Published Tuesday
October 11, 2005

Hay, that's art


Hay, that's art

Jackhammers chatter and heavy machinery stirs up dust near 12th and Leavenworth Streets, continuing downtown Omaha's housing evolution.
John Osorio-Buck mixes an adobe plaster to coat an alfalfa-bale structure he built near 12th and Leavenworth Streets. He enjoys the juxtaposition between his modest structure and the area's chic loft apartments.

In the shadow of the Old Market Lofts and the under-construction Rows at SoMa, John Osorio-Buck toils obliviously in an open lot.

Instead of chipping away at cement with high-powered chisels, the 36-year-old with slightly graying black hair silently stacks alfalfa bales. Instead of laying bricks, the sinewy sculptor twists pieces of chicken wire. Instead of building trendy industrial-elegant lofts, the artist reconstructs a piece of Nebraska history and makes a statement about how Americans live.

Passers-by - and even those loud construction workers - have noticed, most of them scratching their heads.

What the hay is he doing?

That answer is simple. Osorio-Buck is building a hay house in the lot just east of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, where he is an artist in residence. He plans on living in the structure throughout October.

John Osorio-Buck
Age: 36
Hometown: Bounced between Northern California and Colombia as a child. He now lives in Boston.
Education: Bachelor of fine arts degree from Tufts University, Boston.
Previous projects: Osorio-Buck began a multidiscipline Utopia series, which has included starting a community radio station; constructing a portable, inhabitable pod; and building a raft in which he lived on Boston's Fort Point Channel for a month.
Favorite artists: Slovenian Marjetica Potrc; Dutch collaborative artist groups Atelier Van Lieshout and N55; Americans Andrea Zittel and Michael Rakowitz.
Web site:

Why is he doing it?

That answer is more difficult. As he often does, the Massachusetts artist responds with questions of his own.

"People don't ask what a painting is used for," he said. "It gets back to 'What is art?' Should it make people think, or should it just be pretty?"

Dusty hay bales covered in chicken wire rise from the lot. Thick bamboo poles caked with earth hold up an aluminum roof, and black PVC pipe makes honeycombed windows. Lifted onto a plywood platform stage supported by thick, square stilts is the artist's most recent project: Utopia 6.

He knows an alfalfa apartment doesn't fit most people's idea of art. But to him, the structure is sculpture. The construction is performance. The blueprints are artistic intent.

And trust him. This is way more meaningful, way more impressive, than a picture hanging on a wall. He would know. He used to be a painter.

"I had some success with shows and selling, but I wondered what it actually meant," Osorio-Buck said. "Was I just producing a commodity, something people buy and sell, or did it change or help them?"

Stashing his paintbrush for good, though, took some coaxing. That motivation found him in the form of a gunshot.

When he opened a closet door in his Boston apartment in 2002, he noticed white powder covering shredded clothing. Then he found a bullet in a coat pocket.

A stray gunshot had pierced the apartment wall, torn through his clothes and changed his sense of safety.

"It exposed the false sense of security a building gives us," he said.

So if a dingy Boston apartment or a $385,000 Old Market row house can't provide protection, why not experiment with the idea of shelter? Why not see if a $350 hay house can provide just as much safe shelter?
Raw material
It has required:
45 hay bales, with a combined weight of nearly a ton
520 feet of boards, most salvaged or found
67 feet of tin
98 feet of PVC pipe
168 feet of bamboo
60 feet of aluminum conduit
64 square feet of aluminum
75 feet of chicken wire
180 pounds of cement
200 pounds of local clay and dirt
r200 pounds of paper
More than 500 hours in planning and construction

After that event - time Osorio-Buck refers to as "after the bullet" - he began pursuing the Utopia series. Two projects dealt with building mobile housing out of scrap and trash. A third was a museum social area made of recycled items. Another was a makeshift pod on rollers, in which he lived and wheeled around Boston. He also constructed a raft, on which he and a colleague lived on Boston's Fort Point Channel for a month.

Utopia 6 is his most recent creation.

More than 200 artists worldwide applied to be an artist in residence at the Bemis. Only a dozen proposals made the cut.

Osorio-Buck's had to be among them, said Mark Masuoka, Bemis' executive director. The choice hasn't disappointed.

"He's brought contemporary art out of the confines of our building," Masuoka said. "He's made passive and direct contact with the community and has shown what goes on inside at the Bemis."

But what exactly is Osorio-Buck's art form: sculpture, installation, performance?

"It's all of the above," Masuoka said. "Many contemporary artists don't fit into a specific genre. They're hybrids, and John is a perfect example of that."

Osorio-Buck's creation is an interesting meld of content and intent, Masuoka said. He's making a statement on how society survives and what that takes while also constructing a tangible, useful product.

The artist - who wears a silver hoop in his right nostril and a tattoo reading "Art is long and life is short" - has made the structure his home. He lived in a handmade tent while he finishing the hay house, which contains a small bench for seating and sleeping.

Osorio-Buck built a makeshift outdoor oven out of cardboard boxes; it conducts and retains heat through reflective coverings and black paint. With the use of blackened canning jars, it warms to 250 degrees - enough to make bread or a hard-boiled egg.

But the artist in residence who actually resides just outside the Bemis has left the center's officials with a sort of quandary.

"We've never been left with a structure before," Masuoka said. "We're not exactly sure how to use it. It could take on a life of its own and hold other exhibits. We're fascinated by it."

That's exactly what Osorio-Buck wants.

He's had people ask questions, tell stories, furrow a brow and let out an affirming "Huh."

Success is forcing them to ponder what they would have done if Hurricane Katrina or the south Asian tsunami had wiped out their homes.

Those events certainly inspired the project, but so did Nebraska's history.

Lucille Cross knows firsthand about hay houses. She lived in one in Arthur, Neb., in the 1930s. At that time, the house was one of the best in town. She still thinks it is.

The 1925 structure still stands. It's a popular destination for hay-house enthusiasts from as far away as Japan and Russia, impressed by the structure's durability and heat control.

"That house is absolutely perfect," Cross said. "It's warm in the winter and cool in the summer."

It's one of a handful in Nebraska. Arthur is also home to a hay-bale church.

Sand Hills builders pioneered the most commonly used hay-bale construction technique in the early 1900s, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. They built houses, churches, schools and stores from hay because they lacked trees and sod, said Dan Watson, a research archaeologist at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.

Hay construction is a barometer for the state's economic health, Watson said. When things were going well, builders could afford to ship in lumber. When they weren't, people made due with what was available.

Osorio-Buck knows people would rather live in lofts and row houses. But they don't have to. The indomitable structures across the state prove that.

His hay house will stand for only a year. But he hopes that's enough time for Omahans to catch a glimpse of what his dark eyes see through his small black-framed glasses.

"I did a lot of research on the state and its history," he said. "I wanted this project to be true to Nebraska. I wanted to get people thinking."

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