In anticipation of The Listening tomorrow, January 24, sculptor TJ Volonis shares his reflections on the Far Rockaway Redevelopment Fund’s first art project, “House of Cards.” The Fund is aimed at creating something out of the wreckage left by Hurricane Sandy and revitalizing the Rockaways. The Listening is a bi-montly acoustic listening session to raise funds to support the art projects.

My involvement with The Far Rockaway Redevelopment Fund (FRRF) is the continuation of an increasing stream of artistic consciousness and experience. It began with the curated inclusion of one of my sculptures in Art From the Heart 2012 (AFTH2012), The Vanderbilt Republic‘s artist cooperative.

tj volonis house of cards far rockaway redevelopment fund untapped new yorkPhotos by George Del Barrio

This led directly to Interdependence: my first solo showing at The Republic’s project space, Gowanus Loft — curated by George Del Barrio, VR’s founder.

interdependence tj volonis untapped new yorkPhoto by George Del Barrio

Originally scheduled for November 1, Interdependence had to be postponed when hurricane Sandy rolled through the tri-state area. Undaunted, we rescheduled for the last week of November ”” and the show was a tremendous success. After the adrenaline from the experience subsided, George gathered together 3 artists from AFTH2012, including myself, and offered us the first Far Rockaway Redevelopment Fund commission.

My first reaction was doubtful, but I wanted to get more information. Since I respected my potential collaborators, I opened myself to the current and flow of the Far Rockaway Redevelopment Fund. Our first order of business was to scout the Rockaways to understand the situation on the peninsula and gather ideas for materials and locations. The trip out proved to be a powerful mix of impressions. Certain parts were very visibly damaged: buildings lifted off of foundations and slammed into others, whole city blocks of houses razed to the ground, piles of rubble piled wherever possible, boats left on high ground far from their slips, the walls of beachfront properties licked clean from the structures exposing each floor of their dollhouse interiors.

hurricane sandy far rockaway redevelopment fund untapped new york
Athena Azevedo & TJ Volonis at Far Rockaway. Photograph by George Del Barrio.

We knew that every structure on the peninsula had to be heavily affected, but many seemed almost normal from the outside; it was disturbing.

When Athena, Vanessa and I came back and met as a group we discussed various ideas and what imagery and message we intended. The process was very organic and smooth, moving from one concept to the next until we decided to merge several different ideas into one. It really addressed the disconnection we saw between what nature intends and how humans have decided to live.

Far Rockaway Redevelopment Fund #1 proposal illustration.
Far Rockaway Redevelopment Fund #1 proposal illustration.

When George reviewed the proposal, he stripped much of it away, highlighting the core concept – a house of cards.

Planning and scheduling took longer than I’d hoped: the date we originally chose had to be delayed another week due to inclement weather. Ultimately, we started building on January 3rd and finished on January 4th. The first day was spent driving around in a van scouring Breezy Point for building materials. Since we had the basic structure in mind we were able to give ourselves direction as to the kinds of materials we were looking for. My team members saw potential in materials I didn’t think relevant but ended up contributing to a much richer sculpture.

house of cards tj volonis far rockaway redevelopment fund untapped new york 3
TJ Volonis & Vanessa Gonzalez-Bunster at Far Rockaway. Photograph by Athena Azevedo.

Letting go of my expectations was very challenging but tremendously enriching personally as well as creatively: it all came together. In our preliminary discussions we had decided on siting the piece in the Beach 130s: the unreal scenery of eviscerated homes was a perfect setting for the sculpture. Their violently exposed interiors gave an inarguable sense of how fragile and subservient we are to the forces that truly rule our planet.

All throughout this process I was a nervous wreck. When we were scavenging materials I was sure someone would come up to us and ask what we were doing and get angry, or claim that we weren’t allowed. Or worse, that the police would see us and take us in for questioning. This apprehension was with me throughout.

We started the physical building after lunch on January 3rd, which was a very smooth process of mapping out each “card” while adding creative flourishes from the remains of human habitation. We were fortunate to have been joined by someone outside the project (Anthony Illiano) who was able to ask very pertinent questions from a position of little bias that greatly helped clarify the final structure. Everyone worked collaboratively and independently at the same time, guided by a shared vision. As the sun set on the first day of construction, I was feeling much better because we were actually building something. It had been couched in so much theory and debate, but now it was taking shape.

Anthony Illiano, Athena Azevedo, TJ Volonis, Sarah Quinter & Vanessa Gonzalez-Bunster at Far Rockaway. Photograph by Sarah Grile.
Anthony Illiano, Athena Azevedo, TJ Volonis, Sarah Quinter & Vanessa Gonzalez-Bunster at Far Rockaway. Photograph by Sarah Grile.

We rode the train home together and agreed to meet early the next day at the van, which we parked in the Roackaways overnight. The next morning we finished building the panels, painting certain ones green and others blue for visual effect. The paint dried while we ate lunch and warmed up ”” the beach in early January is COLD! This gave us a much-needed respite to gather our energies for the final push: we had until 5pm (sunset) that day to erect the project and get pictures of it. My other team members made a flyer and passed it out to the businesses along Beach 116th street, the hub of the Rockaway community. Time was slipping through our fingers and I began to get nervous that we wouldn’t have enough time to join the panels together and put up the piece. We raced back to B138 and began to furiously construct the sculpture, the entire piece on its side in the sand.

TJ Volonis, Anthony Illiano & Athena Azevedo at Far Rockaway. Photograph by Sarah Grile.
TJ Volonis, Anthony Illiano & Athena Azevedo at Far Rockaway. Photograph by Sarah Grile.

There were a host of small problems that cropped up (they always do!) but we solved them as a group, completing the sculpture, and then discussing how to best stand it up. Then, all together, we hauled the sculpture to its feet right as the sun began to slip under the horizon… and it STOOD! There was such an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and relief that we had done it! We furiously photographed our House of Cards as the light slowly muted and faded.

Photograph by Jens Umbach.
Photograph by Jens Umbach.

Looking back on it all, the process was epic, teaching me so much more than I could have anticipated ”” the rewards have been tremendous. I could have never imagined that I’d be involved in a project like this; I’ve been a solo studio artist for my entire career. Through the experience of conceiving and constructing this House of Cards, I’ve really come to understand the power of collaboration, communication and community.

Read a message from George Del Barrio, founder of the Far Rockaway Redevelopment Fund. Buy tickets to The Listening here.