Wednesday, December 27, 2000


Birmingham News 
staff writer

December 27, 2000 

Trace the slanting rock layers of the Elton B. Stephens Expressway cutthrough skyward, far into the distant past, and imagine the mountain that might have stood here 300 million years ago, part of a chain of mountains as tall as the Alps.
Today's downtown skyscrapers sit on rock layers that would have been buried two miles beneath that mountain's peak.
Picture ocean waves crashing against a shoreline forested by tropical jungle near present-day Prattville 80 million years ago. In the sky above, giant flying reptiles, pterosaurs, glide over the seas that covered today's cotton fields and Capitol dome.
Look at the black coal dug from West Alabama mines and see the remains of a prehistoric tropical swamp, crawling with huge amphibians, giant cockroaches and dragonflies with 3-foot wingspans.
A new book, Lost Worlds in Alabama's Rocks: A Guide to the State's Ancient Life and Landscapes, recounts the story written in the state's rocks: coral reefs near Cullman, Georgia volcanoes raining ash on Valley Head, triceratops tromping around Tuscaloosa, whales in Washington County, woolly mammoths near Moulton.
When the book's author, Jim Lacefield, drives Alabama's highways, he can visualize more than 500 million years of change. A seabed rumples up like a rug to form a towering mountain range. Those mountains, bit-by-bit, destroyed by time and the Lost Worlds, page 6A 1A elements and carried down streams to the sea. Oceans rise, waters recede.
As the landscape and climate have changed through the eons, the living things that have made their home in this land have changed as well.
Revealed in road cuts, quarries and the rocks in stream beds, it's a chronicle much more ancient and lasting than in any library or on any computer disk.
"These are things we all pass by every day," Lacefield said. "Once you gain a little insight into what these rocks indicate about ancient environments, climates and landscapes, you can never look at them the same way."
Lacefield, now an adjunct professor of biology and Earth sciences at the University of North Alabama, taught science for a number of years in public schools in North Alabama. A biologist by training, he decided to return to the University of Alabama to get a doctorate in science education and to broaden his background. Paleobiology On the road to that degree, he became interested in paleobiology, a hybrid discipline that examines fossil evidence of ancient life and traces the connections to today's plants and animals.
As a teacher, he'd had textbooks that dealt with those subjects, but the examples and evidence cited were always from elsewhere. The more he studied, the more he realized the case for the evolution of the Earth and the plants and animals living on it was all around him in Alabama landscapes.
"The story here is just as good as anywhere else," Lacefield said.
So he has turned work he did for his doctoral dissertation into a book. Published by the Alabama Geological Society, the book has 300 color photos, plus paleo-maps and fossil charts, detailing and illustrating the record of more than 500 million years of change in Alabama's environments and living communities.
The book presents current scientific ideas and new evidence about how the Earth, and particularly the land that would become Alabama, has been shaped through the ages. Since the 1960s, with the development and refinement of the theory of plate tectonics, the field of geology has undergone a revolution.
According to the theory, the uppermost layers of the Earth - the continents and the ocean floor - are made up of large plates that "float" on softer, more fluid rock beneath. Over the course of millions of years, these plates have collided, driving up mountains, and ripped apart, forming ocean basins.
In their movements, the continents have drifted across the face of the globe, from the equator to the poles.
As the theory has been applied to current geologic events and is bolstered by evidence from the fossil record, it has helped explain many hitherto mysterious aspects of the Earth and its processes.
For instance, why do several layers of rock and fossils deep beneath southeastern Alabama match up better with African geology than North American?
Because evidence indicates that about 250 million years ago the Earth's continents were joined together in a supercontinent we now call Pangaea. When what is now Africa slowly tore away from North America, about 200 million years ago, it left a sizable chunk of itself behind.
The land deep beneath Dothan was once a part of Africa, near modern-day Senegal.
