Art House

What happened when Spokane Falls turned 23 students loose on a doomed building.

Instructor Carl Richardson, above, oversees work at Building 4. - AMY HUNTER
Amy Hunter
Instructor Carl Richardson, above, oversees work at Building 4.

A tree grows in Building 4. In the hallway, just inside the southeast entrance of the building at Spokane Falls Community College, it grows up the wall to the ceiling and then, branching across the ceiling, it coils around a track of fluorescent lighting.

Its bark is made of split twigs, its heartwood is a concrete support column, and from its branches dangle shards of glass, car keys and rusted twists of metal. Written at the base of the tree, in blue paint, are the words “Follow the white rabbit.”

To the right, in a dozen hues of house paint, the walls drip like tears. ”The more time that goes by, the less it hurts, but the more you think about it,” Amanda Overbust explains. Over the top of this paint, she has written the names of dead teenagers. People who were close to her.

Monday morning, foggy outside … CHILLS
Nov 18 2005

At 20, Overbust, a second-year art student, has notebooks full of art dealing with things like this — “a hundred, a hundred and twenty sketchbooks just filled, front to back, with writing and drawing of anything I was feeling” over the last six years, she says. Losing one person, then two more, then a fourth, “you think you’re getting ready to come back up” from the grief, she says. Then you get pulled down again.

Overbust didn’t plan this piece to be about them. After three or four false starts, though, she found herself in the building, well after class, alone with the work and with her thoughts. “That’s when the eruption of color and, just, pretty much any kind of feeling whatsoever was thrown on the wall,” she recalls. She spent the next few days refining the ideas, organizing them, giving them focus.

She says it is “the first time I’ve done some decent, normal artwork since —”

Brittney Rose Blakely
December 26, 91 - October 24, 10
She loved Pop Art ...

Overbust’s often tiny writing draws a viewer close, down a rabbit hole of particulars, to the minute details of loss. In a hand so small your nose almost grazes the wall to read it, it asks:

How do you help hold someone together, if you can’t hold yourself?

Pulling back again, to see how it all fits together, it becomes clear that the tree is not simply a memorial.

It is also a scene of the wreck.

Sad and squat and built on prime real estate, Building 4 is a flat, one-story maze of a building with a roof whose eaves sweep up and out past its walls. Built in the mid-’60s on the eastern edge of Spokane Falls Community College, it bears the rounded angles and concrete-block blandness of grandiose mid-century architectural design colliding with more modest institutional budgets.

The building used to house business classes. For the last two years, though, it has acted as overflow in the campus’ sometimes halting expansion plans. The chalkboards still bear the clefs and staves of its last function, as a temporary home for the music department. That job done, Building 4 was to sit empty during spring quarter and be demolished this summer.

Fine Arts instructor Carl Richardson thought that was a shame but also, perhaps, an opportunity.

Around 2005, Richardson and fellow instructors Mardis Nenno and Tom O’Day had created a joint teaching project, called a “learning community” in higher-ed parlance, in which they and their students spent an intensive semester studying the way fire is used in making art.

“The next quarter,” Richardson says, his eyes getting bright, “there was still a buzz from the students.”

Richardson thought Building 4 would be perfect for another learning community. They would use the peculiar space as a blank canvas to teach the principles and applications of installation art — three-dimensional, site-specific work that often employs found objects. Giving students the freedom to create on such a large scale — and in three dimensions — “is usually master’s-degree stuff,” O’Day says.

With Nenno and O’Day onboard, Richardson began approaching administrators. And while no one seemed to want Building 4, everyone kept telling him he couldn’t have it. “I went to someone and they said ‘No,’” he says. “So I went to someone else: ‘No,’ and someone else …”

Finally, Richardson approached then-president Mark Palek.

Palek reacted to the idea of the learning community — which they have titled “No Vacancy” — with the gusto of an administrator in love with an idea he wasn’t going to have to worry about pulling off.

“He said, ‘That sounds like a great idea!’” Nenno says. “‘Go for it! And: I’m retiring.’”

Chrissa Chorvat breaks down a corkboard into its constituent parts. In order to reach it, he had had to crawl over industrial and academic detritus — desks, venetian blinds — deep into “the boneyard.”

One of the larger classrooms, the boneyard is where the project’s participants have gathered their found art supplies. What new supplies there are have been donated, which is fortunate, because No Vacancy has almost no budget. The students were asked to bring a gallon of paint each, and whatever objects they had laying around that might be of use. Chorvat brought a U-Haul-full.

