Dear Stewart

"Within the human cortex crouches an impulse to build something huge." - Kathryn Gabriel


Thanks for checking this out! I’m glad you’re here. This is the long version. To keep it from being even longer I’ve linked some stuff out, but it’s all there if you’re interested. 

First, that connection with Matt Winkler— I’m an international adoptee (born and adopted in the Bahamas), and when I tested my DNA with 23andMe back in 2009 he turned up as as second cousin match. Long story short I tracked him down, sent him my story, and he shared his mother’s genealogy with me, which enabled me to find and successfully reunite with my biological family, who all turn out to be from New Mexico. Matt’s kindness has been incredibly influential in my life and I owe him a debt I don’t know how I could begin to repay. 

me and my bio mom, 2013

“You can’t change the way people think, all you can do is give them a tool, the use of which will change their thinking.” 

Back in 2010 when I found the Long Now, it felt as if I’d been struck by lightning. The sheer audacity of the Clock blew my mind wide open. I’ve been a “stainless steel” member (# 2755) ever since. Ever since I could hold a crayon and draw on a wall I’ve been making art, but I really cut my teeth on designing and building participatory structural art for Burning Man, which I started doing in 2007 and stopped doing in 2017

I grew up between three different cultures, and because of this a big part of what drives me is figuring out how to create things that are universal, that reach across culture and language and age and race and politics and education, and that are accessible to everyone regardless of identity. Things that call for participation, and most importantly things that are fun to do and be a part of. The combination of Burning Man and Long Now as influences has also really made me want to build things that endure. Burning Man is great and all, but there’s only so much shit you can set on fire. 

I’m a 4:00 a.m. struck-by-inspiration type. I’ve been getting downloads for years, but it’s only recently that I began to see that my muses came in two categories—SPACE and TIME. Each of these trajectories has a Gigantic Enduring Project at the end of it, both of which I’d like to see built if I have enough years left in my life. You’re basically the Yoda of long-term thinking, and I’d love some of your wisdom if you might share it with me—I have some questions for you at the end of this document.

Trent and Ralph, Burning Man 2010

All of these future projects will have to build community, and be crowdfunded and conceptually self-supporting. If they fail, it’ll be because it wasn’t the right time, or they weren’t good enough ideas yet. People have to want to do these things, to draw some kind of useful identity from them, and to support them out of love and enthusiasm—particularly and essentially the people who will be living locally near them. Participation is fundamental. Also, each trajectory is highly iterative. I’ve been evolving variations of each concept, and I find joy in this repetition. The end goals may turn out to be entirely different from what I think they are now, but they’re serving as beacons, and that’s good enough. 

There’s something important in the physical artifact. People spend so much time in the virtual these days, but the novelty is wearing thin. I am reading a giant surge of upcoming need to re-engage the physical. People are realizing the problems they develop when they forget they have bodies. 

Star Room, 2021


Here’s little me, with my nose pressed up against the window of an airplane at 35,000 feet, fascinated with the patterns of the planet below, but there’s only two kinds of shape: those of nature, and the practical shapes that humans build: industry, civilization, and agriculture. I see a wonderful braided river basin. I see center point irrigation farming. I see a city, all gridded concrete. But none of this involves me. I didn’t make the river flow, I’m not a farmer, and I didn’t build the city. 

What happens if we take agency over the aesthetic of these shapes on a scale that engages the overview? Voilà, geoglyphs. 

We’ve made plenty of those already. The Nazca plain, the chalk figures of Britain. Here in Utah we paint giant letters on mountainsides. Out of all geoglyphs, the White Horse of Uffington fascinates me most. It’s almost hard to comprehend that the locals there have been weeding and maintaining this figure for three millennia, with no continuity of culture or religion—just because it was fun, and it was “their thing.” 

But how do you take a geoglyph and make it interactive, more than just a once-a-year weeding? How do you engage people a little more actively? Well, how about turning it into a labyrinth? Make it something that’s maintained in part by the application of people’s feet to the planet? 

We’ve been drawing and building labyrinths for thousands of years. This idea of the unicursal meditative path has endured because it’s a very good idea.

Also, people love secular pilgrimage sites. I live within reasonable driving distance of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and I have been there many times, and never once had the place to myself—even in the middle of the day, middle of the work week—if there’s decent weather, people are at the Jetty, though it’s a long haul over dirt roads to get to. 

I started designing temporary labyrinths years ago, and I’ve built quite a few that I had to remove at the end of an event, or that would be washed away the next time the water rose. 

Finally in 2022 a small group of us got to create a more permanent one I designed on an acre of land in Dubois, Wyoming: the Byrd Draw labyrinth. It needs some improvement so we’ll go back in summer 2023 to finish it up, but if Google Earth updated their aerials before winter it might already be visible there. 

Byrd Draw 2023 concept

The Gigantic Enduring Project at the end of this trajectory is the Lady Eight, a walkable double-loop geoglyph with a path of two miles folded into a half-mile long design that I originally created for a tract of sage desert on the north side of the salt flats here. Our contract for that fell through but the concept has endured, and I intend to see her built one day. Will she endure for 3,000 years? Who knows? But it’s fun to think about. 

There will be many other less ambitious labyrinths and geoglyphs built before this final project. I’m particularly interested in building on ag land that needs rehabbing, and creating designs that will help with that rehab. My husband Trent is a desert ecologist and together we’re researching plans to blend ecological reclamation with participatory art. 