Using the clues found in local rocks, Lacefield's book follows Alabama's journey through the past half-billion years. "This book was written to help Alabamians understand modern geology. The age, the changes, the progression of living communities through time, those are written in the rocks we see," Lacefield said. South of equator It's a story that begins 500 million years ago on the bottom of warm shallow seas when, in successive waves, the layers of limestone and iron ore that underlie the Birmingham area were deposited.
Continuing, it finds Alabama 300 million years ago, located well south of the equator, feeling the impact of North America's collision with Africa as those earlier layers rumpled up like a rug to form the Appalachian Mountains. With the mountains to the east starting to be thrust upward during the Pennsylva nian Period, much of northern Alabama was a broad coastal plain fed by a great river that ran down the western flank of the young mountains.
The remains of the lush tropical forests that grew in those coastal swamps were buried under sand and mud to become a thick blanket of organic matter, which eventually formed coal deposits.
Concurrently, Lacefield traces the progression of the animal life that inhabited the land and the seas. In 500-million-year-old Alabama limestone are fossils of primitive sea creatures, trilobites, that would have inhabited the warm seas that then covered the Birmingham area. In 300-million-year-old shale and sandstone from Walker County are footprints left by amphibians that made their homes in Coal Age swamps. Giant crocodiles Meat-eating dinosaurs roamed a coastal plain arcing from Auburn to Tuscaloosa 100 million years ago. Their bones are found along with fossil remains of their landscape: tropical figs, palms and cinnamon trees.
The seas covering South Alabama at the time swam with creatures like the 35-foot-long mosasaurs, a carnivorous marine lizard; turtles as large as 12 feet in diameter; and sea-going crocodiles up to 40 feet long.
More recent fossils, dating from 2 million up until 10,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, show the state was home to woolly mammoths, camels and giant ground sloths. With much of the Earth's water locked up in the polar ice caps, sea levels were much lower at that time.
Alabama's coastline would have been 60 miles south of modern-day Gulf Shores.
In that colder climate, forests resembling those in Canada now covered North Alabama. Birch and hemlock trees descended from that cold forest remain today in the damp, cool canyons of the Bankhead National Forest.
Lacefield's book is something of a mix: a field guide for fossil hunters, a primer on the Alabama rock formations and how to recognize them along the highways, and a prologue to the continuing story of the land of Alabama as it evolves through time.
"Every time we have a rain and we see a little cloudiness in the streams, that is the Earth in change. The mountains are wearing down and washing away and new land is forming from these particles along Alabama's coastline," Lacefield said. When you walk the white sand beaches of the Alabama coast, you're walking on dissolved rock, washed down from vanished mountains. If you happen upon a horseshoe crab on the beach, you might be able to imagine his Coal Age ancestors crawling on the shores of Walker County 300 million years ago.
"All these processes are continuing into the future," he said. "The timeless processes shaping the land are those same ones that we see recorded in the rocks from long ago."

Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Artis Wright of Rockford, Photo credit:Phillip Barr, The Birmingham News
THOMAS SPENCER News staff writer

You have to love the thought of it.
Five hundred art patrons on a roadside in Pittsview, Alabama, a town that's not much more than a flashing yellow light south of Phenix City on U.S. 431. As trucks whiz by at 60 miles per hour, collectors from Atlanta peruse the latest offerings of housepaint-on-tin and scrap-metal-into-sculpture from local artists while they sip complementary Mad Dog 20/20 and nibble on hoop cheese and crackers.
Or maybe you're driving through Rockford, Ala., a slightly larger metropolis - one stoplight, population 500. On a bench on one side of the street is an 88-year-old retired roofing contractor in paint-speckled overalls, topped with a colorfully painted hat and backed by an array of brightly painted totems in the storefront behind him. Across the street, strumming on a blues guitar, his friendly rival, an artist and art dealer welcomes customers to his gallery full of fanciful folk art fish.
That's two art galleries in a four-block town, more galleries per block than New York City.
That's folk art. The craze over this primitive work has put Pittsville, Rockford and other obscure Alabama spots on the art world map.
