The Biscayne Times

Sep 25th
Bricks and Butterflies PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
October 2017

It’s a homebuilding expo of sorts at Locust

WArtFeature_1hen it became clear that Hurricane Irma was making a beeline for Miami, Lorie Mertes, the new director at the nonprofit Locust Projects art space, knew she had to board up the floor-to-ceiling glass windows and door that front the gallery. She was determined to protect the exhibits she was overseeing, scheduled to open days later, from ruin.

With help from local artists, she shuttered Locust but used leftover plywood from an ironic source: the spring show “Under Water.” Three New York artists, David Kennedy Cutler, Michael DeLucia, and David Scanavino, had created a room-scale installation, involving a wave made from plywood cresting on the gallery floor, and the visuals of what that wave might do if it hit. The wood now faced the street and the eventual winds -- and in the battle of “Art versus Irma,” says Mertes, art won.

The two new shows were postponed but opened at the end of September. In another topical irony, one involves buildings, the other, nature. Both are site-specific, with an emphasis on the act of production -- of manmade and natural structures.

In the center space, Maine-based Aaron T. Stephan has erected a life-size façade of a house, built from the 350 bricks he made during a three-week residency here. Titled Cement Houses and How to Build Them, the work is based on a “how-to” architectural book of the same title published in 1909, which encouraged people to build their own homes and provided blueprints.

ArtFeature_2Entering the gallery, you face a lovely, quaint house with red door, white-trimmed windows, and gray brick walls. How great -- and affordable -- it would be to make your own home, with some simple guidance!

But it’s a façade on many levels, and as it turns out, not so simple at all.

At the turn of the 20th century, marketers targeted the burgeoning desire of homeownership in a country whose population was growing rapidly. Not only did Sears, Roebuck & Company, for example, make and finance house kits and catalogue houses, it also sold a “one-man, cement block-making apparatus” called the Wizard. One man, it suggested, could quickly build a home from scratch.

Stephan found otherwise. He built his own wood-and-steel brick maker based on the Wizard model, and created cement mix dictated from that time. The work was hard and laborious; and the time it took him to build one wall was ultimately not efficient, either.

Kit and catalogue homes sold well for decades, but sales faded as it became clear that buying mass-produced bricks -- and, eventually, mass-produced housing -- was cheaper and easier. But the underlying theme -- that the American dream is entwined with affordable homeownership -- is alive and well today. We continue to build and build.

Miami is a prime example. Our waterfront is overbuilt with cement and steel that impede nature’s organic way of protecting us; we’ve blocked channels for drainage and eaten up barrier plants and marshes that relieve storm surges and flooding.

And today’s housing is anything but affordable, either on the waterfront or back in the suburbs; that dream has been corrupted. Stephan’s installation, which includes his Wizard and other mechanics of brick making, along with those 1909 blueprints, is a commentary on one of the direst issues facing Miami and the nation.


In the project room, local artist Franky Cruz provides a bit of an antidote. He has created a splendid, meditative butterfly nursery for Vivarium Meconium. While Cruz made the overarching structure, the butterflies did the rest of the work.

During his eight-week residency at Locust, he cultivated the larvae of painted lady and monarch butterflies in jars, then placed the chrysalises, or cocoons, on the top of a netted enclosure, where the butterflies would eventually emerge. When a butterfly does emerge from the chrysalis, it excretes a waste product whose color varies depending on the species. This product, called meconium, is caught on watercolor paper that Cruz has placed on the bottom of the enclosure, and the splats create a special, delicate painting. A smaller netted cage holds a milkweed plant, a favorite food of the monarch. On this day, several had emerged and are flitting around.

Once the butterflies are ready to be handled, Cruz takes them to his butterfly garden at home. He’s become an expert of sorts on butterfly migration, their dwindling populations, and the part they play in Florida’s environment. His exhibit is a perfect combination of scientific exploration and aesthetic beauty.

Mertes likes the exhibit’s connection to the concept of the “butterfly effect,” the phrase coined by a meteorologist to show (metaphorically) how a tiny disturbance like the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in one place could lead to a tornado elsewhere. Late in the game, we’re realizing that the world’s ecosystems are intricately related: what happens here affects not just our immediate surroundings.

Mertes was a curator at the precursor to PAMM, the Miami Art Museum, from 1994 to 2006, when she left to work first in Philadelphia and then Washington, D.C. She returned to take the helm at Locust this past spring. In all of her positions, she says, she emphasized social interaction with the art exhibitions. She asks how art can advocate for social and environmental issues, and be a part of the realities facing communities.

ArtFeature_4“I don’t want the gallery to offer simply pretty art on the walls,” she says. “I want a place for engagement.” In other words, more exhibits like the ones currently on display. “Many previous exhibits were about the [final] product,” she adds. “I am about the process.”

Mertes would like to open the space to the public in other ways. She wants to transform an office once filled with books and paintings into a library where people can come to work and read. She wants to use another room as a residency space for artists. And she’s planning “monthly socials,” to keep the creative interaction constantly flowing.

Coming next to Locust for Art Basel Week will be a sculptural show from New York-based Nancy Davidson, known for creating funky anthropomorphic inflatables; and an immersive textile-based installation from well-known local Pepe Mar, covering the walls, ceiling, and floor.

At the same time, Locust will present “Whithervanes” from a Detroit duo who will place headless chicken “weathervanes” activated by the Internet and triggered by alarmist keywords on several rooftops around town; the public can try to change the vane by tweeting hashtags #keepcalm or #skyfalling.


Cement Houses and How to Build Them and Vivarium Meconium, through October 7, at Locust Projects, 3852 N. Miami Ave., 305-576-8570,


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