Interview with Jenny Sparks
Former Public Projects Associate Director
Jenny Sparks (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist and person based out of Providence, Rhode Island. She earned degrees in Geology and Sculpture through the Brown/RISD Dual Degree Program, and much of her work is based on people’s relationships to land, place and object. She makes woodfired pottery, jewelry, drawings and sculpture. As an artist, she cares about community, process, and material meaning. As a person, she is one of four siblings, lives with her partner, their two cats and a dog, and enjoys spending time outdoors, playing recreational sports, and learning new things
SY: Hello Jenny! We love you. We miss you. We are incredibly excited to have this moment. Firstly- how are you? You’ve served as both the Client Relations Manager AND the Public Projects Associate Director for The Steel Yard. Can you tell us a little bit about the work you did here at the Yard- what’d ya do???
JS: Thank you. I miss y’all too. But I am happy to say that I am well! Yes- most recently, I was the Public Projects Associate Director, where I worked closely with Tim and John to operate the Public Projects Department. Public Projects works with communities to fabricate custom public art. We hire local artists to design and fabricate projects in the shop, which then go out and live in the world. While I was there, I did a lot of the client interactions- meeting to figure out what they wanted and doing my best to communicate that to the broader team at the Yard, writing the estimates and contracts, and communicating with them throughout the process. It’s worth noting that “client” would sometimes mean an individual business owner, but also often meant a community of folks- such as a neighborhoods association, a town, or a community of users at a library or community garden. There’s also a lot of back end stuff that I did that may not be too interesting to most readers like database organization, document preparation, invoicing, and other paperwork. With my art background, I would also give a fair amount of design feedback or design brainstorming, and I always really liked photographing our projects and process. I also did I a lot of work with the Central Providence Health Equity Zone, and the Steel Yard’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-racism committee.
SY: How long did you work at the Yard?
JS: In total, I worked there just over 6 years.
SY: What were you doing before that- were you involved at the Yard before working here?
JS: I was, in fact! I was actually an undergraduate student in the Brown/RISD Dual Degree program, and in my last semester did an internship at The Steel Yard.
SY: Public Projects makes public art! Who are some of the partners that you worked with over the years? Any favorite projects that you can tell us about?
JS: Oh gosh, it’s so hard to choose. I had the pleasure of working with a lot of amazing partners. The Town of Bristol (Department of Planning and Community Development) have been amazing long term partners, and let me just rattle off some others. Our immediate neighbors come to mind- Wilbury Theatre Group, One Neighborhood Builders and the HEZ, Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, PVD AC&T. The Island Free Library out on Block Island was also such a joy to work with.
Favorite projects… gosh, also hard. I loved the “creature” trail markers we made for RI Land Trust recently. They were designed by Greg Rebis and fabricated by Michelle Raccone. That was just a really playful and fun project. For similar reasons, I also really enjoyed the Island Free Library handrail, which incorporated illustrations (in steel) from a beloved local children’s book illustrator. Plus, I got to install that one, which was a blast. I also have a soft spot for an outdoor handrail we made for Club Fantasies, another neighbor, because we were able to powder coat it hot pink.
SY: Let’s be honest- you did a lot more than managing sales accounts. You are an incredible and dedicated advocate for Olneyville residents and the Valley neighborhood. Can you talk a little bit about your experience working with and for these neighborhoods? Why was this so important to the work?
JS: I’d love to. I think this work was some of the toughest I did, because it was out of my area of expertise and comfort, but was some of the most important. I also feel like I could blab for ages about HEZ, so I’ll try to keep it brief. A few years back, I started representing the Yard at what was then the Olneyville Health Equity Zone (HEZ) meetings. Those meetings were a chance for all sorts of Olneyville orgs and residents to get together and share their work and observations, concerns, hopes, etc. It also provided some funding for certain projects, and opportunities to collaborate. The HEZ network is an initiative of the RI Dept. of Health, and one that I think is really cool (way to go, Dr. Alexander-Scott!). The premise is that, through data, it’s clear that there are small geographic regions in the state where there are significant health disparities, and that those communities know best how to address their own needs. It also recognizes how intersectional the causes of those health disparities are, with contributing factors including everything from physical environment to education, to economic opportunity, to historical oppression and racism, to the effects of climate change, and so on and so forth. So RIDOH gives money to the HEZ community through a local backbone agency, and then that community decides what to do with it. It’s still data-driven and there are some specific goals based on the leading problems identified by RIDOH, but that’s the gist. So, I started getting involved when we made fitness equipment for Olneyville parks, when diabetes prevention was a goal. Then, the Olneyville HEZ expanded to be “Central Providence”, and the Steel Yard because the Valley Neighborhood’s linking organization. The most important step we did was run focus groups in order to do a needs assessment of the Valley, since something like that hadn’t been done yet. Sadly, the final share-out event of that was cancelled due to covid, but the data collected has informed future funding goals and projects in the area.
SY: Public Projects worked closely with the Workforce Training Program… Can you tell us a little bit about that program and its connection to Public Projects?
JS: Of course! This actually ties into the HEZ work as well. In my time at the Yard, we saw a clear alignment with our Public Projects fabrication shop, workforce education, and the need for local well-paid jobs in the neighborhood. Through those connections and the HEZ, we were able to pilot our first apprenticeship model of workforce at The Steel Yard. We basically ran a unit of workforce like we historically had, but then hired two graduates to work in the Public Projects shop under John’s guidance for 3 (or more) months, 20 hours a week at living wage. While this apprenticeship impacted fewer total people than previous versions of workforce, for those that it did impact, the benefits were exponentially greater, deeper and more impactful since it provided regular, stable employment, and they learned so many more skills and built stronger relationships.