The 20th Century Folk Art News calls folk art "art produced by untrained people who draw on their culture and experience in an isolated world. It is made with true, untutored, creative passion. It is raw, expressive, unconventional, non-conforming, genuine and truly original. Folk art should not be confused with country crafts, duck decoys or split cane baskets. It is highly personal art."
That makes Alabama an ideal home for a folk artist.
Our reputation as an uneducated backwoods is an asset, for once. People come to Alabama assuming that the state hatches folk artists like an old tire breeds mosquitoes. Creative, artistically inclined Alabamians, black and white, young and old, once considered just plain weird, are accorded Folk art, Page 8G 1G an almost reverential respect.
The artists being discovered in these small towns are not the few Alabama artists - Thornton Dial, Charlie Lucas, Moses Toliver, Lonnie Holley and Bill Traylor, to name a few - who've already been "discovered" and now are being taken seriously.
These artists are the secondstring folk team. Some may already be on their way to joining the elite. Others are just happy to be following their bliss.
And they aren't just waiting to be discovered by the outside art establishment and big galleries in Birmingham or Atlanta.
In remote places like Pittsview and Rockford, locally owned galleries are reaching an international audience via the Internet, selling local artists' works on personal Web sites or over the Internet auction site, eBay. Now self-taught Alabama artists who might otherwise have never sold a piece are making a living, meager though it may be.
But the folk art world is also a series of Catch-22s, traps for an artist. Artists can be taken advantage of or mistaken for a con artist. Sell too much and you've sold out. Remain obscure and starve. Hide any education you've got and play the stereotype, or risk losing your cachet.
In a world that is supposed to be innocent, raw and genuine, things can get complicated.
Even in Pittsview. Table uncovers talent
In 1994, James A. Buddy Snipes, then a 52-year-old lumber company worker, brought a creation into "Mayor" Frank Turner's antique shop.
Snipes traded with Turner on a regular basis, selling him old farm implements and furniture found in the surrounding countryside. But this piece, created by Snipes, was like nothing Turner had ever seen before: an upturned table top framed with mule plows, decorated with dirty, old snuff jars, and topped with a plastic chicken.
"I laughed out loud at the thing," Turner recalled.
Snipes remembers telling him, "That laugh is going to turn into a smile."
Turner did get a lot of smiles, paying $5 for the piece and putting it up for display in his antique shop with a $500 price tag.
Not long after, a group of Atlanta businessmen on a fishing trip stopped in the store. One took a picture of the objet d'art and soon after an Atlanta gallery owner traveled to Pittsview, in search of the local talent.
Thus encouraged, Snipes began to make more pieces, painting stick-figure portraits of relatives on old tin.
And they sold.
Snipes has the perfect folk art pedigree. A black man with almost no formal education, Snipes never had a bank account or driver's license before his folk art success. The money he's earned from his art has enabled him to buy a trailer where he now lives, though he still paints and creates in his former home, a shack with no running water, across the street, secluded in a grove of pines.
"I've been making things all my life," Snipes said on a recent afternoon, standing outside his workshop. "I was born with this gift."
On this afternoon, he is working on a wooden hat, which consists of a flat board cut into a circle with a beaver-tailed bill extending from it. The top of the board is painted and below is attached a circle of vertical sticks, bound by a copper wire, that surrounds the head.
"I love my work," Snipes said. "Whatever come into my mind, I got to do it."
He makes annual trips to Kentuck and other arts festivals and is called on, not infrequently, by art collectors and connoisseurs. He works full time as an artist.
"I'm doing pretty good," he said. "I'm the only one in the family that is famous. My neighbors they are shocked to death. They had no idea this was in me."
His success has, however, caused some friction on the Pittsview art scene.
Though Snipes doesn't have a formal education, he is business savvy. His relationship with Frank Turner, his original patron and booster, is strained.
Turner still buys and sells from Snipes, but their dealings are strict buy and sell deals. In the early days, Turner would give Snipes cash for his work and then turn around and sell them for whatever he could get for it. He kept track of the profits and passed the excess back to Snipes, Turner said. But as Snipes became more interested in the business side of things, disagreements about pricing and commissions arose. Turner admits that the floating nature of prices in the art market could lead to abuse. Folk art is supposed to be affordable so most artists in the category produce small pieces priced from $35 to $50. But bigger and more complex works can go for hundreds, even a thousand dollars. "It would be easy to take advantage of them," Turner said of his artists.
