Jose Miguel Cuevas believes in the power of public art. The 34-year-old found-objects manipulator has a Ph.D. in sculpture and five public monuments to his name in his native Spain. “Public sculpture is innately political,” he says. “Regimes use it to get their messages out.”
So when Cuevas, an instructor at the Children’s Studio School in the U Street corridor, decided his grade-school class needed to make a statement about gentrification, he had the kids build some art. A large-scale found-object sculpture, Evicted Neighborhood, appeared on the sidewalk outside the close-to-120-student charter school on Aug. 11. Its debut was something of a risk for the school, which had already racked up some unfavorable Internet-group chatter about litter and a dripping pipe. What would an anti-gentrification monument do for its local popularity?
Not a thing, as it turned out.
“I haven’t taken too much notice. I mean, I know I should—I know it’s right across the way,” says Ed Pesce, a 37-year-old federal employee whose house faces the school. “Honestly, it’s not a huge eyesore. It’s tucked in the corner. And it’s their property.”
The rapidly developing area seems to have greeted Evicted Neighborhood with a collective shrug. Many people passing by don’t even turn their heads, opting instead to pay attention to their cell phones and PDAs. A family out for a bike ride—the dad towing a chariot-style baby carriage—brake suddenly for a look but don’t actually allow their feet to touch the ground before peddling on. A city social worker halts to examine it only after a reporter steps in her way. “I thought it was an art project,” she says, “and just didn’t think it was anything I needed to stop for.”
In its three weeks of existence, Evicted Neighborhood has racked up only one complaint, even though the school promoted the piece in an opening attended by neighbors, passers-by, and an enthusiastic restaurant owner, who went to the nearby Harrison Square development to solicit comments on Evicted Neighborhood from more neighbors. School officials eventually found one skeptic in Dee Hunter, the area’s advisory neighborhood commissioner. After Studio’s president invited him to visit the school, the low-rung pol told the staff they should probably remove Evicted Neighborhood before somebody complained. The sculpture was hustled to its current location, on the school’s courtyard.
“The major concern was the length of time they wanted to display the art,” says Hunter—not the provocative theme. Hunter notes that at one point the piece had been beaten into an unsightly mess by rain and vandals.
The repaired Evicted Neighborhood sits, unnoticed and undiscussed, in a leaf-collecting corner on the side of the school at 13th and V Streets NW. It reaches its tallest point some 12 feet above the ground with a bent bike rim balanced on a pole. Around its base are a colony of sad little figures with jug and milk-crate bodies, old gloves for hands, and in one case the brush of a broom for a face. Until they were stolen, two mattresses rested against the school walls, and there’s also a graffiti mural. “Evicted by Fake Heroes,” it reads in big, sparkly letters, right above the logos for Superman, Spider-man, and the No Child Left Behind Act.
The conglomeration of this and that could be taken as something evicted from somewhere. But it also looks like a yard sale that was never packed up. To Cuevas, all interpretations are valid. “I don’t like to explain the pieces,” he says. “What the kids wanted to say, they have said it.”
The kids were a group of summer-school students in Cuevas’ sculpture studio, Reflections. Every instructor at Children’s Studio School works in a uniquely titled classroom—such as Liberation, Cosmos, Cipher, and First Amendment—and teaches all subjects, whether it be math or social science, through art. During the six-week “City As Studio” summer semester, “Baba Jose,” as his students know him, taught about Homeric journeys and exile. To bring the lesson home, he took his class on field trips through the cranes and moving vans of Shaw and Columbia Heights to show that displacement was not just a historical concern.
“This experience,” Cuevas wrote in an artist statement now affixed to Evicted Neighborhood, “led us to think about all of our neighbors who might be traversing the Journey of the Hero. It also inspired a new idea: those who we typically think of as heroes—successful businessmen, powerful political leaders—can in fact be ‘fake heroes’ using their strength to impose or inflict harm onto others.”
Cuevas had his students, aged roughly 9 to 12, cart back trash they found in alleyways to build three-dimensional responses to exile and gentrification. Some of the creations are small, yet poignant, like a rickety wheelchair made from bike and seat parts. Olivia Milholo, 12, made a house from wood scraps. “My teachers kind of told me about eviction, and so I just built a house,” says Milholo. “My house had only windows but no doors. The reason why was the person was evicted—they can’t go inside their house, but they only can see what’s inside the house from outside.”
People who live in the 3-year-old town houses across from Evicted Neighborhood were surprised to hear that it eulogized people who no longer had houses. Surprised but not upset. “You know what, I’ve seen a lot worse things in this neighborhood. Like, the two knifings last week, and the shooting,” says Mike Steward, a 26-year-old who works at a marketing-research company in Virginia. “It’s garbage….It doesn’t really faze me.”
One Sunday, a woman stops to look at the sculpture while her leashed dog snuffles around in a nearby tree box. “It’s cute,” she says. “Kids, right? That makes it cute.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.