The Green Alternative
At Zendik Arts Farm, a Commune Strives for a Dollar and Change

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006


Fawn Wulf -- the chosen one, heir apparent of the commune her father founded in the late 196os -- is up to her boots in goat dung.

Mucking out barn stalls, Fawn and six others whack and poke at the matted stuff with pitchforks. Now and then, they hit eye-scalding pockets of ammonia.

"This is disgusting," Fawn says.

Yet, here in the barn, she looks oddly glamorous even in farm duds. Wearing thick eyeliner and streaked blond hair -- and a blue flannel shirt and jeans that match her blue eyes -- she looks like she could have wandered into Kurt Cobain's entourage in the days of grunge.

The crew props a plank against the back of a pickup. Fawn watches as one of them prepares to roll a wheelbarrow full of manure up the plank, one of the mundane chores of life on a commune. She offers some advice on not spilling the load. He ignores her. The truck springs bounce as he runs the wheelbarrow up the ramp, almost tipping over.

"Laaaaaazy," Fawn admonishes him. She makes animal noises deep in her throat: "GRRRRR."

Fawn, 29, may be the emerging young leader of this alternative lifestyle, but she also carries around the ulcer-inducing ambition of a junior VP in a Fortune 500 company. Whether spreading her late father's gospel or fretting over the commune's grocery bills, Fawn is an accomplished multitasker: earth mother, femme fatale and chief executive officer of an idealistic and surprisingly lucrative enterprise. It even comes with a catchy manifesto: "Stop Bitching. Start a Revolution."

Every weekend, like road-hardened Bible salesmen, members of the commune hit the streets around Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia or other major cities with a mission: to sell T-shirts, bumper stickers and other merchandise emblazoned with the slogan. They work the crowds at rock concerts and protest marches, peddling their CDs and magazines. They work the phones, cold-calling tattoo parlors, head shops, alternative bookstores and New Age boutiques. They sell, and they sell, and they sell: their way of life, their faith, their ideas for changing the world.

It's been good to them, this slogan. Sales of the shirts with the phrase -- splashed across women's spaghetti-strap tank tops (available in pink, red or nude) or men's XXL T-shirts (choose black with white lettering or black lettering on "sand") -- help pay the mortgage on an $880,000, 220-acre ranch with breathtaking views of the Monongahela National Forest's mountains. The group of 24 people, including four children, has lived under one roof at the Zendik Arts Farm -- named for Fawn's father, Wulf Zendik -- since its move from North Carolina in September 2004. Then there are the 50 goats, 13 horses, three cows, 17 dogs, 15 cats, five peacocks, two cockatiels and a misogynistic parrot named Zugar.

But the slogan troubles them, too. For a time, the Zendiks dropped it. But their public begged for its return, Fawn says, so they brought it back.

They sometimes wonder: Is it too slick, too gimmicky for an artists' commune that rails against mainstream culture and commercialism? Has the financial stability bestowed by those five words infected them with unhealthy bourgeois values? Or has it simply allowed them to keep their ideals alive and disseminate them more efficiently?

They have trademarked their slogan. But truth be told, some are not even sure what it means.

Living the Quest

At the Barnes & Noble in Reston, Fawn is explaining the commune her father founded with a bunch of fellow hippies in the 1960s. Copies of his recently published semiautobiographical book -- "A Quest Among the Bewildered" -- are propped up on a table between a portrait of her and a portrait of him.

Fawn's eyes appear luminous. A "Z" amulet bobs up and down in a low-cut shirt that gives a generous glimpse of the tattoo over her left breast.

There are four audience members, including a woman in a pink sweater taking notes.

"So what do you guys do for fun?" someone asks.

Vie, recording the scene with a digital videocam, giggles.

"Live," she says.

People chuckle.

"We're not exactly like your normal neighbors," Fawn says.

Like so many other experiments in social engineering, the Zendiks' saga begins with a failed artist. Wulf Zendik was born Lawrence E. Wulfing in El Paso, Tex. His father worked blue-collar trades. His mother was a bookie.

Wulf was a health fanatic who loved music, literature and, oddly, hot rods. He struggled to find a publisher for his writings, such as "Zendik," a 900-page, eponymous novel about a rebellious artist whose name means "fire worshiper" or heretic in Persian.

Then, in 1959, Wulf met a Brooklynite named Carol Merson at a bohemian boarding house in California. Arol (she later dropped the "C" in her name) had moved to Hollywood to be an actress, and passed up a chance to play one of the girls in "Petticoat Junction," she said.

In 1969, Wulf decided to start a commune with about 60 people on his parents' small ranch outside Los Angeles. Their huts -- which a neighbor once likened to something drawn by Dr. Seuss -- were made of plywood and carpeting fished out of dumpsters.

The commune's path to utopia was generously strewn with sex and drugs, and it all came apart within a few months when someone torched a cabin in a fit of jealousy. A few stayed, becoming the nucleus of a non-nuclear family. They moved around the South and West and then moved again when suburban development came too close.

