A few blocks north of Phoenix’ sparkling glass and steel downtown, the remains of a quieter, residential neighborhood punctuate vacant blocks. Long ago blighted, frequented by the homeless and drug users, most locals, if they see the area at all, see it through tinted windows as they drive to the safety of the suburbs.
The neighborhood is among Phoenix’ oldest. Most of the houses were constructed between 1900 and 1920 as the city started expanding north from McDowell Road. Large homes once inhabited by the wealthy are now boarding houses for the down and outers who are not completely homeless. Smaller houses are still home for a few families. Many others are empty and boarded up, waiting for the wrecking crews. On nearby Roosevelt, new condos and shops face the many art spaces that have opened in abandoned buildings in the past five years. Just south of Roosevelt on Fourth Street, a new restaurant occupies two restored homes.
One house, 810 North 4th Street is the only original structure on its block. It’s a squat building, run down, decrepit, soon to be vacated by the artists who have lived and worked there during the past 12 years. Known simply as The House or sometimes The House Studios, this building has been a creative venue that has produced some of Phoenix’ best painters. It has also been home to poets, photographers and musicians. I was on of the two photographers among the first artists to begin working in The House in January 1995. The experience was one of my best ever.
Actually, I began working ON The House in November 1994 when Robert Anderson and his partner, April Deming, offered me studio space there. I’d known Robert and April for about a year and a half. We shared nearby studios at Faux Café and Central Studios beginning in Spring 1993. Our odyssey through downtown art spaces was forced by redevelopment, behavior and economics. And probably the search for light, since neither Faux nor Central had windows. Robert and fellow Fort Wayne, Indiana refugee, Jeff Cochran, were kicked out of Faux after painting guerilla murals on the two large bay doors that opened into the main gallery. The rest of us were bounced a few months later when the developer of the nearby basketball arena completed his five year obligation to provide space for the artists displaced by the arena. Faux Café closed. Artists were the last occupants of a building that had been one of Phoenix’ premier auto dealerships in its early years.
Many Faux Café refugees, Robert and Jeff, Shelly Johnson, David Lewis, Mike Michuta and I, moved to Central Studios late in 1993. The change also introduced us to new artists, including poets Brian Flatgard and Jules Dinehdeal. Along with our gallery shows, Central had poetry slams, book premiers and bookbinding that included ritual head shaving followed by drunken head shaving. Robert lasted until the party after Art Detour when there was much wildness, music and painting on the walls. His reputation as a bad boy led management (who weren’t always sure what to do with a basement full of artists) to blame him for vandalism. Robert just said “Fuck it!” and left. That very same warm March weekend, when our basement studios were filled with people we also discovered that we lacked effective cooling.
Robert had difficulty working in a group setting with any kind of authority structure or rules that interfered with his work. He had no problem working. He painted well and prolifically. He worked hard and supported himself with income from gallery sales. It’s just that he worked LOUD and could be an obnoxious and overbearing drunk. But he knew his art and had a good sense of creative imagery and was always honest about art. The imagery alone made me envious of painters’ ability to create what doesn’t exist. As a photographer, my stock imagery was something I found. While the finding, recording and presenting were creative challenges in photography, I liked the possibilities of painting. Robert and I did the first show at the Central Studios Gallery. My photographs looked very good alongside Robert’s paintings. That pleased me.
After painting at home, working out of a steel storage unit through a Phoenix summer (“Your paint dries fast.”), Robert asked me if I wanted to join him in a new location, a house on Fourth Street just south of Roosevelt. I was still working at Central Studios, publishing my photo collection, Reality and Other Images, but once the basic build out was complete (with donated artists’ labor), the building managers were unable or unwilling to finish the project. Faux Café had been cheap. Central was pricey.
