Knife-sharpener Harper Keehn built a movable home “skeletally” atop a flatbed trailer and took it on a 7,000-mile trip across the U.S. and back again. Saturday he parked it at the entrance to the Goffe Street Armory for City Wide Open Studios’ Alternative Space Weekend, which found the building’s cavernous middle space and three floors of warren-like rooms bursting with artists from all over the area.
And out by the entrance, where Keehn consulted with an onlooker about where he should place a large piece of decorative glass in his home-exhibit.
Keehn’s art on wheels fit with the theme and buzzword for CWOS this year: dwelling. For some that might invoke thoughts of home, of settling down. For three of the presenting artists, however, the theme brought them to think more about moving than about staying put, more about temporariness than about permanence, and what home means if you find the ground constantly moving beneath your feet.
When Keehn started at the end of May, his “project,” as he called it, wasn’t much more than a wooden box with a door and a couple windows on a trailer, with the bed on the floor. He realized quickly that it got too hot to sleep in, and on the road redesigned the windows.
When a couple windows broke from gravel flying on the road, he replaced them with plexiglass. In time, the bed rose off the floor to be on a shelf. More shelving came in, for books. A few decorations. Until the box became something much more like a home.
He made all his modifications on the road, often by stopping with friends he had around the country who worked on ranches. He worked with them for a few days, asked if he could go through their scrap piles for what he needed, and used their shops to alter his house.
Why take a trailer he knew was unfinished on the road?
“It was in reaction to an architecture program”—yes, Yale’s—“that says ‘plan everything,’” Keehn said. He was talking about how architects pore over every single detail before construction. Which obviously has its place and its reasons. But meanwhile, “a person who moves into a space knows more about it in the first 10 minutes than you do after six months of planning.”
Plans change; plans go wrong. And when they do, it’s frustrating. When you don’t have a plan, however, “then it’s always a surprise and a pleasure, instead of being just execution,” Keehn said.
At the same time, Keehn learned “what it takes to make anything is so vastly more than we think,” he said. “Like if we saw what it takes to make this phone, we would pop.” He gestured to his own phone in his hand.
As he traveled across the country, Keehn made quick, elegant sketches of the places he visited. One of Yellowstone. One of a relative’s house in Madison, Wis. One of a McDonalds somewhere on the highway; he couldn’t remember where. The sketches were displayed Saturday in a stack on a table he’d just built, in two hours. He already had the wood and the metal, and he needed a table. He liked, he said, that he had only two hours to do it; it forced him to come up with a simple solution that might be rougher around the edges, but was utterly functional.
Keehn said next weekend will find him living in his home in front of Sterling Memorial Library, as an ongoing part of the exhibition. He’s also thinking ahead to his next jaunt in the trailer and what he might still do to it.
“I’m still working on the electrics,” he said. “I want to get a hard line of propane” for the kitchen in the back of the home. “It’ll be really good in a couple of years.”
In the armory’s attic, accessible by a metal staircase nearly hidden in one of the rooms on the third floor, Lani Asuncion and Colin McMullan had first installed videos of each of them using their own forms of temporary shelter, one a boat, the other a portable house-shaped structure made of emergency blankets.
In the next room were the pieces themselves, there for us to examine. In the dark light of the attic, they seemed to be both more sacred and more fragile.
Asuncion said she was drawn to making a house out of emergency blankets because “it’s supposed to protect you and keep you safe, but it doesn’t.” She said the idea of a house that she can carry on her shoulders has been with her for a while. She grew up as a military kid, moving from Okinawa to Guam to Hawaii and other places, and quickly learned which things she really needed to hold onto and which things she could let go.
“You carry the things around with you that help you survive and adjust,” she said.
For McMullan, who is also a carpenter, building a boat was also a way of reconnecting with his family’s history. “I have this idea that I could take it to Canada and paddle it down a river and find my great-great-gradmother’s homeland,” he said. His ancestor is Native American and her specific history is something the family has lost. By revisiting the place, he could reclaim a small piece of it. Which is maybe as good a way to find home as any, even if there’s only water beneath you.
City Wide Open Studios continues until Oct. 25 at various sites around town, with additional programming in November. For more information, click here.