In addition to the hallway pieces they’re doing solo, the students are broken into teams to tackle the old faculty offices at the west end of the building.

The pieces of corkboard are intended as an altar for “a Darth Vader Buddha” that Chorvat is installing in his room. Other objects include a karate gi, a blue Oxford shirt, kickboxing arm guards and the helmet of Hollywood’s most notorious absentee father.

At 37, Chorvat has been blowing glass and painting professionally for 20 years. He’s here at SFCC, he says, honing his skills.

His partners, Shelby Robledo, 19, and Neal Weyrauch, 21, are honing theirs as well. It is Robledo’s first quarter at SFCC. It is Weyrauch’s second year. They all say playing with society’s refuse has given them a new appreciation for how we define things, and how we assign them worth.

“Everything is re-interpretable,” Chorvat says.

“Yeah, like, your CD holder is clearly not a CD holder anymore,” Robledo replies, motioning to a black, molded-plastic rack that has become the stool upon which Darth Vader Buddha meditates.

These are objects that were valuable at one time, but which have been discarded, Chorvat says. “We’re giving them new value.”

While Chorvat has mashed Buddhism with the worship of George Lucas, Robledo has created a striking, ominous figure that resembles both a shaman and the Grim Reaper. She says there wasn’t any specific religious reference, other than looking at her little alcove and being swept up in a “deep, dark, from-the-shadows feeling.”

On Weyrauch’s wall, he has painted a pair of twins, joined at the pelvis and painted in the green-blue shades of Hindu deities. The twin on the right represents our lighter self, he says, in a struggle to burn away the darkness “with a flower gift and the gift of fire.” Darkness, meanwhile, is shooting Light in the face with a gun. They represent the poles of our psyche, Weyrauch explains.

The twins seem to have an octopus bursting out of the vagina they share.

“That’s to blend the two,” he says, adding, “It’s not done yet.”

Space is tight in the former faculty offices of Building 4’s west end. Ariana Winger plans to make it tighter.

The lights are off, there’s country music playing on her radio, and a projector over Winger’s shoulder is shooting an image of an audio wave onto a piece of butcher paper she has taped to the wall. The form is jagged, ecstatic and dense, like the lines produced by a seismograph during an earthquake.

She is tracing voicemail messages.

Winger, a recent SFCC grad, is one of four area professionals the instructors invited to create installations alongside the students. At 23, she’s the youngest.

While planning her installation, Winger says she started thinking about how the messages left after missed phone calls are “almost a letter rather than a conversation.” She then went about trying to figure out “how that letter might be read.”

Once she’s done tracing the waveforms — each second of voicemail takes up about a foot of physical space — Winger will tape them together and hang them from the track lighting in her room, creating false walls that will shrink the space of the room, from about 10 feet wide to about the width of a door. It’s enough space for one person to walk around in, but once two or three people enter the room, things will get complicated.

The point of installation is to use space to force reflection, Winger says. By contrast, you can spend hours pouring over every minute detail of a painting hanging in a gallery and never be physically impacted by it.

A good installation, though, “changes the way you interact with the space physically,” she says. “The art [should] change the viewer’s behavior.”

One hundred army men stand, in rows and columns, on the bare floor of Room 122 in Building 4. Sharing it with them are:

100 videogame cases from Game Stop
100 cotton balls
100 dandelions, picked
100 bottle caps
100 pieces of scrap wood, notched with a router
100 pieces of origami
100 shards of tile
100 dessert boxes from Domino’s Pizza
100 playing cards
100 river rocks, tumbled to a luster
100 Red Vines
100 venetian blind slats, light blue
100 CDs
100 lengths of string
100 chestnuts, various “stages of decomposition”
100 “natural wood clothespins”
100 Frosted Mini-Wheats
100 glass jars, with lids
100 Q-tips
100 grains of rice, white

The students of No Vacancy had been instructed to bring 100 of the same item. Tom O’Day now tells them that it all has to fit into a glass case in the hall — the kind that might house trophies in a high school gymnasium. “You can do whatever it takes to get it all in the case,” O’Day calls out over a din of anxious chatter.

“Each grain of rice!” Mardis Nenno, one of the other instructors, elaborates.

“Yes,” O’Day agrees, “We have to be able to count them. It illustrates principles of multiples and repetition.”

The room begins to buzz with ideas — how to work all the boxes in, how to keep the rice visible. Richardson smiles broadly, watching the students problem-solve. “I’m not sure it’s all going to fit,” he says, bursting into laughter.

One box is boring, Nenno says, but dozens of boxes start to get visually interesting.

“There is beauty in numbers,” she says.

