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Wholeo Dome and Phyllis Birkby

This is a quote from an article entitled "Herspace" by Phyllis Birkby, published in Heresies 11, A Feminist Publication on Art & Politics, Making Room, Women and Architecture, Vol. 3 No. 3 Issue 11, 1981. Addendum: about Phyllis and the Feminists (who changed America).

"Virginia Gray's adobe house and Caroling's stained-glass dome can be seen as very personal and idiosyncratic spatial icons, but in fact they evidence a commonly shared sensibility among women. Isn't this the meaning behind the seeming coincidence of a woman drawing and writing about her dream in New York (Frances Doughty) and another in California (Caroling) building an almost identical dream as a material reality? . . .

"Caroling's Dome

"Caroling's dome is in the backyard of her own simple dwelling in Sonoma County, California. Partially hidden in the shrubbery, the gleaming dome reveals itself as one approaches it by foot from the road. Its entrance faces the path, inviting but not commanding entrance. Entering this space means participating in an act of physical and spiritual transformation. Colored light bathes everything inside: space, people, the soft surfaces, and the simple pillows and carpets used to furnish the space. Thus there is a wondrous unification, but one that changes with every movement and change of light. It is difficult not to experience a sense of instant connection with those who are gathered inside, of belonging to the same universe; and nothing interferes with this flow. As in Frances' fantasy (who has never been in this space) one feels suspended and swimming in light.

"The dome, 14 feet in diameter, built of a light aluminum frame, almost disappears under the more visually prominent roofing layers of glass and leading, creating a surrender of geometric form to the form and structure of feeling. The images depicted in stained glass are expressions of Caroling's experiences and were "accumulated" in place rather than made part of a previously established design. Although they represent a past, they seem to be alive in the present. As in the human mind itself, the accumulation of colored images of perceptions and events in the dome's surface results in a personal "map." But one that is dynamic, filled with events depicted outside and beyond their temporal, linear sequence. There is no beginning, no end, and transitions are almost imperceptible in the whole. The saturation of color is broken here and there by areas of clear glass, making the sky-dome one with the enclosure and expanding one's view. Although the dome is in some way an advertisement of Caroling and her work (she is a stained glass artist), the images do have the capability of communicating experiences and feelings that are universally shared by women.

"Both Virginia's and Caroling's spaces are centers, imbued with ritual, psychic, and spiritual qualities. Neither was actually built for a utilitarian purpose but rather for the more complex and rich function of gathering, including others in a space that is also intensely personal. Therefore, these spaces are neither exclusively public nor private. They are inclusive sheltering gestures, gentle containments that are as apt to provide a sense of inward psychological and physical security as to encourage a release of the mind, the spirit, and the senses.

"Frances' Fantasy

"... The place I am in is ... a patchwork zeppelin built of stained glass. When I hold my arm out it has different bands of color resting on it, and when I move it the bands stretch and shrink and slide over the skin. It's like being in a warm sea of colors or living in a kaleidoscope ... to swim, to move slowly exploring the play of color and motion. ...

"Through the course of a single day the patterns shift as the sun moves over the space. Both the angles of the beams of color and their shapes alter the floor as if it were a mosaic of light that was breathing. Then there are more subtle changes from day to day as the sun goes through the year, which are only noticeable if you suddenly remember what it looked like some months before.

"At night, if there is enough moonlight, the colors are strange and cool and the stars show through in the places where the glass is clear."

Phyllis and the Feminists

There is a picture of Phyllis Birkby in Wholeo dome in the book Feminists Who Changed America 1963-1975 (see bibliography). The photo is on the third page of photos. The text says it is a "Feminist Event". It is in the Noel Phyllis Birkby Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass. See it here and on the bio page. I don't remember how or when I first met Phyllis. The outstanding memory is of her and a friend from Berkeley (Barbara Hammer) with a teapot making ceremony in the colored light of the dome. Later there were postcards and letters during the publication of the magazine and plans for movies and books. Likewise, I don't remember how we drifted out of touch or when I heard that she had died. In 2005 and 2006 I became part of the Pioneer Feminists Project database and am included in the book. There I learned that Phyllis's things are in the Sophia Smith Collection. A Wholeo dome movie she made is listed as number 84 on this page, a descriptive list of Birkby's films, in Series VIII. Perhaps the slides I sent (that Phyllis never returned) are there too.

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