Ophelia’s Fort | David Rufo

Ophelia (a pseudonym) invited me to be a member of her fort on a sunny afternoon in late May 2012. Up to that time, Ophelia was the proprietor and sole member of her fort. Two years prior my fourth grade students spontaneously began constructing fort structures in the wooded section of the campus of our independent school in Upstate New York and it became somewhat of a fourth grade tradition.  For this year’s fourth graders, interest in forts waxed and waned throughout the fall and winter months but began to take on a new urgency in the spring.  It was as if they suddenly realized that summer break was only a few weeks away and their fourth grade experience was quickly drawing to a close.

Ophelia wasn’t concerned with being popular like many girls her age. Neither did she endeavor to be a loner. Ophelia enthusiastically shared her interests in salamanders or seedpods with anyone willing to listen. But Ophelia was the type of child who didn’t allow peer pressure or others’ interests to influence her pursuits and, because of this, she sometimes played alone during recess.

As a teacher it was easy to characterize Ophelia as a student to shoo away. It seemed as if she was always at your elbow asking questions, telling stories, and thinking aloud all in her rapid-fire delivery. If the discussion took place outside, Ophelia had a habit of pacing in a dizzying circle around you while talking. It was exhausting. Finally, I decided to listen to her – not as a teacher – as a fellow human being. Frankly, I’m ashamed that it had taken me nine months to come to this point in my relationship with Ophelia.

Upon accepting her offer to become a member of her fort she gave me a quick tour of the surrounding area and put me to work. Most of the students’ forts were fascinating constructions made from downed branches and other natural detritus. Ophelia’s fort was different. As she constructed a small stone wall atop a medium sized boulder my job was to gather rocks according to her specifications. Most of the other constructions resembled hovels, dens, or lean-tos. They had woven roof structures and rudimentary walls of branches, twigs, and thatch and doorways through which one could stoop low and enter. They were definitive spaces and easily identified as architectural structures.

Ophelia’s fort, on the other hand, was a very small, roofless, collection of rocks stacked atop one another. As I spent time in Ophelia’s world, and as she directed me in the fort’s construction, I started to see the significance of her fort and its design. The more I listened to Ophelia, the more I was able to appreciate how a seemingly insignificant collection of rocks held special meaning for her.

Whereas the other students created easily perceived structures, Ophelia’s fort challenged the concept similar to the way in which artist Carl Andre’s minimalist floor sculptures from the 1960s and 1970s challenged the traditional precepts of sculpture [1]. By placing a simple grid of steel plates directly on the floor of an art gallery Andre created sculptures that were often mistaken for flooring [2] or “easily missed on first glance” as they offered “little immediate aesthetic appeal” [3]. Similarly, Ophelia’s fort didn’t appear to be a fort at all until she shared with me her concepts and vision. Her stone wall wasn’t created as a shelter or type of playhouse, but served as a base: it was a place to sit, think, imagine, and wonder.

In effect, Ophelia had re-conceptualized forts in our fourth grade experience. During our conversations it became evident that Ophelia was focused on making for herself a “special place” [4] rather than a special structure with four walls, a roof, and a door. As David Sobel emphasized in his book Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood: “Through making special places, children are experiencing themselves as shapers and makers of small worlds. This experience contributes to making them active shapers of the world in their adult lives” [4].

Carl Andre considered “sculpture as place” [5] and “when not on exhibition, the pieces are dismantled and cease to exist except as ideas” [5]. I realized that for Ophelia her “fort” meant much more to her than a structure. Ophelia’s fort was a site from which she could safely explore, construct, invent, and reinvent [6]. A few rocks precariously stacked atop one another turned out to be a simple yet profound way that Ophelia created a special place for herself in the world.


[1] Ottman, K. (2008). (Un)Holy grounds: The floor sculptures of Carl Andre and Wolfgang Laib. Sculpture, 27(2), 30-35.

[2] Kennedy, R. (2011, July 14). For Carl Andre less is still less. The New York Times.Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/arts/design/carl-andres-work-is-the-subject-of-a-new-book-and-show.html?pagewanted=all

[3] Arnold, D. (2004). Art history: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford  University Press.

[4] Sobel, D. (2002). Children’s special places: Exploring the role of forts, dens, and bush houses in middle childhood. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

[5] Bourdon, D. (1995). The razed sites of Carl Andre. In G. Battcock (Ed.), Minimal art: A critical anthology, (pp. 103-108) Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[6] Hart, R. (1979). Children’s experience of place. New York: Irvington.

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