Color My World

Amanda Williams ’97 made waves by painting derelict houses in her city’s troubled neighborhoods, and the art world took notice.

Williams' Color(ed) Theory display

An exhibit of Williams’ Color(ed) Theory structures.

Photo provided

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Architect-turned-artist Amanda Williams ’97 grew up on Chicago’s South Side, and her most celebrated work to date highlights some of the area’s challenges in bold, richly hued fashion. Dubbed Color(ed) Theory, the 2015 project brought attention to the blight of abandoned houses in impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods—places that rarely get media coverage unless something bad happens. Working with a team of helpers just after dawn on Sundays, Williams would quickly paint a house that was scheduled for demolition—coating it, windows and all, in a single vivid color. The hues themselves were chosen to reflect things that are ubiquitous in the city’s African American community, not all of them benign or uncomplicated: the purple of a Crown Royal liquor bag, the orange of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the aqua of Newport menthol cigarettes, the bright yellow of a local check-cashing chain, the pink of a familiar hair-care product, the red of a popular chicken shack.

Williams did the painting without getting permission from the city or the owners—a conscious choice that was part of the project’s concept. “If I were to do the same exact act on the North Side or downtown, immediately there would be questions: ‘Who sent you? Where are your permits? How do you have permission to do this?’ ” she says. “So it added these› questions of value. How can we not value this enough so that anybody can come in and assume they have the right to do it, because nobody is concerned at all with this property or this block?” Choosing soon-to-be-demolished structures was also key, because it made the artwork ephemeral, for better or for worse. “If it was something that people were outraged by, it would be gone relatively quickly,” she says. “And if it was something that the neighborhood fell in love with, it would also be gone relatively quickly.” As it turned out, the response was overwhelmingly positive—so much so that in addition to the initial eight houses she’d planned to paint, she did six more as part of a civic effort in which she taught color theory to fifty neighborhood kids.

The project garnered considerable attention for Williams and her work—which also includes paintings and a series of laser-cut maps that explore the dichotomies between cities—and landed her a spot in the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial. On November 12, she’ll be one of two dozen artists and organ­izations featured in “In Our Time: A Year of Architecture in a Day,” a symposium at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (It’s open to the public on a first-come basis, free with museum admission.)

Williams’s current projects include a commission from the Pulitzer Arts Foundation and Washington University to build a temporary structure in St. Louis that will host arts events for six months. Debuting in May, it’s a collaboration between Williams and fellow AAP alum Andres Hernandez ’01. The project, like Color(ed) Theory, will allow Williams to merge art and architecture, which she’d practiced in the Bay Area for six years before moving home to Chicago but no longer pursues on a conventional basis. Color(ed) Theory, she says, had been “a really powerful way to bring these two passions of mine together.” Previously, she says with a laugh, she was “secretly an architect and secretly an artist. If I was at a party for architects, I’d only talk about architecture. If I was at a party full of artists, I’d talk about art.”