An L.A. Artist Built a House With Salvaged Materials — Without Her Eyesight

Artist Dominique Moody, who's legally blind, spent long days creating rust patterns in her tiny home’s steel walls, until the metal swirled with magentas, deep greens and brassy yellows.EXPAND
Artist Dominique Moody, who's legally blind, spent long days creating rust patterns in her tiny home’s steel walls, until the metal swirled with magentas, deep greens and brassy yellows.
Stephanie Case

Dominique Moody lives inside a work of art. If you’re sitting in L.A. traffic, you might see it drive by: a kaleidoscopic structure on four wheels. Its walls — made with pieces of steel – overlap in waves of rusted color, like a patchwork rainbow. Repurposed washing machine doors act as quirky portal windows. Sunbeams peek through a skylight, giving the wooden porch and French doors a glimmer. Its California plate reads: NOMAD 45.

Peering out the window, Moody can feel as if she’s in a fishbowl. Heads turn. Jaws drop. “I love pulling up to another car and people giving me the thumbs-up,” she grins.

Moody’s work — named “The Nomad” — is a 7-by-20-foot tiny house, one she built from salvaged materials: scraps of wood, cast-off trinkets. Part thrifter, part scavenger, she elevates overlooked objects — such as old metal lampposts or washing machine doors – to the remarkable.

If homes speak volumes about the person who lives there, it’s apt that Moody’s is called the Nomad. As a child, she was one of nine, and family money was tight. The Moodys frequently moved in and out of neglected houses, forever packing and unpacking boxes, subject to the ebbs and flows of a less steady income. To cope with their rootlessness, she and her siblings developed an explanation for each batch of new classmates: “We’re nomads.”

The title stuck — and so did the way of life. Moody moved to Brooklyn alone at 15 to pursue art, then San Francisco, then Washington, D.C., among dozens of other places, with her creative drive as her sole compass. Each of her siblings zigzagged on individual paths as well. It wasn’t until recently that her sister, while digging into their family ancestry, discovered an uncanny truth: The Moodys are descendants of Africa’s Fulani tribe — the globe’s largest pastoral nomadic group. Their childhood assertion was real: They were nomads. It pulsed through their veins.

For the last decade, Moody has, uncharacteristically, stayed in one city. Los Angeles was the Nomad’s backdrop from conception to completion. In Altadena’s Zorthian Ranch, an artists’ oasis at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Moody would spend long days creating rust patterns in the home’s steel walls, until the metal swirled with magentas, deep greens and brassy yellows. When Moody's budget dried up, the Nomad took refuge in a lumber warehouse in Pasadena. Six days a week, Moody would wake up at dawn for her two-hour bus commute to the garage, where she’d build under the shroud of darkness.

This August, after three tough years, it’s ready for the road. Moody dreams of crisscrossing the country, assembling site-specific art on the go and leaving it to be found by strangers. The Nomad's first stop — as early as this October — is Joshua Tree. But first, Moody's letting the public inside.

“My skill set was one that tried to achieve perfection, and it was intense,” Moody says. “Until my eyesight changed.”EXPAND
“My skill set was one that tried to achieve perfection, and it was intense,” Moody says. “Until my eyesight changed.”
Stephanie Case

“Some people have said, ‘I have a bigger closet than this,’ ‘I have a bigger pantry than this,’” Moody laughs. Through the Nomad’s doors, there’s a table for two, a fold-up cot and an impossibly small sink. Above it hangs a line of miniature mason jars, for spices. A vintage globe — a possession of her late father’s— hangs from the ceiling as an emblem of her wanderlust.

The interior walls are recycled cuts of wood, salvaged from different places. A few blemishes linger in the panels — scars from their former lives. “When there’s a scar, that’s beautiful,” Moody says, her fingers tracing a groove on the wall. “It’s a living thing. I love the fact that this grain of wood looks like freckles, you know? I have different colorations on my body, so it’s great.”

Dominique’s skin is a warm brown, lightly spotted from the Altadena sun. Her overalls are caked in dust. Her hands are slightly rough after decades of painstaking drawing, painting and assembling, consumed with getting each aesthetic detail just right. “My skill set was one that tried to achieve perfection, and it was intense,” she says. “Until my eyesight changed.”

There’s another thing you should know about Moody: She’s legally blind. Two decades ago, her eyes gradually began to fail her, leaving only peripheral vision — no center sight, and a minimal eye for detail. We sit cross-legged on the floor of the Nomad, roughly three feet apart. “I look at your face, and I only see one eyebrow and part of your bottom lip,” she tells me. “Everything else has disappeared. I shift my sight every now and then to get pieces, and I put it together like a puzzle.”

Blindness for a visual artist is “one of the most terrifying things,” Moody admits. It’s forced her to hire drivers for the Nomad and to seek help from friends in the home’s construction. But in her loss, she’s unearthed a new way of looking at the world: seeing the beauty in the broken.

Blindness for a visual artist is “one of the most terrifying things,” Moody admits.EXPAND
Blindness for a visual artist is “one of the most terrifying things,” Moody admits.
Stephanie Case

“I think part of the reason we consume so much and throw away so much is that we’re trying to look for perfection. ‘I don’t have the perfect house yet’ … or, ‘I don’t have the perfect body yet.’ [It’s important to] embrace things that don’t meet certain artificial standards, but meet natural standards of just being.

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“So, as a person with a visual … ”

She pauses. The next word hangs in the air, unspoken. A person with visual disability.

“The term is fairly negative,” she says. Instead, she prefers “visual transformation.”

“I see better now,” she says, “and the seeing has nothing to do with if you’re sitting 10 feet away from me that I won’t recognize you. The seeing is much bigger.” It’s looking at a discarded scrap of wood and giving it new life — or getting people to drop their jaws at a rusted metal house.

It’s a bit like Kintsugi — a Japanese method of repairing broken pottery. Instead of concealing the cracks with invisible glue, artists fill them with gold, allowing each fracture to become a part of the bowl’s story. “The cracks are not damage,” she explains. “They elevate the piece to a whole new level of beauty.”

There’s a worn beauty to the Nomad, and to Moody — both born travelers, full of stories. Both are striking not for their perfection but for their winding journeys in the face of difficulty.

“I’m a bit like that broken bowl,” she says, “and I think we all are. We have inherent in us cracks that are filled with gold.”

The Nomad will be open to the public at the Leimert Park Village Theatre Festival, Thursday, Aug. 27, through Sunday, Aug. 30. It will be shown again at the Watts Towers Drum and Jazz Festival on Sept. 26 and 27, as well as at Altadena Best Fest on Oct. 3.

This August, after three tough years, "The Nomad" is ready for the road.EXPAND
This August, after three tough years, "The Nomad" is ready for the road.
Stephanie Case

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