THE FRUGAL ADVOCATE
PLACE OF BIRTH: Sillian, Austria
CURRENT LOCATION: Ottawa, ON
Ottawa-based Elfriede Jeller can still hear the charcoal.
It’s been a few years, but she remembers it vividly — the awkwardness and vulnerability of posing nude in front of Soleri, and the peace that accompanied the rough and rhythmic sound of his black residue on paper.
“There was nothing sexual about it,” Jeller says as she crosses one leg over the over and sips slowly at her hot black tea. She’s sitting in her kitchen in Ottawa on a sunny winter morning. “It was a beautiful experience, having a master artist focus on your body.”
On one of her last trips to Arcosanti before Soleri’s death, Jeller posed for him as a model in his apartment on site. “He asked for permission to draw me and I didn’t really have a problem with it,” she says, explaining that Soleri had shifted his focus from drawing buildings to people in the later years of his life. The curves of the human body are somewhat like the contours of buildings, but challenged the architect in a new and foreign way.
“I couldn’t see what he was drawing, but there was a beautiful flow of energy,” she says. “And all I could hear was the charcoal.”
Frugality as the norm
Jeller first visited Arcosanti in 2009.
“It was the middle of the winter and I was feeling the need to get away,” she says. “My son told me about this curious town in the Arizona desert, and I thought perfect, I’ll go there.”
She drove by herself through the canyons and highways and spent a day on site, taking a tour and sitting in on a Soleri lecture called the "School of Thought." Two years later, she returned to Arcosanti with her husband on their honeymoon and, in 2011, enrolled in the five-week workshop.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked that hard,” she says. Before the five weeks were up, she was welding, using a jackhammer and pouring concrete. “It was good work, and I felt less tired than I do when I work all day in my office. It was just such a joy to be physically exerting myself.”
By the end of the workshop, Jeller felt inspired and transformed. “I was so moved having just witnessed something that I didn’t think was possible,” she says, explaining her respect for Soleri in pursuing his dream. “Many people have ideas, but he actually went ahead and did it.”
“What he stands for and what he built really touched me.”
Since completing her workshop, Jeller has returned to Arcosanti several times — including a visit this spring. Of all the things she learned there, she was most moved by Soleri’s concept of frugality.
“When I was a child, my parents had 13 children to feed, and the rest we sort of did without,” she says, describing her traditional upbringing in the mountains of Austria. “Frugality was just the norm, and I think that’s why Paolo’s approach resonates with me so much. It makes you realize just how little we really need to happiness.”
After experiencing Arcosanti, Jeller — who works as a massage therapist — returned to that frugal way of living. She lives in a small home in Ottawa — with just a kitchen, living room and bedroom — and reduces her dependence on material possessions. She is also more mindful of her wasteful routines. She recycles, reuses, purchases used furniture off eBay and Kijiji and consciously turns off the tap when washing dishes or brushing her teeth.
“Paolo used to say to me, ‘whatever you do, think of it this way. If you multiplied it by seven and a half billion, the population of the Earth, would it make a difference? What would the impact be?” she says. “He put it into perspective, and that thought keeps haunting me.”
Jeller also attempts to educate individuals on Arcosanti. She often tells friends about her experiences on site and has been attempting to reach out to architecture schools in Ottawa to organize internship programs for students.
Though Soleri is gone, she continues to be inspired by his efforts and cherishes the memories they shared.
“Paolo Soleri and Arcosanti changed me on a very fundamental level,” she says. “I plan to continue going out there and learning more every time I go.”