La Anatomía de Vaho – LA EXPOSITIÓN
- Date jan 2020
- Location Valhalla Macadamia Farm, Guatemala
- Material exhibition
At the exhibition for Vaho, I explained the project in multiple parts. Sort of like how I broke up the construction timeline but instead the references were anatomical. I don’t see Vaho as simply just a building; she is a Goddess, a living thing so it made sense for me to refer to her stages using more corporeal terms.
Welcome to the Anatomy of Vaho. Thank you for coming. My name is Chelsea Southard. I am here to tell you the story of how a Goddess was made. I didn’t know that was what I was creating when I first made my design back in January 2019 but that is for sure, what resulted. This story contains many characters all of which played an essential part in the creation of Vaho; this creature, this woman, this piece of art and architecture, this labor of love. But there are three primary characters besides myself that I must tell you about. The first day I walked on site where the Temazcal was to be built, deep in the mountains of El Hato, Guatemala, I met the three men pictured above; Erick, Max and Abelino. They are family; born and raised in El Hato. Erick is the son of Max and Abelino is their cousin. We greeted with formality, I showed them my designs for the site and I sensed the distance between us. I’m not good with distance, I am a very warm and open person but I understood it nonetheless. I mean, this strange American girl appears out of nowhere with these grand project plans telling them she wants to build it? Come on now, get out of here. So yes, I must have seemed pretty strange and back then my spanish was pathetic so my attempts to communicate were lame. But I kept my head up, kept smiling and looked forward, past the insecurities to my bigger goal. To bring this vision to life. To the right you can see the first photos of the site. We literally chipped away the mountainside to make room for Vaho. This was the first thing we did actually. The first day I worked with the guys at the site. I remember that day very clearly, because I remember the looks on their faces when I picked up the sledgehammer and joined them on the ledge to chip away the rock. My father taught me to work hard, my brother expected me to achieve my dreams and my mother showed me how to live without fear; they didn’t believe in a designation of mens and womens work. The two most important men in my life put tools in my hands as a child and gave me the confidence to use them. I don’t think many women grow up with men like this but I did. And so for my whole life I have been a woman who does what the world calls “mens work”. I hate to say it like that because it shouldn’t be like that but you get what I mean. When I joined the guys up there to chip the mountain away, it surprised them. They told me they never expected me to come back after that day. But I did. Every day that I could come, I did. Everyday that I wasn’t doing something else project related, like building a glass studio or getting supplies or making jigs in the metalshop for the project I was there with them working, rain or shine. The dynamics between us changed dramatically over the course of this year. They taught me so much. With Spanish, how to build with cement, how to twist wires like a pro, they taught me patience and understanding, over time they weren’t surprised by my work; they expected it of me. They gave me heavy things to carry, passed me tools, made suggestions for our work, joked with me, made fun of me and didn’t look twice when I worked beside them. Over the year we were able to communicate better and better, tell each other about our lives and our struggles. I met their family, shared meals with them and went to their church. I still cannot say all I want to say to them because I am still learning Spanish but on the other hand, could words possibly express what I desire to share? Some of those things I dream about saying fall short with words. Words cannot describe all that I feel and want to say to them. So much if felt and communicated without saying anything, this is another thing I have learned to feel with far more sensitivity as a result of our relationship and this project. What I want you to know, before I explain Vahos creation, is about this friendship that was grown and shared through this project, perhaps the greatest thing that was built as a result of all our hard work. It is a big part of what makes the spirit of Vaho so strong. For me, it is the most precious part of the entire year. When I think of Vaho, they come with it. And that will forever be inseparable. There is a difference between working and building with someone. There is a difference between building and creating with someone. We are creators and together we brought something very special to Guatemala. Vaho. A Goddess is not built, a Goddess must grow. And through us, She did.