Lady Eight, original concept


I grew up partly in the Bahamas, and when I was a small child there were no rocks around me that were not limestone, and no natural substances harder than coral or shell. We’d fly to my adoptive father’s family home in Scotland in summer and I’d pick up igneous and metamorphic river rocks and pack them home in my luggage. Bahamian limestone is so friable you can crush it with a regular claw hammer. I was fascinated by these foreign stones that were so hard the hammer bounced off, and yet had obviously been shaped by tumbling in a river. How long had that taken? And how old were they even before they’d ended up in the river? 

Holding a river stone in my hand gave me the first inklings of Deep Time. 

A little later, we moved to the Isle of Man, and I was thrilled to be surrounded by proper Geology. But I was a socially awkward kid (only child, and just been moved between cultures) and rocks aren’t very interactive. So I came up with this project where I would interview my classmates with a series of trivial questions (what’s your favorite color? who’s your celebrity crush?) and kept a little binder full of the answers. My classmates loved it. There was this piece of how to get people excited to participate that started right then. 

When I went to Burning Man in 2007 I realized I had found My People (at least for a little while). 

I spent the next decade designing and building participatory art for the Burn, and learning how to (and how not to) create and manage teams of volunteers. How to engage people and make them feel integral to the project, and how to provide identity. The problem, eventually, became the ephemeral nature of the Burn. 

It gets old, always leaving no trace. 

Temple of Awareness, Burning Man 2017

A pivotal moment for me was the Temple burn in 2013. The altar was a giant inuksuk made of black basalt, designed by Jael LaFemina (who I later enjoyed getting to know when he came to Utah to help us with our own Temple concepts a few years later). The altar was gorgeous, but when the Temple was fired it spalled explosively. Jael said that some of the shrapnel flew over a hundred yards. Consuming structural fire and stone…perhaps not a great mix. Stone wants to endure

Life’s interventions took me out of the Burning Man loop in 2017, but I kept working on my own, much smaller projects. I took my participatory art practice into the local Salt Lake scene. I made tag hanger” pieces for the Illuminate festival of lights in 2017 and 2018, and then started creating participatory rooms for the Dreamscapes installation art experience in 2019, 2020, and 2021. I developed my understanding of the importance of the prompt when you’re engaging the public in this sort of art. With a good prompt, you can evoke the wildest cosmic wisdom from thousands of anonymous strangers. Without one, you get drawings of penises. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but there’s a limit to the wisdom of the wild phallus.  

Even though we weren’t setting our art on fire for Dreamscapes, the installation kept having to move and be redone, and I kept coming back to the concepts of stone, and deep time, and how to create a project that would involve people and be fun to do, but would also endure. This is where the Lady of the West Desert comes in: 

A giant sculpture of a seated cross-legged woman. Tough black basalt, like Jael’s inuksuk that didn’t want to die in the fire. She’s too big to carve from a single stone, so she’d have to be constructed of multiple slabs. Dry laid mortise and tenon, so there’s no mortar to weather out. Faced with a mosaic of tens of thousands of vitreously fired stoneware tiles, each one engraved with a message from a participant. Let people send messages ten thousand or more years into the future…

Build her next to one of the many sedimentary cliffs we have here in the Great Basin. If she gets maintained for ten millennia, then great! If she gets forgotten, the silt will eventually cover her, preserving her for who knows how much longer. The tiles will weather off, but get covered with silt as well, and nothing lasts like fired ceramic. Messages preserved. We build Future Archaeology…on purpose

Sigourney Weaver (6′) with scale concept Lady

The next steps for me are, basically, keep building, and keep my eyes open for places where my work wants to go. There are opportunities out there, maybe on disused ag land, maybe in some other liminal spaces, where labyrinths and geoglyphs want to go. I’m creating a tool to help me draw large temporary glyphs on the salt flats and alkaline playas out here in Utah, to hone my surveying skills. I’ll keep building the tag hangers, engaging people in participatory art, and working on the prompts. And I’m being called to teach–people want and need to know how to build big art out of garbage, and I’m going to show them.


I know I have the raw basics of how to keep moving towards these two Gigantic Enduring Projects, but it’s a lot to get my arms around. I’d appreciate your thoughts: 

Do you have any general advice for me about these projects? Do they seem like fun to you? 

If you had 80 more years of life what would you like to accomplish? 

How do you balance inspiration vs. practicability? 

What’s been your beacon through the difficult times? 

How do you know whether an idea you have is viable or not? Is there anything you’ve conceived that you realized wasn’t maybe a great idea to unleash on the general public, and if so, what gave you the clue? 

Is there anything you’d do differently if you could do it over again? 

How do you deal with attention? 

How do you keep your sense of humor? 

And what’s your favorite color, and your celebrity crush? 🙂 


Alice Bain Toler

801 573 1399
1525 E. Redondo Ave. 
Salt Lake City, UT 84105

Continue ReadingDear Stewart

Finding My Biological Family

When I first reunited with my biological family back in 2012, I wrote a story for Catalyst magazine about it. Re-reading it I realize I would write it differently now. 

