A conversation with Mitchell Squire, creator of Spoonful – a temporary space installation on the east end of Main Street.
Last month Jerrod Jordahl and I made our way to one of the most interesting and small spaces we had encountered on Main Street. Mitchell Squire, a professor of architecture, had invited us to see the space and talk about how the work had developed there. It was raining and cold. With no heat in the space we stayed bundled up while we talked for well over an hour.
Mitchell Squire: I thought I would be in here all of the time over the winter months. There is no heat except for that [points at space heater] and it was just wasn’t feasible to work because it became uncomfortable.
The space began to attract my attention. If I can’t focus on [the work], let me see if I can set this space up so I can roll up the shades and give it some life. I painted the walls, installed some track lighting, and brought in my boxes. That’s pretty much the beginning of it. The boxes came about three or four days before Christmas.
Kristin Roach: So originally you were thinking you would be using this space just as a working space, and then the space itself started to become the focus of your installation instead of just the objects in it?
MS: That’s what happens. It was a matter of how can I justify fixing up the space when it’s only a temporary thing? And when I say that, I don’t mean a return on an investment. More, how can it be naturalized into my art practice? That led to the signage.
KR: I have to say, that’s what drew me in.
MS: Oh yeah, that’s my daughter’s sketch of me. She drew that little character of me years ago.
KR: Can you talk a little bit more about that? How do you see family figuring into your art?
MS: It figures prominently. Part of the framework for this space was coming to live here from Chicago. I’m sure living here in Ames for the last few years you’ve heard all the reports about the Section 8 housing.
KR: I was kind of wondering about that because of the titles of your work.
MS: Yeah, I’ve been here for over 30 years. I was born in Mississippi, but I grew up in Chicago. We’re from the South Side. There have been a lot of community discussions about the influx of Chicagoans to the city of Ames. A lot of which isn’t positive.
KR: A lot of it is just unfounded, too.
MS: Yes! I guess I’m the argument against those concerns. So the family is a lot of the flavor of work. I like thinking about this piece called My daddy left me plenty, but I ain’t got nothin’ now [a large-scale print].The bowling ball had been in my basement for a very long time. I never wanted to throw it away. I don’t bowl [laughs]. These things all sort of came together as a piece that could relate to family conditions.
One of the colleagues I work with has done the majority of my photography. He may take 30 shots in search of one that speaks the whole story. The sculpture is gone. [The print] is now the work, and I hadn’t done that before.
I like working on my own terms. It’s between me and the work, and when I finish, I show it. While there are any number of art institutions and organizations that exist, a plethora of them all around everywhere, it still remains difficult to find a place to show. This space was available, so I thought I should try doing the whole thing myself. Not as a way to thumb my nose, but just to test the work out.
I don’t want to put shades [on the windows], but the sun comes up [in the morning] and it hits this print and that’s just not good. That became another routine where I would come in and cover it and then come in about noon the next day and take it off – another component of the practice which I hadn’t anticipated because of the space’s dynamic.
This gadget here [points to the track camera], you are probably wondering what that is. My photographer friend called it “Laps Alpha” and I call it “Robo Photo.” It travels along that track and a camera attaches to the bottom. A series of gears cause the camera to rotate as it moves. It’s programmed to take a picture once every 30 seconds. It’s kind of nice because as the camera moves across the space, it’s also rotating following the pattern of the sun. We are hoping that this coming Thursday we will capture some activity at the closing.
KR: It took quite a few hours of research and asking around to find, well, you. Have you had any other inquiries or interactions with the community? How has that become part of the work?
MS: That is certainly one aspect. When I had finally opened up the shades someone walked by and I saw him double take. “Holy Shit!” he said. [We all crack up laughing at this.] Probably every time I’m here there’s that. Someone walks by and they look. But the really interesting thing about the space is it doesn’t really tell you how you get in.
KR: Yeah, it took a little bit of looking around to figure out where the door was.
MS: Right, it’s a facade with no obvious entrance. It doesn’t have the same kind of architectural language that the other spaces have. The space itself, architecturally, is the gap between two buildings.
