learner and was soon put in charge of design. Since it was a serious project there were a lot of older PhD’s on the staff and what I want to say is that my ‘dress code’ was a little more on the casual side. I didn’t own shoes etc. They didn’t really care because not only did I love working there, I was also adding some nice touches to their work. I just didn’t exactly ‘visually ‘ fit in. Anyway while I was walking down the hall one day I saw this other young ‘casual’ guy, coming the other way, bouncing and smiling and kind of jiving along. When we finally met a couple of days later we both had to confess that we both thought the other guy was on the janitorial staff. Turned out Rick Caalaman was an educator and developer for the Language Systems part of the project, which was the coolest place to be. We became good friends.
In addition to my work at the Center, I had also been experimenting with the design of natural playgrounds where little kids who were handicapped could play, as complete sensory equals, with kids who were not handicapped. When the Curriculum Center’s project came to an end, I was offered a fellowship to The Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT to develop my playgrounds further. I headed east to Cambridge, Mass. Rick took the wages he had saved and headed west to Asia and a trip around the world with no itinerary or schedule.
And then an amazing thing happened. Everybody left. What I didnʼt realize was that this was a school. The summer came. Everybody went home, somewhere else, or on vacation. I was there alone. I loved it.
I found out that Harvard University owned an arboretum close by. It was essentially a park and tree ʻmuseumʼ where all sorts of research went on. I told them about my playgrounds and they offered me some space and help to create some small living grass models. I wanted to put them in big pots so I could move them around but if anybody made pots like I wanted, I certainly wouldnʼt have been able to afford them. One day when I was driving to the Arboretum I passed this giant concrete pipe factory (NEPCO (New England Concrete Pipe Co), and seeing these giant culverts stacked up, I had an idea. I went in with my MIT/Playground story hoping that maybe they could cut their pipe for me. The manager said that they couldnʼt, but if I wanted to cast some big pots there, it would be ok with him. Like I said, this was a huge, huge place with giant mixing machines, molds, drying sheds, tractor-trailers being loaded by huge fork lifts, and me, on the side, making my pots. And loving it.
I was enjoying myself and making some nice progress as the summer came to an end and everyone began to trickle back to the Center at MIT. Because of all the work Iʼd accomplished I felt pretty good about everything now. The first order of MIT business was that the Center was going to have a traveling exhibit of all of our works which would go to several prestigious Science centers across the country. This was very exciting, until, for some reason, it was decided that my project, because the models were living, wouldnʼt be eligible for inclusion. I argued and explained and pleaded but there was no convincing them. They did say that I could come up with something else and it would go in the show. But I didnʼt have ʻsomething elseʼ. My playgrounds, and the logic behind them, was my reason for being at MIT in the first place.
ʻSomething elseʼ, I thought.
Now Iʼm not sure why I came up with what I did - even now. Somehow I decided to cast two
big special concrete discs, that when bolted together and rotated, would give the viewer the feeling that the center portion was moving back and forth thru the solid shape. Besides being hard to explain, and maybe even not possible to execute, it really had nothing to do with who I was. Nonetheless I began to sculpt a clay shape that I would cast in fibreglass and attach to my imagined mold. I also talked myself back into the concrete pipe factory.
At the plant, one of the guys, a machinist/welder named Joe Tavola took a liking to my project and helped me quite a bit. He reinforced and welded my fibreglass form into the mold.
Then wrapped the mold with this removable steel band and added the pipes that would create the holes to bolt the two halves together.
Even though a lot of activity was going on, I still was apprehensive about everything I was doing. The morning I showed up for the first ʻpourʼ I got a wonderful visual surprise. Totally unplanned, the combination of the moldʼs unique curves cast a shadow that was the perfect beautiful Yin and Yang sign.
Maybe this whole thing was gonna work out after all, I thought..... We created reinforcement, put it all together and poured it. twice.
We rotated the halves 180 degrees to each other and bolted them together. I had designed a little motor and roller assembly that was supposed to make the whole thing rotate on its edge, but there wasnʼt time to even test it out because the truck was arriving today to head for Chicago and either it was ready to go or it was gonna be left behind. I hoped I could put the finishing touches on it, and get it to work, in Chicago, before the opening. We loaded it onto the truck.