I will explain Vaho in multiple parts. Sort of like how I broke up the construction timeline but instead the references will be anatomic. I don’t see Vaho as just simply a building, she is a Goddess, a living thing so it makes more sense for me to refer to her stages using more corporeal terms. I will start where we all start; with birth. The inspiration for Vaho was born in part at Lake Atitlan and in part on Acatenango. The first month I was in Guatemala I stayed at the Lake. I was building for a festival there for the New Year and on the last day of 2018, I sat in my first ever traditional Temazcal. It was an incredibly transformative experience, far more powerful than I had expected. I work and practice to balance the forces of being, my work with Ayahuasca and psychedelic medicines have opened many doors for to find this balance. The conversations of water and fire, the masculine and feminine, the geometric and the organic are always found within them and continue to be a primary topic of my work. And so there I was, sitting in this physical structure that required both sides in order to function. I found the symbiotic nature and the spiritual intention of the space captivating. And with that I had been staying at the Lake for some time, a powerful water center on this Planet. These thoughts and memories stayed with me. Then came Fuego. As most travelers do when they come to Guatemala, I too hiked Acatenango to watch Volcan de Fuego. But I went alone and without a guide and I stayed for three days at the peak of the Volcano. Those days I spent up there changed me. I have never lived around an active landscape, where I can watch the core of the earth fall from the sky every hour of the day. And up there, we are so close to it. So close I could smell it, feel the blast literally shake my tent, ash raining down upon me, its force vibrating through the Earth below me. I was so close to such power. Never before had I felt such magnificent beauty, such overwhelming presence. And on the first night I was there, it was a full moon. But not just any, it was the first full moon of 2019 and it was a Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse. And on that night, on top of the massive volcano, I took a large amount of psychedelics. Above me a radiant red moon glowed and before me liquid fire rained down. As the night moved so did these forces, fusing together into a magnetic amalgamation. I watched them play and found myself in the middle, feeling the pull of each and finding a balance within. As I stood on the volcano after three days, my skin dry, my lips cracking, almost out of water and a long hike ahead, I thought back to the Lake and the Temazcal. I thought of the lush green grass licked with dew between my toes, so moist I could nearly drink the water from the blades. I thought of the heat of the Temazcal, the same heat the exists in the fire rain I watch fall. I thought of my spirit, cleansed in two different ways, from two different sources from these special spots on our Earth. And then I saw Vaho. When I drew her, she flowed out of me, it was like I wasn’t even the one drawing. And perhaps I wasn’t. After her design was complete, the real challenge began. To build her, I had no idea how hard that was going to be. But thankfully I wasn’t alone.
After many days of carving out the mountainside we leveled the ground and mixed the first bags of concrete. Nothing about this project was easy. For one the site is located very far from any road, down a major hill, away from all distractions. Which makes it great for a sanctuary such as her but so much more work for us. Every cinder block, bag of cement, tool and piece of trash had to be carried down the massive mountainside and back up. All the concrete was hand mixed without machines, carried with plastic buckets to its final destination and poured one by one by each of us. There is completely inadequate power at the site. We are running multiple extension cables distances further than should ever be run. Welding was always a nightmare and the amount of almost fires and electrical shocks was quite high. Roots are hard to grasp but they are essential for the foundation of any structure, human or otherwise. We built Vahos foundation strong. A thick cement base cast into the ground cavity with rebar ready to receive the walls.
The first thing I built on my own for Vaho stands right behind you. The arch that you walked through to get here is one of the three arches we used to form her primary curve. The curve from which all other lines of the project grow. I call these curves her heart because without them nothing else would exist. The line for these curves is the first line I drew when I designed her. And inside this heartline, resides the thing that makes the Temazcal live; the fire, the water basin and the source from which the vapor breathes. Making these curves was not a simple task. First, I built the three arches, identical and strong. Then I took them to the site and we installed them on top of the foundation. I welded extra steel beams so that we could place the plywood securely to hold the hundreds of pounds of cement we would pour. Both curves had to be poured in one day. That was one of the best and most exciting days of construction. Mix after mix, bucket after bucket, we filled the cavity that made the curves. Pressing the cement and smoothing it out with a long piece of steel run along the outer edge of the form. After it was dry, we filled in the gaps that were missed and put a smooth finish coat of concrete on top.
