On The Jade Garden/Artists’ Apartment
In 1985, executive director Jock Reynolds commissioned, with the assistance of a Special Projects Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, artists David Ireland and Robert Wilhite to convert an 800-square-foot space in the WPA galleries in the Jenifer Building on 7th Street into living quarters for artists-in-residence and visiting scholars.
Although Ireland and Wilhite debated whether to use resources in Washington as the basis for their premise for the space, including research at the National Archives just one block away and mining warehouses of discarded government office furniture, in the end they decided that their own artwork would best serve the project. They traveled to DC to experience the space together and to hash out an approach. To begin the work, Ireland, assisted by WPA preparator and artist Jerry Monteith, constructed a floor plan akin to a playful labyrinth – Ireland later said that he wanted to create an adventure of sorts for the residents – and one that interwove the functions of the spaces. The adjacent kitchen and bath areas, for instance, were partially conjoined by curved walls connected by an eight-foot florescent light.
Ireland and Wilhite considered light to be a driving force in their design. Slit corrugated metal walls, granite countertops, and high-glossed wooden surfaces – walls, ceilings, and floors – allowed light to reflect and diffuse throughout the space, an effect that Wilhite described as gemlike. An industrial aesthetic of exposed sheeting and drywall, and sanded surfaces that revealed multiple layers of paint applied to the original walls over time, were surprising and innovative choices for a residential space, as was the choice to leave exposed the nails, screws, metal corner beading, and drywall seams. The exposed paint layers also provided an aesthetic counterpart to Ireland’s home in San Francisco, where such characteristics in the original doors and walls evoked the passing of time, and to earlier projects he had completed.
Wilhite developed for the space “simple, basic, multi-purpose and yet sculptural” furniture that complemented the apartment’s architectural aesthetic. He designed and installed a permanent twin-size bed of maple in a nook in the main living area, and constructed a small table with a curved back edge and simple chairs that could also be used as tables. A floor lamp inspired by Kandinsky’s concept of point, line, and plane provided additional light in the living/bedroom. Wilhite fabricated the freestanding pieces in California and shipped them to Washington for installation. In the end, Ireland and Wilhite transformed the WPA space into a “functional artwork” suited to its purpose, while also making the apartment seem much larger than the 800 square feet allotted to it.
In the summer of 2010, Wilhite commented on collaborating with Ireland, who passed away in 2009. For both artists, the experience was inspiring, rewarding, and fulfilling. Each respected the other’s points of view, and the freedom granted by WPA, as they seamlessly combined their aesthetics into a comfortable, spacious work and living quarter that was also a “unique artwork.”