People who live in glass houses: growing food not throwing stones

Mary Pearl Monnes ’10, and her partner Ben Jensen are seven months into a yearlong living art project. The two travel the country building glass houses in exchange for food and shelter. The glass houses, constructed from salvaged material, function simultaneously as art, greenhouse and community space. In this interview, Mary Pearl describes the daily work of the project and its deep-rooted connection to social justice.                                                                                                    

All photos courtesy of Mary Pearl Monnes and Ben Jensen

 Ali Krantzler, Staff Writer                                                                   

 Ali Krantzler: What did you major in while at Guilford and when did you graduate?

 Mary Pearl: I graduated in 2010 with a major in theater studies and a minor in painting.

 AK: How long has this project been in existence?

Ben started Jazz Parties on Walker Avenue seven or eight years ago at the house where I met him. He started building the structures about a year ago when his dad had
a brain tumor and he was told he didn’t have much time to live. Ben needed something to do with his hands, so he built five different structures in his backyard. They were these crazy
sculpture houses made out of windows with an outdoor kitchen, a loft, and a fireplace.

 AK: What happened next?

 MP: We were going to move to New York. Ben was going to be a jazz musician and I was going to pursue acting. When he went to visit NYC, the first day he was there he received a call from the Greensboro city inspector who told Ben he had to come back and tear down the houses he was living in at the time. Otherwise, he and his housemates would be fined $1,000 and possibly evicted. Ben dropped out of the jazz class he was in and took the first bus back from New York City to start tearing down his houses, which was upsetting. We decided to have a “demolition art party,” despite the city inspectors. Tons of people came out and were amazed by our story, which was great. Ben got recognition for creating something beautiful from trash.

 But we still had big questions. Why is all this happening? Why are we not allowed to do art in our yard? Why does all this stuff that got saved from the dump have to go to the dump now?

So, we decided to take this trip. We wanted to build these structures for people who would recognize them as being both functional and being art.

 AK: How long have you been on the road?

 MP: We have been on the road for seven months. Now we are in Oakland, California, building a greenhouse in the backyard here.

 AK: Where are the houses built?

MP: We build them primarily on farms. People can use them to grow food and as a living room or salon space to talk about growing food and to educate people.

AK: How do you find people who are interested in these structures?

 MP: We use the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) website, Kickstarter and our own website.

 AK: Describe Kickstarter and how you gain financial support.

 MP: Kickstarter is incredible. We are supported from friends and family. We were nervous about reaching our original bid of $4,500 to start, and we made $4,600. What we learned from Kickstarter is that people really do care and will support you in your project.

 AK: How do you find places to stay?

 MP: We work on the farms in exchange for room and board. We do couch surfing for places to sleep and stay in a lot of homes. We send out an official letter stating our mission, asking if they know of anyone who would be interested in our project, or donating any materials.

 AK: What is the average time it takes to build one of these structures?

 MP: A month or so. Our goal is to build 12 houses in a year and one each month. Because we’re collaborating with the folks we’re staying with, the process is taking a little longer. We have to see what materials they need or have and where to find them. The structures are permanent, so we’re careful to make them safe and positive additions to the community we’re building them in.

 AK: How is your work connected to social justice?

 MP: Our work is an effort to ensure a just food system, where access to local organic food and the right to be a producer is at the core. Our project mirrors the spirit of the Occupy Movement. Ben and I are making spaces for farmers, consumers, educators, students, and artists alike to practice sustainability outside the confines of
capitalism. We work on an alternative exchange system; we trade labor for room, board, and community and construct almost entirely out of salvaged building material. We believe that food is power and communities that produce their own needs master self-governance. We’ve found our niche in this large and powerful movement as “greenhouse artists,” and there’s room for so much more. 

AK: Where do the materials come from?

 MP: The hosts provide a junk pile. We send them a proposal with information to help them get started with an idea to collaborate on. We also bike through streets and use Craigslist which has been a gold mine. We have a few friends from Guilford who we have been getting windows from.

 AK: How do you define home?

 MP: We are working to redefine the concept of “home” by collaborating and familiarizing with people whose home and land are a symbolic and constant force. We are in pursuit of stories, our own and others, knowledge and wisdom of this land, and American beauty from sea to shining sea.

 AK: How would you define the American Dream and has it evolved over the past few years considering the economic crisis?

 MP: There are changes we are witnessing all around the country. For instance, people who are focused on sustainable methods of living. Instead of everyone owning their own little piece, it’s about finding a way for everyone to use what there is. There are young people who are excited to do good work, and are working on other people’s land. There are people who have gotten together as a collective, who all put their name on the mortgage so they can all farm in the backyard. 70 percent of the farmers are over the age of 60, and the rest are in their 20’s.

 AK: What would be your advice to young people or people graduating from college soon?

 MP: Do what you love. It’s hard, especially with student loans, but people can make up their own jobs. There are so many people in the world. It’s way more fun to make it up. Everything you are getting your major in now is going to be a competitive field unless you make up your own. I would also recommend to take time with your thoughts. It’s really, really valuable to take time.

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