Redefining Redlining, 2022–ongoing. View of “Blooming in Bronzeville” celebration of tulips in Washington Park neighborhood, Chicago, April 2023. Photo: © Sandra Steinbrecher, ©Amanda Williams, Courtesy the artist

Beautiful Returns: A Conversation with Amanda Williams

Artist and architect Amanda Williams grew up in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. On a map produced by the federally sanctioned Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), this area was colored red, designating residents as ineligible to receive federal housing loans—a discriminatory, racially motivated practice known as “redlining.” Though formally abolished in 1968, its enduring effects remain visible in American cities, a fact that Williams boldly confronts in Redefining Redlining—a public artwork created in tandem with a larger set of projects spearheaded by the nonprofit Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative and its Terra Firma initiative, which is working to beautify, maintain, and activate over 200 acres of vacant land on the South Side.

Redefining Redlining isn’t Williams’s first public art project. In 2014, she began painting abandoned houses in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood with monochromatic colors corresponding to commercial products specifically marketed to residents (Ultrasheen Hair Grease, Currency Exchange, Crown Royal Bag). Color(ed) Theory called attention to the neglect of these spaces (and by extension, of the people who had lived in them) by local authorities. The houses were eventually demolished, but Williams’s efforts (undertaken without permission) garnered unexpected attention. The New York Times Magazine recently listed Color(ed) Theory among the “25 most important works of postwar architecture.” In 2022, Williams was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.

Redefining Redlining, 2022–ongoing. View of 100,000 tulips in bloom in Washington Park neighborhood, Chicago, May 2023. Photo: © Amanda Williams, Courtesy the artist

Jonathan Rinck: Chicago is famous for its iconic skyline, but much of your work draws inspiration from the residential South Side. What is it about the South Side that captures your imagination? Amanda Williams: I grew up on the South Side. The city’s history of segregation made a strong impression on how I observed places evolve or devolve. Obviously, the world-class architecture of downtown Chicago is the epicenter of the city. But what I saw growing up was the destruction of a lot of equally beautiful historic structures on the South Side, and this cognitive dissonance inspired me to want to become an architect.

JR: You studied architecture at Cornell University, but you had a concentration in studio art. What are some architectural ideas that resonated for you and entered your studio practice?
AW: A lot of conversations in school revolved around Lefebvre’s concept of spatial practices, related to how we move through and between space. It seems obvious, but the more you think about it, the more nuanced and layered you realize these practices get, based on culture, geography, history, technologies, power dynamics, resources, and environmental issues. All of those things come into play. Architects have the ability to shape these movements.

The questions that I have across all media are really the same. I’m always thinking about ways that we shape space and about helping people understand how they are occupying spaces either unwittingly (based on someone else’s agenda) or through their own agency. I want to skew toward the latter and help people understand their own self-determination, even when they feel like they’re in a structure—literally, a physical structure—like the projects or a prison. Or expansive, imaginative spaces that we associate with a kind of liberation: public spaces, cultural spaces. What are ways to complicate all that and help people think differently about things they take for granted? I’m still applying what I’ve learned through architecture, though sometimes it comes in the form of painting, sometimes sculpture, and sometimes as a public art installation.

Redefining Redlining, 2022–ongoing. Volunteer activation of 100,000 tulip bulbs planted as a site-specific installation in Washington Park neighborhood, Chicago. Photo: Daris Jasper Photography, © Amanda Williams, Courtesy the artist

JR: My first introduction to your work was Color(ed) Theory. Was that your breakthrough moment?
AW: Prior to Color(ed) Theory, I had a robust existence as an abstract painter in the Oakland Bay Area and practiced architecture for about six and a half years (as I like to say, the “capital A” version of an architect). I worked for wonderful firms and was part of a team that built several fantastic buildings—everything that I expected would be the outcome of my architectural education. But in the early 2000s, I made the transition to painting full-time. My “breakthrough moment” was really when I left my job, but it was very personal, and there was no press release.

Color(ed) Theory is a 20-year evolution of me trying to sync two beloved halves—architect and studio-based artist. It’s the marriage of those two things in which you see 20 years of understanding paint in an art historical sense, and 20 years of having built and thought about architecture in a very traditional sense. Color(ed) Theory was liberatory, unsanctioned; it was at a scale I couldn’t imagine. For me, it was a breaking open or synthesizing of everything that I’d been producing in silos.

JR: Before the project became famous, and it was just you and your husband, did you ever second-guess what on earth you were doing?
AW: No. I have a wonderful husband. He’s a huge success in his own right; he was a professional athlete, so he understands the idea of big dreams and aspirations, as well as what it means to do something that nobody else can quite see yet. You know you can do it, but there are a million people explaining why it can’t happen or why it doesn’t make sense or why you should try something else. He really helped me by saying, “You don’t have to have it figured out. You have a question. You need to answer this question for yourself, and it’s a little scary, but what’s the worst that can happen? Let’s go for it.”

