HOME? An Artistic Exploration of Housing in the Triangle

Opening reception on Friday, Apr. 1, 6-9 p.m.   |  Eno Mill Gallery, Hillsborough

At the center of the technicolor print “Reach for the Stairs” is an image of a house. From the outside, it has all the features to compel a Triangle landlord or real estate agent to describe it as “charming”—paneled siding, latticed windows—but everything’s a bit off. Collaged limbs protrude from the structure; lines of blue-gray and chartreuse strike through “radiation” in all caps.

Locals may immediately recognize the style of Ron Liberti, the Carrboro artist and musician well known for more than two decades for his vibrant screen-printed band and concert posters around town. This piece is more personal. Created over the years in “every house” he’s been subsequently “rented out of,” the work, Liberti writes, “represents my dream of being able to afford to own my own home/studio here in Orange County, where I’ve lived and worked since 1991.”

“Reach for the Stairs” is one of the 100 artworks on display in the exhibition HOME?: An Artistic Exploration of Housing in the Triangle, which opens this Friday at the Eno Mill Gallery in Hillsborough. (Sixteen original prose works are part of the showcase as well; the writers will give a live reading at Friday night’s opening.)

The exhibition, a unique collaboration between the Orange County Arts Commission (OCAC) and the Department of Housing and Community Development (OCHCD), functions both as a creative prompt for artists and writers to consider the intertwined personal and political resonances of “home” and “housing” and as a vehicle for community aid: proceeds from the exhibition’s art sales will jump-start a permanent housing relief fund and fundraising effort for artists living and working in Orange County.

This fund represents a fusion of separate relief efforts begun early in the pandemic when OCAC director Katie Murray and her board administered the Orange County Arts Support Fund, partly in response to venue closures, while the OCHCD, led by Corey Root, pooled resources from Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough to administer an emergency housing assistance fund. (Since March 2020, Root says, the fund has delivered close to $10 million in rent and utility assistance.)

Applicants to the Arts Support Fund frequently mentioned housing needs, Murray says, citing everything from unforgiving landlords to rising rents; many of the applicants to the emergency housing fund also self-identified as artists.

This speaks to the historic makeup of the Triangle, where many artists are also dually employed as service workers. During the pandemic, the sudden loss of work laid bare artists’ overlapping needs.

“[The Triangle housing crises’ effect on artists] was something I knew,” Murray said, “but running the relief grant program really put it in front of me.”

The diverse array of visual and literary works on display in HOME? aims to do the same. In the artist call, applicants were invited to consider four questions: What does the idea or experience of “home” mean to you? What has your experience of “home” been as an artist and person living in the Triangle? Is “home” a place of comfort, safety, and warmth, or something else? Is “home” positive, negative, or something in between?

Like Liberti’s piece, many of the cross-genre works foreground the experience of home as a dance between permanence and loss. Katie Bowler Young’s poem “Path” expands home outward in a land acknowledgment to the Occaneechi, the original stewards of what’s now known as Hillsborough; she forecasts her eventual absence in environmental terms, her “longest shadow” disappearing between flora. In two separate but thematically similar paintings, Renzo Ortega’s “Orange County” and Georgia Paige Welch’s “Gimme Shelter,” someone’s arms encircle the structure of a house in a fight to retain refuge.

Throughout the exhibit, there is an unmistakable political commitment, even in the subtler treatments of “home.” That commitment channels OCAC board chair and poet Fred Joiner’s associations with the word.

“I cannot think of any formation of home and not also think about homelessness, displacement, broken treaties, colonialism and neocolonialism, gentrification, Manifest Destiny, imperial expansion, and greed,” says Joiner, who led the selection of HOME?’s literary works.

All of these forces underpin the Triangle’s current housing crisis: a perfect, unregulated storm of inflated rental and property prices (compounded particularly by outside investors and impending tech moves), gentrification, and stagnant wages. County workers like Root, tasked with macro-level affordable housing advocacy and micro-level maintenance of immediate-need housing helplines, find themselves “swimming upstream to create and preserve affordable housing across the Triangle.”

The Triangle is now the least affordable it’s ever been, and its artists and artist advocates are well aware of the twisted irony here.

“Our creative community, which is so vital to the area, has helped build this region’s reputation as a fantastic, invigorating and inspiring place to live,” Liberti writes in the artist statement for “Reach for the Stairs.” “I only wish the talented and hardworking artists and musicians, whose backs this reputation was built on, had more affordable housing options so we can remain calling this place our home.”

On the county side, Murray and Root say their departments are sympathetic to the conceptual and material exploitation of area artists and are eager to pursue new collaborations that are mutually beneficial across the community: not only artist-specific housing relief but ways for the arts to be more broadly accessed across income and generational groups. The new permanent housing assistance fund, initiated by the HOME? exhibition is one immediate inroad; longer-term, Murray would love to see the county “allocate land and create affordable artist housing.”

There are limitations, of course, to what an arts commission or even the Department of Housing can do. (Poet Diane di Prima’s observation in Revolutionary Letters is apt here: “No one way works, it will take all of us / shoving at the thing from all sides / to bring it down.”) What an exhibition like this can do, however, is offer a unique freeze-frame of a quickly, and violently, changing moment—before it changes again.

Sabrina Cali drives this sentiment home in her prose poem mapping her priced-out shuffle between living situations: “I packed the last box today; we move again tomorrow.” 

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.