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Occupied: Warren Takes Abandoned House from Vacant to Vibrant

Occupied: Warren Takes Abandoned House from Vacant to Vibrant

With plywood blocking the windows and weeds taking over the lawn, it’s hard to imagine that the condemned buildings scattered throughout Warren, Ohio, have ever housed anything besides creepy, crawly critters. But Matt Martin, executive director of Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, knows better.

“We know from assessing them ourselves and going into them … we see the pictures and the clothes and personal items like letters,” he said. “Each one of these properties has some story.”

Like many other smaller cities in Ohio and across the country, Warren, located in Trumbull County, has struggled to recover from the financial crisis and recession of the late 2000s. The tough economic times, combined with other hardships, have resulted in a glut of vacant houses.

“It’s easy for people to be down on Warren,” Martin said. “It is very easy for people to get down on the condition of neighborhoods. There are so many vacant lots from decades of disinvestment.”

Buildings slated for the wrecking ball usually do not attract much positive attention, but Martin and his team wanted to change that. Through a partnership with the Fine Arts Council of Trumbull County (FACT) and an ArtsNEXT grant from the Ohio Arts Council (OAC), a group of 20 artists transformed an abandoned house into an immersive art experience.


“We gave it the name ‘Occupied’ because when we go out and inventory the community in terms of housing stock, that’s one of the key traits that we’re looking for: occupied or vacant?” said Martin of the project, which opened to the public June 8-9. “We look to take on that which is vacant and occupy it in some way, even if that’s through demolition and land use. This is just like a stop along the way where we can reimagine what occupying a property means.”

Modeled after the Rooms to Let: CLE project hosted by the Slavic Village Community Development Corporation, Occupied: Warren challenged artists—many of them hailing from the Mahoning Valley—to create works of art that addressed the themes of urban blight, vacancy, and revitalization.

After months of working in the house, the artists filled three floors with installations that transported viewers into a creative ecosystem bursting with bold colors, repurposed household objects, and surprises around every corner.

James Shuttic, president and acting director of FACT, said the variety of works in the exhibition were meant to elicit different reactions from everyone who walked through the house. As an artist, he said, the freedom to present his work to viewers in such an unconventional space was insightful.

“One of the things that I picked up is the energy that can be created when creatives come together. You can amplify it,” he said. “I think what happened was people visually saw what they couldn’t verbally say. We had people crying. Anytime art does that, it is amazing.”

In addition to curating Occupied, Shuttic had the opportunity to create his own work for the exhibition. Drawing on the idea of revitalization and reuse, he put a call out for material donations from the community.

“Part of the idea behind it was trying to find use for things that are sometimes disregarded,” he said. “So, I did a call out for old house paint.”

Shuttic said he used the paint, in addition to other materials such as discarded pieces of furniture and LED lights, to connect the transitional areas of the house, including hallways, stairways, and closets. He also aimed to address some of the overarching themes of the exhibition.

“It had to do with the conflicting ideas of innocence and childhood and where we used to be and how things change. How these physical things, these other elements, come into this environment and how does that change it?” he said. “(Another) piece played with the relationship of who we are or what we could be. Internal elements, external elements, directions, and all that.”


By the end of the weekend, Occupied welcomed hundreds of visitors each day. Martin said he was surprised by the interest the exhibition garnered. He has already fielded requests to present a similar show in the future.

“I think it sparked a lot of discussion,” he said. “For us, we always want an opportunity to push forth more dialogue.”

Shuttic agreed, adding that he thinks the experience was beneficial for both artists and the public.

“We try to create these artist opportunities and then also engage the community,” he said. “What good is art if it does no good? What’s the point of it? It’s got to do something.”

As for the house itself, the end is near. Vacant once more, it is scheduled to be demolished later this year. Unless, of course, it is purchased by an interested buyer, Martin added.

No matter if the house is spared or leveled to the ground, Martin said he takes solace in knowing that they have at least temporarily changed the ending of its story.

“There is a life here, sort of like a cradle to a grave,” he said. “From the construction to the occupancy of the property to all the sad things that happened after that, this is more than just the pile of trash that some demolition company will haul away.”

To learn more about the Occupied: Warren exhibition, visit artofwarren.com/occupied-warren.

For more information about ArtsNEXT grants and other OAC grant programs, visit oac.ohio.gov/grants.

ABOUT THE OHIO ARTS COUNCIL
The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at oac.ohio.gov.

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Article by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist
Photos and videos courtesy of The D5 Group and Art of Warren blog



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