Ike Okafor-Newsum's and Connie Richards' retirement abode combines artistic creation, social commentary and an Airbnb.
It sounds like a tall order: Create a space that embodies artistic expression, ancestral influence, powerful social commentary and a commitment to the environment, all within 2,300 square feet. And, by the way, provide a cozy abode in which to live and create a meaningful post-retirement life.
That’s what artist, scholar and activist Ike Okafor-Newsum and his partner Connie Richards have achieved on a one-acre property on the west bank of the Olentangy River. The couple has lived there since 2000 but transformed the home in 2016, when Ike (pronounced EE kay) retired as chairman of the Department of African American and African Studies at Ohio State University.
“Later in life, as I contemplated retirement, I asked what would feed me in my next phase,” the artist recalls. “What do you do next? I built a studio containing my dream.”
The 500-square-foot studio resides in a barn built adjacent to the couple’s home, which is near Delaware. The Amish-built shed is the result of a commute home from the airport one day, Okafor-Newsum says. “I spotted a shed store, and I saw a studio.”
Today that studio is filled with canvasses, pastels and myriad other necessities of an artist and sculptor. Though it appears every square inch is taken, moving two work tables opens up the space so that Okafor-Newsum can work on larger pieces and sculptures. Two lofts for storage are at either end, each equipped with a clever pulley-and-cart system used to lower sculptures and their components to the main area.
Just as his trip from the airport gave rise to the studio, Richards’ own commute from Clintonville to her job as an adjunct at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware initially led to the house they now call home. “I saw what looked like an abandoned house,” she says. "When I toured the property, I fell in love with it from the outside.” Then, laughing, she adds: “I didn’t really pay attention to the inside.”
The couple has updated bathrooms, added new flooring and installed modern kitchen cabinetry but has left the home architecturally unchanged since it was built in 1972. Both the studio and house orient toward the river, with the studio having a screened porch and the house having an expansive upper deck and lower level porch.
The main level of the home is open and has sitting and dining areas as well as a tiny galley kitchen that feels more spacious because it is an extension of the open dining area. Windows add brightness, and simple, light wood cabinets provide necessary storage.
Somehow, the couple has found a way to live on just the main floor, because they have turned their lower level into a dog-friendly Airbnb, where Okafor-Newsum’s art takes center stage. Much is drawn from the Congo culture and is available for purchase.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Most prominent is a large collection of vessels based on the Nkondi tradition, including two that originated there. Each features a cluster of nails essential to the tradition, in which nails are driven into wood to activate the spirit within, usually an ancestor, he explains. Healers make and use them to address a host of issues, including infertility.
Rather than wood, Okafor-Newsum uses plastic containers that would otherwise end up in a landfill. “I wanted to address the issue of our ‘discard’ society and to illustrate the concept of recycle, reuse, reduce,” he says. A video of plastic littering the oceans was shown at an exhibit of the pieces.
He confronts other thorny issues head-on via artwork that features nonbinary figures. “With all the debate around gender identity, I can’t live in this world and not address that,” the artist explains. Similarly, the human toll of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is depicted in two pieces from his “Save the Children” exhibit. Life-sized representations of two deceased children, one wearing a gas mask, are on either side of a window overlooking the river. His point? “There are no winners here,” he says.
Despite the seriousness of some pieces, the space is warm and cozy. In addition to a sitting room, the Airbnb has a queen bedroom, a bathroom and a den or second bedroom with a fridge as well as tea and coffee supplies. Guests have included Ironman competitors, visitors to an equine therapy facility to the north, wedding guests and winery tasters. “I was amazed when I first promoted it,” Richards says. “I had no idea these assets were already here.”
The den was formerly Richards’ office, where she brought work home from OWU. Okafor-Newsum always left work on campus, and home was a refuge. “Driving home on 315, once I hit Powell Road, I started decompressing,” he says.
Tucked into the riverfront woods, Okafor-Newsum and Richards feel sheltered from much of the area around them, which includes rapid-pace construction of homes that are nothing like the one they live in. At their residence, there is no owners’ suite—in the sole main-floor bedroom, extra deep drawers have been built into the base of their Amish-crafted bed because there is no space for dressers. A sliding, wooden door closes off the bathroom because there isn’t room to accommodate the swing of a hinged door.
Prior to moving here in 2006, Richards lived in Clintonville and Okafor-Newsum lived in his longtime home in the Cumberland Ridge neighborhood near John Glenn International Airport. Their radical downsizing was difficult, they admit, but gave them a unique opportunity to discern what they value most. Art selections are specific and include pieces by Dayton-born folk artist Smoky Brown and a quilt crafted by an artist/entrepreneur who Okafor-Newsum knows through a Nigerian-American club.
Honoring the environment turned out to be a major driver in their passion for the space. Unlike many studios, Okafor-Newsum’s is not filled with abundant light, due to its small windows and the porch extension. He and Richards considered installing solar lighting for both the studio and house but were told there was not enough sunlight due to the overhead tree canopy. “So we’re going to cut down trees to save energy?” Okafor-Newsum asks rhetorically.
Ironically, the Airbnb is named Casa de Gecko del Sol, which means House of the Sun Lizard. The homeowners purchased an iron sculpture with an image of a lizard inside the sun, and another craftsman made it into the sign that hangs above the front door.
With the addition of Okafor-Newsum’s beloved studio and Richards’ space to be at one with nature and pursue her own post-retirement dreams, the couple’s one-of-a-kind home provides the nourishment that the artist sought when he asked: “What’s next?”