Posted in 2 Home

Building an Adobe Tree!

canelo projectThere’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.

tree beginningThis 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.

tree branches 3I 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.)

tree base 4

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.

tree mudded 5I’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.

tree mudded 6Still needing faith….

tree wall moonThen we make up a batch of “finish plaster” to finish the wall, and I still worry about that tree.

wall scupture unfin

We “finish plaster” the tree and it all begins to dry – back to ugly again!

tree sculpture

I’m unsure, but keep my feelings to myself.

office fin

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.)

Posted in 2 Home

Natural Plaster Artistry – a Dang Long Haul – But Beautiful!

IMG_3363Well, they say this work is better done by younger people – it’s SO labor intensive, and the work, if it’s done artistically, requires repetitive movements of the wrist.

tree croppedAnd so I had to quit and heal my wrists for awhile – just didn’t realize I’d wear braces on them for six months and wait five years to return to the work!  (I’m 62.)

This is how we began, in 2010:

wall moveFirst, we had to move some walls, which left odd buttresses jutting out into the rooms.

So I called a friend who’d taught natural plaster application, Gavio, and together we decided to hide the worst-placed buttress with a tree sculpture (above).

Then I organized a Dory cropworkshop to teach the skills and get a little help.  The participants were great!  This is Dori.  (They didn’t suffer like I did, but no one was as fussy as me either, and I did work on the most detailed items, so perhaps it’s more than just age.)

Gavio sculpted the trunk out of branches, and I fussily commanded the perfect placement of other branches to be the actual branches of the finished sculpture, which I’d earlier collected, chosen, cleaned, sanded, and varnished.  (Again, see above.)

(Sorry I don’t have photos of that process, but in my next post, I’ll show photos of the same process done in the guest room.)


We mixed adobe and applied it to the trunk, beginning with “rough adobe” to approximate the shape, then “finish adobe” (every ingredient sifted through 1/4″ mesh) for the finish, and – optional – a selection of three natural earthen glazes for the tree-trunk and “alis” for thinly covering the walls and door and window arches.

Sounds easy!  And, in a sense, it was.  But there’s a lot to know – such as how to sense the perfect mix of sand and clay that will go on easily but not crack.  And a few natural additions to improve stickiness and inhibit mold while the mixture dries.

Once you know that, it’s almost like playing in mud as a child.  It’s natural and organic, it’s sensuous, and it calls out to be played with.  And so we did.  We couldn’t help it!

IMG_3397 w ovalFor instance, why create a flat adobe interior wall finish, when you can have flourishes around the sconces on either side of the tree?  (See inside the left oval to the right – that flourish has a shelf below, perfect for a small statuette.)

IMG_3398We built in bookcases, covering scrap lumber with adobe.

IMG_3410We put cat’s paws on the corners, just for fun.  (Gavio’s idea – I approved.)

IMG_3429 crop

And every doorway has an arch, which suits my desire to minimize or obscure rectilinearity!IMG_3401

And now, I’m healing my wrists again!  Wish me well.  (It’s been two weeks and some fingers are still tingling.  And yes, I’m getting medical advice.)

In my next post, Building an Adobe Tree, I’ll show photos of how we began the the first tree in the guest bedroom five years ago, to give you a sense of the sequence.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you won’t believe the amazing transformation!tree beginning