Artist who uses poor neighborhood as her canvas is part of global event

By Masaki Sugimoto[]=krtphotos&features[]=krtphotoslive

By Barbara Brotman
Tribune news service

CHICAGO — Eric Bennett turned his truck onto Eggleston
Avenue on Chicago’s South Side, pulled up to where Amanda Williams was standing
and asked the question that had been perplexing him for weeks:

Why had that house been painted purple?

There it stood behind Williams — a lone abandoned house
painted bright purple, the slash of color nearly vibrating against the green
grass of the vacant lots surrounding it.

Everything was painted purple. The windows were purple. The
satellite dish was purple. It looked as if the color had been poured over the
house by a giant.

Bennett, who used to live on the block, was eager to find
out why. “I thought Prince was coming here,” he said.

Prince is not coming here. But architecture fans and critics
from around the world might .

The purple house is part of a project in which Williams, an
artist and architect who teaches at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has
been painting abandoned homes in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood in vivid

It will be included in the first Chicago Architecture
Biennial, a three-month international architecture event that opened Oct. 3 and
focuses on how creativity can transform the way people experience their world.

The transformations in Englewood arose from Williams’ desire
to combine her interests in art and architecture by painting at the size of

“Really quite selfishly I thought, ‘Where could I paint
at that big of a scale without spending a lot of money or getting into
trouble?'” she said.

Driving with her husband through South Side neighborhoods to
visit their parents in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, where both grew up, she
saw her answer: abandoned buildings.

The images they evoked of vacancy and abandonment intrigued
her. And one neighborhood in particular drew her.

“Englewood for me feels like the poster child
nationally for everything dangerous and bad,” she said. “It kind of
gets painted in a very specific light.”

She figured she would paint it in another.

She decided to paint the buildings in bright colors drawn
from her memories of growing up African-American on the South Side _ the yellow
of currency exchanges, the turquoise of Newport cigarettes, the purple of the
drawstring bag from a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey.

Intending the works to be extremely temporary, she chose
buildings slated for demolition.

To make sure a property was truly abandoned, she said, she
checked delinquent property tax records and reports. She drove past to see if
grass was being cut or snow shoveled.

“I’m a scaredy cat,” she said. “I didn’t want
to get arrested.”

Early one Sunday morning, she and her husband and some
artist friends showed up at the first house with several gallons of paint,
industrial-size rollers and 20-foot extensions.

“We had no permission; it was not sanctioned,” she
said. “Initially this was a test: If I start, will somebody stop me or
question who I am and why I’m doing this?”

Once someone did try to stop her. In the 6000 block of South
Carpenter Street, a man told her that a friend of his was paying taxes on the
building, she said, and called police.

She considers the damage negligible but has offered to
repaint the building.

Elsewhere, she said, the project has been welcomed.

Indeed, on South Eggleston, one of the few remaining
residents of the block is a fan.

“It’s much better than what you see on the other
side,” she said, nodding at the unpainted wall where the crew ran out of

On more populated South Carpenter, however, some of the
reviews are stinging.

The yellow paint draws attention to the presence of
abandoned houses, said Jenelle Gavin. “It makes the neighborhood look
worse than it already did,” she said.

“Would you have that in your neighborhood, a big yellow
house?” demanded Rosie Curry. “It’s like they’re singling us

Williams was surprised to hear of the anger. “When we
were doing it, a lot of people walked past and said, ‘Thank you – it’s so much
better than it was,'” she said.

But she is glad that the project has provoked conversation.

She intended an exercise in color and scale. As it went on,
however, the project became a broader canvas. Williams worked with the One
Summer Chicago jobs program, teaching a class in color theory and directing of
students in painting abandoned houses in colors they chose. On the painting day
she talked about her project with buildings department officials who had helped
organize the event, and has found herself in numerous discussions throughout
the city about the role architecture can play in housing policy.

On Oct. 3, she was to lead a community painting of a last
Englewood house, with Biennial visitors and neighborhood residents invited to

That last building was to be demolished within two weeks.
But the other painted houses will be up longer than Williams intended; she has
learned that being slated for demolition doesn’t mean demolition is imminent.

Standing outside the purple house, she considered the visual

“Wait until winter,” she said, when the colors
will stand out against the white snow beneath the black and white lines of bare
trees. “Oh, it’s going to be gorgeous.”