An innovative approach to a wall for the Sherman School Garden

Kid power + cob power

You'll never hear Tamara Baker, the Sherman School Garden coordinator, say, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Instead, she's rallying students in the north side middle school's MSCR summer program to do just the opposite -- to get sweaty and dirty designing and constructing a sculpted partition to enhance the outdoor kitchen space in the school's courtyard garden.

Sherman's impressive urban garden is now in its fifth growing season. It's been a huge asset to the school, allowing students, many of whom had little exposure to planting and harvesting before, to try their hand at growing squash, watermelon and the ingredients for salsa.

But the small area set aside to serve as an outdoor kitchen had one major drawback: "The kids love when we pull out the propane grill, the hand-crank blenders, and the solar oven to make pizza or zucchini muffins," says Baker. But no one loved that the kitchen area overlooked the school dumpsters."

There was little question that more beauty and personalization was needed in the space. But, in keeping with the garden's sustainability mission, Sherman ideally needed a kitchen project that would use locally sourced, earth-based materials.

Enter Whitney Bembenek, a Madison-area natural builder whom Baker had met a few years earlier while working with AmeriCorps for REAP Food Group's Farm to School program. Always the visionary, Bembenek immediately saw the 25 feet of rickety chain link fence separating the kitchen from the trashcans as an ideal canvas for creating an original work of art using a centuries-old building technique called cob.

From an old English word meaning "lump" or "rounded mass," cob is fashioned from clay, soil, sand, straw and water. "It's one of the earliest building materials on record, used since ancient times," she explains. "And it's resistant to fire, load-bearing, long-lasting and inexpensive. Plus, it can be sculpted -- it was the perfect material to use for the Sherman Garden wall."

Bembenek jumpstarted the three-week project this July by helping the 25 students signed up for the program to fashion maquettes, or "mini-models" of what they wanted the finished wall to look like. "It's really important to me that this is a collaborative design project," says Bembenek. "The kids need to feel invested in and ownership of the project because they are the ones that are going to be using the space."

She remembers the kids excitedly discussing how to work the Sherman name into the finished wall (it will appear in relief) as well as great enthusiasm for adding their own personal touches. "They all want to leave their handprints, carve in their names. They are finding really creative ways to make this their own."

Week two was a messy one, dedicated to making batch upon batch of cob to help construct the wall which, when complete, will be close to six feet high. It's an extremely physical process, as cob builders use their bare feet to mix the materials, kind of like grape stomping in traditional wine making. "It's fun to watch the students get really into the mixing. It's almost looks like they're dancing the salsa," says Bembenek. "It's such a total body experience to be building this way. It's not just your arm and a hammer or saw."

In the project's final week, the finishing layer, a cob plaster, is applied before the students are able to embellish with decorative details using reclaimed tile, discarded glass and cans.

In order to generate the dollars necessary to make the project a go, Baker utilized the DaneArts power2give website to crowd-source funding. But both Bembenek and Baker also found joy in having local businesses donate funds.

Plus, there was some reliance on the adage "necessity is the mother of invention."

"I love seeing how resourceful I can be," says Bembenek. "For instance, where do I get clay where it's already dug up and the people are happy to be done with it?" Roselawn Memorial Park cemetery fit the bill nicely. Other local companies including Maple Leaf Landscaping, Wingra Stone and Habitat for Humanity ReStore, among others, were also happy to donate materials.

While the Sherman Garden wall has been Bembenek's first cob project working with children, she thinks the experience is gratifying regardless of the age of the builders. "Everyone acts like a kid, no matter how old they are, when they are getting dirty," she says. "There is something universally fun about playing with mud."

Marcos Davis, 14, a recent Sherman graduate, says helping to construct the wall will be one of his favorite middle school memories: "I like to create, build things and get messy. This is like everything a kid loves to do all rolled into one." Davis is particularly excited to return to the garden to check out his autograph on the wall after he moves on to East High next year.

This doesn't surprise Baker at all. "One of things that has gotten kids most excited about participating is the chance to leave a legacy," she says. "They can come back in three or four years, when they are juniors and seniors in high school, and look for their handprints. Hopefully they'll even return as adults, stand back, and be able to 'look what we did.'"

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