Houses, like living beings, grow old and wear out, carrying history and stories with them to the grave.
Meredith Feniak and Risa Friedman — who make up the wheat-pasting Denver duo We Were Wild — want to excavate some of those stories.
“Like human cells, [houses] have memories built into them,” Feniak says. “Pieces of wood taken from a house carry on that house’s memories. When you take salvage from a building, are you taking away memories with it?”
Along the way, they learned about "The Hut," a wreck of a house with a rich historical past. Built in 1901, the Hut was a sprawling art-and-crafts-style Park Hill home designed by Theodore D. Boal. It lay vacant for years, becoming the object of a heated effort to save it after new owners bent on redeveloping the site deemed the structure uninhabitable and too far gone for affordable renovation. Interested in exploring the Hut’s dying secrets, Feniak and Friedman were given permission from the developers to go inside and document and interact with the structure. Their findings will go on display in the installation Reconstructing Western Landscapes at Alto Gallery.
“The owner gave us the code to enter the house at any time; we had carte blanche access,” Feniak says. “The owners got our concept. At first they were worried, but they grew to love our project, so they helped us.”
Friedman, a photographer documenting the way that architecture intrudes on the natural world, and Feniak, an artist and botanical illustrator, have completed several wheat-paste murals since teaming up, including at this year's Crush Walls festival and as part of the decor at the new Mission Ballroom. They had begun visualizing something more complex after being offered a slot in Alto Gallery’s exhibition schedule.
“Wheat-pasting and galleries don’t really go together well, and we wanted to stay true to the concept of nature and architectural life spans,” Feniak says, noting how the medium, which involves pasting paper imagery to walls, fits the subject matter: “Wheat paste is ephemeral. We like that.”
They took up the challenge of taking an outdoor practice indoors, slowly putting together the pieces of an installation through performance, fine art, film and physical interventions, using pieces of the Hut to create new work. They fancied themselves urban archaeologists, taking inspiration from artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s idea of “anarchitecture,” a process of architectural interventions on buildings scheduled for demolition.
As they delved into the Hut’s ruined innards, they found more than enough material to work with. Over the years, the house had suffered shoddy additions, flooding, fires and burst pipes. Friedman and Feniak found layer upon layer of wallpaper, fragments of doors and flooring strata, a closet that led from one room to another. They uncovered a whole apartment in the basement, and hand-laid, un-grouted tile flooring attached to a foot-deep layer of concrete.
But one discovery gave them an alternative storyline to follow in their quest. “In the attic, we found an illustration of a wolf by Ernest Thompson Seton,” Friedman recalls. It came from Seton’s tale of Lobo the King of Currumpaw, based on a true story about a wolf he was consigned to kill by farmers whose livestock was disappearing.
“Seton learned that Lobo had a mate, an all-white wolf named Blanca,” she continues. “He caught and killed her, hoping to draw in Lobo, and it worked. But it was as if Lobo let them trap him — he walked right into the trap.
“Seton had an epiphany, and he couldn’t bring himself to kill Lobo, too,” Friedman says. "They say Lobo died of a broken heart.” Heartbroken himself, Seton buried Lobo’s body together with Blanca's. A reformed man, Seton became an animal activist, helped create national parks and went on to co-found the Boy Scouts.
“He took kids into nature in order to have them understand nature,” Friedman adds.
Discovering Seton's story intersected with Feniak and Friedman’s ideas about the rewilding of architecture — already well demonstrated by growing vines that had taken over the interior of the Hut and wild grasses thriving outside on the lot. The duo collaborated with fellow artist Eileen Roscina to shoot dreamy film footage throughout the house, adding projections to their interventions inside and outside. They brought a live white wolf, Simba, to wander silently through the Hut’s moldering rooms. They gathered fragments of wallpaper and wheat-pasted them to the walls, always documenting their footsteps.
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As the Hut’s demolition date drew near, they made a true-to-scale rubbing of a handcrafted tile floor they had admired in the basement and overlaid it with a life-sized charcoal drawing of Lobo and Blanca before destroying the floor in a performative ceremony that included trauma-releasing somatic dance. The resulting multimedia montage will become an important element of the installation: “We’re wheat-pasting it on the floor in the gallery’s entryway, so it will get destroyed all over again,” Friedman explains. “I can hardly wait to see if people will step on it.”
Beyond the entryway, Alto will be filled with architectural artifacts (some used to create Matta-Clark-style assemblages), dozens of documentary photos and wheat-pasted imagery. And the Hut, which was finally demolished in August, will live on in a new storyline, forever intertwined with a wild, wolfish plot.
We Were Wild’s installation, Reconstructing Western Landscapes, opens with a reception from 6 to 10 p.m. on Friday, November 1, at Alto Gallery, 4345 West 41st Avenue, and runs through November 30. Postcards, wheat-pasted wolf pins and a limited-edition folding book plotting the Hut’s floor plan will be available for purchase. Feniak and Friedman will also make archival prints of larger purchased wheat-pasted images. Learn more on Facebook.