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Arts / Museums

Midwest Close Encounters

Houston Activist Artist Finds Beauty and Little Vitriol in the Heartland

BY Sarah Gish // 01.24.17

This is the second story in a four-part series on artist and activist Sarah Gish’s travel diary, a veritable Thelma and Louise adventure, without Louise. She reflects on her solo female road trip from Houston to the Midwest, made over the summer, for her Ignite Your Life! art project. Amidst a fraught election year, Gish drove thousands of miles in search of the real America. Here’s what she found…

The goal for my Ignite Your Life! road trip was to visit Ann Arbor, Michigan (“A2” as townies call it) so I had mapped out the first leg of it very carefully in order to get there on time. After Memphis, I planned to spend the night in Indianapolis and then the following night, I would station myself at a friend’s house in Novi, a charming suburb In Michigan named for Pony Express stop Number Six, hence “No. VI.”

It was just 30 minutes from Ann Arbor so I knew it would be a perfect place to hang my hat while I explored the city of my birth. But first, the stops along the way to Michigan were revelatory…

As I started entering the Midwestern states, the road looked and felt different. It was all green fields and vegetables crops, stunning in the middle of summer. When I had driven west towards California three years ago, the sight of too many unhappy cattle being readied for slaughter and inhumane dairy farms turned me into a vegetarian. I hadn’t seen one cow yet and that was a good thing.

And the people in this part of the world were mild-mannered and kind and they said things like “Bye now” and “You betcha!” I was charmed from the start.

I’d never been to Indianapolis so I looked forward to seeing it. I didn’t have much time there so I quickly explored it the morning I left. I stayed at an Airbnb in the yuppie midtown area called “Mass Ave,” named after its central street, Massachusetts Avenue. Mass Ave is on the National Register of Historic places and is a neighborhood in the midst of major renewal.

It’s a mix of beautiful examples of historic architecture, funky buildings in need of repair, street murals, interesting public art pieces (such as a tire bench!), and one big government housing project. I’m curious how the housing project will fare in the long run — it has an uneasy presence amid the gentrification.

Eduardo Mendieta’s “Dimensional Shadows,” one of 46 murals created for Super Bowl 46 in 2011; the public artwork adorns a favorite funky building in Indianapolis.

There are five beautifully-restored historic buildings that I was able to see in Indianapolis: the Hammond Block (1874) at 301 Massachusetts Avenue; the Athenaeum (1894) at 401 E. Michigan Street; the Marott Building (1906) at 340-358 Massachusetts Avenue; the Murat Shrine Temple (1909) at 510 N. New Jersey; and the Coca-Cola Bottling Company (1931) at 858-868 Massachusetts Avenue. And I enjoyed stumbling upon one of the city’s 46 murals created for Super Bowl 46 in 2011 —“Dimensional Shadows,” by Eduardo Mendieta.

Kansas City and Chicago were also brilliant to visit.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruises are the best introduction to the Windy City so my friend Jennifer Weiner and I booked a ride as soon as we could. It was from my tour guide (an 80-something chipper retiree) that I learned that Chicago got its name from the Native American word for onion. As I traveled around the area, I noticed there were other nods to the people that came before such as the Waubonsie Valley High School, named after the Chief of the leader of the Potawatomi tribe. This was unexpected — and it was as if the onion of Chicago itself was peeling, layer by layer, showing its history to me.

The cruise took us past a dizzying number of elegant structures:  the famous Marina City building, also known as the “corncob towers” which was designed by Bauhaus-trained Bertrand Goldberg; the Trump Tower (naturally!); the Chicago Theatre (where Boy George and Culture Club were scheduled to play in a week); and the beautiful Chicago Water Tower. My two favorites were the funky, wavy Aqua building and a teeny unnamed house next to the Chicago Riverwalk. To fully explore the architecture on the tour, you can access the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s database of buildings.

As we walked back to the car, we saw the famous Alexander Calder Crab, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, and a peaceful Tai chi class. A final special treat was sighting one of the Walgreen’s flagship stores on Michigan Avenue in the historic Wrigley Building. Walgreen’s was founded in the South Side of Chicago in 1901.

Kansas City was smaller and slower than Chicago so a short stay with family — brother-in-law Martin Buchanan and his wife Georgiana and son Felix — was a refuge after so many bleary miles on the road. The Negro Leagues Museum and the American Jazz Museum — which share a building and tell a story of the black experience in America — as well as the Kansas City Zoo were on my agenda.

Side trips to Harry and Bess Truman’s landmark summer home and the historic Noel house in Independence, Missouri and seeing a couple of vintage movie theaters rounded out my adventures there.

To be continued…

Read the first story in this series:

In Search of the Real America: Houston Activist Artist’s Brave Solo Road Trip Begins with a Surprise Bang

Home, chic home.

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