No words or pictures can do justice to Dudyville, a sloping plot of land nestled between Keystone and California avenues, full of handmade, woodsy art and sculptures mingling with nature, sheds, skateboards, giant hearts, you name it, from garbage rescues to donated items all repurposed together as a therapeutic outdoor museum celebrating creative life and peace in the high desert country.
Without a Map
“I can’t tell people how to live their lives if I can’t do it by example. I’ve always been a guy that bases everything on an example. I don’t like books because … they’re not three-dimensional… By experiencing it and by being a part of if, it becomes three dimensional. It becomes more than just a storyline. People say, well you’ve done so much. No, that’s what a normal life is supposed to be. It’s supposed to get you from point A to point B, but there’s not necessarily a map. That’s the problem. Most people have a map, and they don’t wander outside of that map.”
Lessons from Teen Homelessness
O’Keeffe has known lowlights as well, including as a homeless teen navigating the streets of Denver.
“I went from two homes that I traveled between weekly to nothing. My next meal was on the basis of my own intellect. So that was a great teacher. I wish the kids who are out there now in similar circumstances, whatever the reason, they find their way as I did. But I don’t want to be a preacher. I don’t want to limit them. They need to know it’s going to be ok. They won’t know that until they are 45 and they’ve figured it out. But, along the way, they have to be open minded."
Stay off Your Phone
"If they restrict themselves to their phone, they will miss opportunities which surround them. No matter how crappy it got for me on the streets, there were always opportunities. As long as you feel safe and comfortable when somebody asks you to do something for them, sure. It teaches you onto the next and adds onto the next. Put your phone down, and look at what’s around you. All you’ll get from that phone is someone else’s life. It’s up to you to choose your own direction. No matter what it is you come across, it’s an experience that will teach you. Your life evolves with your environment and you evolve into that environment because if you don’t it will just eat you up. Most of the stuff I do is adaptive by experimentation.”
A Surfer's Greeting for Californians
A sightline for many motorists careening toward I-80 is O’Keeffe’s surfboard surrounded truck which counters screeching tires with 60s music serenading out of its open windows.
"It’s a converted local delivery truck. The truck says Mahalo (which is Hawaiian for gratitude). It’s sort of a welcome mat for the many Californians in Reno. I’ve been a water dog attached to the ocean forever. If there’s a place on the coast that’s known or unknown, I’ve done it, surfed it, skim boarded it, body surfed it, it didn’t really matter, if there was a wave I was on it. When (my wife) imported me up here, it was like what the hell. It was when there were no Democrats in Washoe County. They are all imported from California….”
A Mansion's Guest House and Garden
The garden surrounds what was once a guest house, where O’Keeffe now lives with family, including his mother in law. It was built several decades after the nearby early 20th century Nixon mansion.
“Now it’s a place to practice art, a place for people to appreciate art, to appreciate the surroundings, to take a moment, to relax right in the heart of the city," O'Keeffe said, eating oatmeal at lunchtime outside, taking a break from handyman work inside.
From a Few Trees to an Eclectic Art Forest
The garden used to be just a few trees at the end of the road, while now it’s a little Amazon of art at the heart of the Biggest Little City. People used to drive by and dump their garbage, while now they drop off art. O’Keeffe started the project by gardening in the early 1990s, and used to give free vegetables out by the side of the road, until for some reason neighbors complained. But with the new water lines, more trees and vegetation kept growing.
Then someone gave them a used windsurfer and windsurfing sails, and he put them up in sapling trees. The giant sails would flap in the wind, and as Washoe Lake, previously a windsurfer’s destination, dried up, people kept dropping off their sails.
Recycled and Reused
When he found out a Lake Tahoe hotel got rid of all its head boards, O'Keeffe went to get them at a local Salvation Army, and made dozens of benches out of them.
“People throw away way too much stuff out. We have plenty. That’s my message to everyone. We have enough. There’s enough to build anything that you could possibly want. You don’t have to mine anymore. You don’t have to strip the forests. We have enough materials. Anyway the materials of yesteryear are actually stronger in their late stage uses, or secondary uses. It’s my way of saying ‘hey you can make beautiful things out of shit that’s already here. So do it, why throw it away.”
An Activist Retires
He said Occupy Reno was his last activism. He said even though some of the younger protesters got thrown off by his hippie, Abbie Hoffman references, his experience getting beaten up by police during the 60s, helped him manage relations with current cops. He still has plenty of ideas both for Reno and the world in general.
He believes stay at home Moms should be paid a living wage. He says City Council should press deal-making developers to help with the homeless situation.
Ideas to Help the Homeless
“If you are going to keep selling these run-down properties to these developers that don’t have any financial backing, you need to take a deposit from them and use that deposit, and say guess what you created insecurity when these people got kicked out of these places and vacant properties. … You want all these tax credits, and you want all these freebies, and all of this welfare from us, fine then you operate a shelter over here that we can send these people to, that they have a place they can rest and they can get centralized services.”
He also believes legal encampments, with bathrooms, showers and laundromats, would go a long way toward helping the homeless. “Just by being able to sleep somewhere and clean up, to be able to manage themselves, that would mean so much to them,” he said.
People do walk in unannounced, and not just to leave behind donations.
“We’ve also had people come in and rearrange stuff and we’ve left it. It’s inspiration for other people.”
Some also steal but O'Keefe said it’s rare. “We recently had a 'better bike exchange' … They left their bike and took one of ours but they traded down. They were looking for a bike frame I think … They left a short bike and took our short bike… but at least they had one good tire on their bike.”
There have been homeless people as well. “It wouldn’t be so bad, if they didn’t leave all their garbage, debris and everything else that comes with open air camping. We get visitors but not too many people will stay long term. They never know where the sprinklers are going to come up here.”
Avoid Home Depot
In terms of tips for those thinking of trying similar projects, he says: “don’t go to Home Depot, go to Habitat for Humanity first. You can find all sorts of different things there.” He also says not to be intimidated by what others are doing, and just to start small. He says he's been in awe of hobbit houses himself, but that after a while you just need to develop your own style, in life and in outdoor decoration.