Better Homes & Gardens Today
Megan Wilson and Christopher Statton are in ATA’s display window, painting hundreds of signs with one word on them: “Home.” Black letters and a flower spell out the word in English or other languages, each on a solid color background. Sold in pairs for $100, one sign goes to the purchaser; the money and the other sign goes to one of three homeless service organizations. They could have just painted a bunch of signs in their studio and put them up for sale, but they chose instead to perform the production of the signs in the window. More than fundraising, they are organizing, raising awareness through outreach, providing information, and holding the City accountable for its human responsibility. And they are accomplishing all of this by subverting the tools of commercial language.
This is a critical economic time in San Francisco, with growing numbers of adults, children and families living on the street. Along with the existing failures in our society that leave veterans, the mentally ill, and the poor without homes, the eviction crisis and lack of affordable housing contribute to the increase in homelessness.
Beyond generating income for homeless organizations, Wilson and Statton are taking action to address social injustice by reaching out to many players involved in the problem. It is not only big money speculators and tech corporations causing the devastation of the middle and working class; government policy failure and even apathy of the citizenry are factors. Beyond simply pointing fingers at tech workers, the artists are inviting tech companies and their employees into a dialog. In doing so, they circumvent the divisive rhetoric of “residents vs techies” that precludes any possibility of unified, effective action. In addition to direct contact with local tech companies, the artists have created two events, (October 29 &30, 7pm at ATA) and will facilitate a conversation that allows the participating social support organizations to communicate on their own terms. Representatives from The Gubbio Project, the Coalition On Homelessness, and At The Crossroads will speak as experts on the work they do daily. They will share their knowledge in true dialog instead of acting as recipients of the “advice” from tech companies often given in required interactions, usually as part of the Central Market & Tenderloin Area Community Benefits Agreement .
The artists have offered to sell and install bulk sets of the signs to some tech companies, but have gotten negative responses, with the explanation that the companies “don’t have the budget.” Even with the big tax breaks they receive in addition to their massive profits, they can’t afford to buy signs to help the people living on the streets…especially “Mid-Market,” the zone from which they are now displacing people and organizations. However, some individual employees have shown interest in helping and spreading the word; hopefully they will show up on the evenings of October 29 and 30. This personal approach is key: appealing to people who are benefitting from the economic situation gives them the opportunity and responsibility to engage. It’s very easy to turn away from someone who’s hurling insults at you; not so easy if they face you, invite you, maybe challenge you to step up. As Chris Statton points out, terminology is important: “paying your fair share” has a different meaning from “invest in your community,” which implies contributing in order to reap profit. The unmediated, human factor is also important–the street communities need not only money, but also caring support that can come only from understanding their plight.
The bodily presence of the artists adds infinitely more power and dimension to the project than if they were simply selling art. Put in plain capitalist terms, they are physically merchandising the product that they have created. Storefront windows are built to advertise what is sold inside. Now that the Valencia corridor has become a high-priced playground and shopping mall for the wealthy tech-boomers, it is common to see the strolling gentry do confused double-takes at the ATA window installations. With this one, the shopping impulse can be gratified by walking in and purchasing the signs from the laborers as they produce them. The intention of painting the signs in the window was to draw attention to the project, and it’s working. At this time, they have raised awareness, sold signs, provided entertainment for passing children, and had meaningful interactions with many people, some of whom have come in and told them how to write “home” in their own language. Call it endurance art, an intervention, or social practice, but what they’re doing is very effective.
The signs are also available online at http://betterhomesandgardenstoday.org . The aim is to raise $30,000 by selling 300 sets of signs; the three featured organizations will receive $10,000 each. After they complete their October presence in the ATA window, they will continue painting the signs in Megan’s studio until they have reached the goal.
This project is a second iteration of “Better Homes & Gardens,” a work done by Megan Wilson in 2000,and “Home/Casa” in which she painted signs as welcome mats at the ends of the roadbed of Clarion Alley. Dressed as a road worker, she painted “Home” at Valencia Street, and “Casa” at Mission Street. She also painted and gave out 250 signs with the word “Home” and a flower, distributing them to people she knew who were living on the street, and to community spaces along Valencia, 16th Street, and others. It created quite a presence; this was ground zero for the Dot.com boom/bust, and most of the organizations who displayed the signs are no longer there. (ATA is one of the few who remain.) The work was inspired by an incident in her hometown, she explains: “The original idea came from my home in Billings, Montana, where in the early 90s,… a time when a lot of right wing organizations were moving into the region, Jewish families were getting bricks thrown through their windows during the holiday season. The entire city responded by putting menorahs in their windows; the newspaper printed a full page menorah and encouraged readers to put it in their windows. The Catholic high school posted ‘Happy Hanukah to Our Jewish Friends’ on their marquee…it was an amazing show of support, and the violence stopped.”
