Letting Non-Makers In: An Interview with The Empowerment Plan’s Veronika Scott

April 22, 2011 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY SARAH MARGOLIS-PINEO

I’ve had the past two weeks to ruminate on the phrase: creative supply chain. The idea was introduced at the Rust Belt to Artist Belt conference in Detroit on April 6-7 as an iteration of the creative economy in post-industrial cities. Taking cues from traditional cycles of production, as well as from the information systems of digital technology, the creative supply chain was presented as model to revitalize the 21st century economy through the stimulation of local and well-integrated creative practices.

Following the two, very full days of conference conversation, I was eager to discuss the event with a maker who is already contributing to this notion of the creative supply chain. I made a date to interview Veronika Scott, Detroit wunderkinder and creator of the Empowerment Plan, a project that combines social activism with good design through the production of self-heated and waterproof coats that transform into sleeping bags. I first encountered the Empowerment Plan at a Detroit Soup micro-grant supper back in October, where Veronika spoke about her project over bowls of vegan butternut squash. In the five short months since, the 21-year old designer has been featured on CNN and NPR, sponsored by Carhartt, and taken meetings with the Japanese embassy as well as the Red Cross.

Photo: Frank Parker.

The majority of the attention that the Empowerment Plan has received surrounds the coat itself, which beyond being a potentially life-saving tool for homeless and displaced communities, is a stunning design object made from everyday materials. To create her coats, Veronika has implemented a unique production cycle that relies on the employment of homeless women, usually mothers, who are taught the skills to create and distribute the coats to “unreachable” individuals who are most in need. Integral to this project is the notion of empowerment, which to Veronika, exists in tandem with education and employment. What interests me about this project is how the coat becomes a model for the cycle that produces it—both are fully sustainable systems that promote independence, wellbeing, and inherently, empowerment of both user and maker.

Photo: Brittany Thomasson

Veronika is first and foremost a designer, who operates at that curious intersection of culture and social activism. Her praxis has swung a wide arc between fine art and manufacturing, but in essence, her process is to locate a problem, and creatively work to produce a solution. To achieve this, she utilizes tools from the business world as well as the creative sector, and will unabashedly network for material or intellectual gain. She has an uncontrollable passion for issues relating to homelessness. At first, I mistook her zeal for youthful exuberance, but through our conversation, I realized that this almost-college-graduate is well on her way to becoming a predominant voice in humanitarian design.

This conversation was recorded in a bougie coffee shop in Royal Oak, a suburb north of Detroit, which struck me as an ironic venue, until our conversation was interrupted by an older man who decided to clip his fingernails at an adjacent table. We weren’t so far from the city after all. Discussed in this interview is that illusive creative supply chain, big, pink band-aids, the collaborative creative processes, and Detroit as a city of makers.

Sarah Margolis-Pineo: Beginning with the Empowerment Plan, how did that project start?

Veronika Scott: It started first as a school project. At that point, it was literally product design, so I focused on the coat, and the design. I thought: it’s cold, they need something to wear, something to sleep in, something waterproof and self heated, and it started off pretty small.

Veronika Scott

I spent three days a week, every week, for five months with a group of people at neighborhood service organization, which is also known as Viet Nam on the streets. It’s hands down the roughest, most aggressive, most displaced… It’s not even a shelter—it’s a warming station in Detroit! I didn’t know that at the time. I was very naive, and very stupid to go there for the first time.

SMP: Warming station?

VS: It’s somewhere you can go and just sit for 8-hours, and then you get booted out for the next group. So I went there at 8pm, three nights a week, every week of the semester, and continued on to the beginning of the summer. It was through that time that the project did not die. Instead of going: okay guys, semester’s done and I’ve got my grade, I continued to do prototypes with them, and they still continued to test them. Even when I didn’t have anything to show them, I would still go and talk at the same scheduled day, at the same scheduled time every week, just to say that I was there.

SMP: And out of this process emerged a beautiful, as well as a functional, design object. This axis of art and social activism is becoming more prominent, especially here in Detroit through discussions relating to the creative economy. I’m wondering how you see your work fitting into that conversation?

VS: I don’ t see [The Empowerment Plan] as being fine arts. In no way is it fine arts. When the coat idea was lumped in to the project, [a college administrator] wanted me to do gallery shows and this fine art ideation, and I thought: this doesn’t need gallery shows, this needs funding and larger warehouse space. This doesn’t need to show itself off anymore, and it doesn’t need to think about itself—it needs to act. I felt like what I was being asked to do was read through a document and highlight spelling mistakes and errors. I feel like that is fine art: you highlight, you make awareness in the world to a problem. I feel like what my project is, is going in and retyping it. I have a very strong issue with highlighting something, I’ m one of those people who needs to act and do something.

SMP: What did you take from this idea of “creative supply chain” at the Rust Belt conference? Do you feel that business practices should be a more integral part of creative practices?

