Joanna Keane Lopez and Helen Levine discuss working with adobe, its history in this region, and how an adobe house is a living thing.
Joanna Keane Lopez and Helen Levine have mud in common. As adobe builders, they work with the sun, water, and their hands in the earth, building sculptures and structures thirty-pound adobe brick by thirty-pound adobe brick. Friends for a few years, the pandemic brought them together in a new way as co-instructors of a series of adobe building workshops. They host their workshops for small groups of eight at Levine’s family’s adobe brick manufacturing yard in Albuquerque, one of the largest in the world and one of only two remaining in the state. On the porch at Keane Lopez’s house, we talked about how they came to work with adobe, its origins in this region, who their workshops are for, and how an adobe house is a living thing. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Annie Bielski: Helen, your father and his friend started the Albuquerque-based business New Mexico Earth Adobes in 1972, and you’ve worked with adobe since you were eighteen years old. Joanna, you started incorporating adobe into your art and life while pursuing a BFA at UNM. Your family also has a long history with adobe, including a family home in Socorro that your great-grandparents constructed. What are your thoughts on the relationship between adobe and family?
Helen Levine: I have to say that the link between adobe and family is not as strong as it used to be. I have so many people coming into the adobe yard, asking me questions about adobe and telling me that when they were kids, they made adobes for their grandparents’ house, for their parents’ house, for whoever in their community. We don’t have that anymore, but traditionally there is a very strong link because the families would come together [to] make the adobes, build the homes, live in the homes, [and] expand the homes when there were more people that needed places to live. It’s quite fascinating to me, and it’s really kind of a tragedy, but it’s typical of our world that that connection is somewhat broken. I don’t ever think it will be fully broken just because of the nature of the material.
There’s an intrinsic relationship with the adobe homes and family coming together and building these spaces. When you have an adobe home, it demands a relationship with it.
Joanna Keane Lopez: You know, that’s a big reason why I’ve gotten so focused on adobe architecture as an artist. At least within my Lopez family, I feel like there’s an intrinsic relationship with the adobe homes and family coming together and building these spaces. When you have an adobe home, it demands a relationship with it. It’s not like you just put it up, the stucco’s there, the cement’s there. It’s like, you need to be fixing the cracks throughout the year, you need to be remudding. It’s a relationship, and you can see the health of the family or the health of the community within the adobe homes. At Lopezville where my family’s from, it’s all just abandoned and kind of falling apart because the family has kind of fallen apart due to people getting old, incarceration, or certain traumas that can happen to families. It is really beautiful to think, wow, my great-grandparents built this place from the mud here, it was through multiple hands—maybe their community members and family—and then you live within it, and you beautify it. I think a lot of people, especially younger people who are from New Mexico, want to feel connected to land and home and family and community. There’s this idea of building a place as something that people just did all the time, they built their own homes. Now it’s kind of dissociated.
Building with earth is a centuries-old practice with variations all over the world. New Mexico has an especially rich history of building with earth, predating colonial times. With respect to its Indigenous origins, who is adobe building for? Who do you wish to attend your workshops?
HL: I feel like I have to answer that question with a little bit of back history. It’s certainly true that earth was used in a lot of constructions pre-colonial times. Vernacular architecture typically uses whatever material is on hand, and certainly, in this area you have mud, you have clay, you have fiber. There is a question that I hear conflicting answers to, as to whether the Native Americans used formed adobe, or what we call puddled adobe, which is just building up the walls by actually adding mud to the wall. But as you’ve said, it’s used throughout the world. What we have now in New Mexico is a combination of architecture from the vernacular Native American pre-colonial times, but it was really changed and emphasized by the Spaniards coming over. They had the tradition, not only from their region but from influence from the Moors, the Northern African people. So, you can’t really isolate adobe by saying it’s an Indigenous practice because it has influences from everywhere. With our workshops, we really do want to reach local people, because it’s accepted that the knowledge of adobe is disappearing from the community. When we pull people into the workshops—especially the local people—and introduce them to the material, it’s just so beneficial. Not only to us as the teachers but to the students. They’re fascinated and they love it. So we bring together all those different influences and we give them to the students.
JKL: If they’re local and they’re from here, it just makes so much sense because you can build with adobe architecture here, you have the right dirt here, you have the right climate here, you can actually go do. Going back to the history, from what I understand, along with the puddled adobe, Pueblo people were working with form-molded adobes but it was the Spanish who specifically brought over the wooden forms. It’s definitely a big mix between different cultures and places and across the sea. I think it’s really great for the workshops to have a variety of people who are authentically interested in the practice, and especially people who are from the area.
Joanna, you’ve spoken about learning these skills from women elders.
JKL: I apprenticed in my early twenties with Anita Rodriguez, she’s an enjarradora and painter in Taos and she’s incredible. I learned a lot about mud plastering and alíz. I also apprenticed with Carole Crews, a natural builder and artist in Taos. It’s just wonderful to know them. They both built their own places and it’s really inspiring to think, heck yeah, these women built those houses. Helen, too—Helen is such a badass. Helen knows how to fix and build things, she’s done so many projects and continues to inspire me all the time. I want to build up my skills and show women that you do these things and build big.
HL: We have a lot of women in our workshops and I think that’s because we are the instructors.
What part of this work is fast? What part is slow?
HL: Fast is coming up with the idea, “I want to do this!” Everything from that point forward is slow.
What comes to mind when you think of the words “adobe” and “future?”
JKL: I’m really interested in adobe architecture as a vernacular building technique and how to make it contemporary in an authentic way that’s not making it into the Santa Fe style. [I’m] thinking of it as contemporary sculpture, and thinking of it in ways that are very traditional, but how that can be contemporary without being wood frame and stucco.
HL: You know, there was a line in a Smithsonian publication that asked, “Where do you see us being in forty years?” and the number one thing was, everyone will live in mud houses. Right now, though, people still don’t really understand it and many of them don’t know of its existence. They’re always surprised. I went to see my doctor, she asked me what I do, I said I’m an adobe manufacturer and she said, “Oh wow. I live in an adobe house, but I didn’t know that was still a thing.” That’s a common outlook.
JKL: There are not that many adobe yards anymore. There are only two in New Mexico, Helen’s family’s and one in Alcalde, and they use a machine, whereas Helen and her brother do everything by hand with wooden forms. Super old school.
HL: With lumber prices kind of going through the roof, I think that there may be a resurgence in adobe construction because it’s not as expensive as it used to be in comparison. The material costs were never expensive. Labor was always expensive, but now I think of the price of lumber as kind of being a great equalizer.
Will you say more about Santa Fe style?
JKL: From what I understand about Santa Fe style, it goes back to the [1920s and ’30s] when they wanted everything to look uniform in Santa Fe with a really specific aesthetic. It’s not actually made out of adobe, it’s just wood frame and stucco that’s made to emulate it. It’s become a style that is not based on the actual practices at all. If you do that, then you don’t have to do all this maintenance, and if you are working with traditional adobe architecture, there’s maintenance. You can’t escape it.
HL: You have to be aware of what you’re living in and what’s happening to it. It’s living.
JKL: It has a lifespan and has its own life.
HL: Its lifespan can be centuries and centuries.
JKL: You’re taking care of it. I just can’t say enough [about] how it’s a relationship.