California Forum

As housing, lost and desired, fixates California, an artist paints the spirit of home

Artist Alexandra Hammond, 36, grew up in Davis. After the wine country fires in October, she says, she found herself in her Brooklyn studio painting giant, translucent, silken California homes.


“Ghost houses,” she calls them, adding that, as with most art, it isn’t entirely clear where they came from. She was working on backdrops and scrims at the time, and experimenting with silk after a trip to China. But there was also the news from home, and the stories she was hearing from friends and loved ones in the thick of the state’s headlines – the housing crisis pricing young people like her out of shelter and the climate fueled disasters that have been making the scarcity worse.

“My dad [Jonathan Hammond] is an architect with a practice in Davis,” she says, “and I grew up in the midst of building issues. I’ve spent my life around issues of architecture and planning.”

Reading about the devastation in tracts such as Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, she says, “I was struck by the imagery of the suburbs and strip malls that were wiped out – the suburban sprawl but also the tile roofs, the archways in the doors.”

She says she found herself thinking: “How much is contained in the places where we live that could disappear in a moment?” Then remembering a swath of organza she had wanted to work with, she says, “suddenly, I was, ‘Omygod, I want to paint a huge house on silk.’”

Each ghost house, she says, is 86 inches by 83 inches, made of two strips of fabric, sewn partway down the middle “so they’re like a curtain and you can walk through them.”

The houses themselves are drawn in black India ink on pastel silks, modeled after the homes she grew up with that were built in the 1990s, but also after pictures in internet searches of homes in suburban Sacramento and the Central Valley.

“There’s a particular look when neighborhoods just kind of suddenly appear,” Hammond says.

And, it seems, there’s a particular feeling around their sudden disappearance, one that is increasingly floating into the consciousness of her generation – a sense of a promise that is increasingly ephemeral now, perhaps, or a social fabric that is far more fragile now than it once was.

So far, she says, she has finished three ghost houses. “I want to do a whole cul de sac.”

Shawn Hubler: 916-321-1646, @ShawnHubler