Mark Dejong is a sculptor of buildings. The formally trained artist, who has participated in the reconstruction of older homes for most of his working life, bought a turn-of-the-century building four houses down from the warehouse in which he lives in late December 2011 for a mere $5,000 — an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. His hope was not just to fix up his neighborhood, but also to discover how art might intersect with his love of home reconstruction.
Over the course of eight months, working nearly 60-70 hours per week, (and another several months of working only weekends once he got another “full-time” job,) the artist transformed the home on Avon Place in Camp Washington into the kind of building you’d expect to find on the nicest street in any of the best neighborhoods in Cincinnati.
Except it didn’t start out that way — hence the purchase price. And the detangling of the house from its previous incarnations, without sacrificing the different stories that took place there, is what Dejong’s work reveals with his particular combination of skills and aesthetic.
Avon Place is a one-block street on which many of the neighbors own their own homes and have lived a long time. Dejong purchased the “5K” house from its owners in Kentucky, who had ostensibly “sold” the property several months earlier on a handshake and handwritten agreement to a neighborhood friend. The aforementioned buyer, who’d lived across the street for decades, had recently come upon hard times and as part of the initial agreement, was expected to fix the place up for resale. For reasons later clearer to Dejong, he was unable to do so.
When electricity to his own home was cut off, the “buyer” moved in, forgetting any plans to fix the place up, and made the state of the building even worse. Exposed pipes and original cast iron radiators were scrapped for cash and the place was more than a metaphorical disaster area when Dejong took over. But he did what any good woodworker would do when given a rough piece of material: He started with a healthy reduction.
After scraping, sanding and peeling away layers, Dejong then built them back up in subtle yet significant ways.
He added reclaimed pieces throughout (many purchased from friends and contractors working on demolitions and reconstructions around the city) and reconstructed crumbling (or completely missing) facades with appropriate yet sometimes-surprising materials. For example, he recreated the lost cornice from the top of the home by adding new wood and turning salvaged upside-down salad bowls into decorative detail.
Dejong used reclaimed art room countertops from Schwab School in Northside for the countertop in the kitchen. When he unearthed a random swath of tile in a back room (it had been put into the then-kitchen of the house around 1910, when running water was first piped in) he used more reclaimed wood — wainscot bead board donated from a friend that he’d been “sitting on for awhile” — below the century-old tile, to make sense of them in their current location.
“I get all my answers in the process,” Dejong says, and — as pragmatic as he is about the steps involved along the way — he speaks of his work much as an artist would.
Finding inspiration in the form of a circle, the outline of which kept incidentally popping up throughout the refinishing process from the bottoms of buckets and so on, Dejong decided to purposefully incorporate the shape in the renovations. Trying to connect two rooms, he drilled a six-inch circle through several feet of brick between rooms connected by a fireplace. He wanted the circle to be much larger but couldn’t do so structurally, so he chiseled away the plaster that covered the brick to expose that instead. So now the fireplace houses a circle within a circle — the circle of exposed brick and then the round peephole.
When I asked him about the circular theme, he explained his thought progression much differently than one might expect from a construction manager: “I think [the sphere] became a guiding force at some point… I decided instead of fighting it, just to work with it and make it part of the language in the decisions that I make.” Clearly, this project was more than one man’s decision to fix up a home.
Dejong reveals construction methods, drawing visitors’ eyes to “imperfections” in the materials. For example, in several rooms, baseboards were replaced because the house was made into a two-family during the Depression — a typical case in many homes of that era. And although he himself makes his own “OG” baseboard, in a few areas he left it as it was.
He also purposely leaves a lot of the vestigial magic intact. Each shallow closet has a circle of original wall revealed, including undamaged antique floral wallpaper. Dejong also salvaged a lead supply line pipe and mounted it as a visual detail to the bathroom wall, because — although he couldn’t really use it in the construction of the home — he wanted to include the stunning object it as part of the house’s story.
Dejong has a formalist interest in his materials. A woodworker by trade, he is drawn to the “warmth” that wood brings a home and he has taken “some time” to develop his own reconstructive technique, which involves a good deal of elbow grease and only a thin coat on top to allow the material to be center stage.
But while he can wax poetic about the intricacies of his reconstructive process, he also acknowledges that there is a deeper goal in his artistic activities. “I have a journey with houses because in many ways I’m searching for the meaning of ‘home’,” Dejong confesses. “Wood gives you that warmth of a physical home, but it’s not just the physical space; it’s a comfort point.”
The fact that the artist’s warehouse space — once owned and used by his mother as her ceramics studio — is literally covered (floor, ceiling, cabinets and countertops, even the refrigerator) in various natural woods, speaks to his fascination with the material, as well as the ways our physical surroundings influence our quality of life.
After all, buildings — like each of us — are always more than the sum of their disparate parts.
For ongoing updates about the 5K HOUSE, visit 5kcincinnati.com.