|Phonehenge West and Vernacular Spirits|
|Opinion - Looking Glass|
|Tuesday, 16 August 2011 14:00|
Fairfax, VA, USA. As a very small and confused girl, struggling with the mystery of my birth, complicated by fire and falling debris, surrounded by the walking wounded of my family, and lacking the vocabulary for any of it, my mind and spirit wandered in the adult world trying to make sense of what they were trying to tell me.
I didn't know until much later they were demanding an answer to their question: Who do you think you are?
I am Sharon; in fact, I have always been Sharon. I really didn't know for sure how to think about all that but I knew what I thought. Even more, I knew my feelings. They resonated deep within me, conveying a certain ineffable something, a certainty about myself, that eased the pain. Despite looking in on life from the outside early on — and craving acceptance — I earned the knowlege that my pragmatism and emotional shielding could easily wheel about and dive into a kind of narcissistic solipsism.
I learned in too much time not to think too much of my unearned accomplishments as others have faced and fared far worse in life. Being accepted by others, and genuinely accepting others, meant a merging of two worlds into one. I retained my own emotional vernacular but learned the generally accepted social language that binds us all together. Some who do this turn what they see and feel into a something that is palpable in its yearning.
Out in the Mojave Desert, Alan “Kim” Fahey built Phonehenge West, an example of vernacular architecture, a dozen oddly-shaped structures built from abandoned junk that interested him, such as aged railroad gear, old movie sets, and discarded utility poles, all of which led to official suppression and criminal action.
Built by hand over 20 years, Fahey raised a now infamous wooden tower and 11 other structures in the rural Acton area but without the necessary building permits and sub-code electrical wiring.
Officials in Los Angeles County cited Fahey for numerous state building and fire codes, declaring the property a safety hazard. On 8 July 2011, Kim Fahey was jailed in lieu of $75,000 bail for disobeying a previous order to tear down his infamous home. He is now free pending a sentencing hearing on 23 September contingent on the demolition of his property.
See a video and text by Devin Schiro to learn more about the current status of Kim Fahey and Phonehenge West.
Video and text courtesy of Devin Schiro. Time: 00:17:25.
Alan Kimble "Kim" Fahey has spent more than twenty years working, mostly single-handedly, to turn his Acton, California property into the wonderland of habitable sculpture he has named "Phonehenge West." He is retired from a 30-year career as a phone service technician.
Hundreds of people have visited the property and admired the wonderful invention and solid construction of Kim's buildings...even the unfinished segments are beautiful.
Now the County of Los Angeles has declared its intent to condemn not only his work, but the man himself to a jail term longer than those handed out for some violent crimes against actual victims.
I encourage you to judge for yourself whether the County's obstructive hard line is reasonable and just, or a gross miscarriage of justice.
You are invited to join a growing community of people who protest what we consider the senseless persecution of a man whose only "offense" is taking a stand on behalf of beauty, creativity, and the inalienable right of free expression.
Become a Friend of Save Phonehenge West on Facebook, share links to this page with your contacts, and find out how you can speak out to preserve both an artistic landmark and a decent man's freedom.
To join the fight: Save Phonehenge West (Facebook Community Page)
To donate: Save Phonehenge West (website)
An excellent article on the housing injustices occurring in the Antelope Valley: L.A. County's Private Property War (article in LAWeekly)
— DevinSchiroThe Vernacular
People who speak the vernacular are immersed in the mother tongue of their locale, even though a grander political jusrisdiction may supersede their idiom with a state-approved language, which usually serves as a binder for locales within its boundaries. Russian, for example, is the state language of the Russian Federation, but there are 100 other languages spoken by 160 ethnic groups in their own locales.
The differences can be very significant, since language can convey emotions and cultural values, and refer to practical circumstances, that vary wildly from the national norms. As a result, the term vernacular has been useful when referring to art and literature, even finding a home in references to commonly agreed-upon civil practices at a larger scale, such as architecture and building codes.
The term vernacular architecture often sets apart structures that deviate from traditional — and approved — methods of construction. Such installations are decidedly local, using the resources and perspectives immediately at hand, bent to the vision, however idiosyncratic, of their creators.
Like so-called primitive art (such as Grandma Moses), vernacular architecture is perceived as crude and unschooled, and somehow Naïve beyond hope, since it bypasses the standards and calculations of modern civil licensure. Even so, the results often resonate with the mass population as conveying a certain ineffable something that erases the impersonal dryness of regulatory bureaucracy.
All of these people and so many more are unconscious iconoclasts. They may not set out to be revolutionaries, and the rest of us may or may not enjoy their work, but they act in ways that upset conventional norms. The people who create these things do not stand outside our cultural history, but enlarge it to include them. If all doors are barred against them, they make a new one and walk on through.
They remind us that no matter how humble our circumstances, we can make a difference, even if it is only to ourselves and those close to us.
This throws down a puzzle for cultures that strive for material success at the expense of personal fulfllment. The creators were — and are — people who sacrifice what they have for an end product that leaves the surrounding community scratching its collective head, while dystopian officials plot the destruction of what they see as dangerous eyesores that erode the tax base.
