When my mom built her cob house in 1999/2000 on a shoestring budget, she coined a phrase for something she had been practicing for a long time already – creative poverty. It is the ability to come up with creative solutions for problems that would otherwise be solvable with a lot of money. With a budget of ZAR45,000 (about $4,000 in today’s terms) to build a living space with attached art gallery, she was going to need it.
The decision to build with cob was part of the solution. It is an ancient building method using a mixture of clay, sand and straw, not unlike adobe but without the need to make bricks first. Once you have a solid foundation, a timber framework, and a roof, you just fill in the walls like a child with playdough.
It was a DIY project like no other. Window frames and doors could be sourced cheaply as second hand building material. Old windscreens made interesting windows, as did fragments of glass recycled into lead glass windows. Coloured bottles built into the walls brought both light and beauty. Shelves, basins, nooks and crannies were shaped out of the mud itself, adding timber or ceramic where needed.
It was one big art work growing out of the earth itself and out of my mother’s bottomless well of creativity. Best of all, you could add on as you pretty much pleased – a nook, a niche, an extra window – without too much consideration for the building plans.
Poverty and similar instances of limited resources (material, knowledge, time or distractions) often seem to stimulate creative thinking. It is when you have forgotten the camping kettle that you will devise a topless beer can for a billy. When you don’t know how to cook an omelette, your experiments might lead you to a soufflé. When fossil fuels start killing your planet, you come up with innovative energy alternatives. The legendary measure of a (South African) man’s greatness is the number of things he can fix with a piece of wire (bloudraad).
Creative poverty takes the fragments of a broken tile and turns it into mosaic. It is the knack of turning an oops into a wow. But it is also the courage to stand up in the face of limitations and stake your claim. It is throwing your bank statement to the wind and the angels and the gods, drawing a line in the dust with your big toe and saying: Dig here; we’re building a house.