Two-Story House and Garage


Location East Williamsburg

Price $300,000 (2001)

Square feet 2500 (lot)

Occupants Mike Ballou (artist; builder; director, Four Walls Projects and the Slide & Film Club), Kara Van Woerden (graphic designer)

An important thing happened. You, Mr. Williamsburg, in the neighborhood since 1983, living on the edge, in a garage, cold for 18 years—you have just bought a house and the first stove you’ve ever owned in your adult life! Now I hear your action has set off a buying frenzy among your Williamsburg colleagues in their forties—well, maybe six of them, who have been living similar, touch-and-go existences in commercial buildings. What made you do it? [Mike] I’d been thinking about buying for a while. I heard about this place last summer. You hear all these horror stories. But this was almost headache-free. Mary, the owner, had raised a family here, and she had a really reasonable price. My mortgage worked out to be cheaper than my old rent. Here’s a picture of us at the closing: a group of people agreeing on something we all want.

I heard you broke out in hives before the closing. That was before September 11. After—my closing date was September 12, but we postponed—I realized there are far worse things that can happen than losing everything you own. Everybody who buys a house fears this. Look, there’s an arbor in the garden. The grapes are glorious, so sweet—red, white ones. It’s like being in paradise. There’s all this stuff from the Italian immigrants, people around here were mostly from Naples. There’s a winepress in the basement, a fig tree. We’re putting an herb garden here. [Kara] No, that’s for the climbing vegetables. [Mike, inhaling his cigarette] Another wonderful day on Maspeth. The garden is Kara’s call. But I have a very green thumb. I’m going to widen the garage about eight feet, make it my studio.

Your house has yellow siding, like your video piece, a meditation on 95 kinds of siding. Here’s the Afro study room—orange walls, dark wood.

What’s this Post-it note on the computer? “I love you and will daydream of you today.” That’s from Kara.

Fortunately, being a big, tough builder, you know how to do renovation. I’m working myself to death here. I’m convinced I’m cheating myself on the job.

I heard you goofed up your kitchen counter. The contractor’s curse! Counter tops are pretty expensive, so I thought I’d just make them out of yellow pine stair treads and laminate them. When the time came to cut, I fucked it up. You do really nice work for jobs, but when it comes to yours . . .

How did you and Kara meet? Kara had bunion surgery. I saw her recuperating with crutches on her roof. This was last year. I waved. I said, “It looks like it hurts.” Later that day, I was working on some scaffolding. It fell. I broke my foot. A week later, we ran into each other. We were both on crutches. The rest is a very happy life.

I came over thinking we’d be talking about how Four Walls was always part of your house, how early on you became this prime force in an alternative world with one-day exhibits and art panels with hairdressers, priests, and psychiatrists in all those Williamsburg years when people carried knives to survive, and then that July day in ’88—the barbecue by the river; 200 came, you said. The streetwalkers were out and it was like groovy. You saw thunderclouds coming from New Jersey and you all thought, Nothing can hurt us. But then it rained. This was after you went to the Minneapolis School of Art and read Heidegger with a local plasterer and . . . [Kara] Did you see the worms?

Don’t come near me with that plastic chest! [Kara] They’re just for composting.

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