When I stopped to look at 810 North 4th Street, my first thought was “Robert is fucking crazy. This place is a dump!” From the outside, I could not imagine a photography studio here. Robert and April had just agreed to rent it for $350 a month with six months free, the owner would put up $3,000 for supplies and a couple 40 yard dumpsters to haul out debris. The city was pressing for neighborhood clean up. This house had been the residence of a chronically mentally ill rat packer extraordinaire, not to mention a shooting gallery (we found needles and feces), a palm reader-massage parlor and, now a “church” complete with a 12 foot (or so) cross set into the front walkway. The landlord had given the rat packer a 30 day notice, during which time he disabled much of the remaining electric service (he’d been stealing electricity during his last months). He called himself a preacher and left an extended, rambling account of his unjust eviction on the walls upstairs. Robert and April had toppled the cross by the time I saw the building. The writing remained.
Inside was even worse. Filled with trash and debris. Dark. Large. Water perpetually leaking from a faucet in the bathroom addition with the non-functioning toilet; over the years water had rotted out several floor joists. The interior toilet worked. It was in a bathroom with doors on three sides. Strange. The back addition listed at about 15 degree angle where poor drainage had undermined the supporting piers. No hot water, no heat. The place was filled with defunct appliances. Plaster was falling from walls and ceilings. It would take a lot of work. But it was cheap. Robert figured five to seven artists could work here for about 50 to 70 bucks per month plus utilities. It was above ground. It had possibilities. It was cheap.
So I signed on. So did Mike Michuta. We three plus April Deming and Maggie Reardon, my partner, were the initial clean up crew. Maggie arranged for an electrician to restore the disabled electric service (he also salvaged two full pickup loads of appliances from the premises). I took over from April as Minister of Finance (which I prefer to the more prosaic, treasurer). Robert and I did a lot of the basic clean up and minimal restoration in December. It was six weeks before we entered the building without respirators. The house had a number of gas fired space heaters but the service was so unreliable the only one we hooked up was the big one in what ultimately became the Great Hall of Integrity. Rather than crawl under the house to connect the gas line, Maggie just sawed through the floor. It was that kind of space. Robert was the first to paint there on New Year’s Day 1995. It was cold. It was cheap.
810 North 4th Street became The House sometime during the first few months. We debated various names for the place, including Twin Palms for the two 40 foot palms in the front yard. Robert didn’t think much of any name. “Fuck it. It’s just the house.” It was. The name took instantly.
My studio was the northeast corner, in the front. I had a 14x16 (or so) room that opened onto an enclosed sun porch. It had an outside door on the north and doorways into each adjacent room. Plenty of space but incredibly dirty. The building was drafty as hell and dust was everywhere. Incredibly, I was able to maintain a clean enough environment even for matting and framing. Two walls were brick (we had stupidly removed plaster to give the place “character”–stupid not only because it was a lot of work but, as Maggie pointed out, the plaster may well have been part of what little integrity the building still had). I installed hardware wire to create a hanging system and was able to show work. Robert painted in the room to my south, in what was the entry and living area. April began painting with him there. The sun porch on off Robert’s space was Pauline Munsey’s studio. Through my west doorway was Mike Michuta’s studio. Another photographer, Ray Carns was on the second floor, accessible via a rerouted stairway that was more like a ladder. By Art Detour in March, Jeff Cochran, Steve Yazzie, Mike Faro (another Faux Café refugee) and Brian Flatgard, the poet and book maker from Central, were also working there. A few lived there as well. We covered our costs at a reasonable share. The House was always a cooperative, non-profit venture. It housed artists at cost.