Wulf's philosophical explorations were equally nomadic -- Christian, Buddhist and existentialist ideas, with heapings of Wilhelm Reich and anyone else who equated sex with liberty. The crowning theory of Wulf's anti-religious religion was "Creavolution," or creative evolution -- the notion that nature's purpose is the expansion of consciousness and that people's individual choices affect the course of its evolution.

Newcomers surrender most private property, take fanciful names like Kel, Rev, Talon and Siah and some adopt Zendik as their surname. (Fawn was given hers when she was born.) They form monogamous relationships or go from partner to partner, however love may guide them. Each chooses work that feels most right: carpentry or organic farming, tending goats or updating the commune's Web site.

They memorize Wulf's teachings and tattoo themselves with his cryptic formulas. They see their communal bedrooms and organic agriculture as models for the rest of the world. Technology is a good thing. Art is revered. Sometimes dressed in a cowl, as if he had emerged from a medieval fairy tale, Wulf would point to his head and tell fellow Zendiks: "Think, think, think! Don't just read me! I don't want a bunch of followers! I want you to tell me if it's right or wrong." The result was like an open Linux code of morality and philosophy.

His relationship with Arol was tumultuous but based on candor and somehow endured. Fawn, who slept in her mother's bed until she was about 12, says her parents' dedication to each other -- and to their communal venture -- was strong.

"I grew up very strangely," Fawn says. "Mom and Dad, their relationship was sexually open from the beginning. They always had other lovers. I never remember them sleeping in the same bed. I grew up with Mom and Dad as Mom and Dad, and they were never together."

Although Wulf's life and work remain the commune's central focus, his death in June 1999 at the age of 79 altered the nature of the place, members say. As Arol assumed a leadership role, more women moved in, and their presence, along with their leadership, softened the darker, apocalyptic strains in Wulf's message. Even the digs became more spacious and comfortable.

Like other children on the commune, Fawn was home-schooled. As a child, Fawn was invited to try out for a scholarship with the New York City Ballet. But then she saw a roomful of candidates with numbers pinned to their backs and decided it was too competitive, too mechanistic, too alienating. Arol tried to talk her into it. Fawn wanted to go back home to the farm.

Now Arol, 67, after a struggle against breast cancer, is preparing to hand over the leadership to her daughter.

Lovers and Workers

On the day that members of the commune are mucking the barn, Fawn awakens at 8:30 a.m., her worries already churning. A group of sellers is in the District, the farm's goats are birthing round-the-clock and the goat dung problem is piling up. Having stayed up late watching an apocalyptic TV movie about a giant volcano and packing shipments of T-shirts, Fawn also feels a bit sleep-deprived.

"My hands are so [expletive] soft after the winter," Fawn says, staring at her palms. "After the winter, I feel like a wuss."

As Fawn and Zoe, 34, a former L.A. gang member named Scott Crist, work together, it is not obvious that they were once lovers or that they have a 10-year-old son, whom they named Timken after the ball bearing manufacturer. (The boy later changed his name to Ursus -- Urs, for short -- when he was about 3.) Fawn's relationship with Zoe ended when she began dating Chazz. That gave way when Fawn began dating Vong, a Cambodian immigrant who kept part of his given name -- Vongduane Vanmany. They have a 4-year-old son named Deor "D" Pahn. For the past year or so, her boyfriend has been Erim, the son of an economics professor who grew up as Eric Taylor in Philadelphia's suburbs. Erim, now 20, had slept with a marijuana pipe under his pillow for three years until other Zendiks -- who said they long ago turned away from the drug-induced psychedelia of the commune's earlier days -- persuaded him to give up weed.

All the young men, Erim, Zoe, Vong and Chazz, work together every day with little hint of any tension despite their intertangled relationships with Fawn. Fawn credits the Zendik philosophy of talking things out; the group holds regular rap sessions where commune members talk about the nitty-gritty of their sex lives.

Fawn also decides how the group's money is spent. She worries about covering the farm's mortgage every month.

Her brow wrinkles as she recalls the time when the UPS van arrived early and the commune's shipment of shirts was not ready. It was a big order, too -- more than 100 shirts.

"At times, I'm grinding my teeth," she says.

People come to her when they need something. Medical problems get immediate care. Other needs must be ranked in terms of priority.

When the stress becomes too great, she slips on earphones and immerses herself in the power chords of Rammstein or Megadeth.

Inside the ranch house, a pine lodge with high ceilings and art on almost every surface, Kaila, the commune's de facto guru of sales and marketing, sits at a purple iMac plastered with Post-its, working the phones. A list of prospects 50 pages long lies at her elbow. Nearby are flip cards for the week's sales: $2,658.

A pack of dogs wanders in and out, and the commune's children play an elaborate, Tolkien-based "War of the Ring" video game as Kaila gets down to work. Kaila is perky and articulate, but her first prospect sounds chilly -- until Kaila mentions the slogan. That closes the sale.

"It's like, WHAM-O! A $7,000 ad campaign," Kaila says, adding that the merchant also was impressed by the commune's efficiency. "I think people are kind of shocked when we say, 'We'll ship the next day.' " For three years, Kaila, 34, has been dialing merchants. More than 1,500 stores across the country now sell their goods, and their T-shirts have been promoted by Susan M. Block, a sex therapist and talk show host from Los Angeles. "Right before Christmas, it was crazy," Fawn says. "We were spending most of our days shipping."

