Oak Tree School > 6. A Collective Work of Art

It was built not (always) around what the architects wanted – it was more of what was available. So when the local stained glass person had some skills – well, here’s some windows we can put some stained glass in. When a local welder that did brazing was available, then let’s build that into the gussets that will go on the trusses for the lodge.

 —Bob Erickson, craftsperson 


One of the benefits of building Oak Tree School with local labor was the ability to recruit artists to apply special touches, such as brazing symbols on the truss plates in the Lodge, making ceramic air vents for the crawl spaces, carving wood friezes in the Library, and so on. It was this “extraness” that distinguished the project and imbued it with a sense of collective ownership. All the little details were seen as opportunities to educate and inspire the students. When completed, the school was a one-of-a-kind art piece created by the San Juan Ridge community.

 Steve Winkel: Part of the design of the school was recognizing that there were a number of folks who had been there a long time, or recently moved up to San Juan Ridge, who had marvelous artistic capabilities. So we wanted to make sure that we made room for those people to participate and that they had a place to go.

Jeff Gold: Well, we had some meetings where we really wanted to try to elicit people’s interests and abilities, both on a paid and a volunteer basis. There was some money to compensate craftspeople for integral parts to the building, as well as donations that could be integrated, which weren’t necessarily part of the design. This was really the ongoing, creative, open-design process of how the community can contribute to its building.

Bob Erickson: It was built not [always] around what the architects wanted – it was more of what’s available. So when the local stained glass person had some skills – well, here’s some windows we can put some stained glass in. When a local welder that did brazing was available, then let’s build that into the gussets that will go on the trusses for the lodge. Somebody knew something about splitting rails, so the rail fence would be done in cedar, and the logs would be gathered from the local forest. The log cabin would be built by Jonathan [Keehn], who [had] built a log cabin [on the Ridge].

Steve Winkel: The other thing about art though that is really interesting [is that] you can’t pre-judge, or you can’t put too tight a boundary, on what somebody does – because what you want is for them to be creative. So you kind of had to leave a few things undone, or kind of blurry, with the expectation that someone would literally fill in the blank.

Holly Tornheim: There were many wonderful things to look at, and to think about. We were reminded [recently] that each one of the buildings had a different structure to hold the roof up, so that was an education in itself. There were those big trusses in the lodge. Then in the continuous architecture classrooms [and] library – each one of those buildings also had a different roof structure. There were scissor trusses; there were beams [and so on].

Bob Erickson: So, that was the attitude, that’s what kind of turned things around a little bit. It was not Frank Gehry imagining a form and then trying to figure out a way to make it and get people who could do it. [Instead] it was very egalitarian and reversed – a part of the times.

Bruce Boyd: I think that’s why it was such a happy project.

THE LODGE

Bruce Boyd: So, when we got to the Lodge, there were these big steel plates on the trusses. The only requirement was that they be three-eighths of an inch thick, take the [structural] fittings and get up the legs [of the trusses]. We made a full-size pattern of all the arms [for the plate]. We gave them to two people, and they came up with totally different ideas of how to elaborate those.

Jeff Gold: The cutting out, the actual shaping of the profile of those, were done by two iron workers who also overlaid them with bronze and copper brazing into various mathematical and educational kind of signs and symbols.

Bruce Boyd: Donald Duck and Rod Coburn did all the beautiful, brazed designs on the plates. And Donald started to make them look like flames, more Nordic – very elaborate. So what we decided to do was put Donald’s on one side and Rod’s on the other. So if you looked one way, you saw all of Don’s [symbols] and if you looked the other way you saw all these various mathematical symbols and astronomical symbols. Each one was a totally individual piece of art.

Gary Snyder: And Zach [Stewart] and Dan [Osborne] really were pleased with that – that they could get a few people to think that way and do that sort of thing.

Shelley Spalding: Everything was intended to be a learning-teaching tool. The truss plates were that, with their symbols. They were quite beautiful.

Hank Meals: The original building was built with a lot of care. Everybody contributed what [he or she] could, such as those beautiful braces up on the trusses, I mean, it had all this extra quality to it.

Bob Eiermann: It really sort of changed my perspective on [construction]. I talked to [other builders and they said] there’s no art in construction. And [on this job] I’m going, “Well, yeah, there is.”

Charlotte Killigrew: And the fireplace in there was so nicely done.

Bruce Boyd: Steve Nemirow built that fireplace. And it was based on a Rumford fireplace, which is a kind of radiant heat fireplace. All that rock was local. All of it. That was another art that we kind of resurrected. I don’t know how many schools have fireplaces in them.

Shelly Spalding: The rock came up from around Lake Faucherie – somewhere up in the high country. It wasn’t like you ordered a load of rock from Grass Valley.

