I have worked on the little building with Michael Kelly for half a day each week. Mostly, we’ve been outside, in his narrow, paved courtyard. Courtyards fascinate him.
In the window of the shop, next to the flowerpots, a framed A4 printout is headed PRISONER GETS “LIFE”. It begins: “At a time when many young people are beginning a career or university, Michael Kelly was doing hard time for armed robbery. Life and death stood before him. He chose to make good use of his time in study, physical training and art.”
After prison, he was accepted directly into post-graduate study at the Sydney College of the Arts. The story continues: “In the years since, Michael has applied his art in a unique, hand-made building style.”
In jail, one of the benign things he discovered was that when one courtyard was uninhabitable because of brutal sun, another, on the shady side, might be too cool for comfort. “Courtyards can be their own little worlds,” he said one afternoon.
With a sideways, impish smile, he told me his incarceration might also explain why he had become so intrigued by small spaces. Planned and fitted out with care, they can enlarge even the most confined of lives.
At that time, I was reading The One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka. The book, first published in 1978, is the Japanese farmer’s manifesto on growing and eating food, and on the limits of human knowledge.
As Michael spoke, I recalled Fukuoka’s observation: “…if one fathoms deeply one’s own neighbourhood and the everyday world in which he lives, the greatest of worlds will be revealed.”
In the book, Fukuoka recounts his quest for simplicity in ‘natural farming’. “‘How about not doing this? How about not doing that?’—that was my way of thinking.”
One chapter explains the cycles in his rice fields and outlines his practices. “There is probably no easier, simpler method for growing grain,” he concludes. “It involves little more than broadcasting seed and spreading straw, but it has taken me thirty years to reach this simplicity.”
Michael’s design for the courtyard studio is the result of steady simplification, stripping out anything unnecessary in the structure. Each of the four wall frames is separate. The roof frame rests above, on a rectangular timber plate.
After the first day, in which we built the frame, we have worked on the cladding for the roof and walls. Using the thin strips of Oregon lath (reclaimed from demolished lath-and-plaster walls), we have built lightweight panels. We overlapped the lath, like pixie weatherboards. The whole building can be easily dismantled and moved.
That kind of elegance takes thought. On his chalkboard one day, Michael wrote, “There’s no wisdom on a silver platter”.