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Down at the Farm: Carving a Door to the Dome

Local artist Luis Ramirez carves the door at the Organic Farm.

Local artist Luis Ramirez carves the door at the Organic Farm.

Artist Luis Ramirez, Lisa Heinlein PI '13 and Farm Manager Juan Araya

Artist Luis Ramirez, Lisa Heinlein PI '13 and Farm Manager Juan Araya

A view of the finished door from inside the Earth Dome

A view of the finished door from inside the Earth Dome

Just moments after I arrive for my first wood-carving lesson down at Pomona’s Organic Farm, local artist Luis Ramirez demonstrates how to hold the carving tool he’s chosen for my particular section of the project--a chicken wing, which at this point is really just a block of wood glued to a door. He makes a few pencil marks on the wood, and tells me to start shaving off wood in the direction of the grain. And that’s it.

Ramirez trusts me to get it right, or at least he knows I can’t screw it up too much at this stage. But I’m not so sure. This isn’t like making the first few pencil marks of a sketch; this is can’t be erased, the wood can’t be put back. But I bend over the door, and start slowly, very slowly, whittling down the wood into the approximate shape of a chicken wing.

My few hours of experience in woodcarving are brief in comparison to what several Pomona students learned from Ramirez these past two semesters. But the openness and trust that Ramirez showed in me, including my initial invitation to carve, which came while researching this story, is similar to how he treated his regular woodcarving protégés--the students enrolled in Farm and Gardens classes--and demonstrates what an open, collaborative community the Farm has become.

Ramirez, an accomplished Claremont artist by way of Mexico, was brought in by the Environmental Analysis Program to help students learn to carve wood and complete an intricately carved door for the Earth Dome, a large, super-adobe, rammed-earth structure that, once finished, will be used as an outdoor education center.

The door project, which brings the Dome closer to completion, is also a project that ties into a larger goal of the Farms and Gardens class: Showing students that working with nature isn’t just about growing food, but can also be about art and craftsmanship.

“The project was invaluable--actually participating in an art form that may typically seem so far removed from a student’s daily life can be a wonderfully calming escape from the stresses of attending school full time,” says Alison Rossman ‘10, who plans to stay in Claremont after graduation to continue carving with Ramirez and teach woodcarving lessons. “I love that it was a communal project that brought people together--I met so many students, staff and community members.”

The door project began when Farm Manager Juan Araya built the door and frame about 18 months ago, and completed the initial drawings for the carving project. During the fall semester, Ramirez spent hours with students, teaching them the history of his work, which is also featured locally at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and at Chino park, and how to care for the tools, so that they would receive a broader understanding of woodcarving.

Ramirez, Araya and Rossman collaborated on the final design, which features Pomona-centric motifs like citrus trees, Mt. Baldy, chickens, a hidden 47, and the names of all the participants who carved the door. The actual carving took place as one of several special projects during the spring semester Farms and Gardens class.

“The door is meant to not only protect the resources we put in the Dome, but reflect the creativity of the place,” says Professor of Environmental Studies and Geology Rick Hazlett, who co-instructs the Farms and Gardens class with Araya. “And it is truly amazing. It would be at home on a church somewhere in folkloric Zacatecas; it’s a spectacular Pomona-themed work."

Lisa Heinlein, a Pitzer College freshman and Farms and Gardens class student who spent many hours on the project, says she was attracted to the project because she “wanted to do a special project that left a legacy and involved working with my hands. You don’t get a lot of chances to do art in college unless you’re an art major and I thought that it was really a great experience.”

Rossman, too, was attracted by the chance to work with her hands on an artistic project. “I think students learned that getting to know the earth is not just about farming, but can include finding inspiration from nature for art.”

The Farms and Gardens Class

“What we want to do in the class is not only provide education in food production, but also education in what comes along with farming, which is learning how to do things with your hands and building things,” says Araya.

The Farms and Gardens class is a popular class, says Hazlett. At 40 students, it’s larger than traditional Pomona classes, but Hazlett said he must still turn away a few dozen students each semester. (Pitzer, on a temporary basis, is also offering a class at the Farm.) To manage such a large class, Hazlett and Araya divide the students into groups for a special project near the end of the semester.

This spring, the door was one such project. Other students painted an outdoor storage shed and the inside of the Dome, built wood benches for the outdoor classroom area, and assisted Kimber Lopez ’10 plant and label a native medicinal garden for her senior thesis in environmental analysis. Other recent and ongoing projects at the Farm include working with bee hives and chickens, analysis projects like soil chemistry, building a mobile solar unit, thatching the roof of the outdoor classroom, and constructing of a composting toilet.

In the future, Hazlett says, he hopes to have students work more with solar panels, build a small wind turbine, make biodiesel fuel, harvest honey, as well as continue artistic projects like carving a back door for the Dome, creating primitive musical instruments and, someday, weaving baskets from materials grown at the Farm.

Araya says that he and Hazlett develop the ideas, but give freedom to the students to pursue the projects. “We let the students go on their own to where they want to take the projects,” says Araya. “That way, they have more say than just being told what to do.”

For more images of the door project and other activities at the Organic Farm this semester, please visit our Flickr account.