Why I turned Chicago’s abandoned homes into art | Amanda Williams

Updated : Oct 22, 2019 in Articles

Why I turned Chicago’s abandoned homes into art | Amanda Williams


I really love color. I notice it everywhere and in everything. My family makes fun of me because I like to use colors
with elusive-sounding names, like celadon … (Laughter) ecru … carmine. Now, if you haven’t noticed,
I am black, thank you — (Laughter) and when you grow up
in a segregated city as I have, like Chicago, you’re conditioned to believe
that color and race can never be separate. There’s hardly a day that goes by that somebody is not
reminding you of your color. Racism is my city’s vivid hue. Now, we can all agree that race
is a socially constructed phenomenon, but it’s often hard to see it
in our everyday existence. Its pervasiveness is everywhere. The neighborhoods I grew up in were filled with a kind of
culturally coded beauty. Major commercial corridors were lined
with brightly painted storefronts that competed for black consumer dollars. The visual mash-ups of corner stores
and beauty supply houses, currency exchanges, are where I actually, inadvertently
learned the foundational principles of something I would later
come to know is called color theory. I can remember being pretty intimidated
by this term in college — color theory. All these stuffy old white guys
with their treatises and obscure terminologies. I’d mastered each one of their
color palettes and associated principles. Color theory essentially boils down
to the art and science of using color to form
compositions and spaces. It’s not so complicated. This was my bible in college. Josef Albers posited a theory
about the color red, and it always has stuck with me. He argues that the iconic
color of a cola can is red, and that in fact
all of us can agree that it’s red but the kinds of reds that we imagine are as varied as the number
of people in this room. So imagine that. This color that we’ve all been
taught since kindergarten is primary — red, yellow, blue — in fact is not primary, is not irreducible, is not objective but quite subjective. What? (Laughter) Albers called this “relational.” Relational. And so it was the first time that I was able to see my own neighborhood
as a relational context. Each color is affected by its neighbor. Each other is affected by its neighbor. In the 1930s, the United States government created the Federal Housing Administration, which in turn created a series of maps which were using a color-coding system
to determine which neighborhoods should and should not receive
federal housing loans. Their residential security map
was its own kind of color palette, and in fact was more influential
than all of those color palettes that I had been studying
in college combined. Banks would not lend to people
who lived in neighborhoods like mine. That’s me in D86. Their cartographers
were literally coloring in these maps and labeling that color “hazardous.” Red was the new black, and black neighborhoods were colored. The problem persists today, and we’ve seen it most recently
in the foreclosure crisis. In Chicago, this is best
symbolized by these Xs that are emblazoned
on the fronts of vacated houses on the South and West Side. The reality is that someone else’s
color palettes were determining my physical and artistic existence. Ridiculous. I decided that I’d create
my own color palette and speak to the people
who live where I do and alter the way
that color had been defined for us. It was a palette that I didn’t
have to search far for and look for in a treatise, because I already knew it. What kind of painter
emerges from this reality? What color is urban? What color is ghetto? What color is privilege? What color is gang-related? What color is gentrification? What color is Freddie Gray? What color is Mike Brown? Finally, I’d found a way to connect my racialized
understanding of color with my theoretical
understanding of color. And I gave birth to my third baby: “Color(ed) Theory.” (Laughter) “Color(ed) Theory”
was a two-year artistic project in which I applied my own color palette
to my own neighborhoods in my own way. Now, if I walked down
79th Street right now and I asked 50 people for the name
of the slightly greener shade of cyan, they would look at me sideways. (Laughter) But if I say, “What color
is Ultra Sheen?” — oh, a smile emerges, stories about their
grandmother’s bathroom ensue. I mean, who needs turquoise
