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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Slated for demolition, SFCC’s Building 4 is giving its all for art

Spokane Falls Community College art student Ethan Leitner, 20, works on his portion of a class art project earlier this week in the halls and offices of the school’s former business building. The exhibit will open June 10, and the building will be torn down at a later date. (Dan Pelle)
Spokane Falls Community College art student Ethan Leitner, 20, works on his portion of a class art project earlier this week in the halls and offices of the school’s former business building. The exhibit will open June 10, and the building will be torn down at a later date. (Dan Pelle)

It’s the wildest doomed building you’ve ever seen.

Blue, painted tree branches sprout from the hallway walls, which are a riot of color and forms. A forest of whittled limbs crowds the room behind the sliding glass of an abandoned reception desk. The basin of a drinking fountain, thick with paint, is filled with charcoal briquettes. Bark, moss, broken glass, a car hood – the flora and detritus of the Spokane River are being transformed into art, along with paint, charcoal and the more ordinary materials of creation.

When Building 4 returns to dust on the Spokane Falls Community College campus this summer, it will take with it an audaciously inspired art project. Twenty-three students, four artists from the community and three art instructors are transforming the building, creating art installations in the hallways and former offices and classrooms.

“The building will become one piece, essentially, inside and out,” said fine arts instructor Tom O’Day.

Then it’ll all be knocked down.

The project, titled “No Vacancy,” was cooked up by O’Day and his fellow art instructors Carl Richardson and Mardis Nenno. A public opening is set for June 10, and it’ll be open for public view for a few days thereafter – but that’s it. That brief life is actually pretty typical for installation art, a wide-ranging category that involves 3-D compositions that are often temporary and specific to a place, and which can include a wide range of materials and approaches.

“A lot of installations are real temporal, and they go away,” said O’Day. “They don’t hang around.”

Down the hall, student Ethan Leitner was painting fine black lines on some boards attached to the wall. His installation includes drip painting and color blocking on the walls, some snippets of text, frames and boards extending into the hall, a compass on the floor …

“I started working with the wall and, as clichéd as it sounds, listening to what the wall was telling me,” he said. “I thought I had an idea where I wanted to go, but it’s been changing as the days go by.”

Building 4, a low-slung, 45-year-old structure on the east side of campus, used to house SFCC’s business program. That moved to a new building two years ago, and the building was used for the music program for a year and a half. It was slated to sit empty this semester and be destroyed in the summer; a new early-learning center will eventually be built in its place.

When Richardson learned of the plans last year, he had the idea to do something ambitious and artistic before the building’s demise; retiring president Mark Palek gave them the go-ahead and the instructors went to work designing the program. They capped enrollment at 25, and the class filled quickly.

“There’s not a guideline for doing this kind of thing,” Nenno said.

“And that’s the beauty of it,” Richardson added.

They wanted the students to work around the ideas of maps and getting lost, and to consider the physical place the building occupies – the manmade and the natural, especially the nearby Spokane River. In the first week of the course, they all went to the river and collected materials – from bark and wood to garbage and rusty metal – that would be used in the installations.

Students are working three and a half hours a day, four days a week, in the 10-credit course. Each was given a section of institutional beige cinder-block wall as their canvas, starting with charcoal and paints on the surface, and then adding three-dimensional elements extending from the walls.

“I think this is an amazing opportunity for the students,” Nenno said. “This is closer to how contemporary artists work, and to work at this scale with three faculty members in a collaborative way – it’s a pretty unique experience.”

The instructors also invited four artists from the community to participate: Richard Schindler, Tresia Oosting, Ariana Winger and Dan McCann. Each was given a room for an installation – Schindler’s space, in the former front-desk reception area, is filled with scores of tree limbs whittled bare. They line the walls, sit on former bookshelves, spread across a counter – their pale, bone-like shapes altering the nature of the blandly institutional room.

Most of the student work is being done in the hallways. Elise Imhof was working on her installation one recent day, painting a portion of a figurative map with places such as Reggae River and North Crystal City.

“It’s me just kind of spewing my creativity onto the wall and using it therapeutically,” she said.

Across the hall, Chelsie Schwartzenberger’s piece included a forest of black and gray trees painted onto the walls, with real bark attached. A car hood she retrieved from the river bank leans against the wall – she’s trying to figure out how to incorporate it into the installation.

She said she began the piece with an idea, but that now – about halfway into the 10-week project – it’s “just kind of going crazy.”

“This is a learning experience for me to … not exactly not care, but just let loose,” she said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or
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