KR: It is a short little space.
MS: Exactly. It’s about half the length of all the other buildings. In architecture, this space is a pet, seemingly perching or curled up. A perfect example, and my favorite, is Highland Shoe Repair.
KR: I know that one. It’s like four feet wide.
MS: It just sits there next to the building. What one does with these odd spaces is quite interesting because they fail to satisfy the demands of your typical commercial venture. The owner of this space even said, “You know, it would be great for an artist to work in the back and exhibit stuff in the front.” And that’s what he said, just on his own.
KR: So is he going to sell it to you?
MS: Well, he’s going to sell it, but not to me. The owner did offer me the opportunity to buy it. I told him I can’t know until the summer. My wife and I are both professors at the university and our salaries have been cut. That’s like twice the hit, that’s half of our mortgage payment. You can understand how that’s starting to hurt. The owner found someone else. Sure, I wish I could have the space – I love it – but there are some things that are not ideal about it.
KR: Like no heat.
MS: Ha, yes. Like I said, the winter was particularly harsh, so I couldn’t get in here like I thought I would. But now that the spring is here I’ve been in here more in the last few weeks then I have all winter. The inefficiencies of a space are the things I find interesting. You just let that become part of the life you are trying to make in the space.
The reactions from the neighbors have been interesting. You start establishing a relationship, as informal as that is. The tax people began to wave. I still haven’t been able to break what seems like a wall between myself and the bar patrons [directly west of the Spoonful space].
Jerrod Jordahl: I’m sure a lot of small businesses have that same sort of relationship with the patrons.
MS: I think watching people watch this space is fascinating. And I haven’t put that into a frame of thought yet. It probably relates back to this whole Chicago Diaspora thing, where in 30 years of existence in a city I’m still able to be considered an absolute stranger.
KR: That is pretty odd. You have to let the meaning of the work ferment for a bit.
KR: I wanted to ask you about [the boxes art piece]. What is the source of the material for the boxes and is it relevant to the piece, the titles?
MS: Yeah, we were talking about family. Well, here is the first case for where the body of work began to talk about the architecture of my family. The house I live in. Last summer, I wanted to get into my dilapidated garage and clear it out. I took some boards out that I had stored in there and I made a box. And I thought, That was kind of fun. So I made another one. You know what I’m going to do, I’m going to make one box every day this summer. I couldn’t fulfill that. You know, it was going to be 90 boxes before the semester started, and there are only 60 here. I’ve got enough left for 60 more.
It created quite a stir with my neighbors. They heard the saw every day and they wondered what I was up to. If I had started to remodel the house. Or maybe it’s just that I’m going crazy. Everyone I show them to loves the simplicity of them.
KR: The materials, they remind them of their home, of their garage. I really enjoy that you placed the scrap inside each box. That’s so much more interesting than if they were just empty boxes.
MS: Right, exactly. That becomes kind of fun. This is the only one that doesn’t have the scrap inside [points]. The title for that is Craig stopped by, and questioned me about my safety. As he talked to me, I forgot to load the box before sealing it up. And they go on and on. So the question is can I really, do I really remember all the titles? I’m not sure.
KR: They all have their own unique personalities, so I don’t think it would be so strange if you could. Are you planning on making 60 more next summer?
MS: It all depends on what happens come June 1. There are a couple of things I’m trying to plan for. I probably won’t be here. I hope to get accepted into this residency program.
KR: Which one?
MS: I can’t say, it’s bad luck [laughs]. But I can tell you that come September I will be in Michigan at the Oxbow residency program. This is what I showed to get in.
KR: So it worked. Congratulations, Oxbow is a great program.
MS: It did work [laughs]. Yes. My proposal was accepted. It was a wonderful confirmation for me. So now I have to figure out how to continue to do things like this.
KR: I have to say that you doing this project has not just opened up the potential for this particular space and what is possible here, but other spaces like it.
MS: I’m already scoping out – I’m already thinking about other spaces.
The Spoonful space installation ended on February 28.