How a concrete wasteland has become a street-art wonderland called the HOPE Outdoor Gallery
On the morning of the first Sunday in June, Bob Wallace has a decision to make. The stay-at-home dad, who's been unable to find work as an animator since relocating to Austin from Iowa a year and a half ago, feels obligated to stay home and watch his kids for most of the day. But his wife of nearly 20 years senses that Wallace longs to be elsewhere on this warm, breezy day.
"She said, 'Go do what brings you joy,'" recalls Wallace, a newcomer to the street art world. "So I headed up here to 'the hill.'"
The hill he means sits below the old Texas Military Institute castle just west of Lamar at Baylor and 11th streets. In 2010, the nearly 1.25-acre property was in shambles – as it had been for years: a neighborhood eyesore choked with weeds, human feces, poison ivy, and the concrete-walled half shell of a condemned condo project from the Eighties.
But all that changed during SXSW in 2011, when the tired property known historically as "the Foundation" got a facelift. Thanks to a driven, former advertising pro named Andi Scull Cheatham and the help of some of her artist friends, the trash- and crap-littered lot morphed into the gloriously colorful, wonderfully chaotic HOPE Outdoor Gallery (aka the HOG), a privately owned, three-story community art project-turned-paint park that's been igniting lots of joy in lots of people – locals and tourists alike – ever since.
On this Sunday, the joy is evident everywhere: on the concrete canvases exploding with a vibrant mix of mindful street art and mindless graffiti; in the excited all-American boy from Round Rock, enthralled with the maze of bright walls and ledges he gingerly navigates, nimble ninja-style, while trying to keep up with his older siblings; in the swarm of multiethnic girls from Oklahoma enthusiastically bouncing from one giant mural to the next, pausing just long enough to snap a series of photos before the "Austin ... a new weird order" piece.
Not far from the HOPE Campaign/SprATX information booth-in-a-trailer – which debuted at the HOG the day before – a local woman and HOG veteran speaks with a fellow Austinite who just happened upon this place today. "We took pictures for our Christmas card here last year. A lot of our friends didn't even know about this place," says April Goyeneche, here with her 12-year-old daughter, Alexa, who says she can't wait for the day when she can paint her roller derby name – "Ali Goin'atcha" – on one of these walls.
A few levels up, a pair of road-tripping street artists work their spray-paint magic alongside a traveling wind-turbine tech/neophyte street artist they met just yesterday. The trio of large murals in the far southwestern corner of level three, each with a different color theme (yellow, red, aquamarine), is a visual feast for artist and art lover both.
"Once you come here and [paint], you just want to keep coming back," says the bearded artist, whose nom de spray-paint is Deathfox. "We came down here Friday from Dallas just to do this all weekend."
"And we're gonna do it again soon," pipes up Deathfox's buddy, Skele, barely taking his eyes off the large multicolored shark he's painting on the wall facing Downtown. "It's the freedom of the huge wall, man."
"And the topography!" chimes in Jules Aboloff, a friendly local photographer who claims to have been at the HOG every day over the last two years, taking shots of the art before it gets tagged or eliminated.
"Yeah," says the shirtless Skele. "It's just a cool location. This view is badass."
A couple of walls over, Bob Wallace – who's adopted the artist name "Daddy Otis" since he dove into the Austin street art world in March – explains the appeal of the HOG. "It's totally legal," he says. "But it feels anti-establishment. Working on video games, you're just part of the system. Whereas here, people get to see your stuff and you can build a name, build a following."
Andi Scull Cheatham knows a thing or two about building a following. In 2006, nearly a decade removed from getting her advertising degree at UT before working in the local advertising and publishing worlds, she moved to Los Angeles and started the nonprofit HOPE for Darfur. Scull (pre-Cheatham) launched the idea after hearing a talk given by Capt. Brian Steidle, a former Marine who shared chilling stories about what he'd witnessed in Africa.
