At the Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse in Alexandria, in the open-air garden section, artist Stefanie Nagorka places concrete patio blocks on top of one another. Some people call these blocks pavers, or pre-fab blocks. They sell for 58 cents to nearly $3 apiece, and Lowe's will ship a truckload of them to your home for a $65 charge.
Nagorka has no intention of paying for them. She also doesn't want them shipped to her home in Montclair, N.J., which is outside of this Lowe's 20-mile delivery area anyway. The blocks stay here. That's because the circumstance in which art is made is sometimes more attractive than the manifestation itself.
Nagorka is an artist, a traveling one, if you will, and the aisles of the nation's huge home improvement stores are her studio. Her plan is to create art in every red and blue state of the union.
"For me, it's about the experience of the moment," says Nagorka, 50. "It's about the process, about meeting people who walk through the aisles, and talking to them about my art."
In about an hour's time, Nagorka will finish another of her creations, which usually stand five to six feet tall. And eventually, she or the store's employees will take it down, simply because art is at its most dangerous, Mapplethorpe notwithstanding, when it tips over and breaks. Ever since Nagorka was forced out of her New York art space four years ago, she's been creating in the home improvement stores, usually showing up unannounced and without the store's formal permission.
"This store has a really great selection," says Nagorka, who, when she first arrived, was eyeing the white scalloped edgers and the hexagonal patio stones as if the white concrete dust on them were powdered sugar.
"As I was driving here, I heard that they had elevated the terrorism alert to Code Orange," she says. "I said, 'Code Orange. Hmm. Maybe there's an orange block I could use.' "
The 2-by-8-by-16-inch blocks she eventually chooses look red. Perhaps she knows something the rest of us don't. There's a thesis behind her art as well. Home improvement, she says, is the new self-improvement. So a store like Lowe's is a perfect place to create and present her art -- a 12-step depot, where Americans are seen milling around looking for just the right gravel, kitchen cabinets or bathroom tile to make their lives better.
"I once thought [the products they sold] were homogenizing the American landscape," says Nagorka, who holds bachelor's and master's of fine art degrees from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. "But now that I've traveled to all these stores across the country, I don't feel the same way. I found out that people use these materials differently, in a way that complements their lives or where they're from."
Nagorka was so enamored with her idea that she started a master plan in late 2002 that would have her visit a home improvement store in all 50 states. (You can see her documentation at www.stefanienagorka.com.) Virginia is officially her 26th state. But an employee at the Lowe's store reveals that he has seen Nagorka before, which forces her to admit that she did a test run a few months earlier at this very location.
"Oh, sometimes I just don't care about the master plan -- I just want to build something! I just need to build!"
That flexibility helped her get past Home Depot's decision to not grant her access to its District store in Northeast. (She has been successful in other stores around the country.)
"I know D.C. isn't a state, but I did half my growing up here, so I really wanted to include it. It's too bad," says Nagorka, who attended Calvin Coolidge High in Northwest D.C. in the 1960s. Her late father, Henry J. Nagorka, was a diplomat for the U.S. State Department, and her mother, Diane S. Nagorka, founded the Spiritual Science Center in D.C. (Her mother now lives in Bethany Beach, Del.)
Nagorka's project in Lowe's started off as an "X" spiraling upward, with its four points equidistant from each other. But, unexpectedly, the arms are now converging in the front, with the whole assembly revealing more imperfect lines. She's pulled a trick.
"Yeah, that's what I do," Nagorka says. "That's what life does."
She places another brick on a wing of the structure. It starts to tip over immediately, and Nagorka lets out a gasp. She struggles for about 20 seconds, trying to find a balancing point while keeping a top block from smashing on the ground. All of a sudden the project looks less like art and more like Jenga.
"There," says Nagorka as the structure finally holds. "I think we're done, don't you?"
Nagorka takes photos of every sculpture, and eventually will create five 35-by-40-inch prints. She plans to show them at galleries and hopefully unload them for $1,600 a pop.
She takes in her creation for a moment before she begins the process of dismantling.
The store's managers don't have much to say about this outburst of art. But Robert Ware, 39, a Lowe's employee, is seen looking down the aisle. What do you think?
"About what? Her or the bricks?"
"Oh, they're cool," Ware says. "Looks like a pyramid or something."