A very, very, very FINE ART house: At home in a modern art installation with abstract curb appeal
BRIGHT WHITE TENTACLES stretch and loop through the black darkness around four windows and a bright red door, spinning a mural as vibrant as the ones in Miami’s Wynwood district.
The tentacles seem to reach the inside, too, where the black-and-white abstract theme continues across six rooms, each a modern-art installation as bold as some displays just up the road at the Norton Museum of Art.
But this distinct work of art is neither a public mural nor a museum piece. It’s an old two-story house on a West Palm Beach street whose Spanish name means The Forbidden.
“ARTbnb” is how the funky house at 411 El Vedado is known online, where it’s marketed as a modern-art-themed Airbnb experience.
Think Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, the popular three-dimensional light and sound installation that promises the sensation of “stepping into a painting.’’
Except at “ARTbnb,” it’s about actually stepping into, and sleeping and eating and relaxing in, a series of abstract paintings that spread from the outside of the house to the walls, stairs and ceilings within.
“I don't know if it's a masterpiece. I would consider it something beautiful. Something unique,’’ said Gene Maltsev, the house’s owner. "It's my baby.''
It’s definitely something different, perhaps even a minor miracle considering how this old house’s one of a kind makeover might never have happened if not for two creative strangers from opposite ends of the world finding each other on social media.
“For me, it's a what-are-the-chances kind of scenario,’’ said Annissa Zak, a 26-year-old artist who considers the home her own personal museum.
“It’s actually a remarkable story,’’ she said.
THE STORY BEGINS in an unremarkable setting, two Chicago call centers where Zak worked in 2017-18 to make ends meet while she figured out what to do with her life after college.
“One was high-volume sales and another one was coordinating emergency repairs for rental properties. In those settings, it was pretty intense and stressful,’’ she said.
To cope, she started drawing at her desk, “more stress doodles than anything, just to process what was happening and stay calm,’’ said Zak, who elaborates on the experience at the time in her Instagram feed.
“From there it evolved into my art practice now.’’
But at the time, she wasn’t even thinking about a career in art. She was still contemplating her next step after graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in Spanish.
“I had created a lot as a kid, but after middle school I stopped taking any kind of art class because they were either not an option or too serious for the level I was looking to pursue,’’ the Syracuse native said.
“Turns out, it was always within me all along and I just had to be squeezed a little bit by life to get that to come out. That's how I refer to it — what I draw is what comes out when I'm squished when the pressure is on. I'm so grateful to have found it.’’
Nudging her down the art path were her call-center co-workers, who'd pass by her desk offering compliments about her “stress doodles.''
“People would come by and say, ‘Hey, I want you to make something with a football, the Bears logo and something else related to Chicago,’’ she said.
As the call-center phones chirped around her, Zak stress-doodled her abstract linework and mixed in hidden images, "little Chicago eye-spies,’’ she said.
“As soon as I was drawing on those small sheets of paper, I just started wondering what would happen if I gave myself the space to actually fully explore this.’’
She left the call center jobs and spent more time drawing. She started to develop and refine her own abstract minimalist style.
She landed gigs assisting Jenny Vyas, Liz Flores and other established muralists around Chicago, “to kind of learn the ropes a little bit.’’
At the suggestion of one artist, she started posting her work on Instagram, under a_zaky.
Another artist friend advised Zak to get an iPad and use the Procreate program to create mockups to attract clients. That all sounded great, but there was one problem.
“I wasn't personally at the point where I could afford an iPad,’’ she said.
But there just so happened to be an Apple store not far from the office where she was working as a temp. She started spending her lunch breaks there, practicing with a demo version of Procreate on the store’s demo iPad.
Her lunch visits to the Apple store came with a small but significant obstacle, which she quickly troubleshooted.
“Once the screen times out, your work is gone forever,’’ she said. So, she used her smartphone to photograph her work on the store’s iPad screen.
One day in late April 2019, she visited the Apple store again. She opened Procreate, pulled a photo of a wall from the app’s stock images and covered the wall with her own style of abstract linework.
She snapped a photo and, on May 1, posted the image on Instagram with a clever caption:
“OPEN CALL FOR WALLS. Been playing around on Procreate just itching for a wall to paint. Hmu. (That’s how it works, right?) #muralartist”.
AROUND THE SAME TIME, 1,300 miles from Chicago, another creative person had just purchased a four-bedroom house in West Palm Beach with plans to do something special.