"I wanted to help this guy stop the genocide in Darfur," recalls Scull Cheatham. "And I wanted to use artists and musicians to help raise awareness and raise money." She came up with the name HOPE – short for Helping Other People Everywhere – and ran it by some friends at Zambezi, Kobe Bryant's Venice Beach-based ad agency, who loved the idea enough to hook her up with Shepard Fairey, the street artist best known for another hope-inspired idea. (See Obama campaign, 2008.) Fairey agreed to join forces with Scull Cheatham and design the original HOPE logo and some HOPE T-shirts. Before long, Scull Cheatham was going to Sundance with Capt. Steidle and his documentary, The Devil Came on Horseback, while winning the admiration of people like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Mia Farrow, and Capt. Steidle himself, whom she would end up marrying, then divorcing after a year. ("I knew it wasn't right," she says. "Even when he asked me.")
A few years into the HOPE for Darfur campaign, Scull Cheatham realized that "none of this made a difference over there." Frustrated and looking to grow HOPE out in Austin, she moved back in 2009. Rather than focus on Darfur, the mandate for HOPE became creating events, developing projects, and providing ways for artists and musicians to collaborate and donate their talents to causes they're passionate about.
By 2010, Scull Cheatham had started the HOPE Farmer's Market, featuring the requisite farm-fresh items, plus yoga classes, live music, free booth space to nonprofits, original posters, and fundraiser CDs. "The idea was to bring healthy, fresh food to the Eastside community," says Scull Cheatham. "And to bring local artists and musicians to that community." (The market has won the last two Chronicle Best of Austin readers polls for Best Farmers' Market.)
In early 2011, Scull Cheatham heard from a friend about a piece of land that might be a good spot to promote the farmers' market. "I went and looked at the place," she says, "and I thought, 'I don't know about this.'" Remember, the site was overrun with garbage, thorns, feces, and poison ivy.
But Scull Cheatham soon became convinced it was a good idea and needed the blessings of the property owners: longtime local Vic Ayad, a founding principal at the investment firm Castle Hill Partners, and acclaimed Austin architect Dick Clark. Once again, Scull Cheatham rounded up more followers when the two partners agreed to let her use their vacant property for the HOPE Outdoor Gallery for one year.
Scull Cheatham worked hard to reclaim the property with artist friends like Josef Kristofoletti and future husband Bobby Cheatham, both of whom showed up that first day to help clean up the neglected hill. Then she again enlisted a helping hand from Fairey, who contributed his name and several giant LP covers from his "Revolutions" art exhibition to the HOG launch.
In the three years since, the HOG has become a local treasure, an open secret, and a destination for tourists who've seen stunning images of the gallery on Facebook and Instagram. It's a place for artists to share their work on large public canvases. All are welcome to paint, though anyone wanting to paint must register at SprATX (501 Pedernales Ste. 2-A, or the HOG info trailer).
The HOG has also become more than just a place to paint. It's a meeting ground, a place to hang out, learn, and make new friends. To Ayad, it's a throwback to mid-Seventies Austin, when there was plenty of open space and creative folks at every turn.
"What the Outdoor Gallery represents to me," says Ayad, who first road-tripped to Austin from his home in Amarillo at age 15, "are the very things that made me want to come to Austin and stay in Austin: independence, freedom, tolerance, welcome artistic expression, and, in no small way, the marriage between visual art and music."
Ayad has been such a fan of the HOG that he bought out his partner last year, signaling the end of development on the five-story condo that Clark had been so bullish on before the '08 market crash dried up funding sources for the project. Ayad calls the market downturn "truly a blessing in disguise" as it gave him time to "give some real thought to the impact on the neighborhood." He decided that he didn't want to obscure the incoming views of the castle, which was built during the Civil War to protect the state capitol, since it sits on the highest elevation Downtown.
Ayad's decision to hold off on developing the land has made many people very happy. One fan of the HOG is his old friend Chris Layton, the Double Trouble drummer who played with Stevie Ray Vaughan at Ayad's 21st birthday party. (Stevie Ray and Doyle Bramhall lived next door to the HOG site back in the day.) "I'm a traveling musician, so I don't get to see [the HOG] for a week or a month," says Layton before jumping in the Brazos River for a swim with his wife. "And when I come back to check it out, it's always like a whole other world over there. It's fascinating."