Finding my family at the age of 38 was exciting and bewildering and terrifying and completely overwhelming. I had turned so much of my focus and intention towards this project for the prior three years, with initially very little hope of ever succeeding, that to have things finally just drop into my lap was extremely disorienting. I had never known who I was, really–but when I walked into that hotel lobby and met Catherine, my bio mom, and she hugged me, so much immediately made sense. She has a huge loving heart, a gigantic restless mind, a never-ceasing curiosity about the universe, a crazy case of ADHD, and she’s on the ASD spectrum. Suddenly it was OK for me to be all of those things as well. 

The nature/nurture thing was thrown into stark relief, and it just got more intense when I met my bio dad, Joe, that fall. I look just like him. I had never seen anyone who resembled me, and this fact had always gnawed at me. Joe turned out to be adopted as well, and he’d never met anyone who looked like him either. Meeting was a powerful moment for both of us. 

Adoption search is crazy. You have to be willing to metabolize anything you might find, and you might find some really awful stuff. At the tame end of the spectrum, you could find a group of people who completely reject you. At the ugly end, things like rape, incest, abuse, suicide, murder…all the worst things that humans are capable of. I was so lucky that although there was a lot of ugly stuff, the people I found universally liked me and were glad I’d turned up. 

Shout out to Matt Winkler, the second-cousin-once-removed who made this all possible by sharing his mom’s genealogy with me when I tracked him down after receiving a 23andMe match with him. He’s doing great work in Texas

For now, here’s a story I wrote a decade ago, which has info about my mom, and another page about my dad. It’s been a weird ride, but I’m so incredibly grateful for it. 

Continue ReadingFinding My Biological Family

Finding Dad

I was about to meet my bio father, Joe, for the first time. My heart was in my mouth as I climbed the steps to his front door in Carlsbad, New Mexico. I knocked on the door, and this avuncular old dude opened it. 

He’d been expecting me, but he looked as thunderstruck as I felt. 

“My God, it’s like looking in a mirror,” he said. 

“Yep, if I was an old dude with a big white mustache I’d look just like you!” I replied. 

We sat down, had tequila, and caught up on the previous 38 years. He’s a great bullshitter. And we really do look alike: 

Me at 7, Joe at 7

Me at 45, Joe at 19. Extra thanks to photographer Brett Colvin for recreating this pose in a special shoot. 
Joe and me together in 2012

Continue ReadingFinding Dad

Finding Mom

This story was originally published in Catalyst magazine’s October 2012 issue. The HTML link has long since decayed, but you can see the original layout in the issuu link here, starting on page 18.

This year I did something I had thought was a virtual impossibility for most of my life: I found my genetic family. More than that, I have found the keys to my identity, and the foundation for a much deeper peace of mind than I have ever known before. The search has not been easy and it has been very emotional, but it has been very rewarding. 

I was born on January 1, 1974 at Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau, Bahamas and adopted by a local couple, a Scottish man and a Bahamian woman, the following day. My adoption was no secret to me. My mother was always very honest with me, and I knew that I was adopted I think even before I really understood what “adopted” meant, and that other children weren’t adopted. Mum promised to help me find my birth family, she said, any time I felt like I wanted to find them. She only recommended that I wait until I was 18 years old and cautioned me that my birth mother might have gone on with her life, married and had other children. But she said that it was certain that my birth mother thought of me all the time, and especially on my birthday. 

I was kind of a strange kid. I daydreamed a lot, and I was very disconnected from consensus reality–so much so that when I was four or five years old, the school recommended that I get my hearing tested because I wasn’t attending in class. There wasn’t anything wrong with my ears, but nobody–teacher or otherwise–could provide me with an experience more interesting than the escapades I got up to in my own imagination. I also wasn’t very social. I remember spending recess alone a lot of the time, and it seemed to me like all the other kids understood something between them that I was missing out on. I was, to put it bluntly, a dork. It I felt very much like an alien beamed down to this planet from a starship in a cloaked orbit high above the Earth. It was as if I was missing a big chunk of my memory somehow.

This feeling never really left me alone. As an adult I put myself into therapy and spent many years figuring out some of the roots of my own behavioral quirks and trying to iron out the rest of my social cluelessness, but I never felt like I was a member of the human race. I tried a few times over the years to begin a proper adoption search, but was thwarted by some very unfriendly laws in the Bahamas and the fact that both the doctor who’d delivered me and the lawyer who’d finalized the papers had been dead for many years. My adoptive mother always stood by me and on several occasions tried her hand with the Bahamian authorities on my behalf, but to no avail. I was rootless and cut off and it seemed like that was my lot in life. 

In 2009 things came to a head. Mum was diagnosed with lung cancer and I was very much afraid that she would die. My adoptive father had died in 2004 after a protracted illness of more than a decade. I was raised an only child, so I had no siblings to help out. I quit my job and spent a lot of that summer at my mother’s house, seven time zones away in Britain, trying to care for her as best I could. It was difficult, and the chemo was very hard on her. When her condition stabilized and I came home to Utah, I realized that I had to give my adoption search another try. For all I knew, my birth mother might have cancer too, or she might already be dead. I knew that this was a pretty emotional decision, but in any case, I had to know. But how could I proceed? I had no information at all, not a single clue from which to begin a search. Science came to the rescue.

