Dan Havel and Dean Ruck admired Leonardo da Vinci’s deluge drawings long before Hurricane Harvey hit.
During the last few years of his life in the early 16th century, the Italian master made 11 lushly layered pencil sketches that captured the force of a flood so intense it uprooted trees and collapsed mountains and buildings.
Havel and Ruck especially liked the mechanics of upheaval da Vinci illustrated – the idea that “sound, water, air, anything can kind of reverberate and have cause and effect, creating other ripples around it, the chain-reaction effect of the action,” Ruck said.
That was the genesis of Havel Ruck Projects’ new immersive sculpture, “Ripple.”
A provocative fun house, “Ripple” circulates in swirly patterns that have been sliced through virtually every inch of a 1,400-square-foot bungalow at Cherryhurst House, the Montrose contemporary art compound founded by Dallas McNamara in 2012. Havel and Ruck have cut so thoroughly into the walls, ceilings and floors that visitors must be careful where they step – curvaceous slivers of floor rise up or drop away, revealing the soil underneath.
Havel Ruck Projects: ‘Ripple’
When: Noon-5 p.m. Sunday and April 15; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. March 24 and April 7; check website for future open dates
Where: 1603 Cherryhurst
Details: Free; cherryhursthouse.com
Next cut-up: ‘Open House’
Havel and Ruck are already planning their next project, and this time, it’s truly on sacred ground. The Downtown District and the Heritage Society have commissioned them to create a space at Sam Houston Park, hoping to draw more visitors to the historical buildings there. Not to worry: They aren’t tearing into one of those, and they’ve met with the Parks Department to ensure that they won’t damage trees, either.
They’ve bought a 16-by-24-foot home from Cherry Demolition’s storage lot that will be moved onto a prominent hill in the park in mid-April. They’ll fence it off while they’re working and plan to have it open by sometime in June.
“Open House,” as that one will be called, will be on view for nine months.
Havel expects it to resemble Swiss cheese, with a historical twist. He and Ruck plan to paper the walls with prints of old photographs of Houston and holes through the images to create a kind of puzzle – so viewers might view the skyline outside by looking through an image of a historical face, for example.
He imagines that at night, like “Ripple,” the “Open House” place will glow from inside. “The house will kind of disappear. I hope. Because it’s all an experiment.”
Until last July, the frame bungalow housed Cherryhurst’s artists-in-residence program. But Havel and Ruck are not typical artists in residence. During more than 20 years, they have made an art of transforming doomed buildings into traffic-stopping but ephemeral monumental sculptures.
Their history ranges from 2005’s “Inversion,” for Art League Houston, which created a vortex of wood scraps inside a pair of frame houses on Montrose Boulevard, to last year’s minimalistic “Sharp,” for which they cut an opening clear through the center of a mid-century home in Sharpstown and painted it in a gleaming, reflective copper.
Typically, bulldozers arrive a few weeks or months after Havel and Ruck unveil their work, and the show is over.
Cherryhurst curator Barbara Levine said she and McNamara wanted to challenge Havel and Ruck by inviting them into a building that was not scheduled for demolition and would be on view for at least a year.
“We try to find projects that will resonate in a domestic environment. ‘Sharp’ made a big impression,” Levine said. “We started thinking about that scale and the impact of thinking about home in a different way.”
The artists had a plan. But there was a “pause” at the beginning, after McNamara invited them to alter the Cherryhurst home, Havel said. “One final email, where we said, do you understand what we do?”
McNamara gave them just one rule: They could not penetrate the roof.
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Havel and Ruck started on “Ripple” last July, working nights and weekends since they both maintain full-time jobs. (Ruck is a project manager for capital construction projects at the University of Houston. Havel teaches art, architecture and history at St. John’s School.)
They wanted to riff on da Vinci’s idea, although they never really know until they bring out the saws where a project might lead.
“This was just a pretty wild possibility; seven months of thinking about a project, and every day it’s a new puzzle,” Havel said.
He and Ruck had long wanted to create a progressive, cut piece. “Then it became more about how we circumnavigate the architecture with this system of ripples,” he explained.
