Downtown Tipi Village

Hub-Bub artist-in-residence Sarah Witt is an installation/performance artist, and when she has an art idea, it’s most likely bigger than something a frame can hold and it requires multiple trips to the hardware store.

Sarah often imagines her art occupying big spaces and tackling contemporary issues. In some ways she works as a cross between what Joe the Plumber or Joe Six-pack might think artists do– make up realities– and what builders do, build spaces out of real materials. Sarah’s always known that the two-art and building-are more closely related than we often realize.

Sarah says when she arrived in Spartanburg last June she had an idea that she wanted to focus on housing and on recycled materials. How to create installations that might make people think in subtle, aesthetic kind of ways about such issues?

The Hub-Bub building in downtown Spartanburg has four New York-style artists’ loft apartments Sarah shares with three other residents-artists Ellie Pierson and Jonas Criscoe, and poet Patrick Whitfill. They all took up residence there for the year-long-program to “live free and create,” as the national program’s brochure proclaims.

When Sarah got to work it was not with a palette, easel, and a black beret. She’d arrived with a trunk full of power tools.

The first thing she built was a tiny orange house with a white picket fence for the AIR opening show in July. It was constructed out of salvaged and donated lumber and moved into the gallery. On opening night Sarah dressed as a housewife and handed gingerbread cookies mutely to passing guests from an open window, or she threw the cookies out another window onto an accumulating pile in the side yard of the scaled-down house.

The kids loved it. It was as if a fairy tale had come alive in Spartanburg. Many of the adults weren’t quite sure what to make of it. Hey, wasn’t this an art show? Where were the landscapes, the portraits? Where were the abstract swirls of color? What was the art doing off the walls? As Sarah wisely points out on her blog, “When the current of routine is disrupted, intuition and contemplation begin.”

At that point early in her residency there wasn’t enough of Sarah’s art to see her themes emerging-housing and the use of recycled materials. It wasn’t until last week when she took it outside with her second Spartanburg installation that these themes began to take on a distinct outline. Sarah’s tipi village of eight full-sized structures emerged on a vacant lot on Main Street in Spartanburg.

The project is collaboration between Sarah, Greensboro artist Ian Gamble and various members of the larger Spartanburg community. Sara and Ian have stitched together eight sprawling tipi covers from recycled plastic sheeting that protects lumber when it’s shipped. They’ve harvested hundreds of long bamboo poles from private land around the county, and they’ve set the tipis up in a privately owned empty lot between old buildings on Main Street in Spartanburg.

The coolest thing is driving by-it’s Main Street USA for blocks and then there’s a gap, and what’s that? Tipis? Tipis in the downtown! The installation would have given Custer a shiver if he spotted it on the Great Plains, but at the epicenter of Spartanburg the instillation jars you into considering so many things. Why tipis? How were they made? When did they appear? What did the artist have in mind?

The installation is huge and you don’t have to simply drive past. You can park your car, walk down among the tipis and look up at the wild patterns the tips of the bamboo poles make against the sky and the ruined walls of the adjacent buildings. You can admire the workmanship. You can slip inside each of tipi, feel the circular all-American space, and think tipi thoughts brought about by tipiness. You’ll notice right away it’s different inside a tipi. They have their own interior vibe, nothing like a tent or the squared-off expanses of interior rooms of a house, apartment, condo.

The tipis will be up for the next month, and then they disappear back into that great mysterious interior space from which art comes. What’s up next for Sarah? She says she’s thinking about a village of igloos made from used Krispy Kreme donut boxes. The themes continue. There’s no housing collapse underway in the United States of Art.

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