The fact that the HOPE Outdoor Gallery even exists after three years is a minor miracle. It sits on a chunk of prime real estate in the middle of the fastest growing city in America (sorry for the reminder). And the property not only isn't being monetized, it's costing Ayad over $75,000 annually to let the kids keep painting. Plus, there is exposed rebar, potholes, treacherous trails, and sheer drops without railings. "I have friends who are lawyers, and it blows their mind that anybody can walk up to this dangerous place," says Sweet, 40, a retired engineer turned full-time artist – thanks largely to her time spent learning and painting at the HOG. "Yet nobody has pursued anything against them. Amazing."
Ayad finds it "poetic" that Stevie Ray and Doyle Bramhall lived next door. (Not to mention Janis Joplin two doors down.) "As the location has really come into its own," says Ayad, "it has sort of self-policed away the occasional bad acts because there's so much good karma there."
Maybe the biggest disappointment – or the greatest teacher, depending on how you look at it – is the impermanence of the art. Don't fall too hard for that giant grasshopper painting because it might be defiled or altogether gone within days. "The last two times I've put something on the wall over there," says Kristofoletti, who painted the first complete mural when the HOG opened in 2011, "they were gone by the next day. And I'm okay with that. That's how street art works. But you get the feeling it's just some high school kids looking to have fun on a Friday night."
Back at the corner of the third level, Deathfox sounds at peace with his work getting defaced – although his buddy Skele saw him gripping hard yesterday after discovering someone had painted over his gorgeous feather headdress mural hours after Deathfox had finished it. Still, he claims he's okay with the short life span of his street art. "It's like an exercise in detachment," he says semi-convincingly.
To fill the void of the long-lost art pieces, Scull Cheatham has published a coffee-table book on the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, featuring some of the more memorable paintings over the years and the occasional profile of the artist who painted it. It's all part of Scull Cheatham's master plan to sell the world on the benefits of "paint parks."
"I thought there'd be educational value, like art teachers bringing their students or having classes here," says Scull Cheatham, 38, from her South Austin living room as she tries to dial down her enthusiasm lest she wake her sleeping 7-month-old daughter. "And I knew it'd be a great resource for commercials, filmmakers, photographers, music videos. We've had reality TV up there. But we didn't see all the other stuff."
Stuff like the HOG being the main destination of a Segway street art tour. Or moms showing up with crates of spray cans and cupcakes for their kids' birthday parties. Or artists getting paid work based on paintings they've put up at the HOG. There's even a business, SprATX, that has sprung up from all this art, a place where artists can show their work and have someone get them gigs. (More than one SprATX artist was hired to paint for the X Games.)
Then there's the social aspect. "I've met so many wonderful people I never would have met otherwise," says Sweet, who worked in corporate America for years before becoming a street artist at 39. "It's mind-blowing when you see the different ages, the different demographics, and the different backgrounds. You have people who are really good friends you just know you would never have met any other way."
"Seeing all this other activity has demonstrated that the idea of paint parks – like skate parks – could have a huge value in urban communities," says Scull Cheatham.
So what does the future hold for the HOPE Outdoor Gallery? In the short term, more food trucks and the information booth. And as more people hear about the place, the crowds are bound to increase. (Scull Cheatham says it gets 50-80 visitors a day now and is in serious need of some arts funding.) Then there's the local 13-year-old Eagle Scout, Richard Hadley, who has submitted a proposal to clean up the grounds – with the help of local frat boys and sorority girls – and add tables, fill in potholes, make flower beds, and plant milkweed in hopes of attracting monarch butterflies, whose population is on the decline. (Good job, Richard!)
As for how long Ayad is willing to float this creative playground-turned-social experiment, he's committed, at the very least, to letting the HOG live on until the end of 2015. "I'll stand behind it as long as I can afford it," he says. "But on the day it becomes economically unfeasible, I hope everybody looks at it as I do. Which is, instead of being sad that it's gone, we're all happy that it ever happened."
Andi Scull Cheatham will sign copies of HOPE Outdoor Gallery: 3 Years of Stories, People and Street Art in Austin, Texas Thursday, June 26, 7pm, at the Hotel San Jose, 1316 S. Congress; and Thursday, Aug. 7, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar. For more information, visit www.sprATX.com.