An abandoned house is home to creativity and community fellowship

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IUPUI art history professor Laura Holzman stands in front of the 2017 House Life Project, which features the talents of numerous community members and Herron School of Art and Design personnel. Photo by Tim Brouk, IU Communications

This house is a very, very, very fine art project.

An abandoned, boarded-up house -- one of several on North Tacoma Avenue in the Near Eastside neighborhood -- has been transformed into a hub for an array of art forms by Herron School of Art and Design faculty and graduate students, along with Indianapolis residents and artists. The one-story structure is home to the 2017 House Life Project.

Since May, 605 N. Tacoma Ave. has hosted drawing, painting and creative writing sessions; meals; workshops; and weekly porch parties with the goal of "public creation and discovery, resulting in tangible outputs such as dialogical artworks and interactive art installations."

 Top right photo courtesy of House Life Project, others by Tim Brouk, IU Communications

Already, much artistic exploration has gone on inside and in the yard of the old house. While most neighboring houses are long abandoned, the 2017 House Life Project has brought in more than 100 kids, veteran artists and everyone in between. It will end Oct. 17 with another porch party.

"It's really a neighborhood-driven, community-oriented project," said Laura Holzman, an IUPUI assistant professor of art history, museum studies and curator for House Life Project, and public scholar of curatorial practices and visual art. "We had at least 120 people come to the (Aug. 26) open house. On a week-to-week basis, we usually have 15, 20 people here including kids with their families and neighbors who show up and participate." 

The House Life Project concept was created in 2015 by Meredith Brickell, a local artist that lives on the Near Eastside.

There is no running water or electricity in the house, but when it's open, it brims with life. One of the first transformations made to the former home was via the boarded-up windows. Project volunteers attached hinges and locks to the window frames. The boards that once meant to keep things out became the small doors of light all season long. Of course, the boards are colorfully painted by local artists Zavier Garth, Bernny Owens and Christopher Williams. Garth and Williams became involved with House Life Project in 2016, when they lived next to a previous project site. The many portals of natural light activate fresh creations by artists like Andrea Jandernoa, a Herron graduate student with an emphasis on integrated studio work and social practice. 

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Andrea Jandernoa was one of several Herron School of Art and Design graduate students that contributed to House Life Project. Photo by Tim Brouk, IU Communications

"Told/Retold" is displayed in a corner of one of the house's three main rooms. Jandernoa used gold string and connected it to screws she put into preexisting holes in the walls. Decades of pictures and shelves had hung on these walls, and Jandernoa connected the dots. She applied gold leafing on the mottled walls for some flash. Then she cut down the string, leaving it tangled on the dusty floor, challenging who gets to tell the narrative about a place. She then invited community members to reconnect the string in a new pattern that still connected the screws.

"There's always that element of being an outsider and being somebody coming into a new space," said Jandernoa, who lives near the neighborhood. "The piece is a retelling. Being an artist, it's not about taking the place of something that already exists, but reframing something that already exists in a way that offers more conceptual depth and thought. It allows people to engage in a more meaningful way than what already exists."

Jandernoa was one of the first artists to respond to a spring callout to help with House Life Project. The community-minded initiative fit perfectly with her passion of using art to build and help communities.

"I see myself almost as a public servant," said Jandernoa, who previously taught art at Emma Donnan Middle School. "To me, as a social projects artist, it's really important to situate yourself within a community where you are creating 'with' and 'for' and 'because of.'" 

Another installation was envisioned and painted by one of the many children who frequent the Tacoma Avenue art house. Early Tinsley saw a closet without a door that was unused. For the middle schooler, the closet was the perfect size for a mini workout facility. "My Pull-Up Room" was painted with colorful stripes that showcase a metal bar hung near the top of the doorway -- too small for an adult athlete, but just right for a young, aspiring one.

Six principles of House Life Project 

House Life Project lives for six "focal points." Each month, one value is concentrated on: "History," "Space," "Wellness," "Equity," "Movement" or "Change." Different project contributors take center stage to reflect the featured principle for that month. For example, Herron graduate student Brittany Pendleton and Indianapolis resident Bailey Shannon worked under the "Wellness" umbrella. Shannon helped promote a portable garden, which stays in the front yard but could be transported via wagon, cart or bicycle. Vegetables were planted in recycled storage and trash bins, and they are meant to follow families when they move to a new house. The project illustrates the concept that gardens don't have to die when the owner moves.

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The fence of the 2017 House Life Project was decorated by neighborhood kids and Herron artists. Photo by Tim Brouk, IU Communications

Pendleton had a hand in the House Life Project community meal. A long table was put in the yard, which featured a hand-stitched tablecloth created by Pendleton. The cloth consisted of sentimental pieces of fabric that belonged to her great-aunt and other family members.

"Movement" was the September theme. A dance performance called "Parade 2017" by local choreographer Rebecca Pappas was reconfigured for the house and wrapped up September's House Life Project events. The piece debuted July 8 at Garfield Park but was successful in the intimate setting of the small Tacoma Avenue venue. 

October's theme is "Change." Jordan Munson, senior lecturer of music and arts technology in the School of Engineering and Technology, will debut original music works on "decaying" instruments and will lead a workshop on creating an original tune with paper being fed into a music box -- sort of like a mini player piano.

Creating exposure in empty homes

The House Life Project had two previous incarnations, at 804 Eastern and 818 N. Tacoma avenues. These houses and the current one were obtained through Renew Indianapolis, a nonprofit land bank "that works to return vacant and abandoned property to productive use." 

Holzman said the goal of the House Life Project isn't to flip these old homes. They are not rehabbing them; they're just breathing some life into them. But the previous houses were eventually purchased through Renew Indianapolis.

"It was really important for us to stay within walking distance of where we'd been before," Holzman said, "so we can continue to build on the relationships we've been developing, the community we've been connecting with."

End of the season

After Oct. 17, House Life Project will move out of 605 N. Tacoma Ave. The tables, chairs, art supplies, magazines and other creations made within the old walls will be packed up. The painted boards and siding will remain, and so will the legacy of the work Holzman, Jandernoa, and the rest of the project's team and neighbors put in for the name of community fellowship and creativity. 

"To an outsider, this street might look abandoned," Holzman said. "But it's really about saying 'There is community that exists. There is creativity that exists here.'" 

Even after the front door is padlocked at the end of the season, the work won't be finished. Print materials are planned to document and discuss what went on for six months at 605 N. Tacoma Ave. An exhibit called "Social Practice Art" will touch on the work done in House Life Project. The show runs Monday, Oct. 9, through Nov. 3 in University of Indianapolis' Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center.

"We want to share the work our writers have been doing and to share more broadly the art we've created," Holzman said. "We're based in a house, but we're nomadic in nature."