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story.lead_photo.caption Chris James (left) and Sandrekkia Morning are two members of The Roots Art Connection who are helping renovate a house at 1020 W. 21st St. in Little Rock. James is the executive director of the nonprofit. - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

This can be pulled off.

Photo by John Sykes Jr.
The Roots Art Connection is renovating a house at 1020 W. 21st St. in Little Rock as part of its Buy Back the Block project. Once finished, the house will be leased to local artists who will introduce arts programs to the neighborhood.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Chris James, the executive director of The Roots Art Connection, at The House of Art in North Little Rock, the nonprofi t group’s headquarters and gallery space.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Contractor La’Dell Lawson, owner of D-1 Services in Little Rock, is helping the artist-led Roots Art Connection renovate a house at 1020 W. 21st St. in Little Rock.
Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Chris James (left) and Sandrekkia Morning stand on the front porch of a house in Little Rock that The Roots Art Connection is renovating.

Not overnight. Not in a month or two. But it can be done.

This defeated house on West 21st Street, just southwest of downtown Little Rock, can be renovated.

Sure, the house's front porch is a collection of 2-by-6-inch wooden planks laid across bricks, and random other boards prop up the porch's roof, which has sagged for years and wants so badly to slump back into its old ways.

And there are vines growing up through the house's almost century-old walls. And the house needs rewiring. And the chimney -- where water leaks through -- needs removing, the foundation needs bolstering and the yard needs landscaping. And, basically, the house needs to be stripped down to studs and concrete and rebuilt.

But this house can be restored, and made newer, better, stronger.

Chris James says so, and James is the kind of guy no

one doubts.

He's the founder and executive director of The Roots Art Connection, a North Little Rock-based nonprofit that purchased this eyesore of a house earlier this year as part of the organization's Buy Back the Block program.

Their dream? Rebuild the house, built in 1920, and rent it to artists. The artists will, in turn, give back to the Dunbar community where the house is and revitalize the neighborhood through their artwork, and just plain work.

James, 26, envisions a community garden nearby, after-school programs for youths in the area and artwork on boarded-up windows on other houses in the neighborhood.

"We want to go to neighborhoods that are considered the ghetto or the 'hood and make it something beautiful by bringing art-related projects there," James says. "That will immediately transform the community. You won't ride through and just see plain, abandoned houses, but houses with art on them. That changes the whole look."

The Art Connection has already purchased a second home for the program, this time "buying back the block" in the Hanger Hill neighborhood of Little Rock. But, James says, he might resell that house because a house for sale near Little Rock Central High School is a more tempting project.

James, who makes his living as an educator and teaches residencies through the Arkansas Arts Council's Arts in Education program, sees the Art Connection purchasing two of these houses per year around Little Rock and North Little Rock. Then, the program could spread to other Arkansas cities, such as Pine Bluff, he says.

Changing a city -- or cities -- one block at a time is just one mission of the nonprofit, which started in 2010 and officially became known as The Roots Art Connection in 2013.

The nonprofit's headquarters, The House of Art, is around the corner from the Argenta Drug Co. on Fourth Street in North Little Rock. The space holds open mics every Friday night, offering a variety of performing arts -- poetry, hip-hop, singing, spoken word, comedy -- whatever the microphone holder dares.

And the walls of the space are dotted with the visual arts of Arkansans who have never had their work exhibited in local galleries. It's a gallery for what James calls "starving artists looking for a place to exhibit and perform art."

Some are high school students. Others are people such as Edward Holloway, a 49-year-old artist who says in his artist statement that his art is an "expression of the world around me."

"Everything needs a venue," says local artist, teacher and businessman Leron McAdoo, who performs poetry under the Ron Mc moniker. "It doesn't survive without a venue. A movement doesn't survive without a venue, whether it's civil rights or women's [liberation] or whatever. Art does not survive without a venue. Venues are very important ... so what Chris has done has provided a space for artists, poets, musicians, activists."

The House of Art is also where, every third Saturday of the month, local artists and friends of the nonprofit serve a potluck lunch to people in need through a program called Starve No More.

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Art Connection offers more, such as a writers' feedback program called Poetry Saves Lives and conferences on educating people on how to purchase land and houses. There's also a seminar titled Redefine Your Success that James says is about "how to be successful as an entrepreneur in a nontraditional way."