It was at around that time that DNA testing first became available to the public. The National Geographic Society launched the “National Genographic Project” to map human mitochondrial and Y-chromosome “haplogroups” (genetic subtypes) all over the world, and they made a very basic test available for $99. Mitochondria are little structures with their own genetic code that float around in the cytoplasm of every human cell, generating chemical energy from food and oxygen provided by the bloodstream. Their DNA (known as mtDNA for short) doesn’t recombine when a sperm and egg merge to form a zygote, so the mitochondrial line is passed down virtually unchanged directly from mother to child. My mitochondrial haplogroup would not tell me much about my birth family, but it would give me some insight into my deep ancestry. I ordered the kit, sent off a scraping of cheek cells, and waited for the results. 

When they came, I was thunderstruck. My mtDNA indicated that I was most likely Native American! I am pretty darn caucasian looking. The haplogroup in question, A2h, is a subgroup of one that arose in Siberia between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. People with A2h mtDNA are overwhelmingly Native American though, as that line was brought across the Bering land bridge when tribes migrated to this side of the world during the last ice age. In any case it definitely wasn’t European! My interest in my genetics was piqued, and when I found out that two other companies, 23andme and Family Tree DNA made more detailed tests available, I ordered them. 

Both of these companies offered testing of the autosomal DNA found in the nucleus of every human cell. This is the DNA that recombines when sperm and egg meet, and you get half from your father and half from your mother. The tests looked not at the full suite of my genetic variation, but only at certain places on the genome that had already been mapped and understood as creating this or that kind of physiological variation. Reading these single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) could give me the beginning of something I’d never had in my life…a medical history. The test at 23andme promised to tell me whether I had a genetic predisposition to diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s, and could tell me whether I was a genetic carrier for other nasties like cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs disease. This was a particularly big deal as my husband and I had recently decided to try to have kids, and the specter of being an unknown carrier hovers over the head of every adoptee who lacks a medical history. 

The second, and most compelling, thing that SNP tracking could give me was the possibility of finding blood relatives. Both 23andme and Family Tree DNA maintain relative-matching databases, and by opting in as a public match you make yourself searchable to other people who are also trying to map their own genealogical lines. Over on 23andme I turned up a match at the second to third cousin level, which is extremely close! Family Tree DNA also provided a handy geographical map of my mtDNA matches, showing me that my mother’s Native American blood was from northern New Mexico. Here was some concrete connection, finally. I sent a message to my match on the 23andme database…but I heard nothing back from him. It was disappointing, but not really unexpected. These days, every online service tries to provide its own messaging, and I know too well what it’s like to be barraged with trivial notices–you just tune them out or route them straight into your spam folder. I put aside this cousin of mine and went back to trying to talk my records out of the Bahamian authorities for a few months. 

This got me precisely nowhere. I was told to contact the Registrar General’s office, and they told me to call the hospital, who told me to call the Registrar General’s office again, who then told me I needed a court order. I tried to hire a lawyer to petition the court to release my records, but the attorney I talked to thought that $10,000 was a “reasonable” fee for such a service, so that was a dead end as well. I found out who had inherited the paper records from the lawyer’s office, but could not get the man on the phone to talk to him. I found a nurse who had worked for the doctor who delivered me, but she couldn’t remember one baby out of the thousands of births she had assisted. Trying to pursue this search in the Bahamas via phone calls from Salt Lake City was really frustrating. I even visited the Bahamas with my adoptive mother again and managed to make a connection with a doctor who said she had access to my records, but that lead went nowhere either. 

I went back to my second cousin match and looked at his name (publicly available, but a very common name in the USA). There had to be a way to figure out who this guy was, but when I Googled him, I got over six million returns. Then I looked at his username–the unique handle he’d chosen to represent him in the database–and saw that it contained a number. I tried the Google search again with his full name and the number…and, bingo, the returns all referenced the same guy. Turns out the number was part of his business street address. I wrote him a letter and sent a hard copy of an article that a Bahamian newspaper had written about my search. Two weeks later I got an email back from him, but he didn’t seem like he was in a position to help me out very much. Again, I was disappointed, but not very surprised. At least, I figured, I had his name…and perhaps I could use DNA triangulation to figure out how I might be related to him. A few more months went by and I kept myself busy trying to chip away at my cold leads in the Bahamas, and then I checked my database matching results once more and found something extraordinary: A new match, even closer than my second cousin, and with the same mitochondrial haplotype as him! This meant a strong likelihood that the new match was part of my cousin’s family. I wrote him another email asking him if this was the case, and if so, if he would be comfortable introducing me to this person. 

He wrote back immediately, saying that the match was his mother, who had unfortunately just passed away. However, her line of the family had written up an extensive genealogy in the 1930s, and he offered to send me a copy! The next evening I received a 71 page PDF file as an email attachment. I printed it out and started reading it and marking it up. Here was a branch of the family that had moved to New Mexico in the last 19th Century! That line had something like eight children. It had to be my mother’s father’s side, since my mtDNA did not match with my cousin’s, so I was looking for a male line. The genealogy ended in 1935, which was pretty frustrating! Eventually I found a partial continuation of that genealogy online, and found a daughter born in New Mexico who had married and had three sons, any of whom could have been my grandfather. I took that information to a friend of mine who is an adoptee himself and works as a private investigator, and who does some pro bono work for adoption searches. I asked him if any of the men had had daughters. It turned out that the middle one, John, had. My PI friend gave me a name, a phone number, and a street address. 