Redefining Redlining, 2022–ongoing. Volunteer activation of 100,000 tulip bulbs planted as a site-specific installation in Washington Park neighborhood, Chicago. Photo: Daris Jasper Photography, © Amanda Williams, Courtesy the artist

JR: Were you surprised at how the project was received?
AW: There was a bit of a provocation, but I didn’t expect that scale of response. The idea was: What is the value of this one gesture toward this piece of architecture? Is this gesture enough to make this thing, which people say is not valuable, valuable? And what is the symbolism of this piece of architecture, which is really a stand-in for human beings and is saying that the people who live in this area are not important or valuable, so the things that they exist in are not important or valuable? I had the authority to do this without permission because no one cared. If I were to do the same thing on Chicago’s North Side, I’d be arrested immediately; you can’t just paint somebody’s house. So, what are the stakes in these actions and these gestures? I did not expect that people the world over would understand it, ask the same questions, and want to interrogate for themselves the role that they have played or could play or should be playing in that conversation. It didn’t fix anything. I was one person doing something that resonates, but the objective was not to solve the problem, it was to expand how we approach the problem.

JR: Your latest public art installation is Redefining Redlining. What is redlining?
AW: Redlining is shorthand for a program enacted by the federal government in the late 1930s to create a series of maps that would determine who should receive homeowner loans. They created a four-color legend to grade different zones—red, yellow, green, and blue, with red being not lendable. Any areas colored red were deemed hazardous. Redlining is an evocative idea about demarking a boundary that says, “This space is bad.”

The University of Richmond did a fantastic job of translating those maps into interactive digital tools; that was the first time I could really delve into them as cartographic objects. I think it also helped expand understanding of just how systemic this was. It was holistic, a full-on, sustained effort to map American cities in this way.

Redefining Redlining, 2022–ongoing. Volunteer activation of 100,000 tulip bulbs planted as a site-specific installation in Washington Park neighborhood, Chicago. Photo: Daris Jasper Photography, © Amanda Williams, Courtesy the artist

JR: Along with many volunteers, you planted 100,000 tulips, marking the footprints of 21 former homes on the site. Everything you do seems intentional and considered, so why did you choose tulips?
About six years ago, I had a conversation with my husband about economies and booms and busts, and he mentioned that in the mid-1600s there was a brief tulip bulb craze in the Netherlands known as Tulip Mania. Speculation reached such a frenzy that some bulbs were rumored to have reached the value of a house. The poetics of that seemed powerful—a tulip bulb could equal a home. Also, from a formal standpoint, tulips are like a line or a pencil mark. They come to a point, as opposed to flowers that grow in a more amorphous way. There’s a geometry to them. I marinated a long time on what form this analogy of a tulip and a house could take.

Then, as with many art projects, there was a perfect storm—an invitation to participate in the exhibition “Citing Black Geographies” (2022, GRAY Chicago and then New York) and a random early morning conversation with my longtime friend Ghian Foreman, who heads Emerald South. The organization had been thinking about innovative ways to bring life back to vacant parcels all over the South Side. Much of their emphasis is on creating economic engines, care, environmental justice, and remediation of the soil and the land. My work is a bit of an outlier in that it’s primarily an art project, but it has these secondary benefits.

JR: The project website mentions that the houses should still be there. What’s the story behind that?
There’s another set of maps called Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. Dating back to the late 1800s, Sanborn maps were used to confirm the locations of things like property boundaries, outlines of buildings, dwelling and construction type: all the things that fire insurance agents would use to verify the degree to which a structure is a fire hazard. They’re more neutral than redline maps, and they’re much more comprehensive, showing parcels, lot lines, and easements. We used those to reinscribe the houses that were there at least as late as the 1950s, which tells you that 60-plus years ago these houses were there, and there seemed to not be any intention to demolish them.

When you look at all the factors that created their absence, redlining is a critical seed. There’s a ton of other contributing factors, but redlining is a huge catalyst of the erasure. Jobs and home ownership are the source of people’s ability to be economically stable. If people can’t own their homes, at what point are they going to go away? How long will it take if someone doesn’t own their home and can’t be invested in their neighborhood, before they are forced to leave? And how long after that does the structure deteriorate and get torn down? We’re at the back end of that trajectory, and this project creates bread crumbs for people to trace back to when these homes existed, to unearth these important stories.

Redefining Redlining, 2022–ongoing. View of 100,000 tulips in bloom in Washington Park neighborhood, Chicago, May 2023. Photo: © Amanda Williams, Courtesy the artist

JR: How has the project been received?
Similar to Color(ed) Theory, beyond what I could imagine. My emphasis is always on immediate context and neighbors, and for the most part, they’ve been elated. Many feel proud, and it brightens peoples’ day. One guy said, “This improved my mental health.” A lot of people don’t know that I’m the artist when I’m on site, so it’s great to get unvarnished reactions. There are mixed opinions among neighbors about whether cutting personal bouquets ruins the art. And then, the scale, the magnitude of that many tulips has attracted attention from all over, getting people to pause and think, “Why shouldn’t this happen here?” On the other hand, people come because it’s an anomaly and they just can’t imagine it. But why wouldn’t you come here? You go downtown every day and see the flowers in the median along the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue.

There’s also some skepticism, obviously, like, “The fix is in. Development is coming.” Or a fear that now people are coming to see this, it’s going to make them interested in a way where it was almost better when nobody cared. Those are all real questions, and it’s healthy skepticism, but I hope that this also infuses some joy. It’s a little bit of me thinking and asking for help and coming together and doing something. It’s an ask with low stakes. It’s not a commitment for the rest of your life. This is not becoming an activist. This is not becoming a gardener. This is a couple hours to do something that has a beautiful return. But the impact will last much longer.