“I love modern art and design,” said Gene Maltsev, 38, who bought the house in May 2019 for $260,000.
“I've always wanted to do something creative from an Airbnb aspect. By buying a house, I would really be able to do something unique.’’
Born in Moscow and raised in New York City, he was introduced to the West Palm Beach area through his job as a musical events producer.
When his music job took him on the road, he pursued his other passion — looking for houses to potentially rehab and market for short-term vacation rentals.
But his vision seemed impossible because of restrictive short-term rental regulations in cities like San Francisco, Boston and New York.
He’d been house hunting for about seven years when a music job took him to Palm Beach Gardens.
He started exploring the area's real estate market and soon focused on West Palm Beach, which not only offered restaurants, museums and beaches but also friendlier short-term rental policies.
When he found the house on El Vedado in West Palm Beach, “it wasn’t cool looking at all,’’ he said. But he saw the potential for his dream.
While lining up contractors for extensive renovations, he also searched online for the right artist to transfer his creative vision into the 80-year-old house.
“I was looking everywhere,'' he said. "I went so far to talk to artists in Russia, Singapore. I was open to flying people in just to do something really cool and unique.’’
Browsing on Instagram one day, he stumbled on the wall mockup Zak had posted on May 1.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,’’ he said of her design. “I was just blown away.’’
He shot her a message.
“Hey, I got a house in West Palm Beach, Florida. I would love to fly you out and have you work on this house.’’
MURALS CAN BE FOUND all over West Palm Beach — on commercial buildings downtown, on a sidewalk in Howard Park, even under the Royal Park Bridge on the Intracoastal Waterway.
But until Zak and Maltsev came to town for their unique collaboration in late May of 2019, few, if any, murals could be found on a house.
It was a bold endeavor, and not just in terms of the abstract design.
Zak had never painted an actual wall mural herself; she’d only assisted muralists in Chicago by filling in spots or painting background colors.
Maltsev wasn’t concerned. Impressed during their initial meeting at the house, he hired her to her first commissioned assignment.
“Having seen her work, I was confident she'd be able to execute and do what I wanted —creating this beautiful modern art piece,’’ he said.
Maltsev also wanted to be a good neighbor.
He went to City Hall and applied for a mural permit. Then he started knocking on doors along El Vedado, introducing himself to neighbors and giving them a heads-up to the dramatic visual change about to unfold on the Spanish Mission home just west of Dixie Highway.
“I didn't want to take any chances,” said Maltsev, who said he also got inspiration from the designs at the EmKo Palm Beach gallery a mile north of the house.
“I didn't know my neighbors at the time so I don't know how they were going to react.’’
When he explained what he was doing, he said the reaction was positive and supportive.
“They had nothing but good things to say,’’ he said. “At least to my face.’’
THE HOUSE'S DRAMATIC TRANSFORMATION started in the final week of May 2019, a process captured on time-lapse video.
As contractors renovated the house, Zak launched the first phase of her work, which lasted two weeks and required her to climb a 24-foot ladder for the facade and exterior parts.
She simultaneously painted the outside front of the house -- 24 feet high and 20 feet wide -- and four different installations inside the house, including individual panels installed on the staircase and a bedroom with a mural stretching from the ceiling to two walls.
In June, she went back to Chicago for the rest of the year. She returned to West Palm Beach in February 2020 -- just before the pandemic lockdown -- to complete the second phase: the back of the house and a cottage.
At first, the young artist up on the ladder was a curiosity for people walking by the house.
“Neighbors would stop by and have a progress chat,’’ she said. “It was really fun to interact with the community as it was happening.’’
But the first four days brought anxiety and suspicion. Neighbors had been used to seeing a tan house with white trim. Now, someone was painting it black!
“Everything on that street is bright colors, turquoise and coral and yellow and orange. And I show up and I paint a house black at the front of the street,’’ she said with a laugh.
“This older woman walked by one day and called it ‘La Casa De Brujeria’ — which means the Witchcraft House.’’
Maltsev went knocking on doors again, this time for damage control. “I told them, ‘Give it another week and you'll see it's not what you think. It's not going be a haunted house.’’’
Within a week, the black-colored front sprang to life with bright, bold snow white streaks and curves.
She painted the outside front and side designs freehand.
“That was challenging. I had to keep climbing up and down the ladder to see how I wanted the piece to flow,’’ said Zak.