SY: What are some of your hopes and dreams for Public Projects and The Steel Yard?
JS: Oof. Let’s see. I think in the big picture, I hope that Public Projects at the Yard can be a model for an inclusive, anti-racist, and non-patriarchicial, slightly non-capitalist fabrication shop. I’ve heard from so many yardies how the metals, manufacturing, and even arts industries can be so patriarchical and tough, and many folks find the Yard to be a breath of fresh, inclusive, queer air. I think it can be tough when you’re working for other folks and under deadlines, but I also love when I see our values take precedent over things like deadlines- like when we prioritize an artist’s health over a deadline, and seeing people as full people- not just workers.
In a similar vein, I hope for the whole Steel Yard to become a model for radical inclusivity and progressive policies- both internally and externally. I hope that the Yard finds ways to prevent and advocate against displacement in the Valley as it develops. I am excited to see what the DEI&AR committee will do in the future in regards to these issues. I also am really looking forward to classes and workforce units being offered in different languages, especially Spanish. That feels important given the demographics of our neighborhood.
Lastly, I hope that the wood kiln can become a central piece to some fun community engagement at the Yard. I see a lot of potential there.
SY: Any advice you’d give to the next Client Relations Manager to be hired at the Yard?
JS: Hm… I’d say, enjoy hanging out with your co-workers!! They’re all amazing humans. That, and stay organized 😛
SY: You are also a working artist! Can you tell us a bit about your personal art practice? What do you make? Where can we find your work? Where can we BUY your work?
JS: It’s true, I am! At the moment, I am making mostly ceramics- all wood-fired, and involving materials that I collect myself- including slip I’ve made out of mud from my hometown, glass I find on the street, and rocks that I crush. I fire in wood kilns throughout New England- the community of woodfire potters continues to bring me so much joy. I’ve been doing ceramics for about 8 years now, and learned a lot from classes at the Yard- and the anagrams here was the first wood kiln I ever fired, back in 2014! I love it. But I also do other things like paint and draw and make animations, and lately have been getting into sewing 😛 I enjoy being all over the place.
My studio is in the Nicholson File Artist studios– just down the street from the Yard, and you can see my work on instagram (@jennyrachel_clay), and soon, for sale on my website (jennyrachelsparks.com), but don’t look yet! It’s a mess! You can buy my work at the upcoming Steel Yard Art Market on Saturday(!), and also at the Thirsty Holiday Sale in December, which will be in Nicholson File.
SY: What about any advice for aspiring ceramicists?
JS: Gosh, I think it would have to be “find community”. Between the amazing community here in Providence, at the Yard and the File, and the folks I woodfire with, I feel like being part of a community of fellow ceramicists has enriched my practice in so many ways. It’s also very practical because starting out in ceramics can be expensive, and sharing resources can make it accessible. Also, take a class at the Steel Yard!!! There are so many amazing instructors and opportunities there!!!
SY: What’s next for you? What’s the next chapter and adventure look like for you?
JS: Well, first thing is to get that online store up and running so I can fund the next chapter! But after that there are a few really exciting things. Over the summer, my partner and I (with major help from his amazing mom) bought land up in Vermont. Our ultimate goal is to build a house and studio on it, and we’ve been enjoying going up there and getting to know it and our neighbors. I also am hoping to apply for grad schools to do Scientific Illustration (specifically, to develop visuals to aid in Geology education). I initially thought I would apply this year, but now I am leaning towards next year so that I can take time to develop a new body of work for my portfolio, and visit schools. Plus I love Providence so much, it will be very hard to leave.
SY: Also- why you like bunnies so much?
JS: Um, because they’re the perfect creature.
OKAY- my favorite questions… The RAPID FIRE ONES!
I’m really into the Broken Earth Series by N.K. Jemisin right now. Read it!!
FAVORITE BAND/MUSIC GROUP OR ARTIST
Perfume Genius- blew my mind when I saw them at Columbus Theater. Or to honor my teenage self, I can always jam out to old Good Charlotte.
My homemade vegan pot pie with peas, carrots and potatoes.
Not a gemstone, but basalt is my favorite rock. Is obsidian a gemstone? I love volcanoes…
FAVORITE PLACE TO HARVEST CLAY
Okay, so one time when I was studying abroad I harvested clay from outside an archeological dig alongside the Tiber in Rome and that clay was gorgeous to work with. I was outside the fence, I promise! And then someone working on the site gave me an artifact, which I’m not sure they were supposed to do, but that was pretty cool.
FAVORITE ARTISTS OR PIECE OF ARTWORK
How to choose?! I’m a sucker for juicy oil paintings, and the paintings of my friends. I love the work of dear Maggie Siegel, who was a local artist and friend who passed away last year.
FAVORITE COMMUNICATIONS & EVENTS MANAGER
The one and only Chris Dalpe of course.
FAVORITE MOVIE/ TV SHOW
Gotta say Schitt’s Creek at this point. Simply the best.
It’s kinda long and nerdy, but I’ve held onto this quote ever since I first heard it. It centers me and frames my work. “ I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with thirty years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy… and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation – and we scientists don’t know how to do that” – James Gustave Speth
All of them. But also a tie between my two cats Anne and Alvin, and our dog Uma.
FAVORITE PLACE YOU’VE TRAVELLED
Aeolian Islands, especially Lipari and the abandoned Cave di Kaolino (Kaolin Mine) I stumbled into while I was there.
SY: We just want to say thank you. For everything. Lastly, any final thoughts you’d like to share with our community… with all the Yardies out there?
JS: Oh gosh. If anyone made it this far in the interview, I will be very impressed. My final thoughts are just how important it is to practice gratitude and let the ones you love know you love ‘em.