Vernacular Knowledge : An Interview with the Steel Yard

November 23, 2011 · Print This Article


 

During the last week of my time in Providence, I came across another arts organization called The Steel Yard. It is what it sounds like — an old industrial complex that has been taken over by an arts organization. In keeping with the land’s original tradition, The Steel Yard offers ceramics and metalworking classes that among others include welding, blacksmithing and jewelry making. As part of their annual fundraising, they host a yearly Iron Chef competition and an Iron Pour which (as you can imagine/see from above) involves a lot of flying sparks in the dark. (At such times — even looking at the video — I catch for a moment the wild Romance of light, its seeming mysticism, glowering in the dark. Imagine what it must have been like before the age of electricity!) The Steel Yard converted this all but abandoned property into a vibrant teaching ground for metalurgy — what stands out in my mind as another instance of Providence’s intriguing utilitarian edge. While it’s participants and administrators are focused on building a community in the present, they utilize the resources of an industrial, American past. I had a chance to ask Executive Director, Drake Patten, about the organization.

Iron Chef

Caroline Picard: I know the Steel Yard started in 2002, when the founders decided to buy an all but abandoned steel yard. How has the organization grown and changed over the last 10 years? Did you expect it to be what it was now at in its inception?

Drake Patten: The Yard is really an incredibly fortunate experiment: our founders had vision and guts and took a huge leap of faith when they bought the former PRovidence Steel and Iron complex (which was, BTW, a brownfield). Our beginnings and our growth have been intensely organic and I think also importantly quite authentic — but certainly becoming a non-profit and getting above the radar did change some aspects of the DIY attitude we began with. What was once folks bringing their own tools together to teach a de facto group of neighborhood kids or adults interested in making things has grown into a strong, serious force in the local creative economy. This comes from our public projects (one of a kind street amenities designed, sourced, fabricated in RI) our workforce training (18-24 year olds learning a high skill trade) and our open enrollment classes and summer camps for a range of ages. The connective tissue is how we strongly we believe in the importance of scale and the value of vernacular knowledge and tradition. And there is much to be said for the fact that the site (which the non-profit now owns and is almost mortgage free on) is now an award winning cleanup project….this was work we had to do but we did it in a way that also engaged lots of new ideas around storm water management and design theory around creative place making. So programmatically and site wise we are trying to model good practice as members of our community. As far as expectations go, I would say that our founders did expect the essence of what we have become — their vision set the mission and we are very on mission — but in many ways we have exceeded what any of us imagined and I think this is precisely because we have really embraced building this organization to be agile and responsive and true to PLACE.

Ceramics

CP: I don’t know if this is a fair observation or not, but I at least was surprised by how central youth programs seem to be in Providence arts organizations. Obviously, AS220 has one, but I have also talked to a number of different artists who take arts education very seriously. I was wondering if you could talk about your youth program and how it came about?

DP: Again, I think it was based on need and interest — and that has changed over time — we do much less with the youth population that AS220 and other colleague organizations than we used to: our original more traditional-ages  youth focus has really moved in to 18-24 year olds (who do not consider themselves youth) with the exception of our summer program Camp Metalhead (14-18) and special programs we run with some of our longer term partners. This is because we recognize that younger youth (for lack of a better term) are being served much more universally than this older group — and we have something unique to offer them — so we have carved out a very particular area of service where we really believe we can have a large impact. We are very conscious of duplication and competition; we would rather see those more strongly focused on youth service getting the limited funds out there and using us as a provider (if that works for them) than competing directly with those programs. We work in a really amazing place for youth service and just as we feel strongly about not doing what colleagues do (ie: not adding art forms that are are well done by others say at AS220 or Riverzedge) we don’t want to compete in service. We seek to partner and complement, not compete.

Iron Pour

CP: Another observation I had was about a general openness in Providence. There seems to be an emphasis on doing and in the process exercising an aesthetic experience through a celebratory spectacle. Here too, I am thinking about the Wooly Fair that you all host. How does the Steel Yard fit into that scene (if it does)? 

DP: We actually just serve as the host site for Wooly Fair so we cant take an ounce of credit for that (or other happenings that use our space). We actually are just the  site for Wooly Fair so I  don’t think think I can answer this in the way you might like….and honestly ,while we have amazing off the wall events that are Steel Yard events (Iron Chef, Iron Pour, etc) we are probably best described as the geek events -all of our signature events are educational (and certainly fun) but  really are (just like the mission ) all about making-appealing to the maker in all of us.

Welding

CP: Another thing that seems really interesting to me is how your particular organization is especially tied to Providence’s industrial history. It seems like you are appropriating a site that once was intrinsic to Providence’s identity. By occupying that site, you give it new purpose; I wonder what you think about Providence’s identity now? 

DP: First, we actually don’t think of ourselves as appropriating at all, or adaptive reusing. Just reusing. This goes back to that vernacular thing. Providence is still an industrial place. You can put as many high end lofts into old manufacturing complexes as you want to, but the bones here are about manufacturing and production. And it is still the best thing  we do. Small creative businesses to factory production — it is all here. I think the hangover effect of talking about what we used to be is a problem for us sometimes — who cares about what was! — let’s focus on what we are now because the creative energy of this region is palpable. There is a generation that is embracing the roots of innovation that built this state and I think that is not only great — but it’s also the only way to recharge RI. As I mentioned above, it comes back to scale I think — choosing and embracing the one that is right for the place you work and live and aiming for striking just that precise balance.