Mona Gazala's Big Dig

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

Dumpster diving in Franklinton might not be the most glamorous example of an archaeological dig, but that's what Mona Gazala is doing.

If excavation is among the prime mechanisms by which archaeologists uncover, reveal and, ultimately, present the past to present and future generations, then Gazala's “What Remains” is surely archaeology. The exhibitionwill be on viewSaturday, July 15at all three West Franklinton locations of her Second Sight Project, the salon/gallery/visiting-artist site she has operated since 2012.

And although the revealed culture is modern rather than ancient, the importance of telling its story is no less important to the artist. Gazala has become an advocate for the longtime residents in the Franklinton area who face uncertainty as the area is redeveloped.

“I've always been a history buff and [I've been] fascinated with archaeology since childhood,” said Gazala in an interview at Second Sight. “That's pretty much been the basis and theme behind all my artwork in the past, and it's kind of funny how that tied in to social [and] political artwork. It was a natural offshoot.”

Gazala's immediate concern is the neighborhood in which she lives and works. (In a past interview, Gazala said, “I didn't come here expecting to fall in love with Franklinton, but that's what happened.”) “What Remains” features physical pieces the artist has rescued from Franklinton's Bellows School, which is currently being gutted and renovated in one of the earliest redevelopment projects in West Franklinton. It also happens to be essentially across the street from one of the three Second Sight properties.

“I've been doing a bit of dumpster diving and finding some choice pieces of archaeology, and a lot of that has gone back into the pieces in the show,” Gazala said. “[Redevelopment] was happening right outside our front door. It was something we were seeing daily.”

What Gazala is discovering in her excavation are remnants of Franklinton's past — ceiling tiles, floorboards and other, less-specific pieces of a structure named for George Bellows Sr., a building contractor and community pillar in Columbus who was the father of world-renowned artist George Bellows. It's appropriate then that art be a vehicle by which the story of that structure, the lives shaped there and the neighborhood that was home to them all is told.

“I'm taking something with that sense of permanence, for example floorboards that were once permanent, and showing the transience, [the] change that is happening right now,” Gazala said. “I don't think I ever go into digging for scraps with an idea of finding one particular thing. I'm just looking to discover what's there. Ultimately, what I'd like the pieces to do is tell a story not only of a building and a neighborhood, but also of a little bit of the tension that's going on right now between neighbors who've been here and the developers.”

In a video that will be screened during the exhibition, Gazala confesses to having been unfamiliar with the term “social practice art” until recently. The revelation is dripping with irony, given that it's precisely the kind of work Gazala has been doing, not only in Franklinton, but in years prior.

“When I started Second Sight, it was pretty intuitive and a reaction to something artificial about the art and creative community in Franklinton,” Gazala said. “[The neighborhood] is full of wonderful, vibrant artists, but the way it started was very artificial to me, and I was troubled by that. So I just decided to strike off on my own and start my own salon in my own home, and things just took off from there. But I had never heard of the term ‘social practice artist' in my life. I started hearing it down the road and realized, ‘Oh, that's what I've been doing.'”

“My ancestry is Palestinian, so I'm coming from a people who have been displaced,” Gazala continued. “That power dynamic — the greater power controlling the narrative — that's universal. It's happening everywhere, so this can translate into virtually any situation where gentrification is happening.”

That universality is one of the things that appealed to Kimberly Anderson, director of visual arts for Arts Place, which presented much of “What Remains” during a June exhibition at its Portland, Indiana gallery.

“Mona was just awesome. We were lucky to have such a quality installation artist show their work here,” Anderson said. “Portland's been going through its own preservation efforts in downtown. For me, I liked the idea of the archaeology and the sense of past. It struck a note with me.”

“I don't think [Gazala] gets enough credit for what she's doing, primarily on her own, to make change through art,” fellow Franklinton gallery operator AJ Vanderelli said. “She's in the trenches, engaging with the true Franklinton community.”

In addition to art-making and residency programs, Gazala maintains a free library at Second Sight. Furthermore, the space is identifiable in the neighborhood due to the Faces of Franklinton initiative, an assembly of painted self-portraits of (primarily) young people from the neighborhood installed on the front porch of Second Sight's two Sullivant Avenue spaces. It's a labor of love for Gazala, feeding on her passion for the people of her adopted neighborhood. She has held open houses and attended community events, offering Franklinton residents the chance to share their “faces” as part of the project.

“What Remains” represents an artist's work as the physical embodiment of her social practice. Gazala said the choice of what kind of artistic treatment can be best employed to help a particular found item tell a story is intuitive.

“What's important is the idea of history and archaeology, to put a piece on a time continuum,” she said.

W.E. Arnold, an abstract street photographer nearing the end of a 13-month Second Sight residency, has documented the neighborhood for many of the same reasons as Gazala. While his work comes from a shared desire for preservation, documentation and storytelling, he said it's impossible not to be struck by the work Gazala is doing in the community.

“I've been following her work for a long time; I had known Mona for about 10 years prior to my residency,” Arnold said. “Her use of forgotten symbols and historical imagery is inspiring. I think there's definitely been some mutual inspiration going on.

“It all comes back to Mona's ideas of why Second Sight is here. My neighbors have lived here for 30, 40 years. I wanted to at least capture and preserve a neighborhood that is going to be very, very different in the next few years.”

Among the pieces included in the exhibition are: “Fossils,” a collection of Bellows School remnants cast in concrete that has been finished since Gazala installed “What Remains” in Indiana; “Disturbance,” made from discarded floorboards and reflecting both disruption and impermanence (“It denotes the current instability in the makeup of the neighborhood, both structurally and demographically,” Gazala said); and “Hard Candy,” a bannister post from a demolished Franklinton house overfilled with Jordan almonds.

“Jordan almonds are traditionally given out at weddings, and the analogy of a marriage of big business with community just kind of struck me,” Gazala said. The phrase “swallow me” is transferred on the piece, and is, in Gazala's words, “a little titillating and frightening.”

“The old neighborhood, the people who live here [and] the way of life here are going to be swallowed,” she said, again speaking to systems of power and overlooked human value.

“Remainder” is a work of transferred text onto an architectural column, and is one of the few pieces that didn't originate in Franklinton (the column is from a home being remodeled in Olde Towne East.) The painstaking process of the text transfer was completed over the course of two or three months and borrows language from a 2014 article inThe Atlantic that addressed gentrification in Franklinton.

“In this setting where I'm doing social justice artwork, I'm going to use the words of other people and literally put them out there for people to examine. You may have read these words, but I'm telling you to look at them again,” Gazala said.

Gazala makes use of photography in several pieces as well, including “The Swing,” made from a wood plank rescued from the Bellows School detritus, with an inset 1967 photo of Bellows School safety patrol students; “Discard/Don't Discard,” tin ceiling panels removed from the Bellows School coupled with images of archaeological artifacts from Palestine mounted on wood; and in a piece titled “Nobody Don't Live Here,” which first appeared on Gazala's Instagram feed.

“I saw this hastily scrawled note on the door of a building that had been vacated,” Gazala said. “It struck me as ironically speaking to the power structure of gentrification — the idea that if nobody lives here, no one is being displaced.”

Gazala confessed to the briefest of concerns regarding showing her own work at Second Sight, which is typically dedicated to the work of others, most often the artists in residence at the three locations. However, that concern was quickly set aside.

“I felt maybe a little selfish at first, but at the same time where else would you show this work?” she said. “I kind of felt like it was important to show this work where this [gentrification] is happening. This is the most appropriate place to do it.”

Second Sight Project

7-10 p.m. Saturday, July 15

730 Bellows Ave., Franklinton