 LOG CABINS

 Steve Winkel: What we wanted to do was make it look like a log cabin [without any sheathing], so you get the character of the building, both inside and out. But it doesn’t lend itself to [being engineered to resist earthquakes]. And I’m sure it’s the only log cabin that’s ever been reviewed by DSA [Division of the State Architect].

Jonathan Keehn: As I remember, a lot of the trees were right on the site there. And then I think we brought in some others. We peeled them all by hand using draw-knives.

Bruce Boyd: There’s an art to peeling a pole – especially [when] used as timbers and as columns. Not so much as the logs in the log cabin. But with peeling poles, you’re not trying to round poles. You’re using a drawknife to facet a pole. And you drawknife it so that you don’t have to sand it, because sanding it opens the grains. So the drawknives cut and leave kind of a shiny surface.

Jonathan Keehn: I had already built a log cabin on my property [on the Ridge], a couple years before. I had read a lot of books about it. When we built our house, we didn’t even have a chainsaw. We used a two-man saw for cutting down the trees, peeling them. And then doing our notching – we used a two-man saw and chisels. By the time we got to the Oak Tree School, we used chainsaws to cut the kerf down to carve out for the saddle notches at every corner – where each log was notched over the one below it. Then we also had to drill a hole through it for a series of threaded rods, which went from the foundation all the way up to the top plate and was bolted to provide [anchorage].

It was a bit of a hassle having to drill these holes… and make sure they lined up with the threaded rods coming through. We didn’t have a nine-foot threaded rod all the way, but we had three-foot rods with connecting bolts. [This was so] we wouldn’t have to lift the logs more than three feet… to drop ‘em down at each lift as we went around. I don’t really remember problems with the log buildings themselves. It’s just a lot of work. There’s a lot of back-breaking labor involved. But it helped to have a friendly architect who came up with a structural design that would pass the State codes.

Bruce Boyd: And we had a State inspector. He came up [and would] have to sign off on all of the [construction]. Well, it turned out he used to build log cabins. And he helped us – I mean, he just loved it! And all he wanted to do was talk about building log cabins. It didn’t matter what we did anywhere else. So, it was like, “oh, okay. I’m going to help these guys,” instead of, “you can’t do that – I’m stopping the job.” It was just a totally different, positive thing. If you’ve ever been on a school project, you would know that there’s this incredible battle between the field inspector and the office inspector and the architect and the contractor. And that wasn’t there [on the project].

 ALL THE LITTLE DETAILS

 Steve Winkel: And there were numerous places in the buildings, which were dedicated for art pieces… A lot of things like doors were built on the site, out of local materials.

Bruce Boyd: One of the teachers, Jenny Travers, made a stained glass window in the Yuba River room, at the end [of the continuous classrooms].

Jeff Gold: That wasn’t part of the original design. [And it] was focused in the east end of the building, so the morning light came through this stained glass window [of] a Yuba River landscape… And there were some potters who created some ceramic vents for the foundation that were really quite lovely, that were decorated with some of the insects that we find in the grasses in the fields.

Doc Dachtler: Yeah, [there were] places where people made special tiles and fired them. I think Joel was involved with that – beautiful, you know. So there were a lot of nice touches on the building.

Jenny Travers: Yes, Joel Goodkind put in ceramic air holes at the bottom that were lovely.

Bruce Boyd: I believe there were some carved doors by Chuck Dockham with big suns on them [as you walked] into the library. There were some downspouts off the Lodge, for taking the water from the gutters, which were shaped like salmon – leaping salmon. That was my contribution to the thing.

Shelly Spalding: I [also] remember Chuck Dockham doing some carving on the beams in the library. He was a woodcarver. There was some inlay turquoise in those carvings.

Bob Erickson: The doors and windows had been made by Mr. Mehrken, up in Graniteville.

Jeff Gold: I recall there were some old wagon wheels that were donated and converted into light fixtures for the library. That was kind of a fun little project. Someone had a notion that “oh, we can use these round fixtures instead of these institutionally-bought fixtures.”

Bruce Boyd: And there were other things, like rockwork that was done in different patterns, trying to create teaching [places] out of the grounds. I think we put a compass in the floor of the Lodge. But I don’t think it’s there any more.

Jonathan Keehn: [Don Harkin] found some cedar logs, I don’t know if he got permission from the BLM land or something. I remember I worked with him at least one of those days. I think that was a project that he had separately. It was for the school, but he kind of ran it off site and organized it. Ten or twelve-foot long logs and split them into split rails. [And] we did build a split rail fence at the Oak Tree School using those at one point.

Jenny Travers: Steve Beckwitt did a weather center of some sort. There [were] all kinds of wonderful things. Our friend Peter Alsing handmade the desks in our front yard out of wood one summer – the summer before we moved into the school. You can kind of walk back in time to see the artwork of people there.