Was this my mother? 

The information was like molten metal. I could barely figure out how to handle it. I had by this time found an adoption support group in Salt Lake City and had been going there for several months. The members of the group are all affected by adoption and in various stages of search and reunion, and I had learned some valuable things from them. One of the biggest was about mental preparedness, and about how adoption reunion changes your entire life. I was not ready to reunite with my family yet. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know what I needed to do before I felt ready to try to connect, but I knew in my gut that it just wasn’t time. I sat on the information that I had for another three months. 

Finally one day the angle of the sun was just right in the sky, or maybe there was precisely the right amount of relative humidity in the air, or maybe the planets had realigned themselves just so. I don’t know what changed, but I knew that now it was time to reach out. I wrote a letter to “the candidate”–basically explaining the circumstances of my birth and asking her if she was my mother, and enclosing a picture of myself and my husband. I sent it off certified mail and waited to see when it would be delivered by the USPS. It was at once both incredibly intimidating and perfectly natural. My friends who were aware of my search asked me the obvious question: What if you find something you don’t like? Will you regret having searched? I’d considered this question very deeply and the answer was a resounding NO. It didn’t matter to me what I found. I needed to know. I needed to know the story of my genetic history. I needed a medical history, at the very least. Even the most unfriendly of birth mothers would probably provide me with that kind of information, even if she wanted nothing else to do with me. If I were rejected, or if the things I found out about my birth family were difficult, I would just have to take my lumps and get on with life. But I at least had to try to make contact. 

Two days after I sent the letter, my phone rang. The woman on the other end explained that she wasn’t my mother…she was my aunt! “We always wondered what happened to you!” she said. She was overjoyed to hear from me. She gave me my mother’s contact information, and I sat down and wrote another letter. I had found my birth mother! Our reconnection took a little while. We were both a little intimidated, but eventually we agreed to meet in Fernley, Nevada, which was a reasonable driving distance from both of our residences. I walked into the hotel, and there she was standing at the reception desk: my birth mother. 

The experience was surreal. She was so happy to meet me, and she has a friendly dorkiness to her that suddenly opened a window of understanding onto my own dorky personality. We are nerds together! She is incredibly intelligent and has a great imagination. She’s worked as a computer programmer since the days of punchcard coding–quite an accomplishment in such a male-dominated industry. We toured around the Black Rock Desert together for a day, and she was as enthusiastic as I was about stopping the car at any interesting-looking area and going out to see what we could find. She told me all about herself and her family, and about my conception and my birth. Some of the stories were sad and hard to hear, but I was glad to hear all of it. She told me the name of my birth father, and where I could find him. It was amazing and exhausting. 

That was two and a half months ago now. Since then I have located my birth father and talked with him, and my husband and I have visited my birth mother and my birth grandmother. It has not gotten any less weird or wonderful. It’s the little things that I never knew that I missed before that get to me the most. On my last visit, my birth mother and grandmother and I all went out to have our nails done together. When the lady painting my toes noticed a familial similarity, for the first time in my life I was able to say that it was a true one. When I looked at the palms of my grandmother’s hands, I noticed that we have similar patterns of creases. I can see that I have my grandmother’s long face and my birth mother’s hips and long legs. My husband and I just bought plane tickets to go and meet my birth father in November. He sent me a picture of himself from when he joined the navy back in 1964, and the resemblance I have to him is uncanny. 

I have never felt so lucky. I have done a lot of research into adoption reunion and my case is striking in many respects. Firstly, my adoptive mother has never flagged in her support of me and my search, and I know that is not the case for many adoptees. Even though she was suffering with cancer, she still supported me, and understood my need to search. She is still alive and doing well on a kind of pill chemo that is controlling her cancer and not giving her too many side effects. She and I have a date to meet in Atlanta this October and I am very much looking forward to seeing her. Secondly, I caught a series of amazing breaks in my DNA search. Not many adoptees turn up so close a match, and even fewer find a match who will help them with their search. Thirdly, my birth family have all been delighted to hear from me. Closed adoption, which was the norm during much of the 20th Century, has been associated with a lot of shame on the part of the relinquishing parents. Many adoptees from that era complete a search only to be rejected by their birth family. The fact that I have been so warmly welcomed is pretty striking. 

I feel, finally, as if I am becoming human. The sense that I might be beamed up to the mothership at any time is starting to dissipate. I have become a bit of an obsessive genealogist. I went from having no information at all, to finding out that I have extensive recorded family lines on my mother’s side–in fact, my grandmother’s family is recorded all the way back to the Spanish conquistadors. The fact that my father has no information about his genetic family is a fun new challenge. He has agreed to take the same DNA test that I did and to let me work with the results. It may take a while, but I’m pretty confident that I can find some of his genetic family. Most people only have two parents and two ancestral lines. I have four parents, more cousins (both adoptive and genetic) than I can count, ancestral lines documented back hundreds of years, AND the challenge of a new mystery to solve. I am truly lucky. 

Continue ReadingFinding Mom


“It’s only a model…” “Shhh!!”

Current model of this planned monumental ceramic-tile-faced basalt sculpture. Sigourney Weavers are 6′ tall for scale. 

No, it’s not a very good model. But it’s a seed, and I made it for myself to remind me of what I’m going to grow. This project will (like everything) be highly iterative. 

