Beyond Blight: The Indy artists working in abandoned houses 

The art project that's using vacant homes as a studio, gallery and point of conversion

Sitting outside of the pilot house during the social hour - KARA HEINGARTNER
  • Sitting outside of the pilot house during the social hour
  • Kara Heingartner

Meredith Brickell had one foot hoisted up on the flatbed of a small pickup truck to give her a better look at the cabinet laying in the back. I pulled up to the abandoned lot that makes an oversized back yard for the abandoned house where we were meeting. Brickell saw me as I put the car in park and hopped down to introduce herself.

We made our introductions and walked up onto the concrete slab porch, where she kicked open two pink lawn chairs for us to use while we talked. It was far cooler outside than in, where there was no electricity.

"We were interested in thinking about these spaces in a creative context," says Brickell gesturing with her thumb to the abandoned house to our backs.

The "pilot house" she pointed to might be the first of many in Indianapolis — a blighted building that is being turned into a work/gallery space for artists. The program (a labor of love by its founder, Brickell) is called the House Life Project, and is a collaboration between Brickell, Katy Brett (Renew Indianapolis) and Paula Katz (iMOCA). All three are hoping to use points of urban abandonment as a community art center. Originally Renew was working with the city on a demolition program to try and find a way to reuse materials from the sites. As time went on, they realized that there might be life left in some of these houses. Brickell's proposal seemed to fit. And Brickell wants to do a lot more than paint the walls white for a one night show. In fact, she doesn't want to paint at all.

Neighborhood kids sitting with the House Life Artists during the Tuesday social hour - KARA HEINGARTNER
  • Neighborhood kids sitting with the House Life Artists during the Tuesday social hour
  • Kara Heingartner

Brickell is often asked whether she is fixing up the house. She isn't, for the record. She and five other artists are working on individual installations, all inspired by spending time in the house and the near eastside neighborhood. Right now they have one objective: to show others that the house is more than boarded up windows and an extra lawn to be mowed. They see it as life that's brimming with potential.

At the moment there are no long-term plans for the pilot house. Someone could walk in and buy it today. The House Life Project is neither encouraging nor discouraging a sale. Renew Indianapolis, however, wants to see the property sold as soon as possible.

This specific home (804 Eastern Ave.) happens to be ranked a 10 out of 10 — at least as far as abandoned places go. The two-story, three-bedroom home has a solid foundation and structure, just no running water or electricity.

Currently there are six artists who are using the house: Meredith Brickell, Brent Aldrich, Shelley Given, Katie Hudnall, Wes Janz and Wil Marquez.

"All of the artists have a history, in their own work, that intersects in some way with one of the many issues that this kind of a site raises," says Brickell.

Brickell, whose background is in ceramics, has been busy making cups on the front porch for much of the summer. The artists started hosting "social hours" where they would hang out at the house on Tuesday nights with neighbors, making art.

"The cup is such a ubiquitous object," says Brickell leaning forward in her lawn chair. "It's something very intimate. It's something we hold in our hands. It's something we put in our mouth to drink from. It's both ordinary and has a potential to speak louder than that and be extraordinary. I like that idea, of empowering an ordinary object to mean more than what we think it is."

She plans on leaving a set of cups at the house for whomever buys it.

Meredith Brickell making cups (with some help). None of the artists decided what they would do until they explored the house and the neighborhood. - KARA HEINGARTNER
  • Meredith Brickell making cups (with some help). None of the artists decided what they would do until they explored the house and the neighborhood.
  • Kara Heingartner

Marquez (co-founder of Design Bank) is currently collecting house keys that will be arranged as a commentary on the experience of being a first-time homeowner.

"This level of pride and joy belongs to and deserves to be part of St. Clair Place neighborhood," Marquez noted in a press release.

Janz, a professor at Ball State University's College of Architecture and Planning, will use reclaimed material to make the lot where I parked into a neighborhood "backyard," complete with yard furniture.

Given, an internationally recognized photographer and professor at IU Bloomington, has already built a camera obscura in one of the upstairs bedrooms. If you have never seen one before, imagine a pinhole camera that projects the streetscape from outside onto the wall of a dark room. During the social hours the artists and neighborhood kids have fun running out to the sidewalk while others watch them from the camera obscura. We tried it out after our porch chat ended. It's as cool as it sounds.

Given and Katie Hudnall also have restored one strip of the room back to its original glory. The difference is striking.

Shelley Given and Katie Hudnall's piece that restores one strip in an upstairs bedroom. - KARA HEINGARTNER
  • Shelley Given and Katie Hudnall's piece that restores one strip in an upstairs bedroom.
  • Kara Heingartner

"Our role as artists is not to redevelop," says Brickell. "We are participating in this greater conversation that is already discussing what to do with these houses ... What is [the] potential of this kind of a space in the interim ... before the market is interested, is there a way to change the dynamic of this space and use it in a different kind of way than is expected?"

She, and many others, are disturbed by the gentrification that comes when artists and the market turn their gaze to an underdeveloped part of town.

"There are so many available houses in this part of the city," says Brickell. "We definitely want people to move in here, but does that mean that it is good for everybody ... I don't know the answer to that question, but that is one of the questions that this project is trying to sit with for a little bit."

Gentrification can be a tipping point, and has been, for many Indy neighborhoods. Fountain Square is the most popular example: an area where the wave of artists moving in was the first nudge for the market to price out local residents.

"Artists have long been connected to ... this idea of gentrification," says Brickell. "Developers know that if you can get artists into an area ... That can bring in higher rent occupants. Artists can be the catalysts for redeveloping an area, they can also be the losers when the rent goes up. Artists can also be responsible for displacing people who were there to begin with. There is an ethical responsibility for artists to be mindful of the cycle of redevelopment and their role in that.

"We can't assume that all renovation and all renewal is a good thing," says Brickell. She hopes that the House Life Project will open up a discourse about maintaining a neighborhood that can improve and remain obtainable by those who built it.

"I think it's our responsibility to be very mindful of what our presence does to an area," says Brickell. "The more closely that artists work within the community the better job they can do being a benefit and a resource for the community, than simply changing the dynamic."

click to enlarge Blueprints of the pilot house. - KARA HEINGARTNER
  • Blueprints of the pilot house.
  • Kara Heingartner

House Life Project

When: Sept. 19, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

where: 804 Eastern Ave.

Info: FREE

"Creative Mischief in the Service of Public Benefit"

When: Sept. 17, 7 p.m.

where: IMA, 4000 Michigan Road

who: Mike Blockstein and Reanne Estrada of Public Matters

Info: FREE

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Emily Taylor

Emily Taylor

Emily is the arts editor at NUVO, where she covers everything from visual art to comedy. In fact she is probably at a theater production right now. Before joining the ranks here, she worked for Indianapolis Monthly and Gannett. You can find her thoughts about Indy scattered throughout the NUVO arts section and... more

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