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Art and 'Transformation'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2010 - How do you assign a monetary value to art? That's the question that had a group of craftsmen (and one woman) perplexed on a recent afternoon inside a sprawling art studio in midtown St. Louis.

Under the guidance of local artist Jenny Murphy , this group had spent several weeks refurbishing chairs and tables that had been bound for the dump. The recreational artists used hand tools, milk paint, natural wood wax and a range of other eco-friendly items to complete their projects, which were on display in the top level of Employment Connection of St. Louis, a center that provides services to people who are struggling to find and maintain jobs.

The artists, a mixture of ex-offenders, veterans and people who are homeless, frequently visit the center to talk about ways to get work. But now they were faced with another challenge: settling on a dollar amount for their artwork. That price will be a frame of reference for those who take part in a silent auction featuring the furniture. The auction takes place Saturday and is part of the culmination of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts' series  called "Transformation."

It's a word that's on the minds not only of Pulitzer employees but of the artists who took part in the furniture renovation. "I transformed this thing every time I had my hands on it," said Marlone Eddington, one of the project participants, as he pointed to a green chair with a pink cushion.

Transformation was a central concept for Gordon Matta-Clark, the New York-based artist whose work is featured in the Pulitzer's current exhibition, "Urban Alchemy/Gordon Matta-Clark." He saw the potential in abandoned structures that were set to be demolished and in the neighborhoods where these neglected buildings stood in great numbers.

As a way of highlighting Matta-Clark's portfolio of socially conscious art, the Pulitzer initiated its wide-ranging programming series that kicked off in earnest earlier this year.

"We wanted to take the legacy of Clark and apply it both in a contemporary time and in a way that's relevant to St. Louis," said Lisa Harper Chang, the Pulitzer's community projects director. Matta-Clark "used artistic intervention to transform communities and individuals, and our hope was to show how multifaceted his work was and how people continue to be invigorated by his ideas."

The Transformation initiative included monthly panel discussions on topics such as art and sustainability, and the role of the arts in urban revitalization efforts.

Another component was an installation at the Pulitzer of a wall made of discarded items that's modeled off of Matta-Clark's "Garbage Wall." The Pulitzer asked community groups, including area schools and colleges, to collect and donate items for the installation.

The wall also inspired a project in which high school students at Construction Careers Center learned from their shop teacher and a team of instructors about sustainable building practices. Lawrence Group Architects and EarthWays Center also collaborated on the project.

Students looked at which source of waste is greater - a high school or a building or construction site undergoing demolition. Among other things, they created educational materials to identify recyclable items obtained from each site.

Also as part of the series, the Pulitzer created a web page called Your St. Louis  that includes St. Louis neighborhood histories and video interviews with residents who have witnessed changes to parts of the city. Some visitors to the site also submitted photos  and a Google Map tour of their favor areas of St. Louis.

"We wanted to include this interactive component with person-on-the-street interviews so that people could explain what the city means to them and what kind of potential they see in certain neighborhoods," Chang said.

The arts projects are the final component of the series. Everything from the renovated furniture to a student-produced master plan of the Hyde Park neighborhood will be on display during the Transformation Project Walk this Saturday from 3-7 p.m. Visitors can stop by the Pulitzer, pick up a map and walk or take a shuttle to various project sites. There's also a closing reception in the final two hours of the event.

Here's a closer look at the projects and where you can see the results:

Urban Renewal

The Woolworth Building, 501 N. Grand Ave.

This project involved the aforementioned furniture restoration. Murphy, a recent Washington University graduate, has long kept her eye out for discarded objects to refurbish. She walked through alleys and peeked into dumpsters to find the chairs and tables that were used in the project.


Six artists will have their work displayed during the project walk. They will receive the money raised through the auction at the Woolworth Building, said Dave Dietrich, director of development for Employment Connection.

"It's been time well spent for the artists because they are learning blue-collar skills that can be used in the professional world," Dietrich said.

Carrie Binning, one of the artists, said she's done ceramics and oil painting in the past but never this type of refurbishment. "It's been an eye-opening experience because it reminded me of how you can take a person, chip away at their problems and their beauty can be uncovered," she said.

Added Chang: "The work is about salvaging trash and giving it new life. It calls into question the idea of value and what ownership means in a consumer-driven society."

This project, along with others in the series, was created in collaboration with the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, where Chang teaches.

Urban Evolution

The Woolworth Building, 501 N. Grand Ave.

In this after-school program, St. Louis-based artist Robert Longyear  worked with high school students who are interested in the arts. Longyear and the students focused on the evolution of the Grand Center district, including the history of the theaters and other landmarks in the neighborhood.

Students collected materials from different sites in Grand Center and combined them into a work of art that reflects the neighborhood. That installation will be on display Saturday.

Urban Expression

Bruno David Gallery, 3721 Washington Blvd.
Holy Trinity Elementary School, 1435 Mallinckrodt St.


In conjunction with Succeeding with Reading by ACCESS Academies, photographer Stewart Halperin, artist Juan William Chavez and poet Janie Ibur worked with students from Holy Trinity Catholic School in Hyde Park. The instructors asked the students to explore their feelings about their neighborhood using writing, photography and other art forms.

Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates spearheaded the latter part of this initiative. He selected several neglected sites in Hyde Park for students at the school to visit, discuss and ultimately write and talk about on video. Among the sites is a former gym that burned down and remains in shambles.

"The idea was to get students to look at these buildings not as blight but as sites that have their own beauty and stories to tell," said Anna Poss, assistant to curatorial and community engagement at the Pulitzer.

Gates and Chavez, of Boots Contemporary Art Space, worked with the students to create a master plan for their neighborhood. Students learned about the history of buildings and institutions. Some of these Saturday sessions became mini-town hall meetings, Poss said.

The group created a series of videos called "We Demand," in which the students speak about their demands for the neighborhood. Gates has a series of installations that serve as his response to the students' ideas and concerns and will be on display at Bruno David Gallery from Saturday through June 5. (The students' work can be seen at their school.)

Chang said she is interested to see how the public responds to the projects that are on display. How will she evaluate whether the Transformation series was a success?

"You can notice a behavior change with some of the people who went through the program, but some of it will be a test of time," Chang said. "In the case of Hyde Park, was the community plan deemed viable and was it able to start a conversation and spur action?"

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