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The art of abandonment

Mary Gray

Mary Gray

November 26, 2012

A few miles south of where I live there’s an old DC prison complex which used to be known as Lorton Reformatory.  Several years ago they shut the place down and transformed a few of the larger buildings into a new “Arts Center” where painters, sculptors, and other creative folks can rent studio space and teach classes.

But the new Arts Center seems to be faltering.  The parking lot is usually 90% empty, even on a beautiful weekend like this past one.  It’s a shame.  It seemed like good idea to re-purpose the prison in a way that would promote the arts and provide a community asset.  But the place always seems vacant and lifeless.  People — the magic ingredient in any succesful public place – are conspicuously absent.

In the vast overgrown space beyond the Arts Center, many of the other prison buildings have languished and been invaded by pear saplings and honeysuckle.

Here there is real magic.

Here, among the dust and weeds and crumbling brick, neglect has created places that are magnetic, intriguing, perhaps even poetic.

Why is it so much more thrilling to explore the accidental art of these abandoned landscapes than the intentional art being created inside the refurbished buildings?

Is it the way nature creeps in to the hardest, most barren places and makes them soft again?

Is it the voices of the past that linger beneath broken concrete and smothering vines?

Is it the way these landscapes make clear how small, how transient, our best human efforts really are?

Why is the human handprint so much more captivating once all the humans are gone?

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Catherine Stewart
11 years ago

That photo of your son (yes?) peeking in the window is one of the best photos I’ve seen in ages. Incredibly atmospheric. So many new landscapes are as institutional as the buildings they surround. Clean, neat, no soul. And what a mis-match here – an artists’ precinct with a sterile garden??? No wonder the people do not come. What a waste.

Mary Gray
11 years ago

I know, they really need to do SOMETHING with the grounds, though I’m not sure exactly what. Would be a good project for a Landscape Architecture student, but if they tried to turn it into some sort of hippie veggie garden cooperative I would SCREAM.

Alison S
Alison S
11 years ago

Just some trees to soften that vast, flat expanse of grass in front of the Arts Center would make a huge difference. People seem to find completely open spaces a bit intimidating. Looking at what nature has made of the old buildings and spaces makes me wonder, for the nth time, whether I should just let nature take its course with my hard-to-manage garden. But when “nature” seems to consist largely of pernicious weeds, benign neglect doesn’t go down well with the neighbours!

10 years ago

Why is the human handprint so much more captivating once all the humans are gone? I’ve long wondered the same having been drawn to the quiet, abandoned places since I was young. I think for me it is that combination of nature reclaiming and the lesson of the ultimate futility and fragility of humans – even though we like to think we rule the world. I suspect too that spirits congregate in these areas, swept aside by the noise and frenetic energy in the more populous areas and it is in these places we can commune more easily with them. I could also relate to your comment about the abandoned parts being more compelling than the self important art that is often created in studios. I started off as an artist but being in the garden has overtaken the pleasure I used to feel in creating art and replaced it with an awe and fascination with the life that already exists around us. Thank you for such a beautiful and thought provoking piece.