Giving Vacancy Another Look
Artists have long weighed in on the social ills of their day, and foreclosure is one of the biggest to come down the pike in a long, long time. A home is rife with meaning and purpose and when it loses both, and on such a broad scale, the loss is collective. What role can art play in piecing it all back together?
These questions are certainly at play in Curb Appeal, a project led by a group of seven artists from Cleveland (including the author). The project addresses vacancy through on-site installations at an abandoned house in Columbus. It is part of a larger effort, Rooms to Let, led by Columbus natives Melissa Vogley Woods and Jaclyn Little. Little co-founded City Center Gallery at the OSU Urban Arts Space in 2010, and served as director until 2011. Woods is an exhibiting artist whose work on vacancy was recognized by Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award (2013).
“When the function of a house is disrupted, it feels dead, like a ghost,” Vogley Woods says. “We connect to the house like we connect to the function of the body. Particularly, the American idea of home and how this ideal is manifested and ordered by our culture.”
This is the third round of Rooms to Let. The project centers on homes in the once-stable and bustling African-American neighborhood just east of downtown Columbus known as King-Lincoln. In the late 19th century, as King-Lincoln’s population exploded, blacks migrating from the South found poor living conditions. The neighborhood struggled to find adequate health care, but it also became home to Columbus’ first black physician and the first hospital for African-Americans.
Housing conditions improved as African-American businesses and night clubs featuring the jazz stars of the age were established in the 1930s-40s. “At the time, segregation actually fueled the commercial and cultural development of the area, as African-American consumers could only patronize the African-American businesses in the neighborhood. As a result, a thriving, self-sufficient community developed,” writes Homeport, a non-profit developer working in the area.
In the 60s, after the highway sliced through the neighborhood, residents gained a new sense of mobility, and the tight-knit, walkable neighborhood slowly started losing residents and local business. Its mom-and-pop shops and solid middle class housing both started a decades-long decline in the wake of the rising suburbs.
In recent times, Homeport has taken on infill development projects including 60 new green-built homes. According to WOSU’s Columbus Neighborhoods Project, King-Lincoln is “poised for rebirth. The restoration of the King Lincoln Theatre was one of the most anticipated projects in the city. Now completed, it joins the King Arts Complex in shaping and developing this historic neighborhood.”
In addition to being the name of the artists’ project, the term “curb appeal” is used by the real estate profession to describe the extrinsic value of a property. It is emblematic of the starry-eyed transactions that inflated the housing bubble of the early Oughts.
Homeport’s Nicole Papa Odegaard sees a connection between art and vacancy. “Art builds community. Artists spark conversation and bring people together. All kinds of people with different backgrounds and interests who may otherwise never have the opportunity or reason to interact. With the Rooms to Let project, abandoned houses will become gathering places, places of contemplation and even joy.”
“Foreclosures are like the Wizard of Oz coming out from behind the curtain,” says Liz Maugans, one of the artists. Maugans will let loose some salesmanship of her own.
“My mother is a realtor, and one of their strategies for getting people to come to an open house is using brightly colored balloons by the door,” she says in describing part of her piece, This House Is Up In The Air. “A message and address of the house is attached to each balloon. I ask people to text or email me when they find the deflated balloon with ideas for its future.”
Painter and printmaker Corrie Slawson will explore the friction of a home’s transitory state of occupancy and the ideal of its value both at a personal but also at the community level. In her piece, Gilt House I, she plans to “gild” areas of and around the home in gold metallic paint. She will also collaborate on written word wall paper with her husband, writer Marc Lefkowitz combining text, gold wallpaper and Day-Glo words over the boarded up windows.
Photographer and sculptor, Michael Loderstedt, will do a site-specific installation of paper-and-ink magpies. A common bird throughout Europe, magpies are attracted to shiny objects and will often add coins to their nests, he explains. “This behavior of ‘stealing’ is, of course, without real moral significance to them. They become allegorical figures who build, plan, scheme and act in a more human-like manner. Used as a playful yet dramatic foil, the birds are intended to be a metaphor for our current economic condition.”
Cleveland-based artists Jeffrey Chiplis and Dana L. Depew will collaborate and connect the vacant house with work that deals with resurrecting reclaimed signage, neon and incandescent lighting. Mely Barragan, a native of Mexico and Cleveland Foundation Creative Fusion artist-in-residence at Zygote Press, will contribute a piece called HeMan / Chain-Link Fence. Wallpaper with graphic images of the cartoon character, HeMan, form a chain link fence that challenges the boundaries between public and private, but also the symbols of poverty.
Curb Appeal and Rooms to Let are a pathway for artists living amongst the angst of a mounting social problem in their hometown. Cleveland artists will travel to Columbus, bringing with them an inside-outside viewpoint on vacancy. The challenge will be to take a concept wrapped in a thorny and evolving problem to a real house, in a neighborhood imbued with a rich past and an uncertain future.
“We think the neighborhood has a very certain future,” says Papa Odegaard. “The residents have created a strong fabric of community and look out for each other. They want to know each other and they come together to care for and advance their neighborhood. This project gives people who may not be familiar with the transformation a reason to come and spend a few hours in the King Lincoln District. This project will create excitement and have people looking at what is happening next in NoBo.”
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