Apart they are a solitary beehive, a rogue bicycle stand, an enterprising greenhouse, a living gramophone, a micro library, a community gallery, an artist studio, a school garden shed, and a different kind of waiting room. Together they are Habitat City, a microcosm of Charlottesville culture embodied in nine 6′x 6′ sheds.
The project, led by The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative in collaboration with New York-based Habitat For Artists, will be displayed along West Main Street during the Tom Tom Founders Festival before settling in neighborhoods around town.
“We partnered with the habitats because Tom Tom tries to encourage folks to see the city in new ways and to experience public spaces differently,” Tom Tom Festival creator Paul Beyer said.
While the project has only just come to physical fruition, the idea has been long contemplated by the Bridge’s Executive Director Matthew Slaats.
“Residencies are typically about getting away, but they’re also very institutional—a university has one or a museum has one, so we wanted to think about, what would it mean for a neighborhood to have an artist in residence?” Slaats said.
According to Slaats, it’s a way for artists to engage more with their surroundings and the context in which they produce art.
“The arts can do a lot more than just be on a gallery wall, and we should be doing a lot more,” he said. “That’s what ‘Public Artists’ is really trying to make happen—to insert artists into the community in ways that allow them to facilitate a conversation.”
That conversation drove Habitat For Artists founder Simon Draper to set up these impromptu artist studios in neighborhoods up and down the East Coast.
“I think as an artist, sometimes we can initiate because we’re seen as a bit useless,” Draper said. “But where you’re not seen as a threat, you can actually talk about meaningful and important issues. People aren’t so fearful. In that sense I can, with these projects, illicit a more honest dialogue.”
Habitat for Artists began in 2008 in the Hudson Valley as a way to address the gentrification of low-rent neighborhoods due in part to the influx of artists looking for cheap studio space. Under Slaats’s local guidance, the project has evolved to include landscape architects, permaculturists, teachers, bikers, and autistic adults in its residencies. These participants have taken Draper’s original 6′ x 6′ shed prototype and run with it, in some cases to unrecognizable places.
Each habitat adheres to Draper’s essential ethos—constructed almost completely out of recycled and donated materials. The structure that will serve as an artist studio for Piedmont Council for the Arts and Piedmont Housing Alliance is made up of plywood from at least five previous habitats in different cities.
Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell’s “While You Wait,” appears to be the typical Draper model, but the walls are actually removable panels designed to accommodate what she calls her “attention machine,” which will feature an object, performance, or piece of art to be contemplated by one person at a time.
The Virginia Institute of Autism teamed up with design studio Alloy to create a greenhouse that will employ its adult students. It’s specifically designed with the needs of autistic individuals in mind, from the metals used to its colors and shapes.
“This isn’t just about getting our students jobs,” VIA Communications Coordinator Kristin Twiford said. “It’s also making sure the community knows what autism is and helping get those adults connected socially to the community.”
Siteworks teamed up with the Bridge, WTJU, the Arts Mentors program at UVA, the Jefferson Heritage Center, and Charlottesville High School to create a miniature recording studio inspired by the gramophone. CHS students will use it to record oral histories of local residents. Siteworks’ Pete O’Shea and Slaats also envision a future for the space where residents of West Main Street neighborhoods can voice their opinions on development plans.
“This could be an alternative venue from what’s typically undertaken for public planning with big meetings where you have to be confident and comfortable, and a lot of people aren’t and often feel disenfranchised by the process,” O’Shea said.
UVA Architecture graduate students Amanda Coen, Lucy McFadden, Hannah Barefoot, and Scott Shinton also had West Main Street in mind when building what they refer to as their “rogue mobile lemonade bike stand” for Community Bikes, which will serve as a mobile fix-it station and bike education center. They see it as a way to address the lack of bike lanes in Charlottesville and put more focus on West Main as a neighborhood.
Todd Niemeier, fondly known as Farmer Todd, knows about building habitats in similarly overlooked spaces. As operations director of the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, he runs the community gardens at Friendship Court, Sixth Street, and West Street. UACC partnered with edible landscaping business Foodscapes to create a native solitary bee habitat that will increase pollination for the UACC gardens.
“Any time you do anything to improve habitat, to increase pollinator populations, you benefit in some way,” Niemeier said. “We’re trying to resolve not only hunger but crossing racial barriers and economic barriers.”
In the past, Draper insisted on keeping the shed structure intact, but these days he sees the project differently.
“The thingness of it is, at this point, less important,” he said. “To me the habitat is less the structure and more the cultural habitat that we are either interested or not interested in creating for ourselves, not only as artists but as communities.”