A wooden toy box, made of materials from a demolished Englewood house, now sits in a corner at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Its designer: a 5-year-old boy who lived down the block.
He helped Bronzeville-based artist Amanda Williams create the piece for her first solo exhibit, which runs through the end of the year at the MCA.
The exhibit is an expansion of a project called “Color(ed) Theory” she started in 2014; that effort included painting eight abandoned houses set for demolition on the South Side to highlight the high number of vacancies.
The toy box came from the remains of a house painted “Crown Royal purple,” one of many colors that Williams said is significant to the black experience on the South Side.
Half of those buildings still stand, although Williams said they could be demolished at any moment.
Williams wants the exhibit to focus on that destruction; it uses pieces and photos of the houses, videos of demolitions and bricks from Stockyards Brick & Timber, a salvage yard on the South Side.
“I think this has helped me push past the original work,” she said. “Because it’s beautiful, there’s a way you can just not decide to deal with the real question. The demolition is so critical because that’s the part where you feel the powerlessness, and that’s the part where you feel frustrated.”
The exhibit opened in July. It highlights the high numbers of vacancies, inequity and spatial injustice on the West and South sides of the city, she said. It combines Williams’ childhood experiences with architecture in Auburn Gresham and her formal training as an architect at Cornell University.
Also part of the exhibit is a small room tucked away in one corner; six people from Englewood helped Williams gild the walls of the room. Museum-goers can peek into it, but can’t go inside.
To choose houses for “Color(ed) Theory,” Williams said she used publicly available information to determine vacancies and the demolition statuses of houses.
She also painted houses with teens as part of the One Summer Chicago program in 2015, transforming six more houses. The Department of Buildings and Law worked with Williams to identify usable properties, said Mimi Simon, a spokesperson for the Department of Buildings.
Photos of the painted houses in “Color(ed) Theory” appeared at Chicago’s first 2015 Architecture Biennial. Board member Sarah Herda said her team chose Williams’ project because “she pushes boundaries in showing the ways that architectural ideas exist in the world.”
Starting in October, Williams will push a new idea as part of Chicago’s Year of Public Art’s 50×50 Neighborhood Arts project. Inspired by the yellow brick road from the “Wizard of Oz,” and with the help of Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., she will place gold-painted bricks in vacant lots on the West Side.
During an artist’s talk at the museum, Williams said the reactions to painting the houses in the neighborhoods were as “varied as the colors.”
“One man saw me taking a picture of the purple house,” she said. “And said, ‘I thought Prince was coming.’”