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By Her Bootstraps

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For her thesis, illustration student Sarah Cloutier '12 constructs mobile "Bootstrap" homes for the homeless population in Portland.

Last week, Sarah Cloutier’s first Bootstrap Home unit rolled out of her PNCA studio and onto the streets of Portland. This Bootstrap is the first of three that Cloutier hopes to construct for her senior thesis in illustration.

It’s a small, trundling structure on four wheels, with roughly a four-foot by eight-foot footprint. The rounded roof is made of recycled PVC (waterproof and mildew resistant), and the whole has the appearance of a miniature gypsy caravan. Canvas panniers on the roof will collect rainwater and debris, and Cloutier hopes that the entire roof will eventually be covered by moss and ferns. Its walls are mint green and decorated with gentle, free form painted vines and leaves. When it was parked along NW Johnson earlier this spring for Cloutier’s mid-term evaluation, it small size was obvious: it could have fit easily in the bed of the pickup across the street.

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Cloutier’s first Bootstrap home, parked along NW Johnson Street. Photo: Kaija Cornett ’12

Inside, the space is uncluttered, with a paneled wood floor and a small shelf for cooking and storing belongings. The roof is insulated and covered with interior laminate. Hooks above the shelf and along the sidewalls offer other storage possibilities. The shelf is also equipped with a candle stove, a large water jug and a carefully caulked small sink that drains onto a waste container with a water lock and a vent to the outside for air release, which can be removed and emptied in a public bathroom. There’s enough space for a small mattress or a sleeping bag, with extra room for other belongings.

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A glimpse inside the first Bootstrap home. Photo: Kaija Cornett ’12

Cloutier’s vision is simple, but ambitious: she hopes to design and build working prototypes of tiny, affordable, efficient homes for the homeless of Portland.

“The project puts together a lot of different things that I enjoy and am good at,” explained Cloutier. “It also combines things I think are important: craftsmanship, serving a purpose extraordinarily well, and not necessarily having to be about the art world. I have always been drawn to the beauty of useful things, and showing the beauty of the ordinary.”

Her interest in small homes is timely. A recent resurgence in deliberate, compact and eco-friendly housing design has artists and architects such as Gregory Kloehn, Michael Rakowitz and Paul Elkins re-envisioning what it means to “be at home.” Cloutier believes that affordable housing gives low-income residents a stake into the community. Aesthetically, Cloutier argues, the Bootstraps bring “dignity, humanity, and visibility to a population that traditionally has very little of any of these.”

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Sarah Cloutier relies on fellow students to help paint the bootstraps. Photo: Kaija Cornett ’12

As she searched for a solution, Cloutier started tossing ideas around, wondering if there was, in fact, something she could do to help.

As she described it, “I started thinking, I’m an illustrator. I’m an artist, not an engineer, not a city planner, not a homeless person. Someone else can take care of it. But who is [taking care of it]? No one is. So I thought, ‘I suppose I can build one.’ And then I thought, ‘Why stop at one?’”

Cloutier, who grew up in a geodesic dome, looks at the home and domestic arrangements as particularly rich sites for potential interventions. Looking around the city, Cloutier saw an opportunity to positively affect Portland’s homeless, especially in an economically stressed time.

In her thesis proposal, Cloutier wrote,

“I would like to build these tiny home units, with a toilet, bed, stove, sink, and storage, for homeless people, who can buy them at a dollar a day. As they rent them, they can sleep in them on the lot, and help build other homes. The homes would be on wheels, so that they can be pulled around by hand or by bike. They should be bright and pretty so that people recognize them as homes and places that people care about, and so that they are a visual improvement on sleeping bags, cardboard, and tents.”

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Small, to-scale models of early Bootstrap designs.

The Bootstraps are made out of salvaged and recyclable materials as well as affordable, easily sourced goods such as plastic bins and PVC pipe. The homes are fireproof, tip-proof, and come with wheel locks to discourage theft. Cloutier also enlisted the artistic eye of her fellow PNCA students when she wheeled the first Bootstrap into Swigert Commons for a collaborative painting day.

“When I was little,” Cloutier said, “I loved designing tiny houses and making them as efficient as possible. I liked figuring out ways to make things multi-functional. I gave up on being an architect, though, when I realized that it involved a lot more talking to clients and coworkers than actually drawing and designing things.”

For someone so passionate about her project, Cloutier starts to drag her feet when it comes to initiating and maintaining the necessary personal relationships.

“I’m not particularly adept or interested in dealing with people, but getting people involved is the only way it can grow. And so while I’m not eloquent or good at connecting with people, I just can’t let it drop. It matters enough to me to reach out and find people to do the things I can’t.”


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Some early paintings by Cloutier for her future Bootstraps.

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Another early sketch for the Bootstraps.


In the process of constructing the Boots, Cloutier also had to learn a variety of trades and techniques. There was the challenge of sourcing the materials, and then the often large effort to get the parts back to her studio without a car. Sometimes it meant spending hours hunting down arcane construction information. This could get frustrating at times:

“Fire ratings are a bit confusing. I’ll just say that.”

The first finished Bootstrap is on its maiden voyage in the care of a PNCA student currently experiencing homelessness. Cloutier is hoping to learn which design decisions work and which could be improved upon. Questions like: Is it actually safe to live in, for example, and Is the sink stable and balanced?

“They’re such small things,” Cloutier explained. “Only $300 and a bit of work. But they have the potential to make a big difference.”

Looking forward, Cloutier has big dreams for her small homes. She hopes to work with the City of Portland to find a lot in which to park Bootstraps, perhaps ultimately starting a non-profit organization to fund the construction of hundreds more of the small homes. She hopes to design and illustrate a construction manual and continue looking for ways to involve the city in her project.

Cloutier admits, “It’s an absolutely insane project to attempt, but I want to do it anyway. It’s the insane ideas that prove themselves and pull you through.”

You can follow the progress of the Bootstraps and of Cloutier’s thesis project on her thesis blog. Cloutier will also be presenting her project at Open Engagement 2012, a conference sponsored by PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA, April 18–20. Cloutier posts regularly on her illustration blog as well.

by Killeen Hanson, MFA ACD '12

— Posted on 04/02 at 05:45 PM

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