Turning a house into home

She wanted to love the new house. At 32, it is the first house she has ever owned and a first step for her and her husband.

Brock Webster and Keri Searls married two years ago and decided to settle in Steamboat Springs, Searls' hometown.

They found a house unexpectedly. It was an affordable cabin in old town with enough space for their two dogs, an art studio for Keri and a garage for Brock to work on his bicycle projects.

It should have been the happiest day of her life, but Searls had some letting go to do. Until they signed the closing papers, the couple lived in Searls' childhood home. She grew up in the "little house" not far from the place where her parents live today.

Her parents still own the house, but someone else lives there now.

"It's a pretty intense thing to live in your childhood home," she said. "There was a lot of attachment."

They bought the house in September of last year and started remodeling right away.

As they stripped paint and gutted the bathroom, Searls began the process of letting go and moving on. Her thoughts through the transition ended up on canvas.

One motif -- a stylized, two-dimensional house -- appeared in all her work.

"I would try not to do it, but it kept coming back," she said.

Her piece, "419 3rd St." hung in the SummerArt 2003 show at the Depot. The foreground is held together with three similar houses, but the background is a jumble of numbers. It looks like the noise of a mind kept awake at night.

"When you buy a house, there are a lot of numbers, like refinancing rates and mortgage payments," Searls said. "I was just trying to process it all."

After almost a year of painting houses into her work, Searls decided to clear her psyche of the house motif with one big purge of 25 small collages based on "home" or "house" wordplays.

"I did this series knowing that (the house motif) kept coming back," she said. "I decided to go at it big time and maybe it will go away."

She looked words up in the dictionary and asked friends to think of wordplays.

"And it was something I kept doing in my sketchbook -- thinking of phrases with house or home in them," she said.

She came up with "Homestretch" and illustrated it with rubber bands. "Homeless" is made with cardboard. Searls cut a house-shaped window into the cardboard and painted a starry sky on the other side.

She made "Roadhouse" with plaster and paint and "Roughhouse" with sandpaper.

"I can't believe anyone can learn English. Roughhouse has nothing to do with a house. Or think about 'broken home' and 'house broken.' Same words, completely different meanings," she said.

She thought about the construction of the word, but she thought even more about the meaning. As she and her husband worked on turning their house into a home, she tried to peg the moment when that transformation happened.

"It takes a lot of time and energy," she said.

Though she can't give a time or a day that her new house became a home, she will say that it happened, and that she's ready to move on from painting houses into her work.

Her one-person show at the Comb Goddess, which opens this weekend, is a house cleaning of sorts, she said.

She will show all the work she made in the recent past. She will stand back and decide where to go from here.

"Enough of the house thing," she said.

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