A giant sculpture of a seated cross-legged woman. Tough black basalt, like Jael’s inuksuk that didn’t want to die in the fire. She’s too big to carve from a single stone, so she’d have to be constructed of multiple slabs. Dry laid mortise and tenon, so there’s no mortar to weather out. Faced with a mosaic of tens of thousands of vitreously-fired stoneware tiles, each one engraved with a message from a participant. Let people send messages ten thousand or more years into the future…

The tag hanger projects are all part of the foundation for it, hand in hand with developing the prompt or prompts for it. The next phase involves building a larger model, but one that’s still manageable in size since I won’t have a functioning workshop for the next couple of years or so, so maybe 18″-24″ tall.

The workshop we’re building is actually specced to create and house the eventual “touring” model, which will be around 8′ wide (just under the limit for “wide load” status on American highways). At this point the Lady will be a fully participatory, trash-built massive sculpture on a trailer so she’ll be able to visit many different events. Her hair will be tag-hanger territory, with tens of thousands of recycled cardstock tags available for people to write on. I’ll also weave in some light effects so she’s extra compelling after dark. We’ll engineer a tarp “hairnet” so she isn’t shedding tags all over the Interstate when we tow her around. 

More pictures of the model: 

When you’re planning to build a 40′ tall sculpture of black basalt that will hopefully last for millennia, it takes a while to really understand what you’re trying to create. I have had the vision for the Lady in my head for several years now, but she’s going to take many, many iterations before the real form of her comes clear. 

Here are some process pictures:

These little “trash sculptures” have cores made of shipping garbage, faced with cloth tape and finished with drywall mud. They are relatively quick and cheap to make, and I’ll be making many more of them going forward, each one as an exploration of the form. 


The Importance of the Prompt

Everyone wants to make a mark, but not everyone is brave enough to do it. Everyone wants to be heard, but not everyone is brave enough to speak up. 

Things like PostSecret are great, but without a prompt they’re often a forum for an awful lot of grief and trauma. This is fine and all, but if we’re gonna make our way over this abyss on the tightrope of our imagination, we have to keep our eyes on the prize: joy, health, wholeness, and love. This is why the prompt is so important. 

If you provide them with the right prompts, the general public are amazingly inspiring. If you give them the wrong prompts, they’re awful. If you don’t give them any prompts, they default to drawing penises. 

People want to interact with stuff. They want to participate. They want, more than anything else, to leave a mark. Why do they write graffiti? Humans have probably always done this – there’s the “high bar” qualifying mark to leave behind, like the effort it would have taken to crawl deep into a cave with a tallow taper and make a beautiful painting of a bison – but there are many many more “low bar” marks, the vast majority of which haven’t persisted. Little boys write their names in the snow with their pee. People carve hearts and initials into aspen bark. There’s a wall in Seattle where people have been putting their gum for decades and it’s turned into an unintentional work of art. So how do you give people some kind of forum for physical engagement, something to leave a mark on, that might persist for ten millennia? What kind of practice could catch human attention for that many generations? What kind of artifacts could you make? And how low could you set the bar? 

I think it’s very important that the bar is set very, very low. You would need people to want to engage no matter what language they spoke, what culture they were from, what gender they were, what age they were, or what level of intellect they had. If a person has the ability to move at least some part of their body and form some sort of agency, I want them to be able to participate in these projects. I want this to be fun for everyone. So, how do you do that? 

Well, in the spirit of “it turns out I’ve been accidentally doing this my whole life” – I started doing casual interviews of my friends back when I was about 12 years old. I started a binder of “personality files” – the questions I asked weren’t very interesting or detailed, just along the lines of favorite color and celebrity crush, but people really loved being asked, having the opportunity to disclose, and then knowing that their answers were being logged. 

Over the years I kept coming back to this concept of the low-bar interview and working it in different ways. Eventually the first year I went to Burning Man (2007) I conceived this participatory sculpture called The Green Duck, which was a big basketwork duck sculpture made of tree branches. I was part of an online community forum at the time and got people from all over the world to send me strips of tee shirt cloth with “messages for the Duck” written on them – I’d tie the strips of cloth to the Duck to make “feathers” over the empty basketry. It wasn’t a very good prompt, but I got cloth messages posted to me from as far away as Israel and France. I left a bucket filled with blank cloth strips and sharpie markers by the Duck out on playa, and people wrote things and tied the feathers to the Duck all week, and we pitched the sculpture in a burn bin at the close of the event. It was a great deal of fun and I learned a lot. 

But the biggest thing I learned that year was that I wasn’t the only one with the idea to provide a sculptural forum for this kind of written participation. I had never even heard of the Temple at Burning Man before I went, but it blew my mind and was the main reason why Burning Man turned into more than just a “bucket list” thing for me. I could not wrap my head around the fact that people had (a) written all over this gorgeous structure, with not just permission but expectancy from the designer and builders, and (b) had schlepped ALL SORTS of gear out into the desert to burn it, release it, let it go. I remember vividly there was an entire real zebra skin in that burn. Who would burn that and why? I have no idea, but up it went on Sunday night. 

