When a house is more than a home

“The Uncertainty of Enclosure” comes to INOVA June 6


Leo Saul Berk, Clinkers, 2011, courtesy of the artist

Imagine returning to the home you grew up in and being immersed in memories and emotions.

Visitors to an exhibit June 6-Aug. 17 at INOVA can see what such a visit brought forth from Seattle artist Leo Berk.

“The Uncertainty of Enclosure: Leo Saul Berk” features a body of work inspired by the artist’s time in a very unconventional home designed by one of America’s most unconventional architects – Bruce Goff.

Berk was born in England. The company his father worked for transferred his father to Aurora, Ill., where Berk’s parents went house hunting. At the last moment, they came upon the Goff-designed Ford House and bought it, even though the real estate agent tried to talk them out of it.

It was a life-changing decision for Berk, who lived there from ages 6-13.

“It completely changed the trajectory of my life. I honestly don’t think that I would have been an artist had I not lived in the house. That house shaped me, and that’s really what I was trying to think about when I was there, how architecture can really shape someone, how it can transform in a positive way,” Berk told an interviewer in 2011.

Berk has been creating works based on the Ford House since 2011. The INOVA exhibit will bring together this body of a dozen works for the first time in its entirety.

The exhibit will feature sculptures, photographs and videos that reimagine Goff’s unusual choices in building materials, forms and shapes. All are based on Berk’s recollections of growing up, his historical research and his examination of how the house affected his growth as an artist.

INOVA director Sara Krajewski knew Berk from her time at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle.

She accompanied Berk on a visit to the Ford House, and their explorations of the structure’s impact on him became the basis for the exhibit.

“I think of it as living inside a sculpture,” Krajewski said of the Ford House. “It’s an artistic expression, not just a container to reside in.”

The Ford House is one of the few of Goff’s residential projects still standing. Goff worked in Chicago and Berkley, Calif., before teaching at the University of Oklahoma. He died in 1982. He was known for his eclectic designs, idiosyncratic floor plans and use of recycled materials.

The Ford House is a prime example. The orange steel ribs that form the circular structure of the house were salvaged from World War II Quonset huts, and they come together to make a skylight. The exterior wall is made of coal interspersed with chunks of green glass that Goff found in a plate-glass factory in St. Louis. All the wood is cypress. On interior and exterior surfaces are World War II surplus hemp rope lines.

Works at INOVA will include “Clinkers” – a true-to-scale photograph of the glass cullet in an exterior wall lit from behind by the setting sun – and “Waking to his Dream,” a sculpture based on the home’s domed ceiling as it was originally drawn by Goff.

During a 10-day residency at UWM in March, Berk worked with students in the Peck School’s Digital Craft Research Lab to collaborate on two pieces, including a design in Corian based on the unusual exterior walls.

“One of my goals at INOVA is to get artists, students and faculty together. It’s such a valuable experience for students to have a connection and collaborate with professional artists outside of their teachers,” Krajewski said.

Berk and Sidney Robinson, an architectural historian and current owner of the Ford House, will speak at the opening on Friday, June 6. On June 11, Chicago-based ensemble Third Coast Percussion will premiere compositions based on Goff’s musical pursuit of manipulating piano rolls.

After the exhibit closes, it will travel to the Frye Art Museum in Seattle in the summer of 2015.