Even with the task of making it roll still hanging over me, I remember feeling relief that I had at least made the deadline. Sure. Next stop:
The Museum of Science and Industry was a very impressive place. Huge. I think they had a whole working coal mine inside and endless science and Industry exhibits. One room was devoted to a huge Foucault pendulum that swung across the gallery floor, successively knocking down pins and demonstrating the rotation of the earth. Anyway after a great tour we were escorted to the gallery where our show was to open tomorrow.
That weekend, the Chicago Sunday times ran this wonderful article about our show and the Center at MIT.
And because the article was about the Center as a whole, a photo of one of my grass playgrounds was actually included
That was great, but I had work to do. The museum staff knew of my problem and had provided me with power and even built a kind of plastic tent around my work area so I wouldnʼt get everything dusty with my grinding. Everyone wished me well and went off to a nice dinner. I started to work, grinding away, and testing to see whether my sculpture would rotate continually. That was at 5pm. Soon, any workmen who were around setting up the show went home. A kid from some local cable-access channel was videotaping me for awhile, but by midnight he was gone too. I worked on but finally, at maybe 4 am, it still wasnʼt working. I was so tired. I gave up.
Now, dusty and exhausted, I had to find my way out of this huge place. This task was made harder by the simple fact that everything except my little area was pitch black.I could wander around in here still lost until dawn. I remembered something Iʼd once read about getting out of a labyrinth by keeping your left hand on the wall and never taking it off. I set out. Slowly. After awhile I saw a dim light ahead and headed towards it. As I came around the corner I saw it was the Foucault Pendulum Room Iʼd seen earlier......but the pendulum was not now swinging. It was tied back against the wall with a big red ribbon and giant bow. I remember thinking right then that everything was a sham, the whole story about the earth rotating and everything else. But I had more immediate problems than the end of the world as I knew it. I still had to get out of here. I headed on with my left hand still on the wall.
Finally the Museums lobby and doors came onto view and I staggered across the street to the hotel where I promptly fell asleep.
The next day the show opened and everything went well except I, of course, my piece didn't rotate and I was totally disappointed. After the opening we all headed back to Cambridge.
When I got back to MIT I got called into the office where the assistant Director, Friedrich St. Florian ( who years later would design the WWII Memorial in Washington DC) and I reviewed the situation. It was pretty clear my piece wasnʼt working as I had intended, and, he explained, the trucking company was charging by the mile and by the pound. Then he sheepishly slid a contract in front of me that would legally give them permission to bury my work somewhere in the San Francisco area. The term was SOLID LANDFILL.
I think he thought that I would be offended or insulted by this proposal so he was relieved to see that I wasnʼt. Secretly I was delighted. There were a couple of reasons why. First, as part of the deal, without me even suggesting it, they said theyʼd take one of my real playground models to the last stop on our traveling exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art. And secondly, MIT had already agreed to have a show of my playgrounds in their Hayden Gallery.
Besides figuratively and literally taking a load off my back, I kind of liked even the ʻSolid Landfillʼ concept; burying my work for the ages. It was ʻarcheologicalʼ.
It was a year or so until the show moved to New Orleans, and it had been a good year for me. I had my show at the MIT gallery, I came up with a new idea at the Center that involved nothing heavier than a stick of chalk and I even got a part time job as the exhibits director of the Boston Childrenʼs Museum, a legendary place.
Finally it was time for New Orleans and one of my living models and I headed south. This time the show went off without a hitch and was, for once, an enjoyable experience for me. The only problem I had was that I had never been to New Orleans in July before and it was unbearably hot and humid. Unbearably
The museum had secured me a room in the Latin Quarter, very beautiful and wonderfully historic, but all I wanted was a pool. I asked the Museum staff if they would mind moving me to anywhere that had a pool. I noticed from the tone of their response that they had gone to some trouble to get us these rooms, but nonetheless they obliged and sent me to a large, Las Vegas style motel. Big neon sign, a lounge with nightly entertainment and an immense pool. Heaven.
The next morning, after a quick swim, I headed to the restaurant for breakfast. I was just about to pick up the menu when, looking across the dining room, I found myself staring right at Rick Caalaman. Neither of us could believe this. He had gone completely around the world and it was just chance that brought us together again at this motel in New Orleans. Great
And, as if that wasnʼt enough, that night Fats Domino was playing live at the lounge. Rick, me, my playground at the museum, New Orleans and Blueberry Hill.
Maybe it was all worth it.
By the way, eight years later I finally built one of my playgrounds; the PLAYCANO, at the Queens Botanical Gardens in New York City.