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Silent CMU artist/engineer builds house from scrap in 3-month 'performance'

Sunday, February 24, 2002

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's not every day you see a man building his own three-story house out of scrap wood on a university campus. It's rarer still to find him doing the construction dressed as a lobster.

William Kofmehl and his collaborator, Merritt Johnson, in the house that Lobsterman built. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

To some, William Kofmehl III is making a bold artistic statement with his student project at Carnegie Mellon University. Others can hardly keep from shouting something like, "Hey, what in the name of Red Lobster are you doing up there?"

Either way, they get no argument. That's because Kofmehl, 21, a fine arts major and a performance artist, isn't about to explain himself while pounding nails into his creation. In fact, the lobster man has vowed not to utter a word for three months as he works day and night on a project that is creating puzzlement and awe on campus.

Kofmehl, a senior who grew up in West View, has enough credits to graduate this spring. But the school, citing his exceptional promise, awarded him a tuition-free extra year under its "Fifth-Year Scholar" program so he can study engineering.

Kofmehl has received $1,000 from a university fund that encourages undergraduate research and artistic activity. His grant proposal said that by forming "a new persona," he would explore speech and communication behavior.

Rooms in the house will hold artifacts from his past projects and "function as settings for performances, lectures, videos and the set for twenty minutes of a feature-length film," the proposal said.

Plans for the structure include a pair of fire poles, a dumbwaiter and a rooftop exercise machine.

Call it a creative, out-of-classroom idea. Or take it as proof that you really can get a grant for just about anything.

Since moving Feb. 1 into the half-completed dwelling next to Doherty Hall, a classroom building, Kofmehl has shunned most forms of human interaction. He plans to be there every day until May 3.

He attends no classes and does homework by sending faxes from his makeshift kitchen, or by using a wireless laptop computer that others sometimes leave at the house.

The only vocal noise he made during a reporter's visit last week came from a contraption he fashioned from cardboard tubing and duct tape. When he picked it up and gave it a blow, it emitted a groan resembling a fog horn or the engine of a low-flying plane.

"That's his wind whistle," said Merritt Johnson, another Carnegie Mellon student who works with Kofmehl and did her best during the visit to serve as an interpreter.

William Kofmehl -- A man of few words but he knows how to blow his own horn. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

"It's the only way to exercise his vocal chords while he's not speaking," she said. "Eventually, he'll be using it upstairs on the roof at the end of each day."

Bob Bingham, a faculty member and Kofmehl's adviser, said the young artist was known to push the envelope. Kofmehl's works "definitely make you laugh and ask questions about how we live and survive on a daily basis."

Kofmehl trudges up and down ladders, always in the red lobster suit, which barely reaches his waist because it's a Halloween costume his mother gave him in sixth grade. An acrylic red muff hides his facial expressions, and a hammer dangles from a bright yellow tool belt slung around his waist.

When he's not doing carpentry, Kofmehl sometimes sets up a camcorder to capture the construction's progress, oblivious to those around him. It's all part of the nonstop performance, played out each day on the 8,500-student campus.

"You're seeing his whole life right on this stage," Johnson said.

One of Kofmehl's three sisters expects a baby in May, Johnson said, and the artist has incorporated that into his project. Johnson said Kofmehl likened the dwelling to a womb, which explains why he attaches himself to a yellow rope whenever he ventures away to an outhouse next to the construction site.

"People say, 'I know when Bill is in the Mr. John because you can see the yellow rope coming out from under the door,' " she said.

Janet Stocks, director of the undergraduate research initiative, said the panel that awards the research money was intrigued by Kofmehl's plan to record his nighttime utterances to see if they are affected by his daytime speechlessness, and then translating that into something artistic.

On the other hand, Stocks said, "I don't remember any mention of a lobster suit."

Perhaps most surprising of all is that Kofmehl persuaded a major research university to tolerate a do-it-yourself home project on its grounds. Its out-of-the-way location, nestled at the base of a hill behind Purnell Center for the Performing Arts, probably helped.

Kofmehl has kept the project going through determination and finesse, Bingham said, even inviting a machinist whose office window was blocked by the construction to give an impromptu lecture at the house on the physics of hockey and golf.

"It's about survival," Bingham said. "He has this great way of getting to know people and involving them in his projects, like Tom Sawyer painting the fence."

Kofmehl usually works from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m., aided by a spotlight that silhouettes him at night against the dwelling. Johnson was vague when asked where Kofmehl goes for the remaining six hours, but there is a bed set up next to a space heater in the only insulated part of the structure.

He has moved in 50 pounds of rice and other basic foods along with a rice cooker and a hot plate, she said.

Eventually, the house will serve as a place for lectures, said Johnson, who also studies fine arts at Carnegie Mellon and periodically performs at the house as a character named Jane.

"At some point, [the house] may also serve as a kind of performative restaurant where it will have a kitchen and people can come in and there will be a whole performance surrounding people having dinner here," she said.

Last week, students outside Doherty Hall had vastly different answers when asked what message they thought Kofmehl was trying to convey.

One woman, a filmmaker who didn't appear to like the question, replied, "I'm sure it's a very personal message," and walked away.

Nick Webber, 20, a sophomore, kept smiling as he looked back at the guy in the lobster getup standing atop the rafters. "Does he go here?" asked Webber, who looked relieved when told the lobster is, in fact, a registered student.

"Hey, I say more power to him for wearing a costume."

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