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Artists in Residence
A dozen local artists turn a house into artwork
James "Dr. Z" Zdaniewski adds layers of paint (all photos by Geoff L. Johnson)

It’s a familiar narrative in Savannah: Find a house that needs a little work, fix it up and settle down.

But an art event next week in an Ardsley Park bungalow will add a twist to that cookie cutter tale of adulthood.

“We renovated this house, spent nine months doing it, and spent tons of time, energy and money that we didn’t have, and agonized over every little thing,” explains Clara Fishel. “It felt good to let go of it.”

Since January, Fishel, her husband Tom and their two kids have welcomed a dozen local artists into their home,  transforming the space into an ongoing interactive art project that will be unveiled to the public during a reception next Thursday, June 2 at 7 p.m.

The idea was to invite a diverse group of artists to use the home as a blank canvas where the only rules were, 1) stay out of the bedrooms, and 2) don’t paint on the floors. Each artist was given two weeks to work and was encouraged to interact with the work of the artists who came before them.

“One of the most important components of this project is the aspect of being able to let go,” says Fishel. “To not have any idea about what will happen, how things will look, what people will do, how they will interact – and to just be okay with all of it instead of trying to control things.”

The project’s title, “In Residence,” explains not only the work at its most literal — the art is in a house — but also flips the well–worn title of “artist in residence” and makes it something new.

While the artists didn’t stay with the family, they were in the house on a regular basis — particularly at night and on weekends, working for hours at a time – painting, sculpting, installing custom wallpaper, etc.

Working with the family there offered a drastically different environment than the typical studio. Rather than receive a critique after the work was finished and hanging in a gallery, the feedback was immediate.

“You get the initial reaction from her kids, seeing them not understand it because you’re still in process and questioning what you’re doing,” explains James “Dr.Z” Zdaniewski, one of the participating artists. “They’re just going about their daily business, and you just happen to be there painting on their wall or ceiling.”

While seeing art in someone’s home is nothing extraordinary, seeing the home as art is a little different. There are no frames or boundaries, only acts of creation spilling over into one another.

“It’s no longer a house with art on the walls,” says artist Ikeda Lowe. “It’s become its own artwork.”

The idea was to have artists collaborate in new ways — not just to have them work together, but to have them work in waves, each adding a different layer to the totality of the house — inside and out.

The dining room ceiling has sharks swimming on the ceiling, an adjacent wall is covered by swirls of blue, reminiscent of waves, and then topped with bits of collage. In the next room, a geometric pattern leaves an abstract tire print running across a wall before colliding with shards of custom wall paper.

“That’s what made the project really different — the idea of collaboration,” says Lowe. “But it doesn’t depend on compromising anything because you’re just going to do it and then be inspired by what’s there.”

The project created a series of direct and indirect collaborations, almost like a three dimensional ‘exquisite corpse’ drawing. Artists were rarely there at the same time to communicate intentions directly with one another, but each left something behind for the next person to build off of. Once they were done, whatever they’d created was subject to the whims of whoever followed them.

“You really can do anything,” Lowe says. “I ended up taking down some of the stuff of the person who went before me, redoing it and then putting it back up.”

In removing the art from its usual context, its value transcends aesthetics or collectability and makes it something priceless and personal.

“The value here, because it’s nothing I can scrape off the walls and sell, is that it’s all experiential,” says Fishel. “The value becomes an experience for us who live in it, and for the artists who are participating.”

Rather than select a piece of art from a gallery wall, each piece has a story for the family and contains the memory of its creation. Watching the progress has been serial – a portion might sit partially finished, offering up only suggestions of its potential, and then one day they’d come home to find it completed.

It wasn’t always easy — juggling work, life and family along with the schedules and whims of the artists.

“It was kind of sacrifice of our personal space, but what it’s paid back has been greater than that,” explains Tom Stephenson.

Two months ago, there was an initial reception at the house, showing off the work of a half dozen artists that had done work so far, and an eclectic group mingled in various rooms, pointing out elements that caught their eye. Next week’s reception will be the debut of the finished work.

“It’s uniquely Savannah, just the house itself, this older bungalow, and what it’s become,” says Lowe. “It was a great idea, and I think the end product is kind of amazing.”

The artists who participated in the project (in the order they appeared):

Stewart Traver
Mary Hartman
Ikeda Lowe
Alex Soto
James (Dr. Z) Zdandiewski
Matt Hebermehl
Deb Oden
Andrew Brodhead
Juliana Peloso
Adolfo Hernandez
Troy Wandzel

In Residence “Open House”

When: Thursday, June 2, 7 p.m.

Where: Residence at 315 E. 51st St.

Info: n–