ON THE HOMESTEAD WITH DANA DEPEW
by Erin O’Brien
Horse-drawn Amish buggies clop along lonely county roads. Pastoral farmhouses evoke cotton shirts billowing on clotheslines and the aroma of freshly baked apple pies. Gentle bovines chew grass.
While it’s only about fifty miles southwest of Cleveland, Huntington Township feels very far away from, say, 78th Street Studios in Gordon Square, where Dana Depew’s edgy “Your Art Sucks” installation raised eyebrows and emotions last year during the CAN Triennial. Much of the iconic artist’s endeavors need no introduction, such as those other-worldly lanterns crafted from repurposed fiberglass commercial tanks. But Depew’s gentler side is equally familiar: delicate chenille fabric paintings, inviting gazebos, and complex birdhouse communities. That contrasting artistic drive is what makes his move south to such a rural locale both baffling and perfectly understandable.
It started with a New Year’s resolution for 2018. “I was just disenfranchised with living in the city and the suburbs and everything that entailed,” says Depew over a midday repast of grilled sausage and pierogi. “I wanted, in essence, to get back to something more authentic and just get out of the city and have a farm I could utilize for my own artwork.”
Depew’s thirteen-acre property includes a farmhouse and barn, both constructed in the early 1900s. The house started out as a single-family home and was eventually converted to duplex. It once housed migrant workers, but stood vacant for years before Depew moved in last May. Many of the rooms had to be stripped to the studs. “This is literally starting from scratch,” he says. “This is the greatest something-from-nothing that I’ve ever been a part of.”
The property represents a sweeping canvas, the westerly backdrop of which serves as the basis for Depew’s opus. “Everything is going to directionally, gravitationally pull to the west.” The nightly sundown has captivated him so completely that he intends to construct a sitting area to honor one that comes just once a year: on June 21. “There’s going to be an oculus that captures the summer solstice.”
While ten of his acres are actively farmed by a neighbor who rents the land, thereby keeping an attractive tax incentive in place, Depew envisions the remaining land as a mecca for meditation, reflection and wellness. He’s already begun work on trellised walks, and his gardening efforts last year produced breathtaking dahlias, but Depew is also amassing structures (reclaimed garden sheds) for “personal experiences” such as misting rooms, a sauna and tea rooms. Other possibilities include a hot tub and a stained-glass meditation space. Sculpture will play a role, as will experimental projects. He tried his hand at bees last season, which started out promisingly enough, but “then they flew away.” No matter, there’s always next year. Until then, a thatch of long-neglected grape vines has him waxing curious. “I can try to grow some different grapes,” he says, adding that chickens and windmills may also be in his future. “A lot of it is trial and error.”
The flat, mostly treeless landscape begs attention to the architecture of the property as a whole, which will be informed by the aesthetic of the house and the community at large. “It’s going to be very discreet,” says Depew. “I want what was here before to really dictate what I’m doing, so the architecture of the house is important to retain that identity and how I design things. I’m going to be really respectful of that,” he adds. “I want everything to blend together so it looks very fluid. I don’t want it to look like the Heidelberg project.”
The interior of the house reveals a beautiful and inexplicable marriage of aesthetics at every turn. The picture window above the vintage kitchen sink faces the western horizon and sown acres. It’s lined in a tiny floral curtain trimmed with fuzzy balls. Above that, however, two lines of yellow neon light race across the soffit, speaking silent volumes: contrast challenges convention at every turn here. Studios for yoga, meditation and quiet work areas will round out the indoor offerings. Depew is also transforming a second-floor bedroom into a large spa with a sauna, whirlpool and walk-out deck that faces west.
The end game will reveal itself in the building of it, but Depew clearly aims to have people as the focus of this place. Tentative plans include a bed and breakfast for the upstairs unit. Farm-to-table dinners, a place to spend a weekend smoothing the jagged edges of daily life, and people just spending time together are all central to his vision—minus the stereotypical new-agey feel.
“It’s going to be my brand and my trademark,” says Depew, adding that “weird sculptures” can fit in an old farmhouse as long as they’re properly curated. Case in point: a surreal humanoid figure, crafted from ceramic by artist Tom Bartel, holds court over the dining room in what once was a dumbwaiter as Depew muses at the grand table, which was previously an old door. “It’s having everything harmoniously live hand-in-hand together,” he says, noting the chandelier above it all is framed on a spinning wheel salvaged from the farm of his childhood. Behind him, block letters announce, “GUESS IM DOING FINE” as a demure panda looks on from a picture frame.
Much like everything in Depew’s body of work, all his homestead projects are constructed from repurposed materials. Barn planks are reborn as paneling. Bricks collected over the years are garden pavers. The barn is teeming with salvaged material waiting to be reimagined, including a stack of cedar planks from the Cleveland Athletic Club where they were previously a sauna and eventually will be again, but here in this bucolic patch of earth that blooms with endless possibility.
Fittingly, the barn’s hay loft and the house’s steepled attic are the most ethereal spaces on the property, perhaps on account of their quiet simplicity. For the attic, Depew sees a private place to meditate over tea. “I think it’s going to be a perfect little individual reflection space,” he says, adding that access will be via a spiral staircase from the spa below. “It’s going to look like a stained-glass cathedral.” As for the barn’s second level, Depew is considering a studio or event space. “This barn has a lot of potential.” It also has the original slate roof and beams hewn from trees a century ago—with the bark still intact.
For anyone who’s followed Depew’s work with Rooms to Let, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons. Those Slavic Village experiences often included mourning: for the families that lived in the homes, for the temporary art filling them, and for the structures themselves. But in this place, there is a permanence in the rebirth that’s deeply personal.
“I know this is my place. It’s truly for once finally mine,” says Depew, noting that limits associated with a space slated for demolition are gone, as are deadline restrictions. “There’s not a timeframe for it. I don’t have to fast-track ideas. These things can marinate. I know this is going to be for the long term, not just up for a weekend.
“This is the most ambitious project and largest one I’ve ever had. It’s never going to be finished.”
Depew walks the property, describing the act as a “pilgrimage” and his vision for wellness installations as “stations of the cross.” He’s even let his beard grow out in a way that evokes his new Amish neighbors, whose work ethic earns his respect and then some. And while he has no plans to formally subscribe to the church of the Mennonites, he has found his own religion in this tranquil place.
“The sky is a different color. The sunsets are unbelievable. At night, the air is different; the air is crisper. It’s pitch dark. There’s no light. Occasionally you’ll see the swinging of a candle lantern and hear the clippity-clop of the Amish going down the street. It’s so beautiful.
“This space would be where my spirituality is.”