‘Art House’ review: How 11 visionary Americans rebuilt “home”

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

In 2016, millions of Americans are spiritually seeking some deeper connection with the world, according to many experts including scholar Diana Butler Bass. We are asking questions like: Where is God? And: How do we spiritually connect with the Earth? We’re collectively assembling a new sense of religious meaning, Bass argues in her new book Grounded. If you’ve a scholarly bent, you might know this process as bricolage: building something new from the things we find around us.

If such questions resonate in your life—then click over to Amazon right now and order a copy of Don Freeman’s new documentary: Art House. Especially if you’re reading this mid-summer and you may be planning some cross-country travel yet this year—get this documentary now because you’re likely going to want to visit some of the places shown in this film.

In less than an hour and a half, Freeman introduces us to 11 American designers, artists and architects who fully grounded themselves on the planet by creating visionary homes for themselves. Some of these homes served as studios, some as galleries for their collections and a few of them were conceived as enormous works of art. Nearly all of these designers were trying to integrate their vision—and I would call it their spiritual vision—of their place on the Earth.

It’s a tribute to Freeman’s editing skills that he makes these video visits in an average of 8 minutes per home—and, in that short amount of time, he delivers:

  • A brief bio of each person (some are better known as designers, some as artists and some as architects),
  • Plus gorgeous images of their stunning homes,
  • A bit of commentary by someone who knows the designer’s work,
  • And even some meditative sequences in which music plays as we view the designer’s creation.

I am a lifelong journalist who has reported across the U.S. for more than 40 years. I have always had a special interest in cultural diversity and I was amazed to find that I had never set foot in any of the 11 sites covered in this documentary. They stretch from the New York area to the American Southwest; most of them invite public tours; yet I’ve missed all of these … until now. I’ve just added half of these to my own “must see” list of quintessentially American sites.

Who are these 11 designers?

All are gone. That’s the first thing to know about this collection of profiles. What they have left behind, as a spiritual and artistic statement to the world, are the eccentric homes they inhabited.

The most famous of the 11 is Frederic Church, a giant in the Hudson River School of painting. If you’ve toured any major art museum across the U.S., you’ve surely paused at one of Church’s vast canvases. This documentary takes us to Church’s remarkable mansion Olana, which was designed to showcase vistas of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains.

At the other extreme is Raoul Hague, an American artist of Armenian descent who apparently is so little known today that he does not have a listing in Wikipedia. His fascinating little house in New York doesn’t seem to be open to the public. Nevertheless, the video reflection on his home is one of the most intriguing. And, illustrating the overall theme of the documentary, the home is what I would describe as his spiritual testimony. A commentator explains that, during his lifetime, Hague only gave one formal interview. He spoke to the world through what he created.

How grounded are these designers?

One of the best illustrations of what I am describing as spiritually grounded is Russel Wright, who sometimes is called an “industrial designer” and is most famous for the curving style of everyday ceramics he launched in the 1920s. Toward the end of his life, he poured his visions and hopes into the creation of Manitoga in Garrison, New York.

Don Freeman’s meditation on Manitogia—and it is appropriate to describe the segments of this film as 8-minute video meditations—opens the documentary and sets our imaginations to pondering the many ways that the natural world should become a greater part of our daily lives.

The other designers whose homes are featured are:

  • Paolo Soleri, who built his gallery and studio Cosanti not far from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Arizona.

  • Henry Chapman Mercer, a multi-faceted collector, scholar, designer and theorist about the distinctively North American nature of our culture.
  • Another Arizona resident Michael Kahn whose extremely unusual home was known as Elephante. Kahn is likely another designer you’ll discover for the first time in this film. Currently, like Hague, he doesn’t have a Wikipedia biography.
  • The prophetic Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, one of the many 19th century American utopians who, in 1902, established the Byrdcliffe Colony. That center is open to this day and claims to be America’s oldest, continuously operating arts-and-crafts colony.
  • Wharton Esherick was influenced by Rudolf Steiner and developed very distinctive curving lines in his work—often drawing from inspiration in the natural world. The documentary features a spiral staircase in his home that is described as “like a gnarly old oak tree—a living, breathing Druidic totem that he brought inside his home.”
  • George Nakashima was subjected to Japanese internment during World War II, yet managed to continue with his artistic vision undimmed. Today, his daughter continues to operate his studio.
  • Finally, if you are interested in contemporary art, you’ve probably seen a piece by Costantino Nivola but you may have never heard his name or heard his story until now.

I will point out the obvious: They are all men. Given the eras Freeman is exploring in the film, the construction of large, unusual homes was often the grand vision of male designers. Louise Blanchard Bethune claimed the title “America’s first professional woman architect” in 1881. More women became noted architects in the early 20th century, but much of their struggle was to compete with male architects for significant contracts. There weren’t as many visionary women in the eras covered in this film who had the financial independence and opportunity to launch vast personal construction projects.

But that’s not an excuse. For example, Freeman ignores Charles and “Ray” Eames in this film, who clearly would have qualified and Ray was an equal partner with her husband in his designs.

Here’s my hope: I hope Don Freeman gets the funding to make Art House 2 and perhaps devotes that documentary to the aspirations and visions of America’s pioneering women in design. The format of this first film is wonderful. There are great discoveries here for viewers. Don, we just need more documentaries!

Care to learn more?

Here’s a short trailer for the documentary:

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