But the streets bring in the real kale. During the March for Women's Lives on the Mall in 2004, Kaila says, commune members sold an estimated 1,000 T-shirts in three hours and racked up $15,000.

"We could barely count our money at the end," Kaila says.

They estimate that their "Road Warriors," as they call them, earn $1,000 to $2,000 a day on the street. The T-shirts go for $15-$20 apiece, bumper stickers for a buck. When a venue becomes boring, or sales slow, they move on. There can be tension when the product does not move fast enough.

"That's all?' " Fawn asked once after a group of 10 sellers came back with $1,400 after five hours on the streets outside Philadelphia. The hard-charging Vie, 28, who grew up in New Jersey as Lisa Davis, agreed the numbers were feeble.

"I could see right then that numerous members were getting angry," Fawn recalls. She apologized for hurting their feelings. Still.

It's spring, a few weeks before the 2005 HFS Festival in Baltimore, and Kaila is fretting about the things that might go wrong for this, one of the most important moneymaking dates on the Zendiks' calendar. What if the Zendiks attracted too much attention? Would security throw them out for selling without a vendor's permit?

On the day of the festival, Kaila plants herself in the middle of a seething mass of the pierced, the tattooed, the sexually ambiguous, the drunken and the curious. Then she gets to work.

"We're an artists' collective from West Virginia," Kaila tells a mother and her son. Only snatches of her pitch can be heard as bands such as Sum 41 fill the air with hyper-decibel noise: ". . . to have the kind of lives we want. . . . We help each other out. . . . There is another way to live, and it's not actually that far-out."

Heather Lichter, 21, of Olney, buys a bumper sticker but she doesn't necessarily buy the Zendik message.

"It's a catchy slogan. That's about it. That's about as far as my interest goes," Lichter says.

As the day wears on, the pressure to capitalize begins to get to one of the Road Warriors. Coz, 26, a Jefferson, Md., native named Colin Smallwood who dropped out of film school to join Zendik, has been in the commune about five years. He confesses that he has lost his mojo for selling Zendik. Normally, he tells the others, he can just sense whom to approach, know as if by instinct whom to share his rap with. But not today, he explains, waving his hands around as if trying to clutch at something. Vie listens, gives him a pep talk, rallies him to get back out there and keep trying. Coz, now in full-blown meltdown, cries.

Making Ends Meet

The commune incorporated as a nonprofit 501 (c) 3 in 1991, Fawn says. The Zendik Farm Arts Foundation's most recent IRS filings -- which list Fawn as president and Arol as director -- show that the commune raised $403,236 in revenues but operated at a loss.

Its mortgage runs about $4,000 a month. Fawn estimates that expenses, such as groceries, run $1,500 a week. To save, they shop at a Wal-Mart 41 miles away in Lewisburg.

In some cases, they get by by bartering -- the T-shirts come in handy -- or simple generosity. In North Carolina, the Zendiks helped an apple grower bring in his harvest. When they moved to West Virginia, the grower lent them a tractor-trailer.

And sometimes, they simply ask for tax-free donations of money or goods. The only thing they have given up on is grants. Even a full-time grant writer failed to pin one down.

"He got grants for everybody, and he couldn't do it for us," Zoe says.

"We're nutty," Fawn says.

But the Zendiks get a little touchy on the question of whether the selling is, well, selling out. Kaila, once an anthropology student known as Lisa Butler, had worked for a restaurant trade association. But she refuses to wear a headset when she works the phones. The Zendiks look down their noses at Twin Oaks, a commune in Louisa, Va., because they sell hammocks. Fawn says the Zendiks are selling their message, and the T-shirts and bumper stickers are simply the media.

Rev butts in: "Was Saint John out doing a job when he was proselytizing?"

The slogan -- which was lifted from one of Arol's talks -- is meant to convey the idea that the important thing is to stop yakking and take action. The Zendiks, Fawn says, are living their philosophy by dropping out of a violently corrupt, capitalistic society and creating an alternative for people to follow.

But Chazz's mother, Marcia Barrow, 53, has her doubts.

She's relaxing in a lawn chair as the music of Liquid Harvest drifts from a large stage behind the Zendik ranch. Barrow traveled from Salem, Va., to visit her son at the commune's music festival last year. She still calls her son Chad.

Growing up in Northern Virginia, Chazz, 28, says he was an A-student and competitive swimmer, but became a heavy drug user in college and dropped out to join the commune after picking up some Zendik literature at a Phish concert.

Barrow has struggled to make peace with her son's unconventional life, although she long ago put aside fears that Chazz was in the clutches of a dangerous cult. Barrow respects their work ethic, their idealism.

"For a long time, my motto was, 'How can 66 people on a farm change the world?' " Barrow says. She says her son's retort was, " 'Well, we've got to start somewhere,' and I admire that."

But as Fawn takes the stage to give a speech attacking multinational corporations for despoiling the Earth, Barrow sees irony, too.

"They sell their music. Their papers. Their beliefs. But you're still selling something."

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