The home’s nice oak floors gave them a Eureka moment. “Part of it was the wood grain and just the beauty of the wood,” Havel said. The ripples they cut would be inspired by wood grain.
His models and drawings gave them a starting point, but before they lit into any surfaces with chain saws, Ruck “drew” the lines they would cut with painter’s tape. They debated, redrew. Discarded tape piled up on the floors as they improvised.
“All of our projects explore something different for ourselves in terms of process and approach,” Ruck said. “So there’s learning as you go – just the style of cut, and how to make the cuts you want, with design elements.”
Havel said he and Ruck don’t really think alike, describing his artistic partner as a formalist who sees what he wants, then finds it by doing, physically sculpting. Havel is more of a draftsman who prefers to work out ideas first on paper or with models.
“So a lot of our projects, he’ll describe something to me, and I’ll go home and draw it out,” Havel said. “Or I’ll get my sketchbook out and go, ‘Is this what you’re saying?’ ”
While they cut with the same visual language, when wood chips and dust were flying and saws were screaming, they worked in separate rooms but also fed off of each other’s discoveries about ways to work with shiplap, say, or pile debris into closets. And they often switched places, extending each other’s lines like a couple finishing each others’ sentences.
“The design challenge is to get it to blend and make sense,” Ruck said.
Working from the center of the house outward, they made their first cut in the floor because it was so tempting.
“Not a good idea, cutting the floor that you need to work on for the next six or eight months,” Ruck said, grinning. “So we stopped that. Did the walls, and the floors came last.”
They hadn’t yet poked through the exterior walls when Harvey blasted Houston in late August. The house didn’t sustain storm damage, but really, what would it have mattered?
In some ways, the hurricane made “Ripple” seem even more relevant: It doesn’t take much imagination now for a Houstonian to visualize the effects of a deluge.
And the sculpture doesn’t have to be taken literally; social, political and personal chaos upend lives in so many ways.
Somewhat amazingly, Havel and Ruck didn’t lose the home’s air conditioning until fairly late in the process, when the weather was cooler. But they inadvertently sawed through a few other electrical lines – enough that Havel started calling himself “Sparky.”
Before “Ripple” opened to the public, they rewired the entire structure, adding lights underneath, so that at night the house glows like a lantern.
Levine hung a small show of Havel and Ruck’s lesser-known, individual works in Cherryhurst’s main house, so visitors might gain a sense of how their aesthetics combine in their collaborations.
Havel’s complex drawings throb with chaotic energy while his more raw-looking assemblages reveal his deft hand with smaller-scale sculpture. Ruck shows himself as more of a carver: His sculptural pieces, built with layers of plywood that have been burnished and pocked, look organically decayed – like rubble from a fire.
Some preservationists are not happy about “Ripple.” The quiet enclave of Cherryhurst, built around a small park in the first half of the 20th century, is succumbing to redevelopment pressure; two new, contemporary homes are under construction within a block of the art space.
Havel understands, to a point.
“When we first saw it, we thought, ‘This is too nice of a house. I could live here,’ ” he said. But he also saw the maze of old wiring in the home’s attic, which had multiple owners over many years. He could see it had other problems as well.
Levine notes that McNamara lives next door in the main house, a restored, circa 1922 brick bungalow that she saved from demolition. She won a Good Brick Award from the group Preservation Houston for that effort in 2016.
“From our point of view, this is improving the cultural life of the neighborhood,” said Levine, who lived in the frame house as a resident for two years.
“I think the house looks a lot better now,” she said. “It was an unremarkable house that they have now turned into something remarkable and inspiring. … It’s challenging; it’s confrontational. … You ask all of these questions that alter your view about what can be done, what can be recycled, what happens when you give an artist a challenge? It challenges everything we think about home and houses. That’s what art is for.”
McNamara has not decided what she will do next with the sliced-up structure. Conceivably, it could be rebuilt, although that doesn’t look practical at this point, with holes through the exterior walls.
“Our intention is to leave it up for a year, to see how nature interacts with it, how people interact with it,” Levine said. “Whatever Dean and Dan want to do with it, if they want to bring other artists in, sound or dance, it’s a springboard for inspiration, for conversation about the relationship between domesticity and nature; how vulnerable we are to the elements.”