Who Are You, Ghostown?

I wanted to share a few words about the work in my upcoming show at Subterranean Arthouse, and how it relates to my studio neighborhood, known as Ghost Town.

In my art studio neighborhood, there is an community urban farm. On the fence is painted in 6 foot, somewhat graffiti-styled letters, “Ghost Town Farms.”  Across the street, the garden (fence, vegetables, chickens, and all) look soon-to-be-devoured by the characters in a frightening mural by Jon Wayshak and Skinner. These hellish demons glower with bulging eyes, evil teeth, and faces of rage and wickedness. Flowing directly from that nightmare is a group of mystical light-filled paintings that include the 12 foot tall beautiful face of a woman fulfilled with radiance and inner peace. Across the street on the other corner is a vibrant building that once featured a mural, but has now been overlayed with tags, displaying a jumble of color and spectacular energy.

We are in Ghost Town.

It’s a place of fences. Nearly everyone has them. Tall ones. Lots of chain link ones. Outside my studio door, my neighbor and I are separated by a wall that encloses the building and parking lot where I rent a single room. The wall is six feet high, topped by a six foot high chain link fence, which is then topped with razor wire. I think my neighbor on the other side is in her 80’s. I was there for about 8 years before we finally spoke.

Of Fences and Neighbors
“Of Fences and Neighbors” by Kim Vanderheiden
Solar etching, linoleum cut, monoprint and letterpress, 11×14″ edition of 10.

It’s a neighborhood that has been losing its children. According to the US Census Bureau, the population of children has declined 30% in the last 10 years.

It’s a place of vibrant color. With new graffiti work going up overnight, the streets seem to live and breathe.

It’s a place where some people walk and bike, and others won’t. Whoever you are and wherever you go, any time you pass any stranger on the street, there is ambiguity. You have no way of knowing what is in the heart and mind of the person who crosses your path. Nor they you. A shared smile, a greeting, may signal trust, but you don’t know. In places where people need fences, where the children have left, the insecurity is heightened. You may stay inside. You may venture out wearing your fence. You may venture out with your fence down, but you still don’t know when you pass that person, “Who are you?”

"Ghostown" by Kim Vanderheiden - acrylic, monotype, letterpress, pastel, pencil, collage, and drypoint on paper. 40x48"
“Ghostown” by Kim Vanderheiden
Acrylic, monotype, letterpress, pastel, pencil, collage, and drypoint on paper. 40×48″

Fences create microcosms. Police reports detail crime, gangs, and violence. The blog of Ghost Town Farms shares nourishment for the body and mind. Small businesses tinker, grind, and saw in their shops. Artists in their studios move through daily rituals of existential joy and angst. Each within our own little world. Each within fences. Or at least, I’m within mine.

So, if I think there’s exciting art and energy going on outside, dare I step out? Must I take a fence with me? Shall I paint on a wall? No. Paper is my medium. I print, paint, tear and sew it. It’s my skin. It’s what I know. A wall would be starting over when there are others who do a wall brilliantly. Can I tag? No. I am a middle-aged wife and mother who lives in something sort of like the suburbs. When I read interviews with graffiti artists, the language, rhythm, personal background, and culture are so different from my own, we seem from distant worlds, not feet away on different sides of a fence. How can I say “Hello” in a way that’s honest, to myself, my art, and my neighbors. I can say, I love words. I love letterforms, bright color, high energy, intense textures, strong patterns: patterns of chain link and brick. And I’ve been here for over ten years and this neighborhood shapes me, too. I can make middle-aged-wife-and-mother-from-something-like-the-suburbs graffiti: graffiti for nerds. (Though if it’s on paper, I’m not sure it qualifies as graffiti, but I digress.)

Graffiti for Nerds Installation
Detail from “Graffiti for Nerds” installation by Kim Vanderheiden
Watercolor and acrylic on paper. Approx 9’x10.5′ depending on exhibit space.

But then, as I settle in to making my nerdy graffiti, I realize that language and vocabulary form plenty of fences around all sorts of people each and every day. And so I suppose I am still stepping out onto the street in a small way, but am taking a fence with me after all.

Fences mean nothing to snails. They know nothing about crime, nor children, nor art. There are not too many houses with careful landscaping here in Ghostown. Not too many caretakers or gardeners with poison for them. The snails here are alive and well.

detail from "Ghostown."
Detail from “Ghostown,” by Kim Vanderheiden
Acrylic, monotype, letterpress, pencil and collage
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