“THERE! DON’T MOVE!” she says, shouting. Tasia Martin is standing, stock-still, on an X she has placed in the middle of Room 107. A half-sleeve tattoo of various videogame characters peeks out from under her shirt. “It’s the right angle,” she calls outside, through the windows at the top of the wall, to where Matt Moeller is affixing masking tape to the underside of the roof above.

“It just needs to be —”

“There?” Moeller asks

“Yes!” she hollers.

Moeller works the masking tape into place and pulls his hand away.

“No, it’s off a little.”

Outlines of shapes have been painted on the windows inside, and the two are working on painting the roof’s concrete overhang outside so that, if you stand in exactly the right spot in the room, the paint on the eave outside will fill the outline on the window with color.

The room is a madhouse of such optical illusions. Stand exactly here, look exactly there and you’ll see something that doesn’t seem possible if you look at the dangling shapes and splotches of color from any other vantage. In order to be in exactly the right spot, though, you need to be 5 feet 4 inches tall, like Tasia Martin is.

“You might need to crouch a little,” she tells me.

When I do, a piece of blue tape on the floor comes together perfectly at the point where two light-blue slats from a dismantled venetian blind intersect, creating a rectangular prism that runs down the floor, up one wall and comes back toward the door. The shape, which I couldn’t even see a moment before, takes up half the room.

Carl Richardson walks up. He rests his hand on the doorjamb at about Tasia’s height. “They’re going to put a up sign that says, ‘Must be this tall to view this room,’” he says, smiling.

Conceptually, this room has come further than any other. It began with the team painting the individual concrete block faces in different shades, then gluing paint samples everywhere. They started building more shapes. They connected blocks to one another to form three-dimensional shapes. They began building out hollowed cubes. Eventually, they started painting on the glass of the windows.

Now, standing on the X, as Moeller puts the last piece of tape in the right spot, Martin allows herself a deep breath.

“I hated this room until an hour ago,” she says.

Richard Schindler is creating a smell gallery in the office that used to belong to Sharon Hartman, the assistant to the music department.

Twigs that he has whittled bone-white are stacked all around the old office. The floor is littered with shaved bark. Broken branches poke out of Hartman’s old mail slots. Two large stumps, hollowed out by the mechanisms of decay, sit atop a desk. One looks like a womb.

Schindler hasn’t been here for over a week, since before the last time I was here. Nothing has been touched, and yet the room is somehow more alive. The smells are stronger than they were, almost overwhelming now. Everything here is dead, and yet the room seems to throb with the verdancy of new growth.

Walking close to the stumps brings to the nose the earthy seep of rot. The smell is overwhelming. The way the bark crackles under my feet makes me wonder if I’m breaking something by being here. These senses — smell, touch —generally have no place in an art gallery.

Even unfinished — and perhaps only in this context, a doomed building purring with creation — Schindler’s room feels perfectly tuned to the energies that exist in things even when life has gone out.

The tree in Building 4 will stand for now. In the next few days, a hand-formed clay river will run past it, the yawn of the hallway roughly tracing the course of the Spokane River, which bends almost perfectly around the high ground where SFCC stands.

“The river has brought people to this spot for a long time,” Nenno says. “The river will endure.” Building 4 will not.

On June 10, No Vacancy will celebrate the end of its project with an opening party. The young artists will serve as docents for their own show, as they guide visitors through the tangle of rooms that contain scenes of despair, tranquility, violence and the vaginally conjoined twins of our conflicted psyches. The next day, at about 3:30 pm, the exhibit will close.

One night, no one is sure when, the power will be turned off and it will not be turned back on again. The doors will be locked. And later this summer, on a day that hasn’t been determined, the tree that grows in Building 4 — and everything else with it — will be felled.

A demolition crew will sift through the rubble. Piles will be sorted, and it will all be trucked away.

Sometime in the next two years, on the spot where Building 4 now stands — assuming the plans are approved and the funding goes through — SFCC will break ground on a “much-needed” early-learning center.

Elsewhere on campus, there are plans for a new art building, too, but funding for that is more tenuous.

Nenno isn’t too worried. No Vacancy has helped reinforce her belief that “artists are just kinda used to making due,” and that art itself persists, regardless of where it is housed.

“No Vacancy” • SFCC Building 4 • 3410 W. Fort George Wright Dr. • Fri, June 10 from 5-8 pm and Sat, June 11 from noon to 3:30 pm • Free

Kelsey Cook @ Spokane Comedy Club

Sat., April 10, 7 & 9:30 p.m.
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About The Author

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.