Ebbs and flows at Reno’s River School

Tom Stille and friends hope to bridge high waters at the art, dance and alternative living venue

Tom Stille, founder of Reno’s River School.

Tom Stille, founder of Reno’s River School.

Photo By Deidre Pike

A few large rocks lie at the bottom of the circular pit, excavated by a landscaping crew outside the River School, west of Reno. Tom Stille, who started the school when his landscaping company Interpretive Gardens moved into new offices, pauses to show me the project.

I pull out a camera.

“This probably isn’t worth a picture,” he says. Yet it exemplifies the trouble with the River School, a venue for local community classes. The pit was the first step in building an outdoor cob oven for cooking breads and pizzas. An oven-building event was billed as a River School workshop.

“We announced it and sent out fliers,” Stille says. “Not enough people showed up to build it.”

Materials for the oven, including fire bricks, are piled around the site. Stille considers completing the oven before Artown events on the property.

“Maybe I should finish it,” Stille says. But the creative entrepreneur has his hands full. For starters, summer is the busiest time for landscapers. Add in the recent pronouncement that the River School is a financial drain on the business. Then last week, a group of artists and River School fans formed a task force to “Keep the River School flowing.”

Brainstorming meetings resulted.

Stille is encouraged by the community support.

He and his wife, Kathy, bought this nearly two-acre site, a few miles west of Reno on the banks of the Truckee River, in 1992. Since then, they’ve expanded Interpretive Gardens into several divisions: construction, plant establishment and design. Residents of the Truckee Meadows can’t help but be familiar with the company’s landscaping work, which includes much of Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, Truckee Meadows Community College, Desert Research Institute and the National Automobile Museum.

The company’s permaculture designs are in high demand. That part of the business is thriving, says general manager Kim Swearingen.

“That’s our big hat,” she says.

As a side enterprise, Stille started the River School as a venue for art, dance and alternative living classes. After two years, the school isn’t attracting the kind of business that had been expected. Though it’s only five miles from downtown Reno—slightly closer than Meadowood Mall—the venue feels off the beaten track. Since its opening, several teachers have tried, for example, to teach yoga classes. But most weren’t able to attract enough students to pay the $25 an hour charge for the room and turn a profit.

“We’ve had seven or eight kinds of yoga classes here,” Stille says. “But we have no yoga now.”

At first, sliding scale rates were charged so teachers could afford to relocate. It was expected that word of mouth would provoke growth. That didn’t happen.

A few classes do well. The school has successful Dakini and Capoeira (martial arts and dance) classes, belly dancing and music classes for toddlers and their adults. The building is used by a food cooperative that distributes boxes of locally grown produce to subscribers. A practitioner of Thai massage and an acupuncturist rent compact offices in the building.

Once people visit the school, Swearingen says, they fall in love with the site, the sound of river rapids and lush gardens full of edible plants

A core of loyal fans, however, hasn’t been enough to pay the mortgage, utilities and insurance. If things don’t improve, there’s the possibility of leasing the building to an engineering or architecture firm.

“The school is sucking resources from the other company divisions,” she says.

“What did our accountant call it?” Stille asks her.

“It’s a vacuum,” Swearingen replies.

The Interpretive Garden’s office is downstairs in this structure in west Reno. Tom Stille lives upstairs.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Stille, in his mid-60s, is a narrow-faced man with blue eyes, trimmed beard and sandy brown hair that’s just beginning to turn gray. He buzzes around his property Friday in a long-sleeve denim shirt and khaki shorts, stopping to answer his cell phone and talk with staff and teams of workers on job sites. Before we walk into the River School building, we pass one of many gardens on the property. He plucks three ripe gooseberries for me and pops a few others into his mouth. Each is a warm, tart explosion.

“I just kinda graze,” he says. “They’re so good when they’re fresh.”

There is an outdoor kitchen in front of the River School’s entrance. It wouldn’t pass as a commercial kitchen, Stille explains, but it’s a fine place to keep food warm for a wedding or to hold a pancake breakfast. Grape vines forming a canopy overhead droop with tiny green spheres that will ripen into seedless snacks.

Stille’s love for fresh air and open skies dates back to his bird watching as a child and working as a lifeguard in high school in northern Iowa.

“I’ve been outdoors ever since,” he says. Stille moved to Reno in 1967 to become Washoe County Superintendent of Parks. He’s taught university classes in Reno and in New Zealand. In the 1970s, he took his first life-changing trip to India.

