It's 9:30 on Wednesday night, and 20 darkly dressed youth line up in front of the stove. They're gathered at a west side bicycle co-operative's vegan potluck. A visitor brought most of the ingredients for the peanut coconut curry sauce with tofu. But the vegan chili is made entirely of canned goods that residents of the co-op gleaned from dumpsters behind supermarkets.
The house's four residents and eddying stream of visitors live largely off other people's waste. Even the bicycles they fix up and give away to homeless people have been salvaged from other people's garbage.
Resident Marcus Brzeska (who requested his real name withheld) says they live this way for moral and political reasons. Taking food from the dumpster, salvaging used bikes and liberating plywood from the garbage to paint on, keeps him and other residents from contributing to sweatshops or environmental damage caused by major corporations.
The do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality bleeds into the residents' views on art.
"Fixing a bike is an art form to me," Brzeska says. "All facets of life can be an art form, if you think about it."
DIY, and your own way
Brzeska thinks art should be free, not bought and sold in galleries. Residents, friends and visitors are allowed to make art or bring some to hang. People who come for the potluck are invited to view the artwork, and if a visitor brings her own emulsion fluid, someone at the house will teach her how to use the silkscreen press in the shed behind the house.
Art drips off the walls of the house, otherwise crowded with found furniture. The residents paint on posters they've found behind thrift stores, as well as on plywood and other discarded materials. There are eight paintings in the living room alone.
It's difficult to find some of the artists who show their work at the house. The peripatetic residents hitchhike or train-hop across the country. Brzeska and another artist named Andy Smith (who gave his real name) moved into the house after hitchhiking and taking pictures of public art.
Smith, who has lived here since returning to the Springs in March, has a work of painted circles filled with strange amoeba shapes hanging in the living room. He laughs when he talks about the prospect of selling his work.
"I'd rather just give it away to friends," he says. "I don't need money that bad."
Throughout the city, other artists have made a decision to make art regardless of whether the production triggers cash flow. But not all adhere to the bicycle co-op's political and all-encompassing brand of DIY.
For instance, Sarah Hope and Chris Bullock aren't against selling their art. But any desire to do so has its place as indicated by the way they sell.
When a customer comes to Hope's home, she offers espresso or coffee with almond milk, and shows her portfolio of jewelry pieces. Hope thinks of her clients when she's creating the jewelry, as evidenced by the magnetic closures she uses, which enable the client to put on a bracelet with one hand.
She says she likes to keep her jewelry affordable; it starts at $25 and increases depending on the materials and intricacy of the work.
Hope's story began when she decided not to go to graduate school so she could see her two daughters grow up. She took a night job with disabled people so she could be with her children during the day. During that time, she began making jewelry. Eventually, people saw her wearing her creations and she sold pieces.
As Hope and her two daughters (now 9 and 10) have gotten older, her ideas about art and money have changed.
"I used to think that in order to make art, I had to be poor," she says. "Now I've learned I can make money with my art." She notes, though, that when she's tried to make jewelry with the intention of selling, her ideas have run dry.
Hope has recently begun showing in venues like Manitou Springs' Business of Art Center, but still prefers to sell out of her home, where she can collaborate with clients on unique pieces.
Like Hope, Bullock consciously decided to prioritize art over money. After 9/11, Bullock saw the rest of his life in new, uncompromising terms. Either he could work in data entry or make visual art, poetry and music.
Unlike Hope, Bullock hasn't made an attempt to merge his art with a mainstream lifestyle. The artist says he's "not marketable."
Bullock, 27, keeps finding himself on society's margins. As a teenager, he lived in the east end of Long Island, New York, in the crevice between the very rich and very poor. During the day, he worked at a bookstore frequented by Tom Wolfe and Steven Spielberg. At night, he'd go home, where the police might be kicking in his neighbor's door.
The life he's led between worlds influences his music. He plays in the local punk band The Nicotine Fits, but also has a solo project, Tall City. Tracks from Tall City vacillate between jarring and dreamy, sometimes both at once.
Bullock's fervor translates into a sort of accidental DIY ethic. Having sent albums to labels but never gotten responses, he toils in his studio apartment, littered with strangely illustrated books and boxes chinking with thrift-store costume jewelry. He sells music to friends, curious shoppers who find his Myspace page (where he also sells a book of his poetry), and attendees of his poetry readings. Each CD comes with a unique construction-paper sleeve and an original collage, which a consumer would never find at a music store.
Art, like plumbing
Each of these artists offers something you won't find at a gallery or regulated venue. They also send the message that galleries don't reserve the right to label something art, or label someone an artist. When you fix your own sink, the work you do is no less plumbing if you're not a licensed plumber; the same is true of art.
Back outside the bicycle co-operative, it's gotten dark. Two residents stand in the shed behind the house, near the silkscreen press. One of them gives me a piece of sidewalk chalk.
"Go draw something," he says. email@example.com
For access to the vegan potluck, e-mail the bicycle co-operative at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To purchase any of Sarah Hope's creations, contact her at 231-3952.
To see some of Chris Bullock's poetry, visit blog.myspace.com/161038. For Tall City music, go to profile.myspace.com/97194669 or send six dollars ("well-concealed cash") to Chris Bullock, P.O. Box 1325, Colorado Springs, CO 80901-1325.