Yes, artists. After Snipes' work sold, other artists started bringing their work to Turner and gradually his antique shop metamorphosed into an art gallery.
"The Mayor's Office" is frequented not only by the casual Atlanta vacationer on the way to the beach, but also by more serious collectors. It has a Web site, an e-mail mailing list, and hosts, in March, the annual art show.
Turner, a retired school administrator, is not really the mayor of Pittsview, which is unincorporated. He's just the most recognizable character there.
Turner was a bit taken aback that people were paying serious attention to the humble creations of country folk. "It's sort of flabbergasting. I'd seen these things like bottle trees all my life," he said. "I didn't think anything of it. They were so common."
But Turner has come to admire their efforts. "You see what they have done with nothing." Finding a sign to create
Just up the road, a black laborer and farmer now in his 70s, John Henry Toney, was plowing one day then he turned up a turnip in which he saw the face of a man. This he interpreted as a sign that he was to create art.
Toney also lives in the perfect folk-art setting. At the far end of a dirt road, long poles propped on the ground hold closed the doors of his aged mobile home. He's surrounded by a quasimystical landscape: 10 remote acres populated with alligators in a swamp and panthers sighted by Toney, and a moon that follows him when he goes out at night.
Seated beneath a shade tree on a yard swept clean so the snakes stay away and talking above the din of cicadas, Toney explains his most recent work, a rendering of Adam and Eve, a bull and a snake. Adam is dressed like a cross between a jaunty cavalier and a gunslinger. Eve has an elaborate hair weave and large protruding bosoms, a recurring theme in Toney's work.
"She'll knock a man dead," he said.
Big breasts and hips catch men's eyes, he explained, and that's what sells.
Toney sketches with magic markers and commonly uses cut-up posterboard for a canvas. Toney's characters are of indeterminate-race people in a landscape shared with jet planes or dinosaurs in the plowing field.
Toney isn't quite sure what to make of the attention he's been getting. He suspects the visitors to his remote corner of the earth are looking for people pictured on wanted posters.
"As black as I am, you think they would come all the way from California to take a picture of me?" he asked.
Separating fact from fiction
Up the road in Seale at Butch Anthony's place, The Alabama Museum of Wonder, a braying jackass greets approaching cars and a brilliant blue and green peacock preens through a barnyard landscape cluttered with scrap metal sculpture.
Anthony, 36, is tall and lanky, always in overalls, his cap turned backwards. He is a softspoken P.T. Barnum, a slowdrawling country boy who is subtly hip to post-modern irony. He has a goofy grin and a disguised but formidable intellect. He's a carpenter, a welder and a gifted artifact hunter.
He lives in a large homemade log cabin built on the family farm and works in another log cabin he built when he was only 15.
He gave up his roadside barbecue restaurant for art, though he still works with his father, who conducts the Possum Trot Auction, where Butch buys a lot of his odd raw materials.
"His daddy is real nice, but he just shakes his head at this art," said Frank Turner.
Choosing just a few items to describe in Anthony's Museum of Wonder seems futile, but the converted maze-like barn includes real dinosaur fossils and Indian artifacts, a furless stuffed squirrel, several reconstituted crows and the cast of a Sasquatch footprint - faked but inspired by a local reported sighting.
There are several items on pseudo-museum display behind the glass of overturned mason jars: a foot-long nose hair from the Loch Ness Monster, a "crawball," a ball of string and twigs, fishing line and roots found in the craw of a chicken a local woman was dressing for a Sunday dinner, and the world's largest gallstone supposedly removed from a 487-pound woman from Albany, Ga.
Hanging in a far corner is a decorated gas mask billed as wreckage from an alien ship shot down over a Dothan dove.
What makes the whole journey through the Museum of Wonder particularly interesting is the impossibility of separating fact from fiction, from knowing whether Anthony is kidding or serious.
