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Oak Street

In 2019 I bought a house. It had gone into foreclosure, and then sat vacant for 6 years. It was built at some point in the 1800s, renovated once in the 1950s and again in the ‘70s. When I found it, all the copper in the heating system had been stolen, the roof leaked, the basement was like a jungle, etc. etc. but, as they say, it had good bones. I ripped out the carpet and wood paneling, a lot of formaldehyde-rich MDF and four drop ceilings. I did all this without a clear plan in mind, but in order to know the house better–removing layers of additions to reach the skeleton, which (I hoped) might show me what it wanted to be.

Some of the layers were physical, and some of them olfactory. Freeze-thaw cycles and moisture in the carpets meant that the house stank, somewhere between wet dog and salt&vinegar chips. There were months when I thought it might never go away. Every layer brought more - I even ripped out wood flooring because it was moldy. To combat the smells, I took to burning incense everywhere I could, using whatever I could find. These quickly became little temporary sculptures: Construction Blessings.

They burned as I worked, the house still stank, I worked more, and after what felt like endless painting, sanding, cutting, removal and open windows and more incense, the smell of mold, cigarette smoke, dog fur, and air fresheners finally retreated.  

I started living here a few months into the project, after one room and the kitchen were clean enough to enjoy, and slowly picked away at it. 2020 was a good year to be engaged at home, and without shows or residencies to go to, it felt good to pour my energy into this structure. It took a long time to get here, but I now see this work as an extension of my sculpture practice (which, in turn, is influenced by years of study and employment in architecture).

I have been slowly learning this collection of material and seeing how cultural preferences, material usage and code standards have changed over time, and so many other themes. Every building has a complex web of stories embedded in it, and I’ve learned a few about this house. Early on, the previous owner dropped by a handful of times to see what it looked like after the sale, and when I gave her a collection of leftover objects and paperwork that was hers, she returned again a week later with a photograph of two residents taken in 1956 and a skeleton key that unlocks the last original door in the house. It means a lot that she gave me her blessing - she raised her kids here, still lives nearby, and had such a strong connection to the place. She gave me valuable information about the natural springs buried under the house across the street, which yard had the best soil and provided the most veggies, etc. She also left behind half a dozen bird feeders posted up around the yard.

Living inside of a project turned out to be more complicated (and hazy) than I had thought. The sheer number of tasks meant that there was a psychic burden attached to whatever I happened to look at. That took a long time to get over, and I’m not sure exactly what did it, but mostly I went slowly.

I learned traditional plaster along with modern drywall techniques, plumbing, electrical, enhanced my structural understanding and, more than anything else, dirt and dust management. That slow speed ended up becoming a boon to the project, as ideas would emerge naturally –one complicated plan would dissolve immediately when a new, simpler version emerged. Many of the design choices happened this way, and feel strong because of it. 

I had been working intuitively, and without much of a plan, but once clear ideas for big changes occurred, I drew up the house and applied for permits.

An ethos has emerged along with these ideas: to use and augment what is here before importing any new material. That means taking the low-rent railing and carving a globe into it rather than tossing it into the garbage, cutting a window into the staircase and leaving the original studs exposed and untreated rather than spend the energy on a big new header, etc. I want this house to speak for itself.

The work goes on, and will for quite a while. More images and drawings will be here, as it all evolves.