In Grand Rapids’ Black Hills neighborhood, part of the city’s history is crumbling. This November, the nearly century-old building will be demolished and transformed into green space.
But at ArtPrize, its architecture stands the test of time, supported by two artists — Zachary Tripelas and Amber Bledsoe.
“It felt like we were losing something,” Tripilas said of the building’s planned end.
In 2010, Tripilas graduated from Columbia University Chicago and began creating artwork about the “loss of community,” including an artwork about the permanent closure of a particle accelerator in his hometown, “Goodbye Tevatron.”
Now a resident of Grand Rapids, Tripilas first saw the Kensington School building — formerly Adelante High School — while biking.
“We have our own history that is aging all the time,” Tripilas said.
From the presidency of Calvin Coolidge to the era of George W. Bush, the school has educated generations, many of whom still live in the secluded southwest corner of the city.
In May 2023, the Grand Rapids Public Schools board voted to demolish the building — citing chronic break-ins and vandalism — and rejected proposals to develop the site.
“I think it’s kind of a beautiful tribute to what’s coming next for the building,” Bledsoe said of the artwork.
When the district decided to finish the building, Tripilas approached Bledsoe about a potential art installation to honor its beauty and history.
“I kind of came into this with the excitement of the physical process,” Bledsoe said.
In her artist statement, Bledsoe says her works “explore complex relationships with humans, materials, and other objects.” This last piece became a “natural progression” for this purpose.
In an old gymnasium on Ottawa Street, the “Swan Song of the Kensington School Building” stands tall in a second-floor gymnasium.
“We’re thinking of it as kind of a remix of school,” Tripilas said. “We take the items, then we play with them in the gallery.”
The installation reflects the “material history” of the building. Most notable is a wall composed of 18-by-12-inch pieces of paper and two long, flowing pieces of fabric representing the exterior brickwork.
“We literally wanted to touch it and rub it and roll it,” Tripilas said. “I think we wanted to have that close connection to the building.”
This summer, Tripilas and Bledsoe took crayons and other art supplies to Kensington for a community day. Collaborating with neighborhood members, they captured the texture of brick by pressing different media onto the building and rubbing them with crayons — a process called “frottage.”
“I wanted people to get their hands on this project,” Tripilas said. “Because it’s part of their daily lives.”
In addition, the plaster moldings mimic the building’s architectural design, and the artificial plants are reminiscent of recent years of overgrowth and deterioration.
“It’s bigger than just one school in a small neighborhood in Grand Rapids,” Bledsoe said. “This is a loss for them, but it is also a great loss for Grand Rapids in general, and for the historic buildings.”
For Tripillas, he considers the building a modern “ruin” whose columns resemble those of ancient Rome. He is still trying to save parts of the school — perhaps a small brick section — before demolition.
“Our history here is not treated with the same amount of value and respect,” Tripilas said. “What are our impacts here and what value do we find?”
(tags for translation) Adelante High School