There’s a rare and wonderful tribe of individuals practicing “natural plaster artistry” – raising the ancient skill of adobe building to new and even fantastical heights!
I learned the craft from Bill Steen at the Canelo Project (logo to the right) in southern Arizona, back in 2006, just before moving to Silver City.
And I hired Gavio [no last name] of Sebastopol, California, to help me implement a design in my home under renovation. As soon as I began removing walls, I discovered my home had 9″ deep buttresses in every corner and every nine feet along the walls that had been hidden behind drywall. These not only robbed my home of valuable space, but ruined the passive solar potential* of this home – unless I could find a way to incorporate those buttresses in my design.
The photo below shows part of a buttress sticking out from the corner, mostly hidden by the cream-colored drywall on the right, with the concrete wall painted green on the left.
This is Gavio, beginning the first adobe sculptural tree in my home. Notice I’ve brought down electricity for my inspirational contribution – a lighted “moon” fixture.
I have no idea what he’s designing, so I hold my breath. On the other hand, I’ve seen photos of his work, which I like very much, so I hope and pray. I like very much the branch he’s installing that will cross in front of the moon!
He uses a variety of hardware to attach to the old concrete.
(The original green wall has been painted with a mix of Elmer’s Glue, sand, and water to help the future adobe stick to it.)
Here’s the base, where you can see we used all sorts of random scrap debris to hold things together, fill in the space so we don’t use more adobe than we need, and to have a rough surface to apply to. We used scraps of chicken wire, hardware cloth, lumber, rope and more – whatever was around, rough-textured, and malleable.
I’m still g0ing on faith here, as we begin adding “rough plaster” from the wheelbarrow. Looks rather ugly to me.
I’m still really not sure about this, but Gavio’s in charge.
Still needing faith….
Then we make up a batch of “finish plaster” to finish the wall, and I still worry about that tree.
We “finish plaster” the tree and it all begins to dry – back to ugly again!
I’m unsure, but keep my feelings to myself.
We paint the wall and archway with alises – two paints we made with natural earth pigments, white clay, glass sand, mica, and wheat glue. Then Gavio finishes the tree trunk with three different glazes made of earth pigments and milk casein. Casein paints are more transparent than alises.
I love it! Reminds me of a gnarly old oak in an ancient forest.
* Above, I mentioned that the drywall “ruined the passive solar potential” of my home, which might require some explanation. When a passive solar home gains its heat in the winter daytime, it needs to store it to last through the night – which it does in its thermal mass. Thermal mass is anything heavy, like adobe, brick, stone, and tile, which my home had plenty of, but which must not be buried beneath elements like drywall, which would keep the heat from being absorbed. Therefore, the drywall had to go. (And the exterior of the house had to be insulated, but that’s another story for another time.)
As passive solar design becomes more widely understood, design will mean more than just bringing in the light and heat… and demand will grow for the most beautiful methods of bringing thermal mass into the interior of a home.
In this article: – What is and why care about thermal mass? (It’s all natural, inexpensive, local, artful – and makes our homes more efficient.)
– A Silver City, NM, opportunity to learn sculptural techniques.
Thermal mass is what holds the heat inside a house, so it doesn’t escape through leaks or when you open the door. It greatly moderates the natural “temperature swings” from day to night, and keeps a sun room from becoming unbearable, as it will, if it has no thermal mass. Indeed, it is a common complaint about sunrooms – that they get too hot to enjoy and must be shaded.
This does not need to be the case! The sunroom doesn’t need shade; it needs thermal mass and probably venting or other airflow assistance to help move the heat to the rest of the house.
I brought 1.5 tons of thermal mass into my home already and have plans to soon bring in at least a 1/2 ton more.
Thermal mass is anything heavy that absorbs and holds heat, such as adobe, stones, tiles, bricks, and containers of water – nothing high tech, nothing expensive, but simple, easy-to-obtain, even ancient materials! These, when exposed to the sun, will absorb and hold the heat, and when the heat source is gone and the day cools, they release their heat slowly, all through the night – and that’s the key.
The most common interior materials in modern American homes are drywall, wood, fabric, foam padding, and insulation, which don’t hold much heat and whatever they do hold, they release readily, saving nothing for the cold nighttime. Besides that, their components often degrade in heat and light, so it behooves us to protect them, in front of windows or in sunrooms, and this can best be done, not by shading that valuable wintertime sun, but by absorbing the heat to use – by bringing thermal mass into our homes.
Every home can benefit – even if you heat with a fireplace, gas or electric – by incorporating thermal mass, for the same reasons as above.
Natural plaster is inexpensive, natural, non-toxic, local, and very beautiful – and of course it can make your home an art piece of your very own creation! You can show off or keep it simple and classic.
Some say the tons of clay continue always cleaning the air. And most everyone agrees: “It vibes beautifully.”
Bill Steen, of the Canelo Project in Canelo, Arizona, taught me natural plaster techniques in 2006, just before I moved to Silver City. The workshop was one-week long, cost over $1,000, and included a myriad of interior and exterior applications, from building entire walls and shelves, to carved and built-up sculptural relief, to paints with pigments, mica, oils, and more. (Check the site for more inspiration.)
In 2009, Asher Gelbart introduced me to natural plaster artist and instructor, Gavio (whose website is down now for redesign) who helped me begin a big project I’d long desired but needed help and inspiration to begin.
Together we built and designed two rooms, one a multi-purpose great room, with many unique and functional features, as I describe below.
Gavio returned to New Mexico this afternoon, in part to help me finish my home’s interior
– and we want to offer the opportunity for others to learn this wonderful craft.
Commercial natural plaster mixes can be purchased for nearly $100 per bag – which may not cover a single wall, even thinly. And printed instructions for applying a simple flat coating are on the bag, but hands-on instruction is invaluable, especially if you want to have some fun.
So, as a truly natural, low-cost, and local-materials alternative, we will teach a few participants how to create, not a bag or batch, but a ton of plaster for around $100.
We’ll work approximately three days each week for the next month, depending on our energies and that of the people who’d like to participate.
We’ll mix plasters, learn how to prepare foundations for flat work and sculptures, create paints (alises), work with earth pigments, create textures, and more.
Participants will be selected according to their letters of interest. We’re looking for people who not only want to learn, but who might have related experience.
The workshop costs $100, and participants will be offered two days of instruction, mostly by hands-on work, with more days of hands-on instruction offered no cost to those who prove their interest and capability.
Folks can pay by cash or check, and if you want to use a credit card, I can even accept credit cards. We will also consider partial scholarships to those who give us compelling reason.
Class size will be limited to four participants per day, so please let us know soon of your interest, by calling 575-534-0123.
For more inspiration, enjoy the photos below, copied in a few “screen shots” from a web search for “natural plaster”: