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Amanda Williams: How Can Color Bring New Life To Old Houses?

Apr 9, 2021
Originally published on April 9, 2021 2:26 pm

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Revitalize

Back in 2015, Chicago's Englewood neighborhood was lined with blocks of houses tagged for demolition. Before they were torn down, artist Amanda Williams used color to bring them back to life.

About Amanda Williams

Amanda Williams is a Chicago-based visual artist, and a visiting professor at the School of the Art Institute Chicago. She has previously served as a visiting assistant professor of architecture at Cornell University and Washington University in St. Louis.

Through her Color(ed) Theory project, Williams repainted and photographed eight abandoned houses in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood. Her work has also been featured in 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, and a solo exhibition at the MCA Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, and Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis.

Williams completed her Bachelor of Architecture degree from Cornell University.

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As a part of her Color(ed) Theory project, Chicago-based artist Amanda Williams painted an abandoned house in a bright shade of turquoise that she calls "ultrasheen."
Courtesy of Amanda Williams

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today - ideas about reviving things that have been dormant. And our next story starts in the summer of 2015 on a Sunday around dawn.

AMANDA WILLIAMS: My husband and I woke up really early, probably about 5 or 5:30, and we quietly loaded the car with the paint we had purchased the night before.

ZOMORODI: This is Amanda Williams. She's a visual artist from Chicago.

WILLIAMS: I didn't really have an idea of how much paint I would need, so I just bought as much as I had money for and could fit in the trunk of our mint green Prius.

ZOMORODI: That morning, Amanda and her husband, Jason, were on a mission to stage an art intervention.

WILLIAMS: This wasn't a sanctioned project, and I wasn't exactly sure what was going to happen.

ZOMORODI: Their plan was to transform an abandoned, dilapidated house into a bright teal sculpture.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

ZOMORODI: So we should say what Amanda was doing wasn't legal. They didn't own the house. They didn't get permission to paint it. In fact, the house was tagged for demolition.

WILLIAMS: I'd taken all these steps to make sure that the house was not only on the list for demolition but also wasn't valuable in any way to people in the neighborhood, even.

ZOMORODI: A realtor or developer couldn't save it.

WILLIAMS: Nobody was squatting. It wasn't being used for illegal purposes. So despite all of that, I couldn't sleep the night before because I'd built up all these things that were going to happen. We were going to get arrested. Somebody was going to come out and complain. Somebody was going to come out of the house itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: That house sat in Englewood, a predominantly Black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, where Amanda says, for blocks on end, you could see houses tagged for demolition and vacant lots where houses used to be. But she didn't want them to stay invisible.

WILLIAMS: These are places that, if you drive past in the winter, there are no footsteps. Nobody's mowed the lawn. They're not on any tax list anymore. There's no viable path for them. And so it's really born out of that kind of frustration over and over again of seeing these environments and seeing little change despite changes in laws or promises from elected officials or, quote-unquote, "leaders." And so really, it was, like, well, what happens if I just go - what if I just go paint it?

ZOMORODI: So then what happened? What did you do when you got there?

WILLIAMS: So my husband got out of the car. And as he's starting to get going, the sun is also coming up, and the friends and family that I've called to help me are starting to either drive up or walk up - students of mine, art friends of mine, family members. And we just all got to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAINT ROLLERS PAINTING)

WILLIAMS: And we were painting really fast. Any questions about - should something be covered? - the answer was always yes - windows.

Yeah.

The stoop.

Yeah.

Stairs.

Yeah.

Awning.

Yeah.

Everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: I think we were done within three or four hours. And then I wasn't quite sure what would happen next 'cause, of course, when you imagine things or when an idea is bigger than you can see, you don't really see the end. And I'll never forget this moment after we'd finished. We were standing there, and I think maybe everybody sort of dissipated in the same way they'd arrived. People started to trail off and leave. And my husband and I was standing there. And he's not an artist, but I, of course, had explained the project for a really long time to him. And he nodded, and he says, now, I get it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Every inch of that house was covered in teal, a color Amanda calls Ultrasheen.

WILLIAMS: And the Ultrasheen is unique in that it's this magical blue color that everyone knows but probably only people like me could describe. So it is this cyan-y, turquoise teal, and it just has a kind of sheen to it. It is an Ultrasheen.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi. I'm going to show you how you and Ultra Sheen can find a fantastic new hairstyle. It's called...

WILLIAMS: And it represents hair grease that was created by the Johnson family, which is a African American family from the South Side.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The next time you see me, I'll be wearing an ultra natural courtesy of Ultra Sheen.

WILLIAMS: And so it sits in most people's grandparents' bathroom cabinet (laughter) maybe since the '70s. But these jars - you know what it is right away. It almost doesn't need a label. And so there's a power to having a connection to a color in that way. And so I just knew that I wanted this entire house shrouded in this color that was very important to me and my upbringing in the neighborhood that I grew up in.

ZOMORODI: Amanda Williams continues her story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WILLIAMS: Now, if I walked down 79th Street right now, and I asked 50 people for the name of a slightly greener shade of cyan, they would look at me sideways. 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...

AMANDA WILLIAMS AND AUDIENCE: Ultra Sheen (laughter).

WILLIAMS: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: Ultrasheen.

ZOMORODI: At this point, Amanda's showing slides of her color palette, which she calls Color(ed) Theory. It's a palette reminiscent of places and products of Black Chicago, the colors of her childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WILLIAMS: If you're from Chicago, Harold's Chicken Shack.

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: A fire engine red.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WILLIAMS: Pink Oil Moisturizer.

ZOMORODI: A chalky, light pink.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WILLIAMS: Currency Exchange and Safe Passage.

ZOMORODI: A bright, bumblebee yellow. And finally, the boldest, darkest purple you can imagine of a...

WILLIAMS: Crown Royal Bag.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WILLIAMS: 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. 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.

A lot of people can relate to the idea that you drive past something all the time, and you remember when it was an ice cream shop. And it could be a deli now, or it could be an insurance office, but in your memory, you associate it with a moment. And often, it is really mundane, but it's really foundational to your memory of childhood or family or safety or a time where you weren't burdened.

And so they - those memories hold strong, and we make these associations with architecture, or environments, or colors, or sounds or smells. For me, it's color. And so Color(ed) Theory was this project where I wanted to bring some of those colors that were familiar. Even if you couldn't name them immediately, that color palette is very familiar to a certain generation of people and a certain geography. And so seeing those colors in that geography but not quite in their context was very intriguing to me.

ZOMORODI: But you are bringing those memories, you're adding that splash of color to something that's going to be destroyed. And actually, all the houses have been knocked down by now, right?

WILLIAMS: The last house was demolished two weeks ago - Pink Oil Moisturizer.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASHING)

WILLIAMS: I cry every single time.

ZOMORODI: Aw.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUMBLING)

WILLIAMS: And so I cried. And so my husband said, but this was always the plan.

ZOMORODI: Yup.

WILLIAMS: And so it was really beautiful for him to remind me the temporary nature of this, both to accentuate the pain of what it's like to live somewhere where things constantly are going away and new things are not coming but also the beauty of just letting something be for the time that it is and not trying to turn it into something else is sometimes just as important as the efforts we need to make to create systemic change. And we also need the ephemeral and to just enjoy the present.

ZOMORODI: I have to ask, did the police ever show up?

WILLIAMS: The police did show up. The police showed up a few times. And, you know, even when you ask the question, my heart stops for a second. It's like, the police. Yeah. The police showed up. Again, this is early Sunday mornings - like, a small group of people painting the only house left on a block, right? And so the police know that - like, what is going on here, right? And it turns out to be, like, curiosity - right? - because this doesn't make any sense.

ZOMORODI: No.

WILLIAMS: So they roll up, and they say, what you doing? And I'm in a panic. My husband says, painting a house.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Are you going inside the house? Nope. Are you going to steal the copper? Nope. What are you doing this for? An art project. OK. And then they came back, like, two hours later and checked and, like, gave a thumbs-up on the color and say, like, great job, or, it looks good. I mean, it's, like, totally crazy, you know, this Harold's Chicken Shack red house, and the - you know, the police are like, yep, that's Harold's. That color's spot on.

ZOMORODI: They recognize it.

WILLIAMS: They - it was accessible. Conceptual art was completely accessible to them. And they were then invested enough to at least come back and, like, comment that they thought that we'd nailed the color. It's great (laughter).

ZOMORODI: Wow. Right.

WILLIAMS: You know, as an artist, it's often hard to translate art that is not representational. It's hard for people that don't have art backgrounds to understand. And so to know that people can understand after you kind of explain - and also more through your actions - that you're doing something that makes no sense to them, so it calls attention and makes them really think about, why on earth would you be up at 6 a.m. on a Sunday in a hundred degrees putting your own money into a property that's going to go away?

And then the question is, yeah, why would I do that? And why wouldn't you? Right? We all have the power. I didn't have anything that anybody else did. It wasn't a million-dollar project. But I was doing it, right? It meant that much to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: That's visual artist Amanda Williams. You can see her full talk at ted.com and see some of Amanda's Color(ed) project homes at ted.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.