Design Build 2013: Phoenix Ridin’
Incoming MFA in Applied Craft and Design students build a new bike repair shop for Northeast Portland's Helensview School.
On a quiet Monday morning, two weeks before the official start of school, when the rest of the PNCA student body is shopping for new school supplies and desperately trying to shore up sleep for the semester ahead, the incoming class to the MFA in Applied Craft + Design (AC+D) program arrives at The Bison Building for Day 1 of a ten-day intensive design build project.
They’ve received only a gear list:
and a rough schedule:
8:30 morning meeting
9:00 design session
12:30 lunch break.
They’re not entirely sure what these ten days hold for them. They know only that they’ll be spending the next ten days working on a bike repair workshop at Helensview School in Northeast Portland. This year, for the third year in a row, the AC+D program has brought in Jack Sanders of Design Build Adventure and multimedia artist Butch Anthony to lead the project. They’re longtime friends and veterans of the design build process.
The 16 students in the incoming class of 2015 met each other only the evening before. Many of them moved to Portland specifically for this graduate program. Some came from abroad. They have backgrounds in carpentry, book arts, furniture design, jewelry design, metalsmithing, and ceramics, among other things. Most have undergraduate degrees in art or design, but others have backgrounds in industrial engineering or liberal arts. They’re proof that the terms “artist,” “designer,” and “craftsman” are not strict categories, but describe instead those who can think creatively across disciplines.
The MFA in Applied Craft + Design is a joint program through Oregon College of Art and Craft and Pacific Northwest College of Art. It launched in Fall 2009 with the goal of connecting design thinking to design doing through hands-on making, entrepreneurial strategies, and social and environmental engagement. In practice, that means that students are encouraged to think about the stakeholders in their work, and to consider where and how what they produce will be used once it leaves the studio or production line.
Rachel McKenna ’15, one of the incoming AC+D students, says, “I’m excited for this program. It’s real. We’re makers. It’s concrete and practical, not ephemeral.”
In the case of this year’s design build project, the incoming AC+D students have to consider, from the very first brainstorming session, how to design and construct a bike repair shop that will meet the needs of the community of students at Helensview.
“Design build, the way we do it anyway,” explains JP Reuer, Chair of the MFA AC+D program, “is an iterative process that starts with our learning to work together iteratively.”
Sanders and Anthony break the student into groups in a, “speed dating kind of way,” as Reuer calls it, and rotate each student from one group to the next until they’ve all worked with one another. From the very beginning, the students learn the strengths, weaknesses, and work styles of their classmates..
“We approach the design in the same way,” Reuer says. “We’re building models out of whatever materials, tools, or utensils we have. We’ll talk about it, go back and do it again, talk about it, and go back and do it again, until finally, we have something we all have discussed and have agreed upon as reasonable to show someone else as a proposal.”
In their first presentation, the AC+D students present macquettes of moveable workstations, elaborate wall murals, outdoor bike shelters, and soundproof flooring (the future bike repair shop will share a wall with the children’s nursery). Other ideas include a juke box, some funky bench seating, new color schemes, a line of special bike-themed jewelry, and a large-scale phoenix made out of spare bike parts. The “Phoenix Riding,” as it was dubbed, is a play on “phoenix rising” and a nod to the school’s mascot.
“You don’t feel you’re contributing anonymously…We’re doing something real. Not just for us but for someone else too.”
Ryan Newson ’15, another incoming AC+D student says, “You don’t feel you’re contributing anonymously. We meet kids. And we see how the school works, how we’re making an impact. I first thought we were using Helensview as a venue for our project. But it’s not like that. We’re doing something real. Not just for us but for someone else too.”
The Helensview students love the “Phoenix Riding” idea, and thought the jewelry was cool. They also appreciate that the AC+D group is considering the potential sound problems.
After they present their initial macquettes to Persson and a handful of Helensview students, the AC+D group heads back to their studio in the Bison Building to digest the feedback.
Then the design and concept development process starts all over again. When the group gets to a point when they feel they can describe the essential components of the design, they return to Helensview to meet with Persson and her students for more feedback.
“I think they’re always surprised by how much we can get done in a short period of time,” says Reuer, “and I think that’s partially due to the structure we use, the format of this very fast, iterative process. We’re necessarily giving ourselves a lot of time to dwell on each decision, but trying to decide quickly and discuss as a group. And so when we start to think about actual materials and construction method and finite scope of work, though it’s still not completely tied down, we feel confident enough to know that we’ll need between 8 and 10 sheets of plywood or two yards of concrete or whatever it is. We’ll begin ordering and acquiring materials, and start to put things together.”
