Thursday, June 4, 2009

It GOT me!

Wednesday June 3: Greg and I start the day early in the morning with a flight to Houston, Texas. We arrive without any delay and head straight for Project Row Houses (PRH). We are met by Ashley Clemmer Hoffman, the Public Arts Manager, and instantly invited into the vibrant world of PRH. Ashley introduced us to Rick Lowe, the founder who was involved in a fierce game of dominoes, Hamdiya Ali, the Education Manager who was organizing a multitude of events and Cheryl Bowmer, the Executive Director, who took moments away from a meeting to speak with us about our visit. The office was buzzing with energy and purpose and Greg and I were grinning from ear to ear. We had entered into a world of passion, innovation, cultural inspiration, and the generation of art that is deeply rooted in community.

Ashley next took us to the Shotgun Houses that serve as gallery spaces for local, national and international artists. Each house was utilized by an artist to express different themes. As we went through each space I was flooded with ideas. Thoughts of how important it is for a person to have a place to call home. Thoughts on how we create "home". I had visions of one of these great spaces full of hats of all kinds hanging on the walls. Playing off of the saying "Home is where you hang your hat". I can see it so clearly. You walk into the house and there they are hanging on the wall, on the chairs, on the coat rack, maybe just laying on the floor. The important thing is that the hats will come from the community itself and then will return to the community when the artwork has had its' time. How will that happen? I do not know yet. That is my next step. How does the process of creation involve the community? How do the hats express history, personality, identity and point of view?

The day has just begun and I am inspired by the incredible artistic community at Project Row Houses. I am looking at the world with a new perspective. I am hungry for knowledge and a deeper understanding of cultural context. I realize that Project Row Houses has just worked its magic on me. I am awake and eager to get involved with the world around me.

Mason's Bend

Tuesday, June 2: Our second day in Hale County. Kelly and I set out to see as many of the Rural Studio structures as we can. We head north on Hwy. 14, left on county road 15, a few more turns and we're there: Mason's Bend. The first structure we see is the iconic Harris House, better known as "Butterly House," a second year project. As the elegantly drawn map, The World of the Auburn University Rural Studio, indicates, "Historically, the Rural Studio has accepted approximately fifteen 2nd year students per semester to design and build a charity home." This is the structure I saw in Smithsonian Magazine in 2001 that first alerted me to Sam Mockbee's work with the Rural Studio.

Just down the road is Glass Chapel, the structure that used car windshields to create a comtemplative space that's clearly used by members of the community.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Monday, June 1: Our first day in Hale County, Alabama, and Kelly and I were in Greensboro, the county seat, 9 miles up the road from New Bern, home to the Rural Studio. We decided to stop in H.E.R.O., the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization, a housing resource center that's run by Pam Dorr, a former Rural Studio Outreach student from 2003-2004.

Drawn to the Warrior River valley by a video of Sam Mockbee and the rural studio, Pam left California to help build houses for Hale County’s rural poor and has never left. She has one of those disarmingly infectious smiles that breaks so broadly across her face that her eyes momentarily disappear. Within seconds of meeting me, she's already invited us to attend a party at H.E.R.O. that evening and all but insisted that we talk to some of the Project M / Americorp volunteers who are just now walking through H.E.R.O.'s breezy, open space.

When we turn to greet our erstwhile tour guides, I was momentarily dumbstruck: who should be standing before me but Ryan LeCluyse! Ryan graduated from the UNCSA Visual Arts program in 2007 and has been attending the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) studying graphic design (he is also a Penland-Kenan Fellow).

One some level, it seemed like some karmic message that we were in the right place at the right time. It also just made sense: Ryan always had a more global perspective, and, wanting to engage in art that gives back, he was naturally drawn to the Project M’s mission “to inspire young graphic designers, writers, photographers and filmmakers by proving that their work can have a positive and significant impact on the world.” Ryan will stay in Hale County for a year long sabbatical from his studies at MICA, he will work with John Bielenberg, founder of Project M, to train fresh troops of “M’ers,” as they’re called. For more on Project M, read:

This photo of Ryan was taken in Pie Lab’s Greensboro, Alabama location.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Ralph Koltai: Theatre Designer and Sculptor

I was talking with my Dean, Joe Tiford, about my project, my blog and found objects yesterday. This prompted him to mentioned a name: Ralph Koltai. As his web site puts it, Koltai is "returning to his roots as a 3-dimensional artist, creating a series of bas-relief sculpture/collages. They are mostly made from found objects on farms near his studio in France. He selects panels or pieces, predominantly metal, and dissects them in a compositional form."

Koltai has designed some 250 productions of Opera, Dance, Drama and Musicals throughout the world. He studied at the Central School of Art and Design in London and became head of Theatre Design (1965 – 1972). And a my Dean is fond of saying, the world of theatrical design is a place where one's artistic vision can be made minifest ... and where one can earn a paycheck. In this day and age, that's no small feat.

Here's a link directly to hKoltai's sculpture: Start there, and then look at the set designs. Pretty impessive stuff. Thanks, Joe.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Project Synopsis

Greetings! Follow along as UNCSA (that's the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, NC) faculty members Greg Shelnutt (Visual Arts) and Kelly Maxner (Drama) journey (and blog and vlog) into the sweltering heat of Alabama and Texas to visit the Rural Studio and Project Row Houses (PRH) in search of communities transformed.

Both the Rural Studio and PRH offer potent models of how the arts can be used to create, transform, celebrate and sustain human communities. Our interest in these two organizations is based upon our perception that the house form, especially when transformed into a “home,” is the primary site for the evolution of the human story: house / home is locus for the transitions of our lives. As Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space, “…if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

So journey with us as we travel from Winston-Salem to rural Alabama and Houston, Texas over the course of only eight days. Our plan is to document the people, places and things we discover along the way.


“Project Row Houses (PRH) is a neighborhood-based nonprofit art and cultural organization in Houston’s Northern Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African-American communities. PRH began in 1993 as a result of discussions among African-American artists who wanted to establish a positive, creative presence in their own community. Artist and community activist Rick Lowe spearheaded the pursuit of this vision when he discovered the abandoned 1 1/2 block site of twenty-two shotgun-style houses in Houston’s Third Ward. The shotgun houses became the perfect opportunity to pursue the creation of a new form of art. They had two key elements: 1) a beautiful form recognized by the renowned Houston artist Dr. John Biggers to be filled with architectural, spiritual, and social significance, and 2) a need for social action among the community to bring the project to life.”

Michael Kimmelman, writing in The New York Times, stated, “Although it’s hard to tell at a glance, this stretch of Holman may be the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country — a project that is miles away, geographically and philosophically, from Chelsea and Art Basel and the whole money-besotted paper-thin art scene.”