House Life Project unpacks in 'We're Open, Come In'

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Shown from left: Museum studies graduate student Abi Lindstedt, art history associate professor Laura Holzman and DePauw University art professor Meredith Brickell are just a few collaborators with the House Life Project and its subsequent exhibition, "We're Open, Come In: The House Life Project," which runs through Aug. 30 at Gallery 924 in downtown Indianapolis. Photo by Tim Brouk, Indiana University

With the hit Fred Rogers documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?," still at theaters, a new art exhibition asks the question: "What does it mean to be a good neighbor?"

"We're Open, Come In: The House Life Project" pays tribute to the three-year House Life Project, which breathed colorful life into abandoned houses on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis from 2015 through 2017. In collaboration with neighborhood residents and artists from across the city, Herron School of Art and Design faculty members, students and alumni helped transform boarded-up homes into neighborhood art centers featuring installations, performances, murals and hands-on activities. There were also porch parties, lively meals and mobile gardens that could be biked around the streets.

"We're Open, Come In: The House Life Project" opened Thursday, Aug. 2, and will run through Aug. 30 at Gallery 924. An opening reception is set for 5 to 8 tonight, Aug. 3. The show is a collaboration between House Life Project community members and IUPUI's Museum Studies Program, with additional support from Herron and DePauw University.

In terms of House Life Project retrospection, the top goals for the organizers were to bring the vibe from the colorfully transformed houses into the gallery. Keeping the free, open and casual atmosphere was a must. No stuffy wine-and-cheese art exhibition opening, please.

Moments from recent editions of the House Life Project. Photos courtesy of the House Life Project

"We have a mini-fridge stocked with juice boxes -- have a drink, have a snack and hang out," said Laura Holzman, associate professor of art history and museum studies at IUPUI. "Yes, we’re showing some wonderful objects, but it’s also about creating an environment out of the things that people connected with at the actual houses."

The most recent House Life Project house was located at 605 N. Tacoma Ave. That small home and the previous two houses were all recently sold through Renew Indianapolis, and renovations have begun on the first two. Selling the houses, however, wasn't a goal for the projects. Instead, the House Life Project was about finding value in the abandoned houses without renovating or rebuilding. The houses became spaces where community members gathered to explore difficult questions related to the rapidly changing neighborhood. The main goal for the exhibition is to invite new audiences to join that ongoing conversation.

"Some people who should be part of these discussions might never come down to an abandoned house on the Near Eastside," Holzman explained. "How do you translate a deeply site-specific project into a gallery space with white walls in a totally different neighborhood? We want this to be a continuation."

"We're Open, Come In" recreates the do-it-yourself, hands-on attitude from the houses. Activity tables are set up. Well, the tables are actually old doors on sawhorses. Another table in the gallery represents a large community meal that House Life Project artists organized in 2017, complete with a 100-foot-long tablecloth crafted by Brittany Pendleton, a 2017 Herron MFA graduate, and Bailey Shannon. Some of the fabric came from Pendleton’s ancestors. Several video pieces documenting the projects will be screened during the exhibit as well.

At the entrance of the gallery, the pertinent question of "What does it mean to be a good neighbor?" is explored. Ideas gathered from House Life Project community members appear on one wall in bold green, yellow, orange and blue. Another wall asks viewers to write their own thoughts and post them. Another interactive station encourages viewers to "draw their neighbor."

"We've made this space a House Life Project of its own," said Abi Lindstedt, a museum studies graduate student. "I'm excited to be a part of the new guard to make changes like this to exhibitions that leave out so many voices. We want to advocate for the people."

Another piece by Chris Hill, a Herron alumnus and current adjunct instructor, comments on real estate agents' responsibilities in neighborhoods like St. Clair Place. He repurposed building materials such as particle board and pink insulation to frame tense language from the history of race-based housing discrimination.

Holzman said the 2018-19 academic year will be used to reflect on the three years of House Life Project, which will include "We're Open, Come In" showing at DePauw University in the spring.

"It's really important to us to create a space where our community feels comfortable," Holzman said. "I'm really looking forward to people from different parts of town and different parts of the region coming together to talk about what it means to be a good neighbor."

That is something Mr. Rogers would find quite neighborly.