VS: That’s what I think is really lacking. Yes, there are a lot of great things that come out of fine art in this city. The pink wall, for example, the big pink band-aid, that’s great—it’s highlighting or covering a bruise. But, one: it’s not doing anything; and two: the big issues that those artists aren’t willing or need to be pushed to join up with that sort of commercial, business oriented world that they’re trying to stay away from. There needs to be something lasting, because right now, were in this state of anti-structure in Detroit. I described it as the Wild West of creativity, because you can almost do anything you want if you’re driven enough to get it or do it, which is great. But if there’s not any structure applied to it soon, if there’ s no heavy manufacturers coming in and trying to tie themselves to something… This needs to happen, otherwise it will start to collapse. The pink wall will fade or crumble and disappear. And what are we left with?

SMP: So what advice would you give to the creative community in Detroit to cultivate something lasting—to creatively problem solve and see tangible results?

VS: Start figuring out names. I think it has everything to do with networking. I wouldn’t know anything about what I’m doing if it wasn’t for the brilliant people I surround myself with, and the brilliant people willing to put up with me and my questions. And these are some amazing CEOs, lawyers—some amazing people in all senses of the word. I know artists think they don’t want to reach out to that type of person or that they can’t. You’d be surprised, that even if it’s just googling until you find a name of someone that does clothing manufacturing or kids toys— someone who works for Hasbro. You think you can’t contact them, but you need to try. I’ve emailed hundreds of people to help me with this. Communication is huge. And I think that’s how you apply that structure. You can’t know everything about what you’re doing. There were so many aspects of my project that I didn’t understand, and I still really don’t, but I have people beside me who do.

Photo: Brittany Thomasson

SMP: Collaboration seems to be integral aspect of your practice—you seem to have cultivated all these micro-communities through the process of the Empowerment Plan. Tell me a bit about your involvement with the new project in Corktown, which I understand is based in the idea of collectivity, and bringing together a network of creatives from a range of fields.

VS: [Phil Cooley and collaborators] are bringing together quite an amazing group of people. Everybody from chefs to architects, to engineers, and heads of foundations. Businesspeople! I think this is the typical structure that everyone should have—as eclectic as this. When you build a community you need to have it be eclectic. You can’t just hunt down all your artist friends and call it a day and just make pottery. You need to branch out to people you may be uncomfortable with, and you fully acknowledge are more intelligent than you, and possibly more creative than you. Those are the best people to surround yourself with, and that’s what I see this new warehouse/structure being. It blew my mind that they approached me! These are established artists, designers, chefs. People within the city and outside the city coming in specifically to have a space in this warehouse.

SMP: And this is studio space?

VS: Studio-production space. To pay for the space, we’ll be teaching kids at least 4-hours a month. So that’s like paying rent—we’re expected to teach! Kids are a huge part of this space. Studio space is great, but I’ m not one of those people, anymore or right now anyway, who will use a studio to paint for 10-hours a day. My studio is about producing—getting ideas out, and communicating with others. And my contribution was saying to Phil: You’re talking about kids in the public schools, and we need to branch out to kids who are not in schools at all. I’m bringing this back to homelessness, but that’s what I’m closest to, there’s a huge problem with homeless youth, and they’ re trapped in this deep cycle just like anyone else.

SMP: Do you think the specific conditions here in Detroit have enabled this type of collective, socially conscious, cultural iteration?

VS: Yes. This wouldn’t have been able to happen anywhere else. Perhaps Russia…

SMP: The climate is similar!

VS: The climate is similar, as is the socio-economic status of most of the people who live in Russia. But, I’m not from Russia, and I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the US that I could do this. It has the space. It has the creative community. It has the media attention… It’s a weird place right now—there’s little structure, decaying buildings all over the place, there’s skyrocketing joblessness. So, it’s a weird combination.

SMP: At the conference, I often heard Detroit referred to as a city of makers.

VS: As a city, we’ve been a maker culture since the beginning. When the city was still flourishing, we were a part of making—the hands on production of automobiles, clothing, shoes, and leather goods. We were so tangible. Some of the best goods came out of Michigan, and Detroit in particular, and I think that’s so deeply ingrained in all the generations. The grandfather did cars, and from there, the sons and daughters made products that other places in the country didn’t have the skills to do. Detroit was raised by, and into it. It’s part of everyone’s being—we are a community and city based on producing things. That’s something that is very hard to kill, especially now with the new digital world that is so intangible, a lot of Detroiters didn’t know what to do. When the economy fell and we lost all those production jobs… To this day, people still don’t know what to do without hands-on making.  There are so many skilled people in this city, it’s insane! I think that’s where it has to go again—return to the culture of making, but differently this time. Yes, it did fail, but it did in the rest of the world as well economy-wise. You can’t blame the city, but we’ve been doing it for 20-or so years now, which is longer than the crash. We need to apply new structures and new systems to it, because right now, the old one does not work. The old paradigm for making and producing no longer applies. In order to succeed, we need to think of new ways. This is where the idea of the artist comes in. Looking at something in a different way.

Yes, we are makers, but we can’t rely entirely on that anymore. We need to join forces—business practices are everything. We are a maker community, but we can’t be afraid to let other non-makers in.

 

Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.