Get the Flock Out
By Dwayne Brown
Photography by Cynthia Gehrie
Flock houses—fascinating to say the least and certainly a good conversation starter. To express a concept touching a myriad of topics tied to the local Omaha environment, artist Mary Mattingly goes beyond conventional. Part sculpture, part architecture, part documentary and part performance—all are summed up in this new project sponsored by the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts: Flock House Omaha.
A few years ago, Mary began exploring self-sufficiency and a simpler, more affordable lifestyle as a means to focus more on her art and photography. Combined with her goal to travel, the idea to build a barge on the river in New York City using construction-waste materials sprang forth.
With the assistance of the local Coast Guard, a 100- by 30-foot-wide barge was built and included a rainwater collection system and sustainable gardens for food. Along with three other residents and four chickens, Mary made the vessel her living environment for six months. However, to dock the barge at public docks, the vessel was required to be open to the public, so during the project, 200,000 people wandered about her living space throughout the day while Mary created her art and learned to live sustainably.
After the barge experience, Mary focused on what it might mean to create a self-sufficient living space on dry land, also in New York City. After many discussions with city officials to understand rules and codes for small, temporary structures, in 2012, the Flock House Project New York City was born. Mary created three mobile, expandable and scalable enclosures—Flock Houses—using waste materials and bartered items. Two of the huts—part tent, part sculpture and part environment—moved to approximately 10 locations throughout the city while the third remained in a single spot for the six-month experience. The public was invited to spend days or weeks in the units.
In Omaha, according to the Bemis Center website, the Flock House Project Omaha is intended to address environmental, political and economic dislocation and relocation by envisioning migratory homes with autonomous systems for rainwater collection and food production. These might be building blocks integrated into our urban environment for future living systems.
Amanda McDonald Crowley, consultant curator for programs at the Bemis Center lived in a Flock House New York City and was inspired to bring the next iteration of Flock Houses to Omaha. Amanda’s vision included inviting the public to have an active role in a studio practice in an urban environment. Not a traditional static exhibition where the viewer views art on walls but the exhibition space as a lab and active ongoing workshop.
In May, Mary kicked off a series of five public workshops beginning with brainstorming about possible house designs and leading to actual construction. The available materials, such as solid core wood doors, oak floor planks, crates, plywood, wire cable and corrugated metal panels were items Mary and Alex Priest, exhibition assistant had acquired from the Bemis warehouse and community members who donated their excess materials.
Two units were deployed in June with one located near the Bemis Center visitors parking lot and the other, slightly larger unit, near Carver Bank on 24th and Ames streets. The public is invited to spend time in the Flock Houses and each visitor is encouraged to add an element of creativity, keeping the project a fluid, ever-evolving work in progress. Surrounding the houses, repurposed wall sconces and plastic barrels were turned into planters for growing local vegetables to be used by residents.
According to Mary, flock houses are “partially open [because] they are intended to break down the walls we are confronted with in our everyday lives, literally and metaphorically. The flock house project provides a model that is inclusive and capable of rearticulating itself. It’s dependant on memory and the stories that move with it as it changes.”
I spent my first night in the Bemis flock house in early June and was delighted to interact with many of the resident artists throughout the six-week process. So far, other participants scheduled to stay are teens involved in the Urban Design Lab summer program, flock house volunteers Peter Langwith (he’s using it as a studio and venue for live music), Kim Reid (staying there with her family and hosting community-based events), and Laura Carlson (with her Girl Scout Troop) and Travis Apel and his family.
The houses will be available through mid-August and can be viewed anytime. To schedule an overnight stay, contact Alex Priest at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts via e-mail at Alex@BemisCenter.org.
Be Aware. Participate. Enjoy.
Local architect Dwayne Brown is an occasional artist, builder and writer. The combination of his diverse interests made him a perfect Flock House participant.