Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Grapefruit

It has been said that we make sense of our lives through the stories we construct.  For those of us who make art, our lives are revealed through our creative work.  Curiously, the stories told are not just about the subject matter or intent of the artist. They are not just about the time they were made or an event they captured.  Sometimes they are about the realizations we acquire. I clearly recall the joy and sheer physicality of the creative process and the thrill of discovery I felt decades ago when I look at my childhood drawings made on all that cheap Manila paper. These drawings became a diary of my early creative life and all the stories and memories that help define my life rush back to me.

 In New York, where I grew up, the winters were harsh. Every year there was a mass exodus to Florida to escape the cold and each year some relative would send us a bushel of grapefruit from the Sunshine State.  It was a thing back then. When these shipments arrived at our doorstep, they brought with them an exotic and tropical thrill. In the Greek diners that were rampant on Long Island, grapefruit were omnipresent. They were lined up in mirrored display cases or set out on beds of ice awaiting purchase. We ate our grapefruit almost everyday at home, so it became an iconic image for me.

One morning I looked at the half grapefruit in front of me, reached for my crayons and carefully drew the place setting from the POV of someone about to eat. The focal point of the drawing was the maraschino cherry, a bulls-eye on the sectioned grapefruit, centered on a placemat with the napkin and silverware to either side. In its simplicity, the drawing had the graphic punch of a secular mandala: hypnotic and beckoning. I remember being aware that my drawing was good and when I received praise, my instincts were validated. It was moments like these that encouraged me to pursue art.

The “Grapefruit” was quickly enshrined in the pantheon of my childhood masterpieces that were kept in a large acidic oak tag portfolio right beside an identical one dedicated to my brother’s equally acclaimed oeuvre. The bulging files, secured by scraps of black yarn remained intact in my bedroom closet until the house was sold almost 50 years later. The drawings that my mother saved helped insure which memories were saved.

I drew a lot when I was a kid.  Most kids do and besides, drawing had currency in my house because my mother was an artist.  I drew because I was bored and paper and crayons were plentiful. I drew because I thought I could do it and because it yielded praise.  And drawing was fun. 

When I was in third grade, I had another experience that was seminal to my life as an artist. Once a week in Miss Chaplain’s class, a few kids were allowed to stay after school for a chance to paint.  During one such afternoon I was painting a still life of a vase that held flowering branches.  I was feeling challenged by how to depict the flowers when I realized I could press the loaded paintbrush onto the paper. The resulting shape gave me a flower like those from a Japanese ink painting, although it is unlikely that I made the connection then.  Whether it was through experimentation or by chance, the discovery was thrilling.  “I can do this!”  And so I did for the remainder of third grade.  My technique went viral with my classmates and I felt like I had invented the wheel.  Learning a technique allowed me to achieve what I wanted to express.

I even recall drawings made before kindergarten.  In one self-portrait I depicted myself happily walking in profile with my head turned, smiling to the viewer.  I remember it because I was very proud of the way I captured my raincoat with just the correct contour and placement of buttons.  But tragedy struck when my brother scribbled over my drawing.  I was initially devastated, but eventually collected myself and drew the scene again.  (My brother and I have since reconciled.)  I was beginning to learn to trust my own judgment about the value of my work and was gaining a resiliency as well.

My earliest drawings spanned a wide range of categories, from resplendent princesses to more prosaic subjects such as my house and family.  I never depict either now, which makes me think I should give it a try.  It used to be fun to draw fantastical women with stars in their eyes and bejeweled gowns.  Actually, I have not drawn people, princesses or family since elementary school although architectural images recur regularly.

The trajectory of our creativity is chronicled in our work.  It is not a linear path but one that repeats itself in a multitude of ways.  Why did I like what I liked?  Why does anyone make the things they make?  My grapefruit and still life both rewarded me with the sense of discovery.  The first of these signified an awareness of my environment and kindled the pleasure of documentation and the latter embodied the pleasure of invention and technique. I recognized their worth before my mother liked them, but there is no denying that the enthusiasm with which they were received was validating and convinced me to pursue art.   I developed a lifelong drive to create and a desire to seek these same pleasures again and again.  Along the way I have had my memories entwined in my work and how I behave and perceive myself as an artist today is enmeshed in the artwork I created years ago.

The Grapefruit was originally posted by ArtCricketLA.

All artwork by Lorraine Heitzman

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Store

Handy Andy was my father’s hardware store. My grandfather bought the store in 1930 with the name and business already established and eventually handed it down to his two sons. For over fifty years it was a family business where my grandfather, grandmother, father, uncle, brother, my two cousins and I all worked at one time or another.
Handy Andy, Stewart Manor, NY

The jobs sorted themselves according to gender; the men were salesmen, deliverymen and repairmen while the women were cashiers. My mother helped by designing the circulars, painting signs and dressing the windows.  By the time I was in middle school my uncle had left Handy Andy to pursue another career and soon afterwards the influx of big box stores began to squeeze out many independent, family run businesses. In 1985 my father sold the business to a Korean man who knew very little English and even less about hardware, and by the time my Dad died in 2008 Handy Andy was a vacant storefront.

Although my father was knowledgeable about hardware and running a store, it always struck me as ironic that hardware was his business at all. His workshop at home was always in disarray and he was neither interested in craftsmanship, tinkering nor any other activity that required the services of a store such as the one he owned.  But my father was also a responsible man and he ran Handy Andy guided by his integrity and generosity. He may not have been especially handy but he had the talents of a good bartender; he listened well, dispensed advice and kept his customers happy.  

My Grandmother at the cash register
When I was growing up and asked on questionnaires and applications what my father did, the only appropriate answer was “merchant”.  I was always chagrinned by that description because even then it was an archaic term and “merchant” did not seem to describe my father’s life.  It didn’t imply the good humor or fairness with which my Dad ran his store or the struggles that small businesses faced. For me, the term “merchant” conjured up images of men in brocade with plumed hats, a far cry from my father’s no-iron plaid shirts and khakis.  It did distinguish him from the majority of my friends’ fathers, who mostly were identified as  “stockbroker” or “lawyer”, so perhaps I felt I would be judged for being different.  As a rule, however, everyone loved hardware stores. 

When I worked there in the late sixties, a hardware store, much like today, was a place where you could find nails, hand tools, house wares, pocketknives, high intensity lamps, batteries, clocks, peat moss, paint, solvents and more than anything else: men.  During the week, throngs of suburban family men commuted into the city and on the weekend they flocked to the hardware store, relishing their time out of business suits, away from the demands of Madison Avenue and Wall Street.  They told their wives they needed a part or advice for a repair, but what they really sought was the camaraderie of this de facto men’s club where the bond of good humor was shared between the customers and employees.  Instead of leather, mahogany and whiskey, there was pegboard, oak and turpentine. The men seemed genuinely happy to have chores that necessitated working with their hands and getting dirty and they were in no hurry to return home. In those days, if someone returned four times over the course of a repair for another part, it was cause for a joke or a shrug, not the source of frustration that it would engender today when weekends are often hectic and errands are anonymous transactions.

Like my grandmother and my cousins before me, I was the cashier.  Each Saturday through out high school, I sat on a chrome stool with a yellow vinyl seat pulled up to the cash register at the check out counter.  I rang up orders and took money from WWII marines with faded tattoos on their arms as well as from clean-cut ad men in preppy LaCosta shirts and pressed Bermuda shorts. Horse trainers from the nearby stables at Belmont Racetrack, neighboring businessmen and custodians all showed up at Handy Andy.  Some men shopped while others just stopped in to socialize.  It was a lively outpost. 

Behind me was the machine for mixing paints and the one for cutting keys with an oversized lever fashioned to look like the tab of a giant skate key.  Once the original key and blank were secured into place, it emitted a high-pitched scream as it ate into the brass blank, vibrating perilously before settling into a deeper rattle on subsequent passes, finally spitting out a duplicate. With one last pass over the grinder, the key was done.  What should have been an irritant became a sound I loved, especially when the store was at its busiest. 
Interior, 1930's

To my right was the paint department. A library ladder on wheels followed a track along the south wall below the sign advertising Pittsburgh Paints.  After a custom color was made and the paint can was dancing violently in the mixing machine on its heavy springs, and especially if keys were being made at the same time, the decibel levels and vibrations would reach a thrilling crescendo. Mostly though, the store was a quiet place filled with men's voices as they joked with each other and exchanged neighborhood news.  

On the wall opposite the paints were the house wares and rolls of contact paper and to the left of the front entrance were the seasonal items: bags of Scotts fertilizer and grass seed in the summers and snowplows during the winter if we were fortunate to have snowstorms. A snowless winter was a financial disaster akin to no rain for a farmer: no sales of snow blowers, snow shovels or rock salt.  A dry January could be very bleak and it wouldn't be until after the Spring circular was mailed that there would be the possibility of another busy season.

The unknown salesman
Directly ahead of me, towards the back of the store, a sample of wood venetian blinds had been hanging in perpetuity below the industrial clock.  Beyond that were the built in wood cabinets storing small hardware of every variety, mostly unpackaged goods, and past this was a small and very messy bathroom and office where once a month Anne, the bookkeeper, came to put the ledgers in order. 

Every morning that I worked at Handy Andy began the same way.  My father and I drove the five-minute commute from our house and we parked in a small lot behind the store that was shared with the neighboring delicatessen.  We were allowed the privilege of entering the deli through the tiny kitchen, squeezing past the German women dressed in white uniforms who were boiling large vats of potatoes. I was always astonished by their ability to peel potatoes directly out of the hot water, a skill no doubt acquired over a lifetime of preparing potato salads.  We always ordered the same thing from a succession of men named Hans and Heinrich: tea with milk, no sugar and a buttered bagel. With breakfast in hand we retraced our steps back through the kitchen and entered the store through the back room where the sheets of glass and rolls of screens were cut. We stepped over the nickel that was firmly glued down on the floor, a longstanding practical joke, the origin of which escapes me.  At 8:30 sharp, my father unlocked the front door and the day began.

The employees were a motley bunch.  There was Curt, who worked at the store for years, until his death, in fact; a small, fastidious man, always in a tidy blue smock, who took his lunch breaks in his car, eating the sandwich he brought from home before taking a quick nap stretched out on the back seat.  He had an intensity that matched his brilliantined black hair and displayed a rigid efficiency that was very different than my father’s laconic manner.  Irving was a large, kindly and sloppy man, a science teacher who only worked on Saturdays, like myself.  If Curt exuded a keen humorless intelligence, Irving had the attributes of an endearing puppy. 
Brian in the back room
Over the years there were many others:  Brian, a funny and good-natured Italian kid, Frank, the Hungarian immigrant, always sporting leather jackets and pressed slacks, looking every inch the Eastern European man that he was, and Joe, an elderly and genteel man who could have passed for a retired movie matinee idol. Howie was one of the many neighborhood kids who began working part time after school and stayed for years. In fact, most of my father's employees were very loyal.  His humorous demeanor made the store a fun place to work and I always remember a lot of laughter during the day even when worries kept my Dad up at night. 

When Saturdays became busy, a line would form at the checkout counter.  Brian or Howie would throw a 25 lb. bag of Sakrete onto the counter as I rang up the UGL sealant with the silicone nipple on the packaging. I snapped open the brown paper bags in a downward flourish before counting out the screws and placing them inside along with the 3 into 2 plug adapters and sandpaper. I learned to count out change, a skill necessary prior to the advent of digital cash registers and a lost art today.  If a customer had a charge account, I was never entrusted to the task of checking them out.
My father at Handy Andy in the 70's

Instead, my father would be the one to write up their order by hand on a small mechanical ledger that extruded a copy of the receipt for the customer while keeping a yellow copy for itself.   Some customers roamed around the store themselves, but usually they waited for assistance because they had questions; they needed to know how to patch the driveway, rewire a lamp or fix a leaking faucet.  A good employee needed to know a little about a lot of things and have the skill to interpret and solve problems.  

My favorite time of year at the store was during the holidays.  For someone growing up Jewish, the sights and sound of Christmas were especially tantalizing.  I took it all in: The C-7 and C-9 bulbs sold individually and sorted by colors, the boxed sets of ornaments, strings of lights, tinsel garlands and the constant sound of the cash register tallying sales co-mingling with Christmas music on the sound system.  At the counter were novelties:  Santa pins that lit up, heat activated ashtrays that automatically disposed of cigarette butts when they became too short and mesmerizing lava lamps. On Christmas Eve, about an hour before the store closed for the holiday, a table was set up by the cash register with food and even some alcohol for the employees and customers.  Everyone was festive in anticipation of the holidays and the rarity of the occasion, like a snow day at school, only heightened our enjoyment.   

Sometimes, if there was a quiet stretch on a Saturday, I would pick up one of the scratch pads with the Handy Andy logo emblazoned on top and I would sketch nuts and bolts and miscellaneous hardware.  My high school style of drawing was primitive, but I was able to capture the graphic quality of screws and pliers.  Drawing forced me to carefully observe the merchandise and that may partially account for my vivid memories. What escapes me are the specifics of what made my father’s store unique.  I wish I possessed the novelist’s ear for dialogue and could recount anecdotes to recreate the life at Handy Andy.  But I mainly have my visual and tactile memories and the belief that the world my father created in his hardware store was something greater than the sum of its parts.  He fashioned his store after himself:  casual, fair-minded and helpful, with a wry view of the world and indeed, life.  He was a mensch of a merchant.

photos:  all photos are property of Lorraine Heitzman

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Process: Resistance, Risk and Change

Sometimes I feel like a stubborn, petulant child being made to color within the lines when I really feel like scribbling.  This happens a lot and nobody is making me do it; I create constraints all by myself.  Then there are other times when I am handed a great opportunity and I still resist.

For the past two months I have been immobilized by an invitation to be in a show about architecture.  The theme is one that I have explored many times before, but since my show of house and church collages last year, my thoughts have been elsewhere.

Over the last year I have been working on mixed media paintings, enjoying a newfound freedom in abstract, non-objective work.  Just when I thought I had moved on and was finished with representation for a while, I am pulled back in that direction.

In theory, I understand all the reasons why change can be invigorating and that repetition has its own rewards, but the prospect of returning to a familiar theme has brought up a lot of resistance. My brain says, “Yes”, but emotionally I have to find a way back into the subject. Somewhat begrudgingly, I put away my non-representational work and am refocusing on the familiar theme. 

Knowing that something is good for me doesn’t help that much; It does as much good as New Years resolutions, which is to say, not much. Maybe it comes from having a temperament shared by many other artists, that of gravitating to one thing and then wanting to do the polar opposite next.

Over the past few years I have been shifting between labor-intensive, crafted work to more open, expressive art. These are the two sides of my artistic self that I have always had: The neat, graphic abstractionist and the impatient, messy artist. I am both the high school student immersed in her subscription to Graphis Magazine and the college student building crudely constructed sculptures from objects found on the street.

When I alternate between representational and non-representational art or refined versus more inelegant styles, I sometimes gain clarity, like when you hold your artwork up to a mirror to see the unvarnished truth of your composition.  Even the time spent not working on art has value.  It is the sherbet between courses, a palette cleanser. But change is hard and takes courage unless you are naturally a risk taker or averse to commitment. I am neither and unless events occur that force my hand, I find the whole business of change to be challenging.

Finding new life in a familiar subject and nurturing the curiosity necessary to work begins with a commitment to face my resistances.  My first step is just showing up. Choosing any subject, method or material will eventually lead to a solution because, as the old adage goes, “ All roads lead to Rome”.  I usually fail terribly at first and the initial attempts may not be the solution I anticipated or thought I wanted, but it will begin to seduce me. With a little luck, kindness and realistic expectations, I can do this. If I put in the hours and use my imagination, inevitably something new will be revealed during the process and I will find a way to fall back in love with an old subject. Happily, I think I have found a way into my new series and I am encouraged. I pulled wood out of a dumpster last week and the other day bought large sheets of cardboard at the shipping store.  It’s a start.

Right now, I am consumed by the dilemma of whether to use cardboard or wood, paint or collage.  These decisions loom large for me, although they are laughably minor.  My thoughts bounce from the practical (Will it cost too much or will it require framing?) to thoughts about the surface qualities of different materials.   If initially I am unsure what I am trying to convey, working will eventually reveal that to me.

When I get tired of the recurring problems that always plague me, whether in the studio, or in my life, I hope I can remember to bring more creativity to finding solutions.  I would like to remind myself that avoidance isn’t the answer. It is in the willingness to pick up a new tool or the decision to rummage through a dumpster where everything will be revealed. The alternative is deadening. Risk and change are the artist’s best tools, even if that means returning to art you thought you were finished with and had resolved.  I have come to believe that nothing is ever really finished for me and those old ideas can have new life because I am always changing too.

Photo credit:  All work by Lorraine Heitzman

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Creative Outlets: Portrait of my Mother as an Artist

How one suburban mom lived an artful life

My mother was an artist at a time when choosing to be an artist, particularly a woman artist, was not as common as it is today. She grew up poor, the eldest of three daughters born to first generation Jews. They made their way from Brooklyn to the suburbs, taking their culture and their struggles with them. Her mother’s family was from Germany and her father’s family emigrated from Belarus, though neither side imparted a particular reverence for art. She had no toys while growing up, she always told me, but found amusement, talent and her identity through drawing.
Teen fashion designs

She was skilled enough to gain entrance to Pratt Institute and her certificate from the 2- year commercial art program led to a coveted job at Life Magazine in the layout department.                                  
Shenanigans at Life Magazine
This was the Henry Luce era of Life, when Gordon Parks, Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke White all worked for the magazine during the war years.
The camaraderie was strong there and the hard drinking and hard working climate was probably very heady and seductive to a girl in her twenties from a sheltered background.
The Layout Department at Life Magazine

When her father died two years before she married, her earnings helped support her mother, but after my brother was born she left full time work for good and settled into motherhood on Long Island. It was in most ways a happy compromise, trading her career for the security and pleasures of domestic life. In the suburbs, she found creative outlets.

For my father who owned the local hardware store, my mother not only decorated the storefront windows, but also painted signs and designed the annual sales catalogues. In my mother’s hands, these catalogues, illustrated with Early American advertising graphics were uncommonly tasteful for mailers selling fertilizers and lawnmowers. 

Pre-digital production involved literally cutting and pasting text and images onto boards for printing, using T-squares, triangles, razor blades and rubber cement. During the spring catalogue season, long hours were spent working at the drafting table my father had built for her.
For me, she made beautifully smocked dresses and for my brother, she painted cowboy murals on his bedroom wall. Our birthday parties had imaginative themes (Hat making! Costumes!) and were art directed with elaborate decorations and table settings worthy of a food stylist…I have the 8mm movies to prove it. She volunteered for the PTA and was a Cub Scout den mother.
As a young mother with me and my brother

Surburban Outlets

For herself, my mother’s insatiable curiosity and love of nature led her to study wildflowers, rock gardens and birds. She befriended naturalists across many disciplines: Renowned herbalists, birders and members from the rock garden society. She never left home without binoculars in the glove compartment for bird- watching and a small shovel in the trunk in pursuit of wildflowers she could transplant to her garden. She was a good student, an overachiever, in all endeavors she undertook. To feed her interest in art, she enrolled in art history classes at the community college and went to museums and galleries in the city, always returning home with postcards and catalogues. When I was older, I often found her at the dining room table late into the night pouring over art books or identifying plants in her guidebooks. These were the years when my mother was able to get by on four hours of sleep a night. At home, her library grew to match her interests.
My mother was an amateur in the original sense of the word. Her curiosity was deep and real, and her love for art, nature and family all coalesced into a good life.

When I began kindergarten, she started to take painting lessons, first from Mrs. Morehouse who lived down the block from us and offered lessons in portraiture. This served my mother well as she would often set up her easel at outdoor art shows and sketch children for extra income.

After portraits, she graduated to landscape painting with George Gách, an émigré with a continental accent and an impressive resume. He brought his students to picturesque locales: docks on the bay in Port Washington and estates on the wealthy North Shore, where I recall (when I was allowed to tag along) crossing lawns to vine covered arbors which led down to the Long Island Sound. Paintings of boatyards began accumulating around our house next to the oil studies on canvas boards of people we had never met. After studying with Mr. Gách, she moved on to Paul Puzinas, a painter who set up lush still lifes in his studio featuring musical instruments and large green glass decanters wrapped in rustic woven baskets. Paintings rendered in broad brushstrokes with autumnal palettes and hints of brass soon followed. Then there was Mr. Walters, who taught watercolors at the Garden City High School adult education classes and finally, Margit Beck. Margit was an abstract painter with work in museum collections and a serious pedigree. She was Hungarian with a white bob and a severe, humorless manner. About 15 years older than my mother, she took in adult students at her home in Great Neck.
My mother began to get more ambitious about her art. Her work during this time was primarily interior studies, starting with images of Margit’s kitchen and then became increasingly exact, in an abstracted, yet realistic style. In one suburban gallery where my mother was showing, Margit tells me, sotto voce, “This show should have been in the city.” meaning Manhattan. Her ultimate compliment, but an indictment of sorts, too.

As my mother aged, she occasionally voiced a desire to work with watercolors more. When she said this, we both knew that she really was not talking about the medium. She was talking about making art that was more expressive and less bound by her talent and skill for representation. Part of her longed to create something more ineffable than a well crafted painting. I would have loved to see her paint more “watercolors” too. But I often think of how she lived as an artist in post-war suburbia. I think she always knew what she was gave up and what she gained from a suburban life. As much as she revered artists and artisans of varied styles and cultures, she never seemed to have the ambition for herself that her contemporary male artists possessed. Margit was the closest, best role model, but perhaps it came too late. I think of her 2 younger twin cousins, Jerome and Joel-Peter Witkin, who both went on to pursue very successful careers in the arts, as a painter and photographer, respectively. They too grew up in a poor household without the means or inclination to nurture artists, and yet they managed to fuel larger dreams.

Sometimes when I reflect upon my mother as an artist, I lament her creative outlets. I wish she had channeled all her talents and unleashed all her passions into her art. She had the persistence and will to work hard. What she didn’t have and never got is so much more difficult to name. Yes, she was praised for her talent, but was there enough encouragement or expectations that she could make art in a man’s world? Where was the confidence needed to make the leap from suburban artist to New York artist? And even if she had continued to work without participating or succeeding in the larger world, where was the permission to dream bigger? I know ideally that we shouldn’t need anyone to give us permission, but there are so many subliminal messages in our culture and in our personal histories that thwart us. These messages shaped my mother’s choices. She chose to direct her creativity towards pleasing others in safe, conventional ways, even for herself. I believe she wanted a more emotional connection to her work, but perhaps there were conflicts that prevented her from imagining that scenario. What would have been the consequence of a more selfish but deeper creative practice? Maybe she felt it was an indulgence to imagine a life following wherever her imagination led. Her self- imposed limits might seem inconsequential because of what she did accomplish, but I see it another way. I see a woman who could have made a mark in the larger world but didn’t have the resources needed to get there.

For the many women I know who are artists today, I only wish for you to be heard and recognized.  If you have a desire to express yourself, don’t minimize your talent and sublimate your ambitions.The world needs to hear your voice, especially our daughters.

Dorothy Witkin Levi (1924-2010)

This post originally appeared on the Art Cricket LA blog in November 2014.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Bigger Not Better: Architecture Gone Wrong

When I was an art student in Chicago, I lived near downtown for a while in a blighted, industrial neighborhood.  I rented a cheap, neglected storefront that I discovered was the former home of the “Boom Boom Social Club”. It came furnished with a 2-man shoeshine stand, twenty phone jacks and boxes of short pencils used for off-track betting. I loved it.  The surrounding area was still undeveloped then and I could explore weed-choked railroad yards, seldom-used bridges and tributaries of the Chicago River flanked by old warehouses.  However, the economic tide was turning and soon the empty spaces were being fleshed out with new, overly ambitious buildings, anticipating the corporate flush of the Reagan years. The silhouette of the skyline was rapidly changing, and not always for the better.  Like the Sears Tower that preceded them, these buildings spoke to their wealth and status in a very muscular vernacular that was more like monuments to the architects themselves. 

One South Wacker

Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower)
Fazlur Rahman Khan, Bruce Graham, SOM

One Magnificent Mile
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Around the same time, everywhere you went, headlines were screaming from newsstands: “Who Shot J.R.?”  The success of this stunt was phenomenal and the convergence of a mass marketing campaign and a plot surrounding the take down of a powerful icon, gave me an idea. I fantasized about devising a campaign too, but rather than speculate about the fate of television characters, I wanted to call attention to a lot of the awful architecture that was reshaping the city.  I imagined an intervention to “out” newly constructed architecture by posting grades onto their facades, a sort of scarlet letter for architectural offenses. I never did it, but I guess the impulse remains.  I think I felt motivated because buildings can last for such a long time and like your neighbor’s wind chimes, they are something you have to live with whether you choose to or not.

Now I live in Eagle Rock. Every few mornings I walk briskly around my neighborhood for exercise and each evening I go out again with my dog at a much more leisurely pace.  Over the past 5 years and the many miles that I have walked around the neighborhood, I have encountered coyotes, bobcats, trees under assault from bark beetles, and newly landscaped yards generated by city rebates.  I pass neighbors walking their dogs, young parents pushing strollers and all too frequently, older men and women hobbling along under doctor orders as they recuperate from unknown injuries.  All in all, it is a very genteel community.