“I lost all fear of death living and walking on the streets of India,” Stille says. “The people on the street were so poor in terms of physical things and so rich in spiritual and cultural things and in community.”

Stille returned to Reno and founded Interpretive Gardens in 1981, devoting his business to designing sustainable landscapes using regionally appropriate plants.

We walk into the River School, a 1,740-square-foot building that once served as the offices for Interpretive Gardens. After the company moved into its new digs constructed from straw bales two years ago, Stille considered his options. The company could lease the space to an architect or engineer. That made sense. But he wanted something different—a place for artists, healers and teachers of alternative living workshops.

“I thought, ‘Do I want to be surrounded by another engineer or by dancing and the healing arts?’ I chose the dancers.”

The building was renovated and renamed the River School.

The entrance floor is tiled with multi-colored squares, salvaged from a local tile company, that evoke a blue-green bejeweled river running through dusty earth-tone squares. A large room, used as a dance studio and meeting places, offers a pull-down movie screen and projector and a mirrored wall. Last month, a Burning Man Film Festival was held here.

“The mirrors need to be cleaned,” Stille says, walking across the large room. “Kids put their fingers on them.”

On June 21, Stille set up chairs for the save-the-school meeting that attracted more than 30 supporters who fear losing the venue.

“We laid it out and said, ‘Here’s the problem, and we’re turning it over to you,'” Swearingen says.

The group formed a task force and discussed options from applying for non-profit status to volunteering for management and promotion work at the River School.

“It was overwhelming to hear the heart-felt support and find out what this place means to people,” Swearingen says.

The task force planned its next meeting for Monday, June 25, at noon.

On the Friday before the meeting, Stille reminds Swearingen to send out an e-mail.

“Tell them I’m serving solar-cooked beans and salad out of my garden,” he says.

River School and Interpretive Gardens are about two miles from the intersection of McCarran and West Fourth Street, off Woodland on White Fir Street. Turning west on White Fir leads to Patagonia’s warehouse and outlet. The Interpretive Garden/River School’s entrance is to the east, past a storage company, a PVC pipe factory and the office for West Coast Contractors. Just down the river is Mayberry Park.

Stille’s parking lot is lined with the usual trappings of landscape work, trailers, potted shrubs and piles of rock. Different is the 20-foot or so bust constructed from narrow metal rods adorned with Christmas tree lights with stickers from Burning Man.

A rooster crows from a nearby chicken coop. Signs guide visitors to the school and the company’s office overlooking the Truckee River.

Interpretive Gardens general manager Kim Swearingen says interested people can help sustain the business.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Workers are expanding an outdoor amphitheater where monthly full-moon drum circles are held from dusk to dawn. Beyond that, there’s a sweat lodge and a large metal frame with ropes used by local aerialists.

At river’s edge sits a glass enclosure built by Reno artist Chad Sorg.

“He said he wanted to learn to paint water,” Swearingen says. “He’ll be painting there during Artown.”

Near the amphitheater is a cave-like room built into the hill. It’s used for meditation and as a green room for performers or wedding parties.

“We call it the foam ‘om’ dome,” Stille says.

“Om like in ‘ooooommmmm'?” I ask.

Stille enjoys practicing Zen meditation in a place with amazing acoustics.

There’s art everywhere—from plaster bas relief of dragons, turtles and Shiva on the walls to a walkway painting by UNR associate professor Jean Trumbo.

“It’s designed to be walked on,” Stille says. “As we walk on it, we wear through the paint and the painting changes.”

A circle of raked sand contains three metal sculptures by Reno artist Kai Prescher. During my visit, Prescher arrives to hang another piece, a one-finned metal mobile titled either “Calder Fish” or “Salmon Fin.” Prescher hadn’t decided.

Stille compliments Prescher on the piece, which will hang over the river during Artown.

“How will we light it up at night?” Stille wonders.

“At night,” Prescher repeats. “That’d be cool.”

Also notable throughout the property are salvaged slabs of art deco façade from the now-demolished Mapes Casino. Another company collected these relics after the casino’s implosion and stored the items on Stille’s land. Time passed, and Stille inherited squares of the cement façade, cement diamonds from the roof, some window pieces and a tower column.

He stops at a diamond that’s cracked in two. One piece has tipped over, and a nearby Buddha statue has fallen.