At this point in the design process, the AC+D students narrow the project scope to a handful of discrete parts: bike repair stands and a wall to organize and hang tools, new wall treatments including an educational mural labeling the parts of a bike, sound-absorbing flooring, and a selection of jewelry items made from spare bike parts (“To inspire students to make and sell their own jewelry.”).
Some students spend the remaining days in the woodshop, constructing a pair of moveable tool shelves, nicknamed “Wall-E’s.” Others head to the metal shop, where they grind down and weld spare bike frames into two bike repair stands so that students can work on four bikes at once. Jen Cooke ’15 works with Anthony to wire bike gears and chains onto a textured mural. (“It’s like sewing, but with wire,” she says.) Some students spend their free hours calling suppliers and manufacturers around town. (“I just got off the phone with ProBlast,” says James Rouse ’15. “And they’ve offered us a smoking discount price.”)
“We want to make things that are special and specific to Helensview bike shop,” says McKenna. “We’re asking ourselves, ‘How can we give them ownership over products, and make them both professional and cool?’”
“We’re constantly checking in with each other,” says Reuer, “and asking, ‘Where are you with that?’ and ‘Where are you with that?’ Because the design process basically goes on until we leave. We use the white board like you wouldn’t believe. The build process and the design process, in our situation, are pretty fluid. It’s not design, period. Stop. And then build starts. We’re always moving between two.”
“When we’re looking for someone to work with on the design build project,” explains Reuer, “it’s important to have someone who is committed to making a change, to working with a community, and has a sense of knowing what it takes to get things done. Sometimes that means working in between systems and rules and finding resources in unlikely areas. In each case where I think we’ve been successful, our partner has had great leadership qualities. In this case, the Principal at Helensview, Kris Persson, she’s been there 18 years. I think she lives and breathes that program. She knows every student well and has a kind of passion and dedication that not only inspires us but reassures us that we will be successful working with them.”
Jack Sanders agrees. “It’s a win-win situation because Helensview faculty and students get an addition to their school that can be really useful to them, and the AC+D students get this opportunity to get to know each other better and really just start their semester with some momentum.”
The Applied Craft and Design program was familiar to Persson, who learned about 2011 Design Build project at the Donald E. Long Center from Kevin Hunking, Principal of the Donald E. Long School. In that case, as in this one, the AC+D students worked to empower students outside the traditional school system.
The plan was simple: design and build a working bike repair shop in an unused classroom at Helensview.
Reuer and Persson see the 2013 Design Build project as an opportunity to connect Helensview students to bike culture through purposeful, hands-on skill building. Lessons can be connected back to language arts and math instruction, to initiatives around healthy lifestyles and healthy choices. Students can learn entrepreneurial skills and serve their community by repairing bikes for kids in the local neighborhood.
Helensview School is an alternative education option for students for whom, for whatever reason, a traditional school system was not working.
“Students are referred here,” says Persson. “They’re students who haven’t been successful in more conventional school settings or other alternative schools. They’ve often felt disenfranchised, and felt like failures, felt as though they were on the outside looking in. They think, ‘That might be for others, but not for me.’ They’ve experienced more in their lives that most adults.”
Helensview annually enrolls between 250-270 youth ages 12 through 21 from across Multnomah County. About a third of Helensview students are parenting or pregnant. One in five are working in the sex industry. A quarter is in parole. Half or more are in gangs or have been associated with gangs.
Helensview makes these students a few promises: “No matter what you have experienced in the past or how hard school has been for you, you will succeed as long as you stay connected to our program. No matter what you have done in the past, you will be accepted and welcomed. We will find your strengths and build on them.”
“At Helensview, this adds up to a very strong culture,” explains Persson. “The students share this common denominator. Youth who wouldn’t normally give each other the time of day become friends. They all respect each other. It’s a very special place to be.”
“Helensview isn’t for ‘dropouts’ or ‘troublemakers,’” says McKenna, “but for kids who’ve struggled.”
Persson and the other staff members at Helensview believe that giving students power and voice in their own education works.
“Whatever works, whatever interests them, we try to provide,” says Persson. The school offers woodshop, music studio, and health and fitness classes, among other special programs.
“For some students, this is their entire program,” says Persson. “Their academic program is built in there. Students learn science through gardening, math through woodshop, reading, writing and math through basketball.”
So when Reuer approached Persson about building a bike repair shop for Helensview students, Persson didn’t hesitate.