"How can you be serious about a space alien?" he laughed, when asked.
Through word of mouth, features on television and an extensive Internet operation, Anthony regularly receives visitors. Curious about the world but tied to his little corner of the earth, Anthony has found a way to bring the world to his door.
"You meet neat people from all over the world," he said.
He's made a serious a business out of being odd and designing humorous and pleasing painting and sculpture. "When I first started doing it, it was sort of a joke, but it got serious."
And he's also discovered a yearning to make art that will be taken seriously.
Trying to shed the folk art label, Anthony is the founder of the "Intertwangalism" movement. Intertwangalism takes a distinct way of expressing oneself (twang) and mixing it (inter) and making it, well, an "ism."
"Maybe we'll have our own thing going," Anthony says as he looks at one of his Picasso-like, Southern-fried nudes.
Meanwhile, he is having trouble with the powers-that-be, those who label art work. A visiting academic was charmed with Anthony's work until in the studio, he noticed Anthony's extensive library, which includes everything from Foxfire books and the complete works of Dr. Suess to biographies of Einstein and Jefferson and selections from Emerson and Thoreau.
"Look at all these books," the academic exclaimed.
"He got mad and left," Anthony said. "Some of those folklorists are crazier than the artists. They come studying us and somebody ought to be studying them, too." Avoiding perfection
Artis Wright, 88, Rockford, Alabama's original folk artist entrepreneur, knows how to meld his art to the expectations of the art world. He paints or builds what he sees in visions dancing on the ceiling at night. But he doesn't get it too right.
Folk art, he said, is art that "ain't made perfect."
"That's the reason I make one eye higher than the other or big eyes," he said.
If a piece is too symmetrical or realistic it won't sell. "The art people say it is too perfect," he said.
Wright lives in a house painted from ground to roof with Indians, warrior women, dogs and tigers. He uses turkey feet, cow bones and deer parts, fabric and paint to assemble sculptures and totems.
"I enjoy it and it helps me more than anything," he said. "I believe I would have been dead if I hadn't done it. My name is Artis and I reckon I was meant to be an artist."
He opened a shop on Rockford's main street about eight years ago, and now opens it up when he feels like it, mostly on Saturdays. He knows how to make a deal, as most folk artists do, protesting that he wouldn't sell this piece or that, playing his prices against the competition across the street.
"A little competition helps Rockford. It helps a lot to have two of them," Wright said.
Making it fun
Nor does Charlie Simpson mind the competition. A 48-year-old Brownsville, Texas, native, Simpson worked for Alabama Power and had a little real-estate company before he discovered he could make a living selling arts and crafts. He started with the crafts, making birdhouses from bark, poplar wood, and vines.
Then he discovered he had some talent with a paint brush. He put away his chainsaw, much to the relief of his wife, and began committing art.
"After building thousands of functional bird accessories, it was like somebody flung open the door and said have some light in your life," Simpson said.
A fisherman all his life, he liked doing wildly colored, cutout fish made of wood or license plates, 3-D birds, and hub caps turtles. Since his shop is near Lake Martin and the Coosa River, Simpson found his favorite subject was conveniently popular with his customers, but he's expanded beyond lake dwellers.
Mothers, he explained, like to decorate children's bedroom's with fish since they are genderneutral and nonviolent, he said.
"I also send a lot of stuff to the coast for condo decor," he said.
He also expanded his business to the Internet, selling from his own site and on eBay, the Internet auction site.
Last year, he was shipping three to five pieces a week sold over eBay to every state in the union. That market, though, is suffering from a glut and confusion.
His pieces on eBay are now lost among a huge swell of other artists selling their wares.
All of sudden, thousands of artists are calling themselves outside artists, some of whom, Simpson suspects, are disguising their formal art education and fictionalizing their biographies to fit the mold.
"Some of them look like someone has got his child chained to a tree painting angels," he said.
Unfortunately for Simpson, he has a little more education than the stereotype and lives modestly but comfortably. "I don't have a wooden leg, and I don't live in a trailer tottering on the edge of a cliff."
