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Artist transforms North Side rowhouse over the course of 3 months

| Saturday, March 11, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
'Dennis Maher: A Second Home' at The Mattress Factory.
Roy Engelbrecht
'Dennis Maher: A Second Home' at The Mattress Factory.
'Dennis Maher: A Second Home' at The Mattress Factory.
Roy Engelbrecht
'Dennis Maher: A Second Home' at The Mattress Factory.

An architectural wonderland that re-imagines the environment of a house, “A Second Home” is the creation of Dennis Maher, a Buffalo-based artist, architect, educator and founder/director of Fargo House, Buffalo, a house he has been living in and simultaneously transforming since 2009.

In similar fashion, Maher transformed a row house at 516 Sampsonia Way, owned by the Mattress Factory, over the span of three months last year into a mysterious wonderland that visitors can meander through in utter amazement at how he has co-mingled art and architecture to create a truly immersive environment.

Encompassing all three floors of the building, Maher and his assistant, Scott Bye, have cobbled together everything from architectural elements, such as doors, moldings and window panes, to toys, architectural models, video projections and audio elements.

“Houses are magical spaces, activated by memories, dreams and desires,” Maher says. “For this project, I wanted to intensify the house's real and fictitious attributes, promoting the discovery of its many mysterious pieces and layers.”

To that end, Maher built into the existing environment a multilayered collage of elements, making a veritable patchwork quilt of various architectural styles and periods.

“The density of assembled parts starts to suggest that the house is a very large model — a kind of miniature city that takes many forms,” Maher explains. “These forms might be a workshop, a construction site, a library, a ruin, an archaeological dig, a playground, or even an inhabitable cabinet. For me, these are all spaces of wonder and delight.”

Maher began working on the project May 31, 2016, and worked every day on it until Aug. 12.

“The time it takes for me to realize my projects is always a tough subject for me to address,” he says. “I do not think of my work as static — the environments that I build are constantly changing. In addition, I re-use and re-formulate pieces from past projects, so the sense of time is very layered.”

Maher says the objects that he works with have their own complex histories. “The house on Sampsonia Way, for example, is over a 100 years old. So, there are many different dimensions of time coming together.”

To get the project started, Maher brought two truckloads of material with him to Pittsburgh. These materials were collected over several years. While in Pittsburgh, Maher says he spent a good deal of his time collecting materials from around the city, from flea markets, thrift stores, salvage yards, antique shops and other second-hand sites.

“It was important to me to really insert myself into the city, and to feel like an inhabitant of the house,” he says.

“A Second Home” also features unique contributions from Miriam Devlin, Kate Joyce, Michael Koliner, Racheljoy Rodas, Daniel Salomon and Cameron Neuhoff, six Pittsburgh-area artists whose work engages the construction of environments.

The furniture elements were provided by the Society for the Advancement of Construction Related Arts; and a soundscape composed for and from the house, with all its wonderful creaking noises, was created by Dubravka Bencic and Kevin Bednar.

It's also worth noting that the house's wall constructions contain quite a few extraordinary objects culled from the private collections of the Mattress Factory's original inhabitants, museum co-directors Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk, who are both voracious collectors of art and antiques.

Maher says he hopes that “A Second Home” will provide visitors with an alternative image of what a house and a city might be, such as his own home in Buffalo, The Fargo House (thefargohouse.com), which is a house once slated for demolition that is now a continuous accumulation of salvaged materials and artifacts.

“I want to offer a shared space that encourages people to think creatively about the built environment and within which visitors can look, seek and contemplate,” he says. “Houses are wonderfully personal spaces that nurture our psyches. Cities embody values of diversity, incompleteness, and heterogeneity while embracing the creative contributions of many hands. These values should be reinforced at many scales, in order to protect the future of our social spaces and to nurture our collective imagination.”

The installation will remain on view through Aug. 12, 2019, and aspects of the house will continue to transform over the next two years, with projects realized in collaboration with the Mattress Factory education department and involving students of architecture from the University of Buffalo and Carnegie Mellon University.

Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.

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