At age 117, the Birdsell Mansion in South Bend, Indiana is way past its prime. With once-ornate walls, barren, and woodwork, worn, it is a shell of its former self—even its grand staircase is gone, and only a smaller one, once designed for servants' use, remains. Passed down for decades by descendants of a farming equipment maker, the 8,112 square foot Queen Anne-style house has been all-but abandoned since the departure of attorney and congressman F. Jay Nimtz's law offices back in the 90s. But these days, something is stirring in the abandoned Birdsell Mansion.
The Birdsell Art Installation Project is an effort by local artists Nalani Stolz and Myles Robertson that aims to repurpose the mansion into an art space for residencies, exhibitions, events, and site-specific installations. "You can look at these abandoned homes as eyesores, or you can see them as an opportunity," Robertson says in a documentary about the project, which you can watch above. "I thought—especially [about] the historic ones—what are some of the creative options for how to utilize these, instead of tearing them down? Instead of boarding up the windows?"
"There are so many interesting details, like all the places where the walls are crumbling, all the different textures. Right away there seemed like so much potential," explains Stolz.
After a call to local artists received an overwhelming number of responses, the duo realized that they wouldn't just need a room in the house, but the entire mansion to put work in. "We really wanted site-specific art, you know, playing off the decay here; playing off the history; playing off the architecture; responding to the space was really important for us," says Robertson. And for the inaugural exhibition, which opened this past December, and closed on February 13, 2015, respond to the space, their artists did.
In a stripped bare dining room, Notre Dame MFA Justin Barfield installed what looks like the root cluster of an unimaginably large tree. "The name of my piece is Technician, and it's existed in various iterations over the decades," says Charles Jeremovic of his wall-to-wall arrangement of military gear, NASA electronics, and other highly-technical-looking gear. "The current one at the Birdsell is the biggest and best yet." Even Stolz herself had work in the show, a series of furniture sculptures that look like they've been worn away by time. "The piece is kind of originally inspired by bristlecomb pine trees, because they're these really old trees that are carved away by the wind until they're disappearing in the middle, and so I kind of wanted to imitate that with chairs," she explains. "You know, scrape away until there's this piece that's disappeared in the middle."
Since the first group exhibition, the Birdsell Art Installation Project has served as a venue for screenings, dinners, and performances from local musicians and dancers alike, and Stolz and Robertson recently announced the Summer 2015 Residency, which will take place from June 16 through August 16. As temperatures slowly begin to rise, however, the South Bend Tribute offers a word to the wise for prospective Birdsell attendees that reflects the work-in-progress aesthetic of the entire effort: "Those who attend the art showings should dress warmly, because the old house is warmed only by space heaters."
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