Gimme Shelter: Artists find beauty in abandoned buildings

Jesse Tigges, Columbus Alive

Have you ever driven past your childhood home, or any place with personal significance, and felt the rush of memories flood over you? It's a weird, poignant moment containing blissful recollections and the harsh twinge of nostalgia from a time so far gone. All you have left are those fading memories that seem more like a dream than something tangible. Even though you can't picture all those past experiences with the utmost clarity, the emotions and sentimentality survive in that momentary, powerful feeling.

"Collusion," the collaborative exhibition from Brian Reaume and Chad Cochran, is acutely illustrative of the power a home or any structure bears, based purely on the memories it contains. It's one of the main reasons the exhibition, opening Friday, March 13 at the Cultural Arts Center, will be unforgettable.

Sure, visitors will be transfixed and fascinated by Reaume's paintings and massive, elaborate installations, Cochran's photography - akin to the hauntingly beautiful work of director Cary Fukunaga's visuals on the HBO series "True Detective" - and both artists' mixed-media pieces. This is an exhibit the arts community has been anticipating and clamoring over for months now, and will be talking about long after it closes on April 10.

The strength of "Collusion" lies in Reaume and Cochran's work, which is distinctly formed and genuinely contemplates the idea of memory. Both recognize the decaying, crumbling farmsteads and vacant homes they find inspiration in have a story. And there's a compelling beauty in that story. Reaume and Cochran have a love for these buildings that have long gone unloved, and feel obligated - even privileged - to give them a voice again.

"I think Brian and I have a lot of parallels in our work. There's the desolation, the abandonment and the stories. Those are all things we connect to. We both genuinely believe there are stories in these structures, and the story still remains whether the structure is [abandoned] or not," Cochran said during a phone interview in early March.

Reaume echoed Cochran's sentiments. "These houses soak in [those stories] and are residual. I always feel like … until they collapse they have one purpose - to be guardians. Once they do collapse, the sad part is that's often the end of the story. They become these vacant lots, and at some point there'll be a generation of people who aren't going to drive by and say, 'So-and-so lived there.'"

By transforming these forgotten, ignored or abandoned buildings into lasting works of art, Reaume and Cochran hope the viewer will realize that all buildings - houses, barns, anything - have resonance.

The two initially connected by following each other's work on Instagram and used the photo-sharing site for the early development of "Collusion" - "It's the rare good side of social media," Reaume said. A conversation the two had during the opening reception of Reaume's 2013 "The Shelter Series: Coastal Refugees" exhibition at the Cultural Arts Center was the beginning of this exhibit.

"He looked at me and said, 'Why aren't we working together?' It only took me a few seconds to say, 'Tell me what you want me to do. I'm in,'" Cochran said.

Two years later, Reaume and Cochran have built a collection that represents each artist's individual creative process, enhanced by their collaboration.

"They are the superstars and they are pushing themselves, yet it's very much in line with the work they've been doing," said Eric Rausch, who curated "Collusion." "What we have here are two artists who've shown the quality of their vision and their work they put out to the community. The idea behind them teaming up is, 'Wow these two artists are going to do something really great.'"

Expectations are - and should be - high for "Collusion." Those expectations are actually met by the 130-plus pieces - featuring some of Reaume's finest paintings and Cochran's most ethereal photographs, to go along with an installation involving a 2,100-piece handmade"brick" construction and a couple of 12-foot shelter builds - in the exhibit.

Both artists grew up in rural areas; Cochran in Ohio and Reaume in Michigan. The time Reaume spent exploring the rural surroundings of his childhood were the foundation of an artistic career.

"As a kid I used to sit in old barns. I loved that cocoon effect. I used to sit in those and watch the light change, and [I would] paint, draw or write about that experience," Reaume said during a mid-February interview with Cochran in his studio at Tacocat Cooperative in Grandview.

Reaume's artistic process has become far more complex, as he discovered a muse in examining the concepts of "shelter" and "home." It resulted in his ongoing "Shelter Series" that's characterized by the presence of nondescript house-shaped buildings (in all of his recent paintings, and a major component of his installation work).

"It's the idea of what is shelter, and removing one's self from the idea of what we perceive as a house. A house is sometimes a status symbol. Sometimes it's a burden. Sometimes it's unattainable. But there are many ways of obtaining shelter," Reaume said, referring to everything from renting an apartment to homeless encampments as shelters, but not houses and surely not homes. "So this concept of shelter is rooted in the idea of need. We need shelter. It amazes me that something as basic as a place to live becomes such a struggle and in many cases is out of reach for some people."

This is why Reaume takes the emotions and impressions he gets from seeing a dilapidated structure and transforms it into what he refers to as a "ghost shelter." It was once a house that became something more once someone moved in with the inherent hope that comes with making a home. Now it's barely acknowledged by those who pass it by.

"The term 'house' is an empty term for me. That's something that sits there and until you connect with it, it's just a shell. But it's definitely a shelter. Once you connect with it, it becomes a home," Reaume said.