Travels Among the Vernacular
The structures at Phonehenge West evoke my memories of other quirky structures built by idiosyncratic creators, such as the Watts Towers (Simon Rodia; Los Angeles, California), the Coral Castle (Edward Leedskalnin; north of Homestead, Florida), Nissim Cachlon's Hermit House in Israel, and many others. Most all of them provoked official ire and were scheduled for destruction at one time or another.
Watts Towers. I recall my first visit to the Watts Towers on a hot Summer day in 1973. There, in the middle of the squalor that was the Watts district were sculptures reaching for the sky from an armature built of steel pipes and rods, then wrapped like presents with wire mesh and a mortar coating that incorporated odd pieces of other things — like glass, porcelain, and tile. Sabato "Simon" Rodia festooned the works with found objects that could range from the natural (like sea shells) to the castoffs from a consumer-driven industrial civilization (like scrap metal, old frames from beds, and bottles).
Rodia often referred to the Watts Towers as Nuestro Pueblo (Sp. "our town").
I recall sitting at the base of one of the towers, decorated with the sheared off bottoms of old Coke® bottles, when two young boys stopped by, wondering why I came. Curiosity, I said, then asked what they thought of the towers. Both of the guys, maybe seven years old, said they didn't understand why the the towers were in "our town", but had to admit they were really great trash, then skipped on to do whatever it is young boys do on a hot Summer day.
Coral Castle. Edward Leedskalnin built the stone structure Coral Castle, he suggested, by using magnetism and/or supernatural abilities. According to Leedskalnin, his only tool was a "perpetual motion holder." All this came about because he had been jilted by his fiancée one day before the wedding in Latvia, then emigrating for America only to allegedly contract terminal tuberculosis.
That's all right, though: he was spontaneously healed by magnets.
What to do? Well, one answer is to build a massive megalithic sculpture from stones of oolitic limestone that weigh several tons. Leedskalnin said he built the castle for the "Sweet Sixteen" that jilted him but, having worked on it until three days before he died from stomach cancer at age 64, other motivations may have competed for his attention.
Coral Castle is a fresh-made ruin. The entire complex feels oversized for a human, with massive and carefully placed benches, looping icons, and pathways, like some celestial convention center without gambling. I stood inside, with the Rock Gate to my back, wondering where the Gods went out to eat after their meeting.
Hermit House. The work by Nissim Cachlon on his Hermit House in Israel can only deepen such mysteries. His earthen structure sits precariously on a Mediterranean cliff near the Sidna Ali Mosque, a region with deep history and interminable caves overdue for exploration. Cachlon has worked hard at this since the late 1970s. He uses natural materials from the sea in ever-deepening tunnels, with dozens of chambers lined with debris he found washed ashore, kitchen pottery, and castoff industrial materials like broken Maccabee beer bottles, all fashioned into elaborate tile mosaics.
Cachlon does not comply with building codes but so far the local authorities have been unsuccessful in their attempts to evict him from the property. Coupled with nearby city construction, the eventual destruction of Hermit House, like everything else, may be a certainty, when hastened by the authorities. They may not have to: the sea levels are rising, eroding his perch, and threatening to flood his tunnels and their treasures for another age of discovery.
The creator, like most of the other iconoclasts, lives in his own creation. Seen from the road, Hermit House is a jumble of stone and power lines, but standing on the beach looking up it had the solidity and clean lines that signaled purpose, opening a very different vista over my shoulder. From the sea, I could well imagine an ancient ship captain in the dark that skirted too close to the Mediterranean shore, warned by cautionary lights from what — a traveler's rest or a forbidding cloister?
Beyond Phonehenge West
Devin Schiro, who explores visual media and photography, has created a documentary film about Kim Fahey and Phonehenge West. The video by Schiro and his accompanying text in the sidebar tells the story.
What remains to be told is the future of Phonehenge West. Fahey has said he intends to reassemble the structure, with proper permits, on a 99-acre plot of land further out in the desert, away from meddling bureaucrats and zealot prosecutors. If so, he could be the most iconoclastic of all the vernacular architects.
Nearly all of the creators we know of settled down on a plot, worked for years on end perfecting their vision, then died. There are some variations on this pattern: Simon Rodia left the Watts Towers "unfinished" after 33 years, done in by hostile neighbors, rumors, and the offical opposition of Los Angeles County. He left the site for good and died 10 years later. People who spoke with him reported that he spoke in context, as though he still was on site, upset at the interruption for meaningless chat.
So, Kim Fahey may soon be done with Phonehenge West in its recent form, but that will not be the end of the story. What will he build now that the debris he collected and integrated within his vision has become the debris of the spiritually blind? He may build out his vision again, somewhere, even if in his reverie. Whatever rises up in any case will extend out to meet us.
The outcome is Kim Fahey's affair, but I hope he continues out there, further, in the reaches of the desert. I did not get to see Phonehenge West, but I surely would buy a ticket for the sequel, even in my dotage. And perhaps that is the best time to do it, bearing witness to the glorious continuity of the vernacular spirit.
Author's NoteI prepared this column for publication in advance. While taking some time in the early morning for a few tweaks, I was alerted that the story had gotten about to people within my ken, most particularly Suzan Cooke and Cathryn Platine. I hope Kim Fahey's story, and those of the other creators, can spread even further.
|Last Updated on Thursday, 03 November 2011 10:54|