The architectural styles here vary from block to block and even house to house. Among the few mansions and small apartment complexes you will find hundreds of well-preserved craftmans, Spanish colonials, English Tudors and a few mid-century houses. Some blocks  look like a preserved sampler of 20th century life and most homeowners have done thoughtful restorations. 

Lately however, I have watched as several charming bungalows were knocked down for the construction of bland and bigger homes in their place. With a depressing regularity, too many houses are falling victim to the American appetite for all things large and new.

The teardown starts innocuously enough. First comes the dismantling of the wood siding, at which point there is still hope that the owners are replacing termite-damage.  But then the deconstruction accelerates and soon a chain link fence surrounds the property.  I imagine the homes on either side cringing in anticipation of the behemoth that will inevitably replace the modest wood house. A familiar helpless feeling overtakes me.   I can guarantee that the new two-story house will take up almost the entire lot. The garage will be prominently placed up front attached to the house and all the windows and doors, including the garage door, will be stock items from a home improvement store.  Sometimes there are architectural details that seem to poke fun at architectural details, like a partial outline of a peaked roof; a postmodern gesture towards the house it has subsumed.

The last injustice will be a coat of stucco in the requisite pastel pink or beige, looking more like a new commercial space than someone’s house. It seems incredibly shortsighted to underestimate and squander the very things that make this neighborhood great.

This is not just endemic to Eagle Rock.  I see it everywhere and its been going on for a long time.  I really don’t begrudge anyone building his or her dream home but often, these new houses destroy the character of a community.  The scale is out of proportion to not only the property but to the surrounding homes.  The designs lack any unique features or personality. The underlying motive for these thoughtless renovations are to squeeze the most real estate onto a small lot as cheaply as possible. 

Why?  It is not impossible to build a larger house without destroying the character of the neighborhood.  I think we have a responsibility to keep the integrity of the street and "Enough, already!" with the bigness.  I’ve seen examples of thoughtful renovations whereby the homeowners improve their property and the neighborhood at the same time. But not every homeowner is interested in architecture or design.  Many people just want a big house.  I don’t object to large houses or any particularly style or mix of styles. Even high-density housing is appropriate in places. I only wish that we could restrict the size of new homes to an appropriate, livable scale in relationship to the size of their property and in context to the neighboring houses and street.  After all, it affects our quality of life.

Architecture is just one factor that contributes to the appearance and livability of our neighborhoods but it is a large part of what we think of when we compare one community to the next. I have tremendous respect for those architects who create elegant, functional structures and have the tenacity to work with clients, budgets and building commissions.  I think of the great responsibility architects have towards the public as well as to their clients. My creative ambitions are very small by comparison.  I prefer to work in my studio rather than in public. I like the privacy of my solitude without external forces coming to bear on my decisions and I certainly don’t want to ask for permission to execute my ideas. My independence allows me to remain focused internally on the process of exploration and expression but it has its limitations too.  Working alone can be, well, lonely, and it is an effort to find an audience, let alone create a dialogue.

There are many artists these days whose creative practice is more akin to the process of architecture than to traditional studio arts.  These artists use objects and crafts as a means to affect social change rather than as a means unto themselves. Programs that encourage activism are proliferating not just in art schools, but at universities and across many disciplines as well. I find it intriguing because it is completely antithetical to the way I think. For me, I find that writing is a more preferable method of engaging with the world for change; writing has become my social practice. So when I ask myself why I find the building in my neighborhood so disturbing, my impulse is to write about it.

We all exist within communities. Some of the communities are of our own making and some are based on our culture or neighborhood.  Some are real and others are virtual.  In each community we have responsibilities and sometimes that means limiting the size of our house and respecting the environment, natural or man made.   I have noticed some of the same concerns from Chicago friends about the “tear-down” phenomenon. How do you feel about the changes in your neighborhood?* Where would you draw the line between responsibility and freedom?  

*Your response and photo submissions are welcome!  If you send me a photo, with your permission, I will post it to my new Instagram account, #bad_architecture.  My intent is not to shame any homeowner.  “Bad” is meant primarily in the context of appropriateness and the values of our communities rather than personal taste. I look forward to your comments too. You can post below. Thanks!

photo credits:  Willis Tower/SOM, One Magnificent Mile/, One South Wacker Drive/  All other photos by Lorraine Heitzman