Stille props up the Mapes piece and leans Buddha against it.

“He’s healing the crack in the world,” Stille says.

Swearingen, a permaculture specialist and mother of four, came to work for Stille about nine years ago.

“It’s hard to get up every day and come to work in my straw bale office on the river,” she says, smiling, “but somehow I muddle through.”

As we tour the property, Swearingen, a dark-haired woman with a warm smile, picks gold raspberries and makes a bouquet from baby’s breath and sweet peas. She snips off a sprig of wispy bronze fennel. It tastes of anise. She often crushes the plant and puts it in her water bottle.

“I’m constantly popping flowers in my mouth,” she says. “I’m a fan.”

At its inception, the River School hired an employee to run daily operations and promote events. When the position was cut, Swearingen took over the job of booking classes, workshops and weddings and keeping the Web site updated—while juggling the work of the landscaping divisions.

Stille examines one of the art deco tiles from the Mapes Hotel.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Swearingen understands the location problem. She’s considered teaching a permaculture class, but she lives in south Reno and wouldn’t want to make another trip back in the evenings.

“It doesn’t fit into my sustainability plan,” she says.

She thinks the school should be marketed to growing numbers of people living nearby in northwest Reno.

“This is one of Reno’s best-kept secrets,” Swearingen says. “People who come here really love it. We need to get them out here and get them hooked. … Calling all teachers! Hello, out there, we’re here!”

John Toth attended the Thursday night meeting for River School supporters. He’s not comfortable with the language being used. He doesn’t think the River School needs to be “saved,” exactly."How I’m looking at this is that we’re helping the school become successful,” Toth says. “I’m not sure I’m out to save the school.”

Toth, a green building and renewable-energy advocate, has known Stille since Toth moved here in 1997 to take a job as AT&T’s business services manager.

“I admire Tom for being a voice for smart living in the area,” Toth says. By smart living, Toth refers to low-impact development, native plant landscaping and sustainable energy plans.

This summer, Toth plans to transform the yard of his North Valleys home with a Great Basin native plant garden. He lauds Stille’s influence and the things learned at various River School workshops.

Because of his interest in green building, Toth envisions the River School becoming a valuable resource for people interested in home energy efficiency and sustainable living. He’s optimistic about the task force.

“Between all of us, we can come up with a plan for its success,” he says.

Stille maintains a smallish apartment over the landscape offices in the straw bale building. His kitchen countertops include varied pieces of marble countertops salvaged from his son’s friend’s company and walnut slabs from a tree that fell near the river. Tile is interspersed with rocks, pebbles, fossils and bits of glass collected from friends or travels and gathered from the river. The rough pine walls are made from wood salvaged from a 2001 wildfire in Floriston.

Stille recalls when a realtor began showing this piece of land to him and his wife 15 years ago.

“She brought us here and had another place to show us,” he says. He told her not to bother. He wanted this place. “I couldn’t believe there was a piece of property on the river where I could build a house.”

Given zoning rules, he couldn’t build a residence. He built the business and installed himself as “caretaker,” a person who lives on the grounds. He raises chickens, 28 at last count, and grows much of his own food on the property. His motivations for the River School were partly selfish. He enjoys living in an active learning community. He takes his grandson to the music class for toddlers. He shows me containers of mushrooms grown after taking local mycologist Cheetah Tchudi’s fungi workshop.

Swearingen, Stille and I sit down at his table near a window overlooking the river. A half dozen birdwatching books sit on a shelf nearby. The apartment opens out onto a deck with a telescope, solar oven, small round hot tub and arguably one of the best river views in town.

Stille says he never wrote a business plan for the school.

“It was an intention, a vision, a dream,” he says. “We brought it about, and now it’s floundering. We need to figure out how to get it together and how to get others involved.”

And if that doesn’t work?

Even if the building ends up leased for office space, Stille would still hold events on his property—like the full-moon drum circle. And he has grand plans for developing an intentional community. The property is within one of Reno’s key Transit Oriented Districts, where business owners are encouraged to build up.

“We could build a 10-story building here,” he says, proposing a sustainable structure powered by alternatives to fossil fuel, where all waste is recycled.

“I’d move out here,” I say.

“People want to live out here,” he replies.

Swearingen stands up to go. She brushes her hand over Stille’s head.

“He’s a visionary, this friend of mine.”