The faraway nearby

Artists take fresh look at familiar Lawrence neighborhoods

On the daily commute between his East Lawrence home and his downtown office, John Reeves keeps his eyes peeled for more than just stop signs and oncoming cars.

He’s hungry for details – signs of domestic life, and magical accidents that transcend the everyday.

When he spots something interesting, he returns during weekend walks, camera in tow. It was during such a stroll that he captured an image of a tiny birdhouse casting its shadow on the facade of an old home in the afternoon light.

“It’s a simple little iconic shape on the front door,” says Reeves, a project manager at Sabatini Architects. “It’s hard to miss if you’re looking.”

That’s precisely what Reeves and seven other artists have been doing since last summer, when Signs of Life gallery director James Schaefer invited them to create work about the neighborhoods near the gallery: East Lawrence, Old West Lawrence, North Lawrence and downtown.

In paintings, prints, mixed media and photographs, the artists document architecture, natural landmarks, chance, the progression of time and a sense of mood and intimacy.

Schaefer calls it “The Neighborhood Show.” He says he was inspired by a similar exhibit in Topeka, which sent artists out for a single day to do on-location paintings as a celebration of a neighborhood.

“Being on the arts commission and following local politics and development issues in the last year, I’ve started thinking about how the arts can be used in defining the identity of a town,” he says. “I was kind of wondering if artists could be a part of reflecting on what stands as a symbol or visual cue for Lawrence, and they could show that to us.

“But maybe also the production of work about Lawrence, as it ends up in different homes in different places, could continue that visual idea of what we are.”

Revisiting the familiar

Reeves and his wife moved to Lawrence from Chicago two-and-a-half years ago. As a relative newcomer with a fresh perspective, he has developed an appreciation for the homes in East Lawrence.

“There’s this great stock of very simple houses over there, and I like how pure most of them still are,” he says. “Even when they’re not pure, when they’ve been added onto three or four times, all of those little adjustments tell you about that house, and also Lawrence – how things have grown or changed and families have grown or left.”

For “The Neighborhood Show,” Reeves deviated from his usual black and white photography, instead choosing color film to capitalize on autumn’s flashy hues. Fellow photographer Rick Mitchell stuck with black and white prints to showcase his simple views of Lawrence’s alleyways and historic homes.

Like Reeves, Mitchell spends a lot of time on foot near downtown Lawrence, shooting photos as he walks – a practice he describes as “like collecting, but without removing anything from its place.”

He admits his photos don’t do anything flashy. They’re intended to slow viewers down long enough to notice things they hurry past on most days.

“Those places that are kind of the areas that we don’t put on public view but are very revealing of how we live have always been very interesting to me,” he says.

Building community

Other artists in the show are Mark Weber, Deb Schroer, Justin Marable, Elizabeth Rowley, Paul Hotvedt and Heather Smith Jones, who has created 10 new pieces that work as a kind of visual journal of daily life in the area around the gallery, which she refers to as her “stomping ground.”

“I’ve been pulling together different elements that I find while walking and putting them all together in drawings in kind of a collage or abstract kind of way,” Jones says. “Because they’re journal entries, there’s kind of a story in the individual pieces.”

She and her husband, a fine woodworker, are in the process of building a studio at their East Lawrence home, so Jones has been thinking a lot about construction, and the reconstruction of many of the homes around hers.

“Going through that process ourselves, I know that enduring it requires patience,” she says. “I think that idea is sometimes a struggle, but you know the outcome is going to be wonderful.”

Although the “Neighborhood Show” artists all met early in the process to discuss ideas, they haven’t worked together since then. They’re anxious to see what their colleagues have created for the exhibit.

“I think we’re going to learn something from each other,” Jones says. “I think it’s a neat idea to have a group of people come together to make work about an area, just kind of building the community and building the community of artists.”