From above, Vaho is all geometry. All lines and stacked symmetry. Her interior is organic; full of curves and soft edges. And her face is a combination of both parts, a fusion. Strong lines that hold structure and defining curves of complexity. Much like what I see in all great women. There is a lot of hidden geometry I built into her form, so much expression and intention grown into her construction, her stairs were a big part of this plan. Each stair reaches out across the mountain, finding its place at different lengths on their journeys traversing the Earth below. The seating on her top platform could be thought of as an oversized step. Perhaps if Vaho were to continue growing, this seating would transform into something even larger than herself. But for now it stays as a place to rest and take in the view. Vaho overlooks Volcan de Agua, Volcan de Fuego and Acatenango. The view is outstanding and Her steps and top platform made for countless ways to stretch, rest, dance and play. Each miniature platform making for many new and creative ways to be held by her. The steps are not standard size steps, it takes some work to climb them. The stairs were the most difficult and frustrating part of the project for me and that was because of the power situation at the site. I had to weld thick angle iron to heavy rebar to create the structure from which we would cast the cement. I have worked in professional metal fabrication for my entire adult life, I am a professional fabricator and yet here I was two weeks out still welding this metal structure that should have taken a few days to complete. Weld after weld breaking due to insufficient amperage to get the correct penetration. The guys would laugh at me, I think they thought I didn’t know how to weld. And for a bit there, so did I. It’s hard to know what you are capable of and have all the cards stacked against you, to watch your work suffer and fall apart time after time when you know what the quality of work you can produce. It was humbling and at times heartbreaking. Layering the welds until one was strong enough to hold. But Erick and I pushed on together, he was always my welding buddy. Over the months we worked together, I taught him how to weld, he went from never welding before, to welding the hinge for the door himself. Eventually we did it. We completed the frame for the stairs, blocked out the form with wood and covered it in cement.
From Space. To Sky. To our Air. To our Earth. Into the core of molten lava within. Right down to the center, where molecules are born and broken and born again. This is what the glass sees. I gave Vaho an Eye; built from broken shards of blown glass, cast in resin and mounted to her concrete face. She overlooks an ever-erupting volcano, that brings us the magic of what sits so far beneath us into view. May her gaze be everlasting. In this life and past it. It had been many years since I worked with glass. When I lived in Boston, I worked out of a studio for many years and blew glass everyday. And then it all stopped when I left. It is a very expensive art but when I designed this project, I knew it called for this precious material. The story of how that was made possible is thanks to Richard, the owner of Valhalla, my trip up Acatenango and the synchronicity of life. The day that I hiked the volcano, that day that inspired Vaho, I met Richard. He was hiking the volcano with some friends and we happen to stop at one of the rest areas on the way up the mountain at the same time, if it were a few minutes later we may never have met. But the world brought us together and we did. We hiked the rest of the mountain together until eventually parting ways. But we traded numbers and added each other on Facebook. This was before I had even designed Vaho. Fast forward to many months later after my attempts to collaborate with Copavic Glass Studio in Xela failed and I was now in the stages of designing my own little furnace to blow the glass I needed. During this time, I was also collecting recycled glass from around Antigua. I had agreements from multiple bars for them to save their bottles for me but I could never get enough blue. I was searching for Sky Vodka in particular because that was the only glass that had the dark cobalt color. I posted on a Facebook forum and Richard wrote me. He said he had a bunch of glassblowing equipment at the farm and that I was welcome to use it. I read the message a few times, very puzzled. Glassblowing equipment? There is an abandoned glass studio outside Antigua that this person whom I meet on top of the volcano that inspired the work is offering it to me? What is going on here?…. So I went and checked it out. And what do you know. There it all was. A furnace, a glory, hole, a bench and practically all the tools I would need to start up a studio. Much of it needed attention since it had been left for so many years but I could bring it back to life. The equipment was left by Brendan Sullivan a glass artist from the United States who used to live in Guatemala for over 10 years. And he is here for the show this weekend! He has even fired up his giant furnace and him and I will be blowing glass this weekend. When I found the equipment I reached out to Brendan and we have been in contact ever since. For the next few weeks I rebuilt the glass studio fixed all the equipment and came up with a way to use the glory hole, which is normally only used for reheating glass, into a furnace to melt my bottles since the main furnace was going to be far too expensive to use. I turned the equipment on its side and cast a crucible that I would use to melt the glass in. That crucible, or what’s left of it, is behind you and the story that goes along with the vessel is with it. Be sure to read it, as it is a very important