On the 5900 block of Stewart Avenue, a quiet, grassy lot in Englewood, there’s a brick house painted from top to bottom in the teal hue of a pack of Newport cigarettes. Across the street, wildflowers grow at the base of an elevated track where freight trains periodically chug by with a low hum. The residence was painted in 2015 by the artist Amanda Williams and a small crew of helpers because it fit Williams’s main criterion: it was slated for demolition.
“Can you imagine if once a week a house in your neighborhood went away?” Williams asked me. “It would be preposterous, right? It would just be crazy.” However crazy it might seem, the average rate of demolition approaches that ratio in some Chicago neighborhoods. There have been 221 demolitions in West Englewood alone over the past three years. Williams, a former architect, continues to explore questions like these—about the valuation of neighborhoods, about what color signifies, and about the sustainability of built environments—in her current exhibition, part of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Chicago Works series, which highlights local artists.
For the show, Williams, who’s 42, expanded on ideas from her Color(ed) Theory series, her best-known work. The project focuses on eight homes in Englewood that were on the city’s demolition list, each of which Williams painted a vivid color that held cultural significance for the community—the red of a Harold’s Chicken Shack, the yellow of a Safe Passage route, or the aforementioned teal of a pack of Newports. Color(ed) Theory brought attention to both the properties themselves and the issue of neighborhood vacancies. It was included in the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015, for which Williams also invited participants and community members to join her in painting the last house in the series. The following year, in the summer of 2016, Williams first met with MCA curatorial assistant Grace Deveney, who organized the Chicago Works exhibit.
“Within a few minutes of our studio visit, I knew I wanted to work with her,” Deveney says. “I found her and her work to be engaging and incredibly relevant.”
In institutional art settings such as the MCA, Williams, who grew up in AuburnGresham and now lives in Bronzeville, tries to blur the notions of what art is and what context it exists in. She does that at the MCA with two site-specific installations. Visitors encounter the first, She’s Mighty, Mighty, Just Lettin’ It All Hang Out, when they reach the second-floor gallery. Williams had bricklayers seal off one of the space’s two entrances using salvaged bricks covered in imitation gold leaf. The denied access immediately shifts the dynamic of the venue, subtly changing how many people can fit inside and showing how it feels to be inconvenienced, albeit on a very small scale.
In the second installation, A Dream or Substance, a Beamer, a Necklace or Freedom?, Williams invited six collaborators from Englewood to use imitation gold leaf to gild a six-by-15-foot plywood room that’s proportionate to the size of a standard 25-by-125-foot Chicago lot. Set against the wall in a corner of the gallery, the room is closed off to the public—it’s only visible through two narrow gaps in the wall. Visitors can peer in, but they can’t enter the space.
“For me, even though very small, it symbolically was this moment where [the Englewood collaborators] had special access, in an institutional capacity, that the average person will never have,” Williams says. “For them to understand that these hundreds of people . . . [can’t] go in there, but they did—there was a kind of pride with that.”
A Dream or Substance, a Beamer, a Necklace or Freedom? takes its name from “Hip Hop,” a 1999 song by the rap group Dead Prez that asks listeners whether they want material objects or justice. Williams has taught architecture for a number of years, most recently at the Illinois Institute of Technology and Washington University in Saint Louis, and the importance of thinking about what we value as a society, and how we assign that value, is at the heart of her teaching practice.
“Typical architecture education involves scaling up on the process of starting with a blank slate,” she says. Students start off with a simple structure and then ascend in intricacy and ambition. But Williams introduces an added layer of complexity, asking her students to consider the context of a community and its history, culture, and socioeconomic realities.
“What does sustainability really mean to a neighborhood?” she asks. “What does sustainability mean in Flint? These are the kinds of questions that I ask, and then you can’t concentrate on just form.”
This consideration might seem obvious in an era when environmental and social-justice issues are front-page news, but historically architects have often overlooked such concerns. For Williams, thinking about how buildings will endure long after a project ends is essential. “Nobody starts off saying, ‘I hope my project kills a community,’ ” she notes.
One new work on display brilliantly ties these ideas together. The piece’s title is extremely long because it’s styled after the way a parcel of land appears on a Cook County property deed. Set off from the rest of the show, it’s displayed on the balcony by the elevator bank and comes directly out of the Color(ed) Theory project, as evidenced by the artwork’s deep purple hue, meant to resemble a Crown Royal whiskey bag. The wooden composition was made with railroad ties salvaged from the location of one of the Englewood houses that was torn down; it’s fashioned into a small toy box, the lid left ajar to reveal Matchbox cars.
The piece was crafted with a boy whose family lives on the same block as the house. He’d grown attached to the structure and envisioned the vacant property as a vessel for his toys. Using railroad ties was intentional, Williams says, as the railroad was the cause of the demolition. “It doesn’t have to be a sob story,” she says. “But at the same time, where’s that really intelligent way of trying to make sure that your business doesn’t end communities?”
Although the artwork emerges from this tension, Williams felt joy in designing it, finding she was able, as she says, “to not be paralyzed by the knowledge of the history of what that material is.” The transformation inherent in the piece imparts a sense of lightness and hope. In the media “Englewood” might be a placeholder for the worst aspects of the city—gun violence, gang activity—yet Williams’s exhibit demonstrates that the neighborhood’s residents aren’t stereotypes in a larger narrative. They’re citizens. v