Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Harold’s Chicken Shack. Pink Oil. Ultrasheen.

To artist and architect Amanda Williams these everyday products and businesses are potent signifiers of Black Chicago. She sees their unnatural hues as a very real part of collective ‘psychic memory’.

By painting eight abandoned houses in these charged tones for her body of work titled Color(ed) Theory, Williams – a native of Chicago’s South Side – sought to pose open questions rather than posit solutions to urban decay.

‘I want people to contemplate what these structures are worth to them, and whether they like or dislike my intervention,’ she says. ‘If you think it’s pretty, are you willing to fight for it? Or are you equally motivated by disgust? There’s no prescribed response.’

Williams chose the most anonymous houses marked for demolition as her canvases, and there were a lot to pick from. When she began scouting in mid-2013, Chicago had an estimated 33,000 vacant houses. Today, in the poorest neighbourhoods, as many as one in six houses are vacant, and an untold number of lots have been cleared of structures.

Harold's Chicken Shack. Courtesy of Amanda Williams (c)
Harold’s Chicken Shack. Courtesy of Amanda Williams (c)

Color(ed) Theory’s houses are on absolutely blighted blocks, barely recognisable as city streets for the prairie shrubs moving in.

‘I hope I haven’t made [the houses] too precious,’ Williams continues. ‘The full cycle of interaction and demolition has to happen for emotional reactions to play out. Hopefully a ghost of the image registers in the brain.’

As an artist-provocateur, a lingering conversation of race, economy, and place is sufficient for Williams, borne of the ephemeral moment when her art is extinguished.

Still, she’s met with people interested in beneficial, concrete outcomes.

There’s the prospect of partnering with entities like the Cook County Land Bank or other Illinois Land Trusts to bring community-owned development to adjacent vacant land. And community groups mingling arts and social welfare like Revival Arts Collective, to which Williams has ties, simply need space to gather and promote creative reuse.

‘It’s traumatic to live someplace like this,’ Williams says. ‘If the system has denied you homeownership again and again you might just throw your hands up at some point, numb to the abandonment around you. I might be able to interrupt that narrative.’

Ian Spula is a freelance journalist covering architecture, design and property for Chicago Magazine, Dwell and The Spaces.

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