Working in a painters’ environment was one of the best things that happened to me. Robert’s kaleidoscopic, in your face paintings opened me to a new way of thinking. He was very good and willing to share ideas and offer help. Every artist who worked for any time at The House came in with talent and all improved. April, who had never painted seriously, discovered her considerable ability. Mike Michuta, the 6'4" Lithuanian truck driver, became Chooga and invented Choogism, a complex personal style far removed from the simple colors and lines he painted at Faux Cafe. Ideas and imagery traveled from studio to studio, not copied so much as borrowed, interpreted and refashioned. I could not directly incorporate the painters’ ideas but I did begin to consider what my images showed of the world and began using alternate techniques. Within a year, I tried my hand at painting. Not particularly successful but also not for the last time
One of the drawbacks of our location was that The House was not part of the monthly First Friday art walks in downtown Phoenix. Both Faux Café and Central were on that circuit, which started as a very sparsely attended Second Wednesday when pedestrians walking to the new downtown Phoenix attraction basketball arena from nearby parking decks would go out of their way to cross the street, avoiding not only Faux’ open gallery bay doors but also two single room occupancy hotels and the bar/store that served them and us. The art walk morphed into a very modest First Friday in the central core of the downtown area and was my only real venue for regular public display. Robert liked that The House wasn’t part of the Phoenix art scene; he thought it had too many shallow, unprofessional poseurs and opportunists. He sold his work, on his own and in a Scottsdale gallery where his paintings were dramatically different and sold consistently. But he accommodated me and the others for Art Detour in the three years I was at The House. Having even a modest crowd made The House seem more precarious as Art Detourists picked their way among our warren of studios. Many of them looked scared, not at all certain what they had walked into.
The House was the one of the first full time art spaces in the what is now the Third Street and Roosevelt locus of the Phoenix downtown art scene, which now draws thousands of people there and to Grand Avenue from Seventh to 15th Avenues and beyond. But in 1995 art spaces in the area were few. Planet Earth Theater was just north of Garfield on Third Street. Metropophobobia, a combination bookstore and performance/art space was a few blocks south on Third Street. Rose Johnson was farther south on Polk Street between First and Second Streets, next door to the Phoenix Forge Blacksmith Shop. One or two other spaces were in the vicinity but nothing that was open for the monthly art walk. The only neighborhood walkers were the homeless, druggies and artists from The House walking to the Newsroom Bar around the corner from Rose’s. Despite downtown Phoenix’ dangerous reputation, I never felt at risk walking there, even alone.
The House was open for Art Detour 1995–97. It was a guaranteed show for me and required me to produce a body of work. Which I did each year. Setting up and showing was hard work but the weekend was also a good party and it was always nice to see my photos as a body. I sold a few pieces but mainly I got much positive feedback. I was hiking the Grand Canyon during Art Detour 1997 but my studio was set up and open. A high school girl left me a note that my work inspired her. I couldn’t ask for more as an artist. I was also featured in juried and invitational shows, La Phoeniquera, Pictures of Dave and In Other Words during those years. My piece in the latter show also took a first place in the annual show at the Phoenix Center where I did much of my darkroom work and took classes.
Working at The House was a very productive and creative time for me. Robert and the other painters were changing my perspective. I was learning from Carol Panaro Smith whose photography was far and away the most creative I had encountered; she taught me a variety of alternative photographic techniques that opened new possibilities. I served as a volunteer artist in residence at the Phoenix public school’s magnet school for the arts in south Phoenix. I had a lot of stimulus from a lot of sources. The House was one of many influences and came at a good time.
I tried my hand at painting in mid to late 96, working in oil on masonite, just like Robert. Like Robert my work surface was particle board nailed to the wall. Like Chooga and Robert I moved back and forth to my painting. Unlike these two skilled painters, I was working with only a vague sense of color and limited representational skills. But it was different and I liked it. Had I stayed in Phoenix, I’m pretty sure I would have continued. As it was I started again three years later and actually learned something.
I moved to Window Rock, Arizona in April 1997 to work for the Navajo Nation in a job that was too much of an opportunity to pass up. I kept my studio for a few months but that much space was too attractive to stay vacant for too long; Steve Yazzie soon moved in and my gear was stored. Which was okay. I still had access to work space and a place among the artists, which was the most important link. I showed with House artists the following two years at Art Detour when they organized galleries in vacant downtown spaces. The group now included painters Melanie Corradi and David Lewis (also previously at Faux Café and Central Studios) who had studios at The House, painter Rose Johnson from nearby and sculptor Kris Manzanares who worked from home. During this time, Jeff Cochran filmed virtually all of his first feature length work, Punk James, at The House, which also served as a location for a few scenes his second film, Where in the Galaxy is Baron Dixon? Poet Jack Evans worked in my old studio for a while after Yazzie left. Painter Mike Hanson worked in the upstairs studio. As my photography began exploring Window Rock, Gallup, New Mexico and beyond, I still felt and appreciated the talent and creativity of these artists. Stopping by The House was always part of any trip to Phoenix.