I got into designing and building burns, starting in 2012 with “The Secret of the Bees” for the Circle Of Regional Effigies. By 2015, kismet had dictated that I’d become a Temple designer myself. My Utah community needed Temples, and I had the chops to create them, so that’s what I did. By 2017 I was burned out and physically suffering, and had to step down from the crew that year. Temples are awesome, but they are in the end about grief and release, and I’d had enough personal grief in my life that I couldn’t handle channeling it for everyone else as well any more. I realized if I was going to heal my body and deal with the old traumas that were riding me, I was going to have to figure out how to channel and invoke people’s joy instead of their sorrow. 

So I embarked upon a series of much smaller and less ambitious “tag hanger” sculptures which I presented at the Illuminate festival in Salt Lake City. I asked people to share their dreams, their heart’s desires, and whatever made them grateful—to write their answers on tags and add them to the sculptures. I put a labyrinth and a dragon sculpture in a room at the end of the Dreamscapes immersive art experience (somewhat like MeowWolf, only made mostly out of trash and recyclables) – and after visitors had trod the labyrinth, I had them write what they wished they had the courage to do and hang it on the dragon. Wow, did I get some heavy responses. 

The Roots Network

For my next installation for Dreamscapes, I expanded the vision of the rooms and changed the prompts yet again. We had three rooms built out, and a toad sculpture in each room asked a different question for people to answer on their tags. The first toad asked “what inspires you?” second one asked “what makes you happy?” and third one asked “what’s your legacy?” These prompts got some really good answers, and I think that having three of them in a row got people’s creativity flowing in a way that just a single prompt didn’t. At the end of the run, I saved all the tags and I’m slowly building an online Oracle with them. When it’s finished, you’ll be able to ask a question and receive a picture of someone’s random tag as your answer, sort of like a massively multiplayer magic 8 ball. 

So I’m designing participatory future archaeology, and my question is, what’s a good prompt to give people to create messages to send 10,000 years into the future? You want it to be relatable, you don’t want it to be so “important” that people go into vapor lock. You want something that sounds accessible but can be interpreted very deeply. And of course you will still get people who draw penises and write “pee pee poo poo,” and that’s fine too. If there are humans with digestive tracts 10,000 years in the future, I’m sure they’ll still appreciate poop jokes. 


The human species is alive and thriving 10,000 years from now. 

(a) You get to ask those future humans one question. What do you ask? 

(b) You get to send them one piece of advice. What wisdom do you think will still be valid 10,000 years from now? 

I’ve been testing prompts out on social media, and I think now that this kind of a big mental leap to do in one shot. I’m also mulling over doing something like Neal Stephenson does in Anathem, where we take it in stages—say, 5 years, 10 years, 50 years, 500 years, 1,000 years, 5,000 years, and then the full 10,000. I like this idea of getting people to weave a network of communications back and forth to all those different zones of futurity. 

Continue ReadingThe Importance of the Prompt


Robert Smithson’s masterwork is located about a two hour drive north of Salt Lake City. It’s been different every time I’ve gone, and even in the middle of the day in the middle of the work week I’ve never had the place to myself for the whole time I’ve been there. 

If you haven’t been, go sometime. 

Continue ReadingSPIRAL JETTY


What can I say about being sent to board at a prep school in south Florida in 1988? 

It was rough. We were at the bitterest, last extremity of the Cold War, but I really didn’t see how it could end with anything else than a full on thermonuclear holocaust. I was 14 and didn’t believe I’d live to see 20. The school was bewildering, full of American preppies who spoke a language that was nominally English but nothing I could understand. I was lost at sea—but at the same time, thrilled to finally be in the United States. By the end of the first semester, I’d picked up enough of the slang to at least know when I was being insulted. 

Prep school was full of kids who knew they were going to be doctors and lawyers. I had no idea what I was doing there, but there was an art department with a couple of potter’s wheels, and I had been yearning to get my hands in clay my whole life. Clay, being literally earth, is incredibly grounding to work with. It got me through my whole first year. It saved my life. I’m no production potter, but I’ve had a passion for clay ever since, and it’s only ever brought me good things. It’s the mystical action of fire on earth—you take what’s basically fancy dirt, pass it through a fire, and you get from it an artifact with the potential to last thousands of years (if butterfingers doesn’t drop it). 

Thousands of years. I’ve made all sorts of ceramics in my life, and every time I open a kiln I never fail to contemplate how much longer this work might last than my human body. Ea-nasir never expected that his shitty copper would earn him a negative Yelp review on a clay tablet that would outlive him by 4,000 years. 

The second thing that saved my life in high school was discovering that I had a knack for building theatre sets. I had no urge to strut and fret upon the stage itself, but setting the stage…now that was interesting. I loved creating little temporary worlds for the actors to inhabit. I loved creating a space where the audience could get drawn in, forget themselves, and live for just a little while in an entirely alternate and better dimension. I was good at it. I won awards. 

The third thing that saved my life was a single hit of blotter LSD. I was a good kid, but by the age of 17 I was suicidal. I cut myself, but just a little bit at a time, to placate the urge and stay sort of functional. Shit just builds up, you know? Home life sucked. My parents were still together, but they’d never stopped bickering. School was incredibly stressful, but being there was better than being home. I was being pushed to “succeed” but everyone said that the things I was passionate about would never make me a living. I didn’t know what the hell to do, so when my roommate gifted me two tabs of competent, mid-grade blotter, I felt like even if I did the legendary jump-off-the-roof-because-I-think-I-can-fly thing, it wouldn’t have been much of a loss. And, for real, I had no idea how to even get on the roof of the dorm. So, whatevs.

A friend and I took the blotter one Friday afternoon. It was hilarious, and it was terrifying. I saw a kid turn into a giant pickle. We ran away from the friend we’d enlisted as a sitter, because her red shoes had little kitten heels that clicked ominously on the concrete sidewalk as she stalked us. Free of her, we smoked cigarettes and admired the quality of the sunset. I was visited mid-trip by a much older version of myself who gifted me this wisdom: Yeah, stuff right now sucks. But look around—all those other kids here, the future doctors and lawyers—it sucks for them too, and it’s worse for them in a lot of ways. You have a lot more sucky stuff to get through in life, but it’s gonna be OK. You’re gonna make it. It’s gonna be really fun, too. So just stick with it, honey. 

This didn’t change my circumstances, but it was a lifeline that I grabbed onto and never let go. I came out of that trip still troubled, but no longer suicidal. I knew I was too stubborn to self-destruct. I was particularly not going to self-destruct as a result of other people’s stupid shit that I could now see them laying on me and everyone else around them. There’s gotta be a better way. 

So now I’m about the age that I would have been, when I was visiting my 17 year old self. They’ve invented this type of therapy called IFS, where you visualize visiting former traumatized versions of you, help them out, give them advice, and often remove them from terrible situations. It’s wonderfully effective and I’ve been doing it for a few years. Life has, indeed, gotten a lot more fun. And clay work and set building—those passions aren’t trivial. I know now why I was so drawn to them.  

Me and Des


When I was 11, we moved from the hot, bright, subtropical Bahama islands to the cold, wet, windy Isle of Man. In the Bahamas, being cold was a novelty. In the Isle of Man, it was a given. I had never experienced autumn or winter before. I had never seen snow falling out of the sky. I didn’t know what it was like, frankly, to witness that whole Persephone myth thing in action, when it looks like the whole world dies come October. 

It was cold and damp and honestly pretty miserable. The three years we were there, 1985-1988, were like a mini ice age. I’ve been back to the Island many times since and never witnessed such a run of awful weather, but there was something just depressive about the mid-eighties, what with Thatcherism and the Cold War, and I guess the weather was mirroring that. My adoptive parents were going through a rough spot in their marriage, and I remember them constantly bickering and frequently sequestering themselves in the master bedroom of the 700 year old stone farmhouse we were living in to hold tense “discussions.” 

My response to all of this—suddenly being deprived of green and growing things for half the year, and having to share a damp stone cottage with two extremely unhappy people, was to start my own little pet jungle. I missed the Bahamas badly, but I noticed that here in the upper latitudes, people kept little bits of the tropics inside their dwellings. I began to spend all my pocket money at the garden center on things like potting soil and fertilizer and little clear gel cups for rooting cuttings. 

I hardly ever spent money on plants. Mostly I just filched cuttings from houseplants I’d encounter at restaurants or at the hotels or bed and breakfasts we stayed at during our road trip holidays around the UK in the driving rain. Sometimes I would ask to take a cutting, but often I’d just snip one clandestinely. I grew out my right thumbnail and kept it sharp for this purpose specifically. I always had a ziplock baggie in my purse, and I’d wrap the cutting in damp paper towel from the bathroom to keep it from wilting. I got tradescantia and impatiens and ivy and  kangaroo vine and even a golden pothos this way. 

I also grew potatoes from the grocery store that had started sprouting, and avocado pits, and whatever else I could persuade to create vegetation. I filled every used yogurt and cottage cheese container with rooted cuttings and sprouted seeds, and when I’d run out of pocket money I begged my mother to buy me larger plastic pots from the garden center. I idolized Anne Tetley-Jones, our landlady, who kept the most amazing gardens around our cottage. She grew monkshood and gigantic poppies and fuchsia and sunflowers and heirloom roses and a riot of smaller flowers and trailing vines of all descriptions. It was cold and wet on the Island, but at least in (theoretical) summer, things really GREW. Anne had a magic garden outside our cottage, and I did my best to create my own inside it. 

I have kept houseplants ever since, and when Trent and I moved into our house in Salt Lake City 16 years ago, I finally had a chance to apply myself to the skill of temperate zone gardening, though I admit I’m still not very good at it. The wish to create a magic garden has never faded, and over the years became more and more compelling until during the madness of the early COVID lockdown, I decided to hell with it, let’s just build a fantasy right in the front yard. I had some giant Amanita muscaria mushroom sculptures I’d started building out of trash, and without any particular venue available for them, I realized I could just put them in our garden. I’m Alice, so I’m going to build my own Wonderland. Take that, global pandemic!

The neighbors love it. The sculptures light up at night, and they’ve made it through two winters so far, a fact of which I’m proud. The mushroom on the parking strip is participatory—we have a little hutch with some weatherproof tags and sharpie markers in it, and a little notice asking people to write answers to the questions “what would you do if you were larger?” “what would you do if you were smaller?” and hang them on the mushroom. I have not yet figured out how to make a weatherproof trash Caterpillar to pose these questions more formally, but I’ve been mulling over the engineering. 

It’s nice to have a no-deadline participatory art venue that’s just for fun, no pressure. I get to use the space as a lab to test out new build methods and new prompts. And our garden is finally thriving.