When she returned for the second phase, she used a projector to flash her design onto the walls, which made for an easier painting process,
THERE WERE PLENTY of challenges for Zak, who slept on a mattress in one of the rooms and faced a two-week deadline for the first phase.
During the second week, several daytime thunderstorms forced her to paint the facade at night. Using a flashlight, she worked from 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. to make her deadline.
Zak, who had never been to West Palm Beach before, wasn’t used to the heat (or the darting lizards that offered her amusement). Some days she worked exclusively inside between noon and 3 p.m. to avoid the sun.
“The other unknown was how to paint as close to the most extreme edges of the house from a 24-foot lean-to ladder without being flat-out spooked,’’ she wrote on Instagram. “There wasn’t a secret though, I just had to to do it.’’
The house’s thirsty stucco required several coats of black paint to achieve the desired effect. Maltsev was on site the first week and used his car to fetch supplies for Zak.
But he was out of town the second week. That meant Zak, who didn’t rent a car, had to make several trips on foot to a Sherwin-Williams that, fortunately for her, was only a few blocks away.
One day, she walked to Sherwin-Williams and bought a five-gallon drum of black paint, hoping it would reduce her trips to the paint store.
But when the clerks brought the paint to the register, she wondered how in the world she was going to lug the heavy drum back to the house.
The Sherwin-Williams employees volunteered a solution: “They wheeled it on the dolly for me for two blocks up the sidewalk,’’ she said.
“They were so nice. They were fans of mine. They really wanted to see me succeed because they were very close to the install and would drive by after work to see how it was progressing.’’
Two other artists, Henry Johnson and Renda Writer, contributed work inside the house. But Zak’s creations dominate.
“I’m so proud of the work I did at the house,’’ said Zak, who chronicled the project with a time-lapse video.
“It really was an endurance test and also it was a baptism by fire. I really took on an aggressive first project to do by myself and I did it.’’
Maltsev was so impressed with how the house turned out that he decided to do what he could to protect it. That meant being selective about rental customers.
“That type of design and that type of uniqueness also attracts guests who are not always coming to just relax and have a quiet time,’’ he said.
“So I try to be very selective in who I allow in the house. I also have to be mindful of my neighbors. They're not looking to live next door to a party house.’’
Late one night not long after the ARTbnb opened, Maltsev was in New York when he got phone calls from El Vedado neighbors complaining about loud music and noise. He called West Palm Beach police and then called his customers, ordering them to leave in the morning.
When a neighbor called Maltsev the next day to say the customers were still there, Maltsev went to the airport, flew to West Palm Beach that same day and, with a police escort, kicked the customers out.
One of the many responsible customers was a music band called Social Club Misfits. Impressed with the house's artwork, they used the interior and exterior as settings for a music video — shot during the day to the amusement of neighbors.
“Gene is an absolutely fantastic owner,’’ said Eddie Ritz, who lives next door to the ARTbnb. “He probably takes the best care of his yard of anyone on the street, including us.’’
Ritz admitted he had some concerns when the outside facade was initially painted black. “We were like, OK, is (heavy metal rocker) Glenn Danzig living here?”
But once the artwork came together, he became a fan.
“It’s different. It's definitely a conversation piece,’’ Ritz said. “Anyone who comes to our house is like, ‘Oh my God, that's crazy.’ But I really like it. It gives the street some character.’’
Not everyone on the street is a fan.
“I don’t like it at all and I have nothing else to say,’’ Paul Hansford, who lives across the street, said before shutting the door without elaborating on whether his issues were the abstract facade or the house’s use as a short-term vacation rental.
On Airbnb, the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Zak said she often goes online to read them and look at photos of her work.
“I do miss the house,'' she said. "I consider it sort of my own small museum. All the murals are very close to my heart.''
The house also turned out to be a springboard for her career.
She has since done “a fair amount” of commissioned work, including assignments for the Chicago Bulls basketball team, restaurants and real estate projects in the Windy City.
“It has been a gift and a dream,’’ she said of her artwork. “It very much feels like a life career, something that will be with me for the rest of my time.’’
She hopes to return to South Florida soon, and not just to check out the vibrant art scene from Miami to West Palm Beach.
“I’d love to paint another house,’’ she said, giggling with enthusiasm. “If there is anybody around there that would want me to paint their house, I would definitely be interested.’’
She can be reached at email@example.com.
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