Process, and more thoughts:
When asked about the mantra-like, repetitive process of painting the words that mean “home,” they replied:
Chris: “It is meditative. It gives me focus. At different times in my life when I was sick, and really, really exhausted, that word would always pop through my mind,… constantly,… ‘I just wanna go home.’ …It started to take on this meaning for me..what that emotionally felt like as home…so now as I’m painting it, I have that connection to it from throughout my whole life. I have this feeling of comfort… it makes me feel good about the project. That’s the feeling I’d like people to have.” Megan: “I have that from the flowers, they bring me life, and bring up home for me, more so than the word does.”
About the Clarion Alley murals “Tax The Rich” (featuring flowers based on the art star Murakami) and “Capitalism is Over,” Megan says: “The flowers in the murals are creating the message; they are the signs. People love the pop ’60s flowers, associated with San Francisco. The flowers get the message out there. (via the many people taking photos of each other in front of the murals) The media today… Instagram has become the trains of the 40s and 50s with the grafitti on them. Now, we are that train.”
Chris: “People take their wedding photos in front of ‘Tax the Rich.’ They have these giant Escalade limos that pull up, they jump out and have their picture taken in front of ‘Capitalism Is Over,’ and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing, shocking’ and the photo shoot of a woman in a…string bikini in front of ‘Tax the Rich,’ squirting silly string…it’s like, ‘God, this message is going everywhere!”
Megan : The “incongruence between the flowers and the message of ‘tax the rich,’– it’s the same thing with homelessness. It’s not something that people associate with bright, beautiful things, but everything is interconnected in this way. Even if they are not taking it in consciously, the message is getting through subliminally.”
Megan and Chris have collaborated together since Megan joined the Roxie Theater team to do development work while Chris was Executive Director over three years ago. Now they both work at The Gubbio Project; he does event planning and she does development and strategic planning. They now live together, collaborate on projects, and are co-organizers of Clarion Alley Mural Project
Both have a keen awareness of being on the edge: Megan experienced the need to leave home and live on very little money at age 16, working at Burger King as a teen in Billings, Montana. Chris realizes that, without the resources available to him as part of an upper middle class family with health insurance, stability, and support, he probably would not have survived his 30 years of living with HIV since childhood. He is grateful and inspired by having grown up around HIV activists. As an adult he volunteered with a friend who calls himself a “Street Chaplain,” providing counseling and helping homeless people connect with services. He respects the generous, supportive mentality he has witnessed in these street communities, people who will lend their last $50 to another homeless person, as opposed to the lack of similar generosity he experiences from the upper middle class peers he grew up with. These experiences motivate him to work to alleviate the suffering of people living on the street.
More about the Window:
The nighttime projection in the window documents Megan handing out some of the 250 “Home” signs she painted for the first iteration of “Better Homes & Gardens;” and the performance/manifestations by Art Strike’s Back. Art Strike’s Back was a project started by Megan Wilson and Lise Swenson in 2000. Tim Costigan was an early contributor. They were working in ATA at TILT/Teaching Intermedia Literacy Tools, and Megan was starting the Better Homes & Gardens project. They were really feeling a lot of changes due to the dot.com boom, and artists at 47 Clarion Alley (Aaron Noble and Marissa Hernandez) were evicted. Every Friday and Saturday night at 7&9 pm night, anyone who wished could participate in a performance. This took place for eight weekends along the Valencia corridor and in Clarion Alley. It garnered a lot of press, nationally and internationally. The original Art Strike*, from which the project’s name was derived, was 10 years earlier, a national movement fomented locally by Steven Perkins, ATA, Aaron Noble, and Marshall Weber to demand that art be valued and supported. “Art Stirke’s Back” was inspired by that, and used spectacle to call attention to the economic devastation of the community. In the current iteration the apostrophe is gone, so the meaning is changed.
These profoundly compassionate and generous people are helping all of us to know that community is home. Homelessness is everyone’s problem, not something to step away from in fear or disgust. Megan Wilson and Christopher Statton are sounding a call to action, one we should all answer without delay.
*…”the organisers of the San Francisco Festival of Plagiarism were so pleased with the success of their event, that they decided to focus on the Art Strike as their next major project. Thus they organised an Art Strike Mobilization Week at the ATA Gallery in January 1989 and formed the first Art Strike Action Committee. Further Action Committees were quickly set up in London, Eire and Baltimore (USA). ” –http://www.stewarthomesociety.org/sp/postas.htm
From an interview with the artists at ATA by Claire Bain and Emily Morris
Photos courtesy of Megan Wilson