"I always say The Roots Art Connection is a nonprofit organization that connects art and artists to community, education and opportunities for commerce," James says. "We want to be looked at as the art organization that creates opportunity for the underserved artists. That's what we are."

Consider the Art Connection and its members as the people with bold ideas: people who see the rundown, the disregarded, the underserved and recognize worth, esteem, potential.

But then James has always been an intrepid one. He grew up in North Little Rock, across Interstate 30 from Argenta in what he calls "one of the most poverty-stricken communities in North Little Rock." And he stuck around, even after becoming a father at the age of 16; even after two brothers went to prison the same year.

"I grew up here and my passion has always been to give back," says James, a 2008 graduate of North Little Rock High School. "I'm really passionate about being an example for urban youth that I used to be like. Letting them know they can make it. I'm right down the street from where I grew up."

There's a quiet self-assurance James possesses that is catching, like when he first broached the idea of Buy Back the Block with Shawnie McCoy, a poet in the Foreign Tongues poetry collective of which James and McAdoo also are members.

"I was like, 'It's a really bold move. You're talking about buying houses here,'" says McCoy, co-director of The House of Art's open mic nights. "He always thinks big. It's always go big or go home with him. The initial idea was 'Wow, this is a big and bold move. You want us to buy houses and fix them up?' But with me, any idea Chris has I'm probably his No. 1 supporter. I'll be the first person on board with his idea, big or small."

It didn't take long for James' fiancee, Sandrekkia Morning, to also be inspired by James. The fellow member of Foreign Tongues -- and a senior at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway studying insurance and risk management -- says James has taught her that "you can live off your art."

"I want to own my own business, but the arts will always be a part of my life," she says.

The list of fixes the West 21st Street house needs is so long it's almost incomprehensible to people who are not in the business of renovating houses.

Fortunately, the Art Connection has help from La'Dell Lawson, a local contractor who owns the home-renovating company D-1 Services.

Lawson was born and bred in southwest Little Rock. He worked for Home Depot for about 10 years before entering construction about seven years ago.

He's had help to get where he is today. Now, with his own company of five employees -- and sometimes up to 25 workers on some jobs -- Lawson is returning the favor.

"We need to start helping each other to get our communities back," he says. "We see a lot of people move out of their mom's house that they've had for 40 years in the family and they just let it fall apart. It's time to start taking some of that back. I feel that way. I want to be a part of it."

Lawson wants to teach James -- and an army of the Art Connection volunteers -- how to perform the non-technical renovations. He's lending his "services, knowledge and equipment."

Still, this West 21st Street renovation is "a pretty big job," Lawson says. A contractor could easily charge from $75,000 to $100,000 for the remodeling work.

"But it can be done for less with people helping, with community," he says. "With the community, you can get anything done."

The house is a bi-level of about 1,400 square feet. The total value of the house and its less than one-fifth-acre lot was appraised in 2015 at $12,550.

The Art Connection and James paid $6,000 for the house and lot in February. Renovations started in early March. The job probably won't be completed for six or eight months.

The bones of the home are still good. And there's some beautiful woodwork around some inside doors.

But the rest of the house is a mess. An old Magnavox Astro-Sonic stereo record player and radio console sits forlornly in the living room. A Timex wall clock stopped just short of 11:45 hangs on a wall.

In the backyard -- overgrown with weeds -- the remains of a fallen tree lie about. Some of the standing trees are choked with kudzu.

In the basement, there are old tires next to one wall and an ancient refrigerator with a pet carrier on top of it.

This is a house only the baddest and boldest of the reality TV remodeling stars would tackle. Most would slink away, too scared of the effort.

Don't count James or the Art Connection among that bunch. Fundraisers have been held for renovation funds. More will be held. Volunteers are stopping by and helping. More are needed.

Lawson plans to bring in certified plumbers who'll move the plumbing under the house from beside it. And electricians will restore the life-giving buzz of electricity, moving the wires from under the floor to the walls.

The kitchen floor will be leveled. The roof will be redone. The house will be renovated.

When it's finished, the Art Connection will select a group of artists to live in the house. Then, these artists will go into the Dunbar neighborhood. They'll paint. They'll plant. They'll rebuild.

These artists will change the neighborhood from within. That's the plan. That's James' belief.

Art injected with activism -- that's what James calls The Roots Art Connection.

"I really want to transform the community through art," he says. "That's what we are all about.

"The goal is to make places that are considered ugly beautiful again."

Style on 04/24/2016

Print Headline: Creative renewal

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