Stick Castle brought neighbors together and offered hope.
Stick Castle brought neighbors together and offered hope. Credit: Nina Li Coomes

A hand-drawn sign in crayon, taped to the inside of a window, thanking nurses and doctors. A series of chalk drawings on the sidewalk, finished off with a Black Lives Matter proclamation in a childish pink scrawl. Last Halloween, I stopped to admire a trio of paper plates turned into monster faces hung on someone’s door. I never stopped to think, then, about what this influx of signage could be called, but my dad saw it as public art.

He and I are sitting in the front yard of his Albany Park home, cicadas wailing, and he tells me, “I would take walks and hikes around the neighborhood during COVID and I started seeing the signs up in the neighborhood, ‘We Love Lucy,’ that’s one of them, and of course there was the ‘Thank you essential workers’ signs and then there was the whole Black Lives Matter movement, people putting up signs for expressing and encouraging each other through a terrible time.” (Lucy is the name of the beloved postal carrier who serves the block where my parents live.) To him, these signs were sometimes methods of declaring political and ethical stances “but in some cases it was also just fun—it was also art.”

The Stick Castle, too, started as “fun.” One October morning in 2019, my dad was engaged in a chore I hated as a child; picking up the discarded sticks that would rain down from the giant, leafy sycamore rooted in our front yard. It was such a beautiful morning that, instead of throwing the sticks away as usual, he invited my mom to join him in making a small house out of the sticks. “We started laying the sticks down like Lincoln logs,” he smiles, “We were playing like two kids, playing with toys and it was really fun. I had such a good time doing it. It rose to maybe two or three inches off the ground.” After that morning, my dad would collect more sticks, some from the front yard, some from walking around the block, and he would add to the ramshackle little ‘house,’ until it grew to be roughly a foot or so off the ground.

Around Christmas, he added a sign. Hand-painted and about the size of a child’s calculator, it read: “ADD A STICK?” “I intentionally made it vague, not a request, not a command,” he tells me, “I made it open-ended and a little bizarre to see if I could somehow intrigue people to pick up a stick and put it on there—just to play.” Over the holidays, he saw some people stop to read the sign and add a stick, but soon, heavy drifts of snow fell, covering the stick house. Months passed, and the world began to sink into panic. COVID-19 dominated news cycles, lockdowns sprang up around the world, and soon we were in a lockdown of our own.

It was during this time that my father started noticing public works of art on his walks—the drawings people hung in their windows, the whitewashed wall with big, black block letters reading “EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY.” “I was influenced by people putting up signs to talk to each other when they couldn’t touch each other, to communicate how they felt, to encourage someone or to show the cause they supported,” he says. They inspired him, and so when the thaw revealed the stick house still standing, he decided to keep it there instead of clearing it away. “When the pandemic came, I had a lot of time to pick up sticks, but I also looked out the window more,” he says, “and I saw that people were stopping more often and they were reading the sign and they were putting sticks on. I saw kids walking down the block, holding a stick and waiting, saying, Hey mommy, is it here yet? I had so much happiness just to see these strangers coming by and putting a stick down.”

The Stick House became Stick Pile and then turned into Stick Castle. In July, the pile of sticks measured about five feet tall and so my father made a new sign: “WE CAN MAKE IT.” “It’s a play on words, like we can make it through the pandemic and also we can make this thing, we can reach this high.” “We,” he points to the neighborhood, where a gaggle of kids are screeching as they ride a bicycle down the block, “can make this thing. The emphasis was on the ‘we’ and ‘make’ and the ‘it’ could be anything you wanted it to be.”

According to him, that’s when the Stick Castle really “took off.” He saw people posing in the yard for selfies with the Castle. A string of prayer flags appeared one day. In August, a wind storm blew the Stick Castle down and a neighbor texted my father a frantic message, asking if he needed help rebuilding it. He built the Castle back up, reinforced it with “support branches” and a circle of wire. By now the Stick Castle was nearly six feet tall and people stopped on their walks to tell him how much they enjoyed the Castle’s presence in the neighborhood. In December, my dad wreathed it with lights but it was several unnamed neighbors who brought their Christmas ornaments—a bright red wooden bird, a pair of small mittens—and hung them on outlying branches. “I thought of this as a communal project, where people could make a sculpture together or start to do something together even when you couldn’t touch each other or really be together, because you can leave a stick and never come back but you’re still a part of it,” he says.

My dad is named John Coomes and he owns a small technology business, which is to say, he works every day in a field that isn’t traditionally associated with creativity. Still, when I ask my dad if he’s an artist, the answer is an immediate “yes.” “I’ve always been an artist and that’s because I believe all of us are artists.” When I scoff at this, he doubles down, exclaiming, “I do! I don’t believe people who say they can’t sing—some people sing better than others but everyone can sing. When somebody says I can’t draw—no, everybody can draw but some of us draw more similar to what we see or some of us draw differently and so yes, I would say I’m always an artist and you are an artist too. I’m not trying to be preachy about it but I always as far as I can remember, it was always something I really enjoyed doing.”

(And wasn’t he always doodling a goofily smiling man in the corners of birthday cards and Post-it notes? Not to mention the Saturdays he spent hammering old phones and remote controls, taking apart the pieces and making found-art paintings out of dead electronics. Perhaps it’s from him that I inherited my deeply seeded belief that art doesn’t necessarily have to be the thing that pays your bills—it only need bring you joy.)

My dad took the Stick Castle down a few months ago in part because the Castle was becoming unmanageably large, roughly eight feet tall, and he was worried that it might fall and hurt someone. It was also in part a sense of hopeful optimism, that with the introduction of the vaccine, the worst of the pandemic might be over. Neighbors mourned its exit from the block. “People would come by and say sorry for your loss,” he says. “I had all kinds of people coming by to talk about what they saw in the Stick Castle and that’s continued, that’s the unexpected part—people will stop and say, Hey thanks for that, we miss it. That was a lot of fun.” A look of content contemplation crosses my father’s face as he muses, quietly, almost to himself, “So what’s the ‘it’ that we made? Well we made the Castle, we made it through the pandemic, and we made a place for people to talk and get to know each other.”

Will the Stick Castle be the only communal art project my father makes? Will we need another communal gathering place, if the pandemic picks back up again? My dad snaps out of his previous reverie. His eyes are alert, sparkling, and he turns to me, says, “We’ve had very little rain and so the tree is dropping its bark. Big slabs of bark come careening down and I pick up most of them. Someone walked past with their dog and said, Hey, what are you going to do with that bark?” The cicadas swell in crescendo, the children screech happily down the street. I look to where the Stick Castle once loomed and imagine what might take its place, what we might build together, next.  v