The original core broke up in 1999 when Robert and Jeff began selling work in Santa Fe and moved to New Mexico. Chooga joined them a year later. Rose moved to Bisbee, Arizona and David went to Namibia. The House morphed again. Mike Little, Yazzie’s half brother, brought musicians to play and perform there. The House became a musicians’ venue. Little even rented it for a movie location. It was flexible like that. We original occupants all thought we were through with Phoenix even if we still came back occasionally.
But here we are in 2007. Robert, April, Chooga and Shelly Johnson (also from Faux Café and Central Studios) are back in the House for its final days. Robert and April returned in 2004 after being fed up with living in Taos and not liking the gloom of Portland, Oregon. The House still offered cheap, if rustic, living. Chooga had returned to Phoenix earlier and took space at The House when Robert and April came back. Maggie and I ended up in Phoenix after two years on the road when I hiked the Appalachian Trail and we drove to and from Alaska. Amazingly, The House still stands. Far less remains of it than when we occupied in 1995. The center toilet sewer line collapsed years ago. Fortunately we had “restored” the add on bathroom, even if the toilet sits at a bit of an angle. It works, though. Water now leaks permanently from the kitchen sink in an ironic reprise of the leak we found 13 years ago. No heat. The hot water still works.
Robert and April knew when they returned in 2004 that The House’s days were limited. The notice came in early 2007: out by April 15. Surveyors have been busy shooting transit lines across the property. We can see them from the back patio. Looks like redevelopment has finally moved north. This area is adjacent to the new Arizona State University downtown campus and the headquarters of the Genome Project. As always, there is money to be made from vacant land in Phoenix.
Everyone is ready to leave. We’ve all had enough of Phoenix. Robert and April own three acres near Santa Fe and will head there to build out living and studio space. Shelly will join them before heading to Alaska in late May to work in the salmon cannery. Chooga’s staying for a while, sharing a place with his son, Paul, who just filmed his first production, Utopia, using The House as a location for one final time and Robert acting. Maggie and I will leave by June for Olympia, Washington.
The House will be empty for the first time since Fall 1994 and without a permanent tenant since at least the late 1980's. Robert says for all he knows, the owner will rent it out as studio space for other artists. Not likely, too much is going on here. The lots across Fourth Street are now a staging area for construction supplies and equipment for buildings rising just to the south and east. When we moved in, four houses stood there. Three are gone now. I can’t imagine any future scenario that will leave The House still standing. Rumor is that The House and the other three lots between McKinley and Garfield have been sold for redevelopment. Hell, if they did nothing, The House would probably collapse of its own accord. Parts of it have been collapsing over the years.
This story could go on and on, about how we jacked up the add-on bathroom and replaced floor joists, about how the original wood shop listed to one side, about installing coolers and duct work. We did a lot there. What I especially remember from The House, though, is the company and how it opened my mind to new possibilities and ideas. I will always take great pride in the role Maggie and I played in creating and sustaining The House. I also take great pleasure in the people who came into my life through The House. Watching them think, paint, argue, drink, party and work was as grand an adventure as I’ve had in life. Their appreciation for and thoughts about my photography gave me reason to call myself an artist.
The House was a journey among friends. That’s a lot from an old house.
This is my recollection of places and times, what I can recall and what fits together in a more or less coherent story. Robert, April, Chooga and Maggie reminded me of many events not included in my original draft. I added some. Others didn't quite fit the structure and flow of what I had written so they are not included. I invite anyone with memories or experiences of or at The House to add them as comments. They are part of the story, too.
The development never happened. The House remained unsecured and vacant for two more years until it burned in the spring of 2009.
Labels: adventure, art, phoenix