When you come across an abandoned building do you see an eyesore or a possibility? Do you think, “They should knock this down?” Or, “Someone should repair this house and breathe new life into it?” Do you ever say to yourself, “This home has a history? Do you envision a little kid walking out the front door, holding tightly to his mother’s hand as he leaves for the first day of school? Can you see prom pictures being taken in the back yard? Do you feel a wife’s tears as she wakes up day after day after losing her husband? I didn’t until I read an article about a Michigan florist, who was creating FlowerHouse in an abandoned home that she bought for $250. That is not a typo.
Lisa Waud invited florists from all over the country to pitch in to create FlowerHouse, a three-day exhibit that took place in October. They accepted the invitation and collectively brought the house back to life with plants and flowers. Ms. Waud wanted a chance to recognize the life of this former home and give it its last hurrah. Last month, thousands of people came from all over the United States and Canada to tour the house. She is using the money made on the exhibit to responsibly demolish the house and will then plant a flower farm on the lot.
It seems that every other day, when I open a newspaper, there is something about artists breathing new life into abandoned buildings. To some people, there is something about the endless possibilities that an empty building or vacant lot present. I teach a lunchtime art program at my local elementary school and try to keep my topics and projects current. I was so inspired by Ms. Waud’s story, that I created a presentation and project, From Abandoned House to Beautiful Home.
While I was putting together my presentation, a friend of mine, actress and artist, Jennifer Taylor of Painted Board Studio was over at my house to pick up some furniture to be painted. She and I have a similar, quirky energy. When I asked her to paint one table in a circus theme, she broke out into Da da da da da da dada da da dah…a tune I often find myself singing whenever I mention circus, be it in regards to an actual circus or my family life. For anyone interested, the tune is Entry of the Gladiators by Julius Fucik. If you listen to it now, it’ll put a smile on your face.
Our conversation bounced around to a variety of topics and then ended up on abandoned buildings. Jennifer is planning on moving to Miller Beach, which is an apparently up and coming spot in Gary, Indiana. I told her about the presentation I was working on and she mentioned that she passes an abandoned hotel with no front or back when she drives through Gary. She wants to put a big pumpkin in one of the rooms in hopes that other artists will start adding pieces of their own.
We got into a lively conversation about all of the possibilities for the building. I thought it would be cool to organize a bunch of artists take a room and do something with it. So I created a photomontage of what that motel would look like with some artistic intervention and texted it on to Jennifer. She thought it was pretty cool.
This got me asking myself the question, “Can artists save abandoned buildings and blighted areas?” Some say that they can. Many places left to languish and fall apart have been brought back to life when artists give them attention. In Riverside,IL, the historic arcade building was falling apart. Artists were asked to paint murals in the windows. Not only did this make the building look better, it helped bring in a buyer who restored the building.
Amanda Williams, a Chicago architect and professor at IIT has been painting abandoned homes in Englewood vivid colors. She chooses her palette based on her memories of growing up African-American on the South Side. For example, the color of Flaming Hot Cheetos is an inspiration for one house. An exhibit of her project, Color(ed) Theory is at the Chicago Cultural Center until January 3rd. While I have not yet driven through Englewood to check out these buildings, I did go to the Architecture Biennial at the cultural center and saw the exhibit of her work. I highly recommend the show. It is fabulous and great for both adults and kids. There are buildings to go into and cool stuff to see with little, tiny people.
Another hotbed of artists using abandoned buildings as their medium is through SiTE:LAB’s The Rumsey Street Project in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Kate Gilmore, winner of a $200,000 ArtPrize award created a piece, Higher Ground, in an abandoned convent in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood in Grand Rapids. SiTE:LAB is working in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity and is turning a bunch of unoccupied structures, such as a church, rectory, body shop, residences and vacant lots into a temporary art center. Eventually Habitat will redevelop the properties.
If you want to explore the idea of transforming an abandoned building check out this Doodle Art & Design project on Pinterest!
Kathleen Thometz is an artist, freelance writer and founder of Doodle Art & Design, a mobile art program. She has one husband, four children and three doodle dogs, Rainbow, Sunshine and Thunderstorm. She blogs at kathleenthometz.com, has contributed to the mid and Chicago Parent.