artifact of this project. And so after a few months of what seemed like never-ending challenges, I finally got the studio set up to attempt a firing. I had no real idea if this makeshift furnace was going to work, I didn’t know if it would get hot enough to blow the glass but I lit the fire anyway. And as the propane burned late into the night, the glass began to melt. I dipped my pipe into the molten honey glass and blew my first glass sphere in over 5 years. What a feeling that was! For the rest of the week, I blew glass sphere after sphere, blown then shattered. All the glass that came out of my studio in one way or another ended up broken. In order to understand why this is, you must understand more about the properties and demands of glasswork. Glass becomes liquid and able to be blown at around 2800F/1500C. When you make a piece you cannot just made it and put it on the table finished, it will explode due to the drastic difference in temperature of the glass and the outside world. So you must always anneal glass that you make. Annealing is a heat treatment process that allows the glass to cool slowly and relieve internal stress that causes the glass to shatter. To do this, you must put the piece you create in a kiln that is also very hot and leave it there to cool slowly over a period of hours. This of course, costs a lot of money. So in addition to the high cost of propane just to get the glass to working temperature, you then need to pay to have the kiln running. I had an annealing kiln, but if I were to actually anneal all of my work, it would cost an extravagant amount of money. I ran into this “problem” when I worked at my last glass studio. And my solution was to blow the glass thin enough so that it basically self annealed, allowing me to use parts of the glass as thin shards and build with them using resin. I fell in love with these shards, the light refractions they create, how the fragile glass reacted to sound and so this “problem” actually became a discovery of which I have built most of my glass work around. Sometimes it’s the lack of money that inspires the greatest creativity. In the beginning, it took many hours of propane to get the furnace hot enough. By the end, I could get it so hot so fast that I ended up destroying the crucible. I was a very sad day and marked the end of my glassblowing in Guatemala. Making another crucible was not possible as it is very expensive and takes a long time to create. But thankfully I made enough for the Eye before it broke and even enough for my installations here today. After I blew the glass, I reassembled the shards using resin on polycarbonate panels to create a landscape of color based off of the image of Fuego I took that is on display on the main banner behind you. And transported them with my friends to Vaho for installation.
Built into her main curve is a stainless steel barrel. One side of the barrel sits within the interior of Vaho and the other in the space between the outer curve and the stairs. This curve divides these two spaces and also separates the fire from the water. I didn’t realize until after I lit her fire how dramatic of an experience I created with this separation. On one side, you have the clean white concrete interior, it smells sweet; vapor mixed with lavender and basil steaming from hot volcanic rocks. And on the other, there is the natural stone of the mountain, dark and rustic; smoke and fresh cut wood mix with the flavor of the Earth. When I saw this symbiotic contrast of beauty and function, of water and fire, darkness and light; I felt I finally understood my design not only for its physical qualities but also for the experience that was created with these lines and curves I envisioned and how deeply it connected with my own personal philosophy and spiritual practice. I was not here for the creation of the interior seating. At that time, I had to return to the United States for my Grandmothers 95th birthday so I left a design for my friends and gave them the liberty to make choices of their own as they felt needed. When I came back, the interior was complete and i was so very beautiful. The basin for the water that my friends designed into the cast cement was just perfect for her. I collected volcanic rocks of Volcan de Fuego from Rio Achiguate and stacked them on the top of the barrel inside her curved chamber. Then finally, after one year, we came to the final piece. Her door. The door to Vaho is solid cast concrete. Many people questioned my choice for this final piece of her construction; telling me it will be too heavy, difficult and unnecessary. But they do not know this concrete Goddess as I do. Vaho is not an easy woman, she is a complex and wise creature. Inside her lies a mystery and a treasure you must work to get to. You cannot just fling her door open and come in without placing your intention to do so. You must feel the weight that she carries, use strength to pull her open and hear the sound of her close behind you, holding you in her depths. The door was poured, dried, then cast into her face. Balanced on a single, thick, solid steel beam built as her hinge. This final piece trapping all the vapor inside. So now when you use her, her breath is deep, her vapor filling and her spirit present. Her fire whistles from behind the wall, water sizzling and bubbling on the hot surface of steel, the stainless barrel moves with the heat inside creating a surreal human sound that echoes through her curved chamber walls. And when you keep her fire burning all night, her walls fill with heat. You can lay on her top platform and the surface will be warm, the water in her basin will no longer be cold, sound vibrates through her, all of her veins flowing, the Goddess opens herself to you and guides you into transformation.