when you have Ultra Sheen? Who needs teal when you have Ultra Sheen? Who needs ultramarine when you have … (Audience) Ultra Sheen. (Laughter) This is exactly how I derived my palette. I would ask friends and family and people with backgrounds
that were similar to mine for those stories and memories. The stories weren’t always happy but the colors always resonated
more than the product itself. I took those theories to the street. “Ultra Sheen.” “Pink Oil Moisturizer.” If you’re from Chicago,
“Harold’s Chicken Shack.” (Laughter) “Currency Exchange + Safe Passage.” “Flamin’ Red Hots.” “Loose Squares” … and “Crown Royal Bag.” I painted soon-to-be-demolished homes in a much-maligned area called Englewood. We’d gather up as much paint
as I could fit in my trunk, I’d call my most trusted art homies, my amazing husband always by my side, and we’d paint every inch of the exteriors
in monochromatic fashion. I wanted to understand scale
in a way that I hadn’t before. I wanted to apply the colors
to the biggest canvas I could imagine … houses. So I’d obsessively drive up and down
familiar streets that I’d grown up on, I’d cross-reference these houses
with the city’s data portal to make sure that they’d been
tagged for demolition — unsalvageable, left for dead. I really wanted to understand
what it meant to just let color rule, to trust my instincts, to stop asking for permission. No meetings with city officials, no community buy-in, just let color rule in my desire to paint
different pictures about the South Side. These houses sit in stark contrast
to their fully lined counterparts. We’d paint to make them stand out
like Monopoly pieces in these environments. And we’d go on these early Sunday mornings and keep going until we ran out
of that paint or until someone complained. “Hey, did you paint that?” a driver asked as I was taking
this image one day. Me, nervously: “Yes?” His face changed. “Aw, I thought Prince was coming.” (Laughter) He had grown up on this block, and so you could imagine
when he drove past and saw one of its last remaining houses
mysteriously change colors overnight, it was clearly not
a Crown Royal bag involved, it was a secret beacon from Prince. (Laughter) And though that block
was almost all but erased, it was the idea that Prince
could pop up in unexpected places and give free concerts in areas
that the music industry and society had deemed were not valuable anymore. For him, the idea that just the image of this house was enough to bring Prince there meant that it was possible. In that moment, that little patch of Eggleston
had become synonymous with royalty. And for however briefly, Eric Bennett’s neighborhood
had regained its value. So we traded stories
despite being strangers about which high school we’d gone to and where we’d grown up, and Mrs. So-and-so’s candy store — of being kids on the South Side. And once I revealed that in fact this project had
absolutely nothing to do with Prince, Eric nodded in seeming agreement, and as we parted ways and he drove off, he said, “But he could still come!” (Laughter) He had assumed
full ownership of this project and was not willing to relinquish it, even to me, its author. That, for me, was success. I wish I could tell you that this project
transformed the neighborhood and all the indices
that we like to rely on: increased jobs,
reduced crime, no alcoholism — but in fact it’s more gray than that. “Color(ed) Theory”
catalyzed new conversations about the value of blackness. “Color(ed) Theory” made unmistakably
visible the uncomfortable questions that institutions and governments
have to ask themselves about why they do what they do. They ask equally difficult questions
of myself and my neighborhood counterparts about our value systems and what our path
to collective agency needs to be. Color gave me freedom in a way
that didn’t wait for permission or affirmation or inclusion. Color was something that I could rule now. One of the neighborhood members
and paint crew members said it best when he said, “This didn’t
change the neighborhood, it changed people’s perceptions about
what’s possible for their neighborhood,” in big and small ways. Passersby would ask me,
“Why are you painting that house when you know the city’s just going
to come and tear it down?” At the time, I had no idea, I just knew that I had to do something. I would give anything to better
understand color as both a medium and as an inescapable way
that I am identified in society. If I have any hope
of making the world better, I have to love and leverage
both of these ways that I’m understood, and therein lies the value and the hue. Thank you. (Applause and cheers)