Still, the Web site is great exposure and his business is making enough to keep the lights on.
He has no delusions of grandeur. If an art shopper comes in looking for an art investment, he recommends other artists he stocks in the shop like Bernice Sims, an elderly black woman from Brewton whose work Simpson admires.
Forget the labels, Simpson recommends.
"Ideally, no one should categorize artists," he said.
Just buy what moves you.
"Folk art is supposed to be fun," he said.

Sunday, March 12, 2000


Samuel Mockbee

Birmimgham News staff writer
Publication Date: March 12, 2000

NEWBERN A battle with leukemia, now beaten into retreat, has drawn in Sambo Mockbee's once-full face. With his salt-and-pepper beard tumbling to his chest, he looks more like a Civil War general than an iconoclastic architect and educator.
Mockbee is easy to picture astride a steed, swinging a saber above his head and whooping, like his great-grandfather who rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest.
But Mockbee would be galloping in the other direction. Against tradition. For democracy.
Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee, a 55-year-old Auburn graduate, is a founder of Auburn's Rural Architectural Studio, a university outpost in Hale County from which Mockbee and his architecture-student troops are waging a house-by-house campaign of reconstruction.
With talent and sweat, the platoon designs and builds architecturally unique and inexpensive houses for the poor in one of the nation's poorest regions.
Though a sixth-generation Mississippian, Mockbee has no reverence for the white-colum ned mansions of the Old South, nor the ostentatious New South skyscrapers of the Atlanta skyline. "Where is Sherman when you need him?" Mockbee grumbles.
He is interested in architecture that improves society.
In seven years, using salvage timber, license plates, old tires and hay bales, Auburn students have built five houses, two community centers, a playground and a community chapel. A dozen second-year students come each quarter. They design a project and do manual labor on a project designed the previous quarter. Twelve fifthyear students come for the whole year, design a project and build it. World away Mockbee devised the idea a world away, while serving in 1992 as a guest critic for students at a Clemson Universityowned villa in the countryside outside Genoa, Italy. Back at Auburn, he and architecture school dean Dennis K. Ruth proposed that instead of sending students abroad, they'd deploy them to the Black Belt. Alabama Power pitched in the first support - $250,000 over four years - and the program since has accrued more than Studio, Page 25A 21A $2 million in grants and donations from foundations such as the Jessie Ball duPont Fund and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Working with local social service agencies, Rural Studio students identify needy families.
There are many: Hale County has a per capita income of $15,151 and a poverty rate above 30 percent. Unlike Habitat for Humanity, Rural Studio clients are not required to contribute labor or cash.
Originally headquartered in Greensboro, Rural Studio received the donation of three historic homes in the tiny town of Newbern about 10 miles to the south. Students live and work in one of the three homes, all donated by Greensboro native William Morrisette. The two other homes are targeted for restoration, and one will be the headquarters for a summer fellowship program sponsored by the duPont Foundation that will bring students from other disciplines to the Black Belt for outreach work.
The studio's projects are spread out in a 30-mile radius of countryside. Near the end of a red-dirt Hale County road, on a remote curve in the Black Warrior River, the roof of Anderson and Ora Lee Harris' home perches like a giant metallic butterfly. This is Mason's Bend, an encampment of ramshackle houses and dilapidated mobile homes occupied by the descendants of sharecroppers.
Patchwork house
Harris and his wife, both in their 70s, had previously lived in a patchwork house of nine rooms, without indoor plumbing, that Harris had built by hand. They moved into their Rural Studio house three years ago.
"I never thought I'd stay in something ain't nothing in the world like it," Harris said.
Architectural magazines have featured his new house, with its tall ceilings and elegant angles. The Harrises regularly receive distinguished visitors from universities and national newspapers who come to view the studio's work.
Just up the road, Shepard and Alberta Bryant, also in their 70s, are snug and happy in their house, Rural Studio's first. The two-foot thick walls made of hay bales sealed in plaster provide many times the insulating properties of a normal home.
