This summer, the Steel Yard partnered with AmeriCorp and LISC Rhode Island to welcome Steve Velazquez — a Providence-based heritage worker — as the Yard’s first ever Community Engagement Coordinator.
Though his brief stint with the Yard has sadly neared its end, this blogpost will focus on beginnings. For while the Steel Yard has always and will always be a place for collaboration, experimentation, and relevant creativity, Steve’s work at the Yard functioned first and foremost as a pause — a chance to truly take a step back and ask “how are we, the Steel Yard, doing enough for enough of our local community?”
This blogpost is Steve’s summary of just one of the many answers the Steel Yard gave this summer — answers that the Yard will continue to give as we all try our hardest to foster a future where everyone’s story is a story worth hearing.
|India Point Park // Ceramics Pop Up: Tile Making // September 2017|
What’s a Pop Up?
These are the three phrases I’ve been using to market the Steel Yard’s new neighborhood Pop Up’s — the new circuit of traveling art booths that flips the question from “how do we bring people into the Yard?” to “how do we bring the Yard to the people?”
Though ceramics and jewelry are the only mediums that have been actualized thus far, the Steel Yard’s ultimate goal is to host a fluid circuit of art-making booths that occupy the city’s everyday spaces. Inviting passerby’s to get their hands dirty with short and sweet introductions to all of the four mediums that make the Yard what it is: welding, blacksmithing, jewelry, and ceramics. Collectively, the Yard Pop Up’s are a response to our opening question ‘how are we doing enough for enough of our local community?’ in three interconnected ways:
1) They foster a deeper dialogue.
Unlike more traditional outreach strategies, the Yard Pop Up’s don’t position our community locals as recipients of knowledge; they position them as living, breathing beings who can ditch the act of discussing “Yardie things,” for the act of actually engaging with “Yardie things.” For diving into a multi-sensory dialogue where one is encouraged to get their hands dirty, develop a creative rapport with the Pop Up instructor, and find themselves understanding the industrial arts on a deeper, more complex level.
Just ask the kiddos who were quickly came to learn that the Steel Yard is the place where you can make cool things with rubber hammers:
Dexter Park // Jewelry Pop Up: Copper Cuffs // September 2017
2) They foster a deeper listen.
Whether or not someone knows of the Steel Yard, the technologies and materialities the industrial arts involve often command a degree of authority that consistently comes to present itself as a “Keep Out” sign to outsiders. People who often are amazed, but intimidated to engage with the Steel Yard — let alone a simple Pop Up activity.
Because of this disconnect, the Yard Pop Up’s are dedicated to hosting a solid block of time, space, and material to giving our local communities the floor; to giving people the chance to both directly and in- directly express what they see in the Steel Yard, and the industrial arts more broadly. No matter where, when, or with whom, each session is a chance to form a cultural-portraiture: an empathetic insight that can speak to us and tell us something new about how we can do what we do better.
3) They foster a humble invitation.
From its use of public space to its use of intuitive learning, the Pop Up’s dissolve a great many barriers. They remediate histories of underground-exclusivity in Providence, shatter stigma the industrial arts inevitably wields, and complicate the traditional divide often placed between art maker’s and so called “art appreciator’s.” One could call it a day and say that the Pop Up’s exist beautifully in this mere form, but that would be missing the final purpose of the Pop Up’s — the purpose to invite. To take proactive step on behalf of the Yard by acknowledging issues of access/belonging and stepping outside of its space to dive into a new collaboration that can activate positive-morale — a connection to our hallowed ground and the creative possibility it may very well hold for “you.” Even if that may have to wait a few more years until you’re of age:
|India Point Park // Ceramic Pop Up: Tile Making // September 2017|
Engagement is easily one of the most pervasive buzzwords exchanged amongst art curators, public historians, and cultural-workers of the like today. And yet, what exactly does the term actually mean? Or rather, what does it mean to not only type about it, but to actively foster it?
Whenever I ask myself this question, I like to think about how when you try to “walk in someone else’s shoes,” it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll find your toes squished, or that your heel will begin to chafe with the fire of a thousand suns. I like to think about how in either case, you recognizing that profoundly awkward feeling in your (unhappy) feet is you doing a good job. Because the point isn’t to make your foot fit; the point is to empathize through similarity as well as uncomfortable difference. To try.
Sure, my life would have be miraculously easier this summer if I could’ve taken a break with a paperback edition of Engagement for Dummies — running with an algebraic formula for “engaging” with “engagement.” But alas, that would’ve been missing the point.
For while I’m not one for declaring absolutes, I can confidently say that an institution that “engages,” is an institution that isn’t afraid to stumble around in these imaginary shoes; to listen-in on what the actual owners have to say; to empathize with why it is that they’re saying it; and to collaborate with them on writing a new story together. A story that connects us, but hopefully leads us to discover, learn, and create something new.
Much like the Pop Up’s have already begun to do.