GARY — A silhouette of a head now emerges from the rippling surface of a bright red sea on the side of the historic Edison Concept Houses.
As the mural wraps around the long-abandoned building, the splash of red on the slowly decaying facade transforms into a profile portrait of native rapper Freddie Gibbs. It's a striking burst of color awakening a drab scene of urban decay, a forlorn property where window frames are empty sockets, the ceiling is collapsing, and shrubs are growing out of the roof.
Reno, Nevada-based street artist Erik Burke, aka OverUnder, recently painted the striking large-scale "1919 Sunset" and "2020 Sunrise" murals on one end of the vacant experimental worker housing at 424 Monroe St. in Gary that the internationally followed Brooklyn Street Art initiative described as "stunning." On the other side of the block of more-than-a-century-old row houses is the "United Steel Life" mural in which the Argentinian street artist Nicolas "Ever" Escalada depicts a steel mill cafeteria, the El Frio soda once made in Gary and other local artifacts.
Escalada's mural, which features a parental advisory warning to evoke an album cover, kicked off in 2018 the #PAINTGARY public art project that has splashed colorful murals across abandoned buildings in Gary over the last few years.
Artist and public arts administrator Lauren M. Pacheco, the director of Arts Programming and Engagement at Indiana University Northwest in the School of the Arts, launched the initiative in which more than 80 diverse muralists from across the world have painted more than 70 murals on derelict walls across the Steel City.
People are encouraged to find the locations of the murals online and take a self-guided walking tour as the project continues to grow in scope. Pacheco continues to seek to identify vacant buildings to be used as canvasses.
"The #PAINTGARY initiative wouldn't be possible without the generosity of a collective of artists, curators, cultural workers and designers. This project is primarily self-funded by myself and individual artists and curators. Self-funding public art projects aren't unique to the #PAINTGARY initiative," she said. "I know firsthand that the art community is incredibly generous. When they believe in a community project, they often donate a range of resources — supplies, time and artwork — necessary to install creative interventions such as murals."
She has had many partners on the projects, including guest curators such as artist Eduardo Vea and Billy Craven, the proprietor of Galerie F in Chicago.
"Likewise, the city of Gary, the Gary Public Transit Corporation, Decay Devils, Faith CDC, Calumet Artist Residency, Miller Creative Arts District, Destination Gary, Gary Housing Authority, Indiana University Northwest and The Legacy Foundation have made worthwhile investments in introducing artful elements to city planning and living including bus shelter artwork, dead space activation, muralism, urban farming, park infrastructure, and community programming," she said. "There is a small but committed collection of invested partners who share a broader city renewal vision in addressing decadeslong blight and disinvestment in Gary."
Pacheco said the #PAINTGARY art project was trying to save the architecturally unique Edison Concept Houses from demolition by getting them noticed by people.
"I knew that I wasn't the only one curious about these structures," she said. "A simple Google search populated articles, both historical images, and urban ruin photographers. I began to think about ways to remind or reinterpret these houses as architectural monuments."
She got permission from the city to install the murals, and brought in Escalada and Burke to create massive artworks that have attracted visitors, many of whom have been posting their photos on social media.
"I realize that the historic preservation community would cringe hearing a group of untrained preservationists do-gooders wanting to paint a historic landmark like the Edison Concept Houses without undergoing the appropriate practices for maintaining and preserving cultural and historic sites," she said. "As a Gary resident, I'm keenly aware of the financial challenges the city faces. Priorities shift quite dramatically when funding is limited. Many of us would agree that cultural heritage is hugely important to community planning, tourism, education, the environment and living ways."
Brad Miller, director of the Northwest Indiana field office of the Indiana Landmarks, said one of the biggest challenges to the preservation of historic architecture is raising awareness — a problem the #PAINTGARY project addresses.
"Sometimes the first and most difficult step in preserving a building, is first bringing attention to its existence and significance. We walk or drive by buildings so often in our communities that sometimes they get lost in our minds," he said. "I think the new book-end murals garner needed attention, while also providing a much more in-depth interaction with the histories of Gary. In the world of preservation we often try to avoid painting older masonry surfaces to prevent any unintended damage, but with several roof failures and years of abandonment, I think a little paint can go a long way to garnering support for a renewed future."
The homes were built by U.S. Steel subsidiary U.S. Sheet and Tin Plate Co. and were not actually designed by the famed inventor Thomas Edison, despite the name. It's just that he was a major proponent of that type of housing at the time.
"Because there was so much press around Edison’s idea of a concrete home during the era of their construction, everyone equated concrete homes with his name," Miller said. "The name stuck and basically became a part of the history here in Gary."
Milwaukee-based architect August Reichert designed the houses, which were built by Pittsburgh-based contractor W.A. Songer between 1910 and 1913.
"The homes in Gary differed from Edison’s concept in that they were not erected with a single pour of concrete, but rather in phases, and the roofs and floor divisions were wood rather than solid concrete," he said.
Some of the row houses on other blocks are still in use as people's homes, but others have suffered more deterioration, such as on Monroe Street. About 74 of the 86 original buildings still stand, according to a National Register for Historic Places application.
"The Edison Concept Homes are an important part of Gary’s architectural legacy and certainly worthy of preservation," Miller said. "Fortunately, there are several rows of homes that remain in good shape and are still occupied as residential properties. There are also several rows that have undergone significant deterioration, but could still have a viable future given the right attention and resources."
Burke said his bookend murals on the Edison Concept Houses on Monroe Street aimed to speak to both the past and present. The "2020 Sunrise" shows a portrait of a ruminative Gibbs in a paused YouTube clip, while "1919 Sunset" shows the silhouetted figure treading water.
"The two pieces are a pairing speaking to now and then. A simultaneous centennial was remembering the Red Summer of 1919 where a black 17-year old named Eugene Williams, floating on a homemade raft in Lake Michigan, drifted beyond an imaginary racial line leading to a white man throwing rocks at him, ultimately drowning him," he said. "The black side of the beach confronted the man and involved the police, but they wouldn't make an arrest. Instead, they arrested a black man. Fights, shots, riots, and arson exploded across Chicago, leading to weeks of violence and thousands of people left homeless. Other riots were also happening across the U.S., better known as the Red Summer."
Brooklyn Street Art, an effort to document street art and graffiti around the globe with more than 130,000 Instagram followers, recently reviewed the mural, heralding it as "stunning."
"Street artist OverUnder paints a correlation in Gary, Indiana, this summer between the killing of a black 17-year-old, Eugene Williams, in 1919 and the killing of George Floyd in 2020 — and a host of others during the century in between. It's a stunning conceptual piece that optimizes the architecture, its planes, and location, OverUnder adeptly braids the pain and imagery of that youth in the water, the resolute profile of local rapper Freddie Gibbs, and a YouTube timeline showing minute-years elapsed directly on housing stock that has been abandoned and shifted to the margins of this city."
For more information, visit www.destinationgary.com.