THERE EXISTS A HOUSE…: A glimpse into an inclusive, feminist, artist-run dream

Photos by Mara Hagen.

There exists a house, off Broadway, that rises from a grass courtyard like a colonial bull. It is eggshell white, and its three stories slope and curve with jagged edges and antique designs. Fog hangs around its spires. From the street, the windows peek out like eyeballs. A swath of fabric roams across one window. In another, a ceramic chain dangles bleatingly, hung in an open room. Figures cross from pane to pane; you are unsure if they are ghosts. The arms of the house swing open, the door is a mouth. Stepping into the house, you are sure you will be eaten. It will be good. You walk into the house, drawn in.

There are two people at the door: One of them is in all black, the other wears a pair of bright yellow earrings. Behind them spirals a majestic oak staircase, the walls coated in colorful wallpaper. A chandelier floats in the air. There is no immediately understood organization within the house – it appears as rooms have dropped out of the sky. Rooms appear miraculously from behind closed doors and then are lost once you turn your back; much like the scattered thoughts of your mind. This is the Wedding Cake House, and what I have just stumbled into is an open house, an artist residency, thrown by the leaders of the feminist artist-run Dirt Palace.

I am somewhat unfamiliar with the idea of a residency. It exists in the part of my mind where ethereal concepts float around, such as “paid vacation time” and “taxes.” Dirt Palace co-directors Xander Marro and Pippi Zornoza usher me into the magical house, telling me to wander around and find some of the artists. I turn corners and climb up rickety ladders to attics. The main staircase is coated in a carpet of blue, orange, and yellow lava-lamp patterns. Looking down from the third floor, I wouldn’t be surprised if it started shifting, and the clowns in the pictures on the wall started talking.

In the first room I meander into, there are strings going from wall to wall, photos hang on each string . A collage of faces and poetry. A bed sits in the middle of the room, there is a couch, a desk, an old fireplace, and flowers on the wall. I ask around quietly if anyone around is the artist, before I realize there isn’t anyone but the art in the room.

I find another room. There is an ironing board set out in the middle of this one, with a book upon it, titled The Original Punk Parent Zine. Pieces of fabric are everywhere, a lot of them velvet.

I ask two people standing against a wall, reading a pamphlet written in spontaneous prose, if they are the artists. They look at me, both wearing masks, but I can see their eyes smiling: “No, no. We quilt with her though!” As I am about to get sucked back into the vortex of the house, a woman bursts out of a bathroom I thought was a closet. “Hello, yes! I am the artist.” China Martens is the brief owner of this room, as one of the artists in residency — it’s her fabric that swings from the windows. She is a tall, gentle woman, and she tells me that she is a writer, and has been hoping that working with fabric again will allow her to reestablish a writing practice, saying “Velvet is a soft place for me to get back to writing.” She has trouble sleeping at night, because the house is just “so cool.” So she wakes up and writes, hastily unscrambling the scrambled thoughts of the house, a dream, her art.

I find her neighbor, Lexie Mountain, sitting on a couch. They sit with crossed legs, wearing all black, with laughing eyes. Their room reminds me of the ocean. Mountain works in watercolors, and a wall is covered in the shifting patterns of the currents of their paint. From the bathroom, a soundtrack plays ghostly moaning sounds and eerie cords. Later, Mountain tells me they made those sounds in their studio at the Dirt Palace. On their bed lies some of their work. One in particular stands out to me: a beautiful watercolor from the cliffs of Lima, Peru. Their dad has dementia, and Mountain recently had to sacrifice their artist space so that he could move in. Having the space again to create art, and not take care of anyone or worry about anything, was essential for the survival of their practice. Mountain says, “Me and the line have a relationship. I like to create the line and follow it with the watercolors. I feel like I work intuitively and sort of just chase color all over the page and see what happens.”

The artist talk begins, and Mountain gets ushered out of the room. Following them downstairs, I find myself in a room with a large mirror, various chairs of different sizes and ages are placed on the floor like teeth. As soon as I sit down on a wooden chair upholstered with cats, the large chandelier hanging above me shuts off. The artists of the residency, Ariel Bordeaux, Amra Brooks, Janelle Gramling, Hannah Liongoren, Martens, Sage Morgan-Hubbard, and Mountain, begin their presentations.

The artist presentations are less explanations of the work done, and more tearful exultations of the people they are, the people they have become, and the friends they have met. Martens shares a heartfelt letter Gramling wrote to her during the residency. Liongoren, an artist from the Philippines who moved to PVD to attend RISD, shows slides of her cartoon project about experiencing snow for the first time. Bordeaux starts off her talk with a cartoon about ovaries escaping the body during menopause, while Brooks shares excerpts from her manuscript about chasing her memories, and confesses that “At first, I didn’t want to have to eat dinner with anyone in the residency. But now it feels like home.” The talk ends with Morgan-Hubbard, whose talk takes the form of a slam poem. As she reads to the audience about being a tired woman, about existing, about jobs she’s unqualified for, about the jobs in life that she didn’t want; the papers fall to the ground as her words fill the ears of the audience. I can feel the artists letting go, and though none of us will ever know the exact experiences that these artists shared, I can feel its power.

To learn more about Dirt Palace and their events, exhibitions, and residencies, visit