"Ain't nothing wrong with this house," said Alberta Bryant.
It's a far cry from the Bryants' former residence, a makeshift structure with uneven floors and a roof so leaky they had to rearrange the furniture when it rained.
The Studio's works have brought national attention to this obscure corner of Alabama. Earlier this year, Mockbee went to Washington to pick up the National Building Museum's first Apgar Award for excellence. And on March 7, when the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York opens its first triennial exhibition, Rural Studio will be among the 100 designers featured.
Success no stranger
Mockbee knows acclaim. Before he joined the Auburn faculty, he had a highly successful private practice and was known for his Southern-flavored contemporary homes. Built mostly for rich patrons, Mockbee's designs incorporate rural Southern traditions like dog-trots, bare wood and tin roofs, that are then melded with Modernist angles.
He was well paid, but gave it up after a particularly dispiriting episode, in which an institution asked him to tart up his Modernist design with Old South-y columns.
"I don't want to waste my time being a lap dog for the rich," he told himself in disgust.
Teaching is less lucrative, but Mockbee said it's more worthwhile. He believes architectural education has lost its way, so Rural Studio is a throwback, where students paint with water colors instead of scribing plans on a computer. They don't simply design, they build.
On a winter day, on a corner lot, just off Mason's Bend Road, fifth-year students Adam Gerndt, Dale Rush, Jon Schumann and Forrest Fulton are building a small chapel that will also serve as a social center and school bus stop.
Rammed earth
Having laid a concrete foundation, they're sawing timber to frame the building. For this structure, the group plans to use rammed earth - massive blocks of a locally mined mixture of sand, rock and clay compacted with a hydraulic press.
"It becomes like sedimentary rock," Gerndt explains.
Like all the projects, this one is on a budget. The Bryants' house cost less than $16,500 in materials; the Harrises' $30,000.
About 30 miles to the south, in Thomaston, another crew of thesis students is building an open-air market where local small farmers can sell their crops. The market's shelter has an attention-getting V-shaped roof. But beyond learning to design with flair, the students come to appreciate that architecture includes such mundane concerns as locating pipes and gas lines, and getting permits for curb cuts.
"You run into issues you don't think about when you're drawing pictures," student Bruce Lanier said.
Simple life
For Rural Studio students, there's no television. It's miles to the nearest bar. The women live inside the restored mansion; the men live out back in uncompleted "pods"- eccentric student-designed living quarters made from a conglomeration of plywood and metal, sawedcrossties, and old license platesturned silver side out.
Mockbee lives with the students in the mansion during the week. The atmosphere is informal and relaxed. Ghostly hand
Mockbee admits that his design concepts creep into the students' works: "You can see my hand in a ghost sort of way."
But that happens not because he designs for them, but because he pushes them.
"I do make sure the bar is high. If it is a screen door, it's got to be a screen door that's been thought about," Mockbee says. Most important, he wants his students to think of the social implications of their architecture.
"How is it pushing democracy in a community?" Mockbee asks.
Mockbee's charge doesn't end when his students leave Auburn. Former troops have taken his crusade into their professional lives. When Shelly Carder and a group of fellow Auburn alumni set out to design and build a house in a low-income Nashville neighborhood, it was Mockbee who inspired Carder.
Back in Hale County, afternoon light falls from the high windows of the old home. Mockbee is holding up a copy of Contemporary American Architects, a book highlighting 11 of the best. He runs his fingers down the list: I.M. Pei, famous for the glass pyramid at the Louvre, and Richard Meier, the architect of the Getty Center Museum in Los Angeles. There's Frank Gehry, the architect of the monumental Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. They are all builders of multimillion dollar monumental structures.
"These are the major hitters in American architecture," Mockbee says. Then he puts his finger on another chapter: "Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Architectural Studio."
"These guys," he says with mischievous delight, "they do poor folks' houses."

Tuxedo Junctions and other famous places -

Read this Wayne Flynt piece on the contributions of Alabamians to the jazz and the blues music Tuxedo Junctions and other famous places - ...