Dig Your Hands in the Dirt: A Manual for Making Art out of Earth by Kiko Denzer

Just what it says it is. Betty Edwards recommends it "for every grade school teacher." 132 pages, 28 pages color, paper.


As you might suspect, a book with this title features many photos of barefoot kids happily stomping in the mud. Mud huts and mud pies conjure up pictures of primitive peoples and childish pleasures. But then you realize that the kids aren’t in Africa, but in Washington DC, Chicago, Portland (Oregon), and Berlin. And they aren’t all kids!

Looking past the pictures of giddy, muddy fun, here is substantial and serious inspiration and practical lessons for artists, teachers, students, and designers, as well as builders interested in natural materials like adobe (and, more recently, it’s British counterpart, “cob.”)

The book begins with a color section of stunning murals based on traditional south African pattern design, a monumental labyrinth and sundial, a whole earthen park (in Berlin), large-scale sculpted benches and structures, model villages and even tiny bird-houses of mud sculpted on woven frames. In Portland, Oregon, earthen art has become part of a city-wide strategy for building community. In Berlin, earth-artist Rainer Warzecha has worked with kids over ten years to fill a whole park with earthen sculptures as big as small houses.

A comprehensive technical section spells out the details of finding the right mud and mixing it in more ways than you can cook eggs. Photos, captions, and illustrations provide many explanatory examples. Extensive resources offer sources for further study.

Between the technical and the inspirational is a chapter on “design as process and pattern” that begins with the claim that “art is a social activity.” Given the preceding photos and stories, it’s hard to argue, but for those to whom the creative process is a mystery, Denzer offers a simple approach for building common goals and vision. Then, with illustrated examples from his own work, he explains how to translate simple, natural (and easy to draw) patterns into sophisticated and complex designs that transform bland and anonymous modern buildings into real places to shelter real communities.

Now the photos take on a new significance. Simple “decoration” really can change the spaces where people live and work. And the experience of changing their environment can also change people – as Denzer relates in several compelling stories about teaching in institutions around his home state of Oregon.

Here in the dirt is a democratic material by which to make serious and beautiful art, and a democratic process for creative collaboration. Rather than “art for art’s sake,” Denzer aims at communal beauty, beyond the rarefied atmosphere of galleries and criticism. Art is, he says, “experience by which humans learn.” Beauty is fundamental principle that connect us to the world we live in. “Finding and claiming beauty,” writes Denzer, “is a fundamentally positive act that helps unite a fragmented world, and makes sense of harsh and confusing realities….Art helps join us, harmoniously, to a whole.”

Brief, elegant, wonderfully and generously illustrated with drawings and 32 pages of color photos, and very affordable, this is a book for teachers, parents, builders, artists, and kids of all ages.

  • a book for teachers, parents, builders, artists, and kids of all ages
  • synthesizes craft, beauty & inspiration with practical ideas that build awareness, skills, knowledge, and confidence
  • instructions make lo-budget art into a practical option for anyone
  • real world insights demonstrate how beauty can make things better
  • simple, lo-tech methods open the border between art and architecture

Advance Praise for Dig Your Hands in the Dirt: A Manual for Making Art our of Earth:

“I love this book! Kiko Denzer is an imaginative teacher with a great sense of design who clearly inspires children to create beauty from the humblest of all art materials–mud! Just reading his exercises makes you want to get right down into it. Every grade school teacher should seize on this book to enrich their students’ lives.”
– Dr. Betty Edwards, Professor Emerita in art, California State University, & author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

“This is a manual on how to create low budget public art with earth. Rather than a cookie cutter approach, it offers a fascinating process to help you see and understand pattern in nature. The resulting designs are utterly consistent with the process of natural design. It’s an invaluable and unique tool. Use it to involve kids, families, and schools in positive change.”
– Ianto Evans, author of The Hand Sculpted House, co-owner/founder of Cob Cottage Co. and N. American School of Natural Building, landscape architect, and teacher.

“This book…teaches practical skills that empower children to create everything from playgrounds to school walls using the simplest of methods…. [A]dults will be inspired…, and will find the technical information useful…. With engaging text and evocative photos and drawings, Kiko shows us how to build with nature and community. …the best book on doing art with community that I have ever seen. I found it an inspiration.”
– Joseph F. Kennedy, architect, teacher, & editor of Building Without Borders & The Art of Natural Building

“…an excellent tool for anyone who is interested in the design and creation of ecological art and places, in natural building, and in working creatively with children of every age.”
– Mark Lakeman, architect, founder/director of City Repair

“…Everyone becomes an artistin a creative group process that teaches design, application, architecture, and cooperation using the first art we all love: MUD PIES!”
– Ann Wiseman, teacher, & author of Making Things

“[T]he mud wall mosaics….are stunning, transforming hostile barren school walls into somewhere you might actually want to spend time…. [Earth] is a remarkable material, and Dig Your Hands in the Dirt is a very useful resource of ideas and possibilities…. I recommend it wholeheartedly.”
– Rob Hopkins, The Hollies Centre For Practical Sustainability, Ireland

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