57 Comments

  • Such an inspiration–thank you for providing hope and color-filled perspective in communities that need it the most!

  • ( imagine a white guy say that in a room full of blacks,! You would hear the wailing, screams of bigotry and victimhoodm) Old stuffy white guys?! Its better than being black and ignorant. Black is voided of color whereas white is all the colors. Why not demand your savior Hussein Obama/ Barry Santos along with his husband Michael give back to his home town rather than build a library that doesn't even benefit the majority of the people in Chicago.

  • All these stuffy old white guys … She's racist. Be grateful where you're at bc it ain't better in Africa. And that's a continent.

  • "Stuffy old white guys" is what you think of when you hear color theory……. That's a bigoted comment. Why do you have to repeatedly throw race in this sesquipedalian talk? Yuk…. I'm so sick of "reverse" racism! I grew up in the ghetto and I'm a stuffy old white guy.

  • Love and hate are the same emotions but in the opposite direction. Black supremacy is the same thing as white supremacy, just different color, race in supreme social status. It doesn't equal to equal rights but reversed racism. Why don't try to see people with not only eyes but also brain?
    On one hand, differences between races are objective, just like colors that no one can deny.
    On the other hand, one has one's own characteristics other than race, which includes some common, general characteristics.

  • Yeah great idea, instead of working to fix the reason these homes were abandoned to begin with (libtard policies), you make them into a 3rd grade arts and craft project. You sure have it figured out.

  • Thank you for your chat. The remarks shown here in the comment section are very eye-opening…..like your opinions can dismiss, disregard, exclude, and erase her …..that she does not deserve to express her creativity and experiences, her views, her words and works. If her words and works strike home hard enough for you to be on the defensive, there must be truth in both.

  • Amazing! Why would you paint a house they gonna tear down anyways!? Ultra sheen! That's why! ❣️❣️❣️

  • Just imagine what masterpieces Michelangelo or Caravaggio would have made
    if they used just a paint roller and a bucket (!)
    Apparently, "stuffy old white guys" have a lot to learn about true art … 🙄

  • take a look at what the rest of the western world does when the government spends more on ANYTHING other than the defence budget

  • What a fascinating project and great talk! This reminded me of the teardrops painted around the windows of beautiful, old, wooden buildings which the city had let deteriorate to the point of ruin in a place I visited. Art is powerful.

  • How about get a job and off of welfare and you won't have to live in a dump. I cannot believe she's trying to say since she lived in the ghetto because her parents didn't work that she was segregated. 🤔
    I was going to say racism in America doesn't exist but since you used the phrase "stuffy old white men" then I guess I can't. What if I said "ghetto old black men" would that be ok? No, but if you do it to a white person it's ok because somehow I contributed it to slavery that happened over a hundred years ago. How stupid are you?

  • This is a great presentation, and I envy her passion. The project is a lot of fun and has untold non-monetary value (which many people do not understand). But stuff like this is not beneficial:
    @0:55 "hardly a day that goes by that somebody is not reminding you of your color"
    @1:50 "all these stuffy, old white guys, with their treaties and obscure terminology"

    These experiences are not unique to large urban centers or people of a certain color. I grew up in a poor, farming community a ways east of St Louis. My Grandma told stories of being so happy to have gravy with dinner that they'd drink it from a straw. The ghetto in my home town was a mess of junk cars on blocks in people's front lawns and meth labs in their basements and garages.

    Even in our small town, we had zoned districts, and many people were automatically ruled out for loans. Some areas were policed heavier than others, and some people were targeted more than others. But we were white. We were all white. I remember when one Hispanic family moved into a house on Main street, the man still owns the hardware store there, great people. There was a black family that moved there when I was in high school, they had a few kids younger than I was.

    It's not just color of skin that defines our experience, our oppression, and our privilege, and we will all get along much better once everyone realizes that. Then we can work together to collectively fight off the oppressive tyranny that affects us all.

  • Wow, such an interesting association from seemingly independent fields — visual art and segregation. Loved it.

  • This wasn't a grant so where did she come up with the time and money and work force ? Glad she pulled to off though and looks like a powerful message !

  • Here's the deal simps, being a good presenter is one thing, making thought provoking art is another. To the taste makers that posted "Chicago is a s#!+hole," and " why not do something before they (houses) rot," thanks for sharing, but we'll let the artist and the passionate ones take over now. Not surprising, but unless you possess an artist's heart you'll never understand what motivates them to action. I don't place the heart of an artist above others, but you wouldn't understand unless your mind has germinated an idea and won't let you rest until you've undertaken the task to see it through. Professor Williams didn't mention it, but she's an architect and instructor by profession. Her training as an architect is what keeps her house warm and her children feed, but her passion as an artist is what led her to use abandoned houses (the foundation of her profession) to make a complex statement about her neighborhood. Her work and this talk was layered with the personal stories of the inhabitants and the social structures that led to the challenges facing neighborhoods like Englewood. Artists aren't anymore special than anyone else, but they are relevant. Too many people are just focused on their career paths, the next smart phone or how to put food on the table, while artists like Williams and others are always attempting their quixotic best to expand our voice, awareness and understanding. So yeah, I get it if you don't get it. Just don't be so obvious about it.

  • "I thought Prince was coming". Prince? He means Prince of Wales? Prince William? or Prince Edward? I'm not sure which one the man implies, but since he says that when he looks at the crown royal blue, I guess he's talking about British Royal family.

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