For Cochran, it took many years for his rural upbringing to become an inspiration. As a child, Cochran looked forward to moving away from his Fredericktown, Ohio roots, despite appreciating the tranquil beauty of his surroundings. After Cochran received his first "real" camera, a gift from his wife five years ago, he realized the decaying barns and homes in small towns across Ohio were fascinating subjects for photography.

He was quickly able to master a photographic aesthetic that captured deteriorating structures in captivating images. But it was the personal connection to his subjects that proved more valuable than any technical skill.

"Brian and I probably see things differently than most people. Most people automatically equate a vacant home to squatters or a drug house, or some economic depression. I think he and I go, 'That was a beautiful home at some point.' This is where the home is today, [but] as far as I'm concerned there's still hope in that house," Cochran said.

While "Collusion" features two artists who share an affinity for a subject matter, borne of their parallel tendency to see beauty where others see hopelessness, this isn't a simple collaboration. Each artist pushed himself to the fullest because he holds the other's work and process in such high regard.

"I think Brian's work is beautiful, and that's not a word I use very often. He has transitioned these photographs into pieces in [multiple] mediums, and really found a beauty that I didn't even see when I first took the photo," Cochran said.

Reaume has the same admiration for Cochran's photography, which is why he felt compelled to collaborate - something he never does.

"I connected with his work. It was just one of those things where I saw it and immediately felt something," Reaume said. "I'm not a collaborative person. I'm very private about my work. Upon seeing his photographs and having the opportunity to work with Chad, I knew I had to take the chance."

The results of the collaboration are stellar - each artist, and Rausch, was elated, almost overwhelmed with excitement, while hanging the final works in the gallery days before the exhibit opens. This was developed out of careful, measured directives. Reaume asked Cochran to change nothing about his process because, "I didn't want a glamour-shots moment. I didn't want him to have this [project] in the back of his head when he's taking photographs. It would feel forced."

Reaume knew Cochran's photographs would have a profound inspirational effect, but he also knew that would have to come naturally, because working off a photograph was something he'd never done. It didn't come easy at first.

"Working off someone else's [photography] was a big, new challenge for me. I only work off stuff in my head. I'm the type of person who will take a mental shot … and I save the feeling," Reaume said. "[At first] this was like tying firecrackers to my teeth [to] pull them out; working off an image. I had to spend enough time with the photograph to feel it. And if there's any story it wants to tell me, I have to wait. It has to gain my trust. I may sound like a crazy person who's having conversations with these fucking photographs, but as they start to break down and I start to break down, it unfolds and I get my story."

The breakthrough came when Reaume and Cochran heard the actual story - instead of the metaphysical ones they feel in these structures - about one of the farmsteads Cochran shot that Reaume was struggling to create a painting based on. It was one from Cochran's hometown and his mother knew the history behind it. As she relayed how the family experienced a couple of horrendous tragedies decades ago, but had forged through to find something positive, Cochran knew what Reaume was feeling. The structure - its ghosts - were telling a story that was both heartbreaking and uplifting.

"There truly is something speaking from this that Brian was feeling, and fortunately I was able to get enough information to provide some insight," Cochran said. "I [realized] either he's not as crazy as I think he is, or I'm as crazy as he is. It was the first event in this process that made us think this is going to be really special."

From there, the collaboration flourished and the two decided on a new locale to mine, moving from the rural areas of Ohio to the urban centers in Columbus. For the pair, it was necessary to include vacant homes in metropolitan regions. After leaving Fredericktown, Cochran attended college, resided in Columbus for 15 years and now lives in Cleveland. Reaume had a similar experience, spending many years in Detroit before relocating to Columbus, where he currently resides in the Linden area. They're no strangers to vacant, run-down urban structures.

"We wanted to make sure we didn't ignore - because we both connect so well to rural landscapes - what's also happening here. We feel there are stories in these homes that are still waiting to be told. We wanted to make sure we fully [portrayed] that this wasn't just a rural event. It's obviously very much happening in the cities and we wanted to shed light on that as well," Cochran said.

"There's something romanticized about seeing this old farmstead. But when you're driving in a neighborhood and there are vacant homes, that's not so romantic. There is a beauty in all of this decay if you look at it in a certain way, but then there's that infinite sadness," Reaume said. "I didn't want to feel like we were romanticizing the idea of countryside estates that have been abandoned."

The two traversed areas of Columbus that are inundated with vacant, boarded-up homes and found two adjacent houses in Franklinton that were ideal. Cochran presents two photographs of the pair in "Collusion" and Reaume created a mixed-media painting of them using a fireplace mantle.

"It reminded me of … the old men in 'The Muppets.' I just pictured these two houses sitting there quipping back and forth. They've been there the last 80 years, watching each other disappear," Reaume said.

It would be nearly impossible to forget the creative talents and technical faculties of Reaume and Cochran that are on full display in "Collusion" - an ironic title as their collaboration is anything but nefarious. But it's the pair's dedication to documenting and embracing the abandoned with such grace and care that proves enduring.

Photos by Meghan Ralston

Cultural Arts Center

March 13-April 10

Opening reception: 6-8 p.m. Friday, March 13

139 W. Main St., Downtown