Inhabiting Space with Project Open Door
Walking down South Main Street, all the way past ID and BEB, you might stumble across yet another RISD building, a little-known but not-so-hidden space with large windows and daylight streaming in. It may sound like any other studio space, but it is slightly different. This space at 355 South Water Street is shared between urban high school students from Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket and RISD MAs and MATs in Teaching + Learning in Art + Design (TLAD).
I joined the MA Art + Design Education cohort last fall. Over the course of the semester I would walk into the space every Monday to be welcomed by some incredible work. There would be collages and drawings on the walls, or wire and paper sculptures on the tables. While I was snoozing away my weekend alarm and complaining about not enough sleep, teens at Project Open Door (POD) had been hard at work.
Every Saturday morning, teens attending nearby urban public and charter high schools come to POD to learn and hone their artistic skills. They study with RISD faculty and TLAD students, as well as receive advice about college admissions and professional practice. As much as POD provides these students with an art education, it also offers a unique opportunity for RISD graduate students to interact with local teens and create a permeable space of learning and interaction. Some of us work with the students directly; others bump into them on Friday evenings in the studio space, and the rest walk in on Monday mornings to see their art.
At the outset, the spatial designer in me had an inkling that there was something really unique about this shared space between RISD graduate students and POD teens. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but the ongoing interaction and constant sharing of POD work made me feel that everyone from RISD has something to gain from this amazing dynamic. To figure out what was going on, I conducted five different interviews with people who are (or have been) a part of the RISD graduate student community and interact with POD teens regularly, in different capacities:
Lauren Allen, Associate Director (MA TLAD 2014)
Chaitra Bangalore (MA TLAD 2017)
Rachel Deane (Rachel) (MA TLAD 2017)
Rachel Dranoff (Rachi) (MA TLAD 2017)
Bailey Farrell (MAT TLAD 2017)
The interviews confirmed this unique collaborative quality of the space and the pricelessness of the interaction we each experience with teens from Providence. In this spirit of almost ethereal collectivity, I decided to construct an imagined round table discussion between these five individuals about the POD teens, the work they produce, the inspiration, and the effect they might have on the wider RISD student community.
Lauren: First and foremost, I am so impressed with the POD students. That they want to be part of this program on a Saturday morning is pretty awesome.
Bailey: Like 9:00 am. Good for them.
Chaitra: I know, the fact that they come on Saturday morning. That's so unique—that they have the motivation to show up. And some come on Friday afternoons—that's ridiculous. (laughs) I didn't know any high schooler when I was at school who would have wanted to be occupied from 3:00 to 6:00. It’s just impressive.
Lauren: And seeing some of the drawings that they make—I could never do a lot of those things, even now.
Bailey: Honestly, I am completely blown away by them—how dedicated they are and talented. They are way better than me. It’s incredible when they show you what they are working on.
Chaitra: I think the POD kids are different because they come prepared and motivated. They already know what they want.
Lauren: Also, I think there is one thing really cool about Providence. I don’t know if it’s just the kids we get, but they are all really involved. Not only in youth arts, but social justice. They seem to be into it already.
Chaitra: There were actually a couple of girls before the Women's March who were making posters and tied it into class time. It was in the flow of things. They suddenly decided, “Let's make posters since we are going to the march anyway. Let's do it here since we have supplies and use the space.”
Bailey: I was repeatedly just so impressed by the amount the tenth graders were willing to share. Social and personal concerns came up in class very naturally and they were just very open with it. It was never an issue—it was just about being honest and open.
Lauren: A lot of the prompts given to them build on things that are personal to the students.
Rachel: I made my curriculum about identity. The whole point was to have the ability to manipulate whatever you see, make it your own—give it your own meaning. It boils down to being able to send your own message.
Chaitra: Also, it’s a pretty diverse group of kids. Things come up when they are having discussions. They are aware of other people's identities.
Bailey: I remember one student who talked about discovering their sexual identity was very open with that; another shared about his disability. And no one’s reactions in class were ever negative. It was a very supportive class of tenth graders.
Chaitra: I think the class structure utilizes new skills that you wouldn't learn in a regular high school setting. It’s made up of three important things coming together: one, that the teens are really enthusiastic; two, that the professors are RISD professors (so you know they are good); and three, that they are teaching skills which are outside of the box.
Rachi: I am just so excited for this exchange and these relationships, and