“I said ‘Yes. Very much so. Definitely.’”
It isn’t all smooth sailing. The pressure of the deadline, the constraints of a tight budget, and the inevitable confusions and miscommunications that come with working with new people… these can lead to rough patches.
Richard Decker ’15 explains, “We were asked at the beginning to think broadly about programming. Now that it’s time to work, it’s difficult to narrow that back down. We have to ask, ‘What are the essentials?’”
“It’s been very intense and rewarding,” says Newson. “The amount of talking and reprocessing has been difficult. I usually do that in my head.”
“It’s been supportive and collaborative, but there have been a few minutes of, what should we call it, creative disagreement,” says Jen Cooke ’15. “Working in groups is hard. Some people like to take off running. Others like to sit and plan.”
She pauses and adds, “It’s not that we were speaking different languages, but that we had to work together to find points to use people’s skills.”
Do the Anthony and Sanders ever worry?
“Do I ever worry?” asks Butch Anthony. “No. It always get’s done. They figure things out themselves.
At 5 PM on the Friday before classes start, the incoming class of 2015 is once again gathered together, this time in the new bike repair shop at Helensview School.
Two of the walls have been painted with oversized, electric green bike gears. The room’s original cabinets have been given a facelift with a coat of bright white paint. (Students had initially wanted to remove the cabinets and build new tables and shelving, but were eventually persuaded to keep them because they were functional.) The AC+D students have installed a padded floor covering over the back half of the room to cushion sound and for standing for long periods of time and hung a pegboard over the room’s whiteboards for organizing tools. A brightly colored mural over the windows spans the width of the room and features a phoenix, wings spread, made out of recycled bike parts. The words “Phoenix Ridin’” are spelled out with bike chain and individual yearbook portraits of Helensview students are incorporated into the mural.
The Helensview staff members notice it immediately.
“This is an overwhelming gift to the students and to the staff…It’s a gracious, beautiful, responsive thing.”
“Teachers started crying,” says Persson. “Some of them lost it. And when they saw the kids’ photos on the mural…”
The room is hot with all the people mingling and celebrating the project’s finish. Helensview students, AC+D alumni, and other guests are noticing and exclaiming over small details: the bookshelves made out of skateboards, two chandeliers made from wheel rims and gears, and a selection of cuffs, bracelets, and necklaces made from spare bike parts. One AC+D student, Shawn Daughton ’15, offers a spontaneous lesson in cutting metal and making jewelry.
In an eleventh hour effort, Michael Schnitman ’15 developed a table-sized sheet of “Pheonix Riding” stickers so students could mark the bikes they’ve worked on. Spinning in the field outside the window is a whirligig with phoenix on top of it.
“This is an overwhelming gift to the students and to the staff,” says Helensview principal Kris Persson, ”and we are so grateful. So impressed. Thank you very much!”
Persson smiles as she looks around the room. “It’s a stunning masterpiece and amazingly beautiful. It’s so creative. An outstanding project. It’s a gracious, beautiful, responsive thing.”
“It’s always fun to see how these things happen,” says Sanders to the collected students. “This is our third year [working with the AC+D students] and every year it’s amazing that JP can round up clients like this and students like this who are so talented, so limitless. It’s such a privilege to get to do this and to work for y’all and with y’all.”
Reuer echoes the sentiment: “I want to express my gratitude for investing in this process. From my perspective, there were so many moments that were learning experiences. It was a joy to be with you guys.”
The AC+D students are tired, but exultant.
“I think, if building this shop can give even just a few of students a chance to funnel their energy into something positive, or teach them about bikes, then it will have been successful,” says Cooke.
“Working with Butch and Jack has been really rewarding,” says McKenna. “They have lots of good ideas, lots of experience, and we have a lot of fun.”
Reflecting on back on the project, Sanders says, “It’s pretty fascinating to imagine what the dynamic would be with art students if they just start next Tuesday and start from scratch right then. The students are coming out of this really really intense Design Build process that throws them into the fire from a communication standpoint. It’s affected how they communicate with each other, what they know about each other, what they know about each other’s talents and backgrounds… It feels like we’ve known each other for four or five weeks, because the process has been so intense.”
“The students are amazed,” says Persson. “They have no clue on how this stuff came together. ‘Why did they do this for us?’ they’re asking. ‘How much money did it cost?’ They’re baffled that they would do this for anyone, let alone teenagers at an alternative high school. I’ve been so impressed.”
“Please,” says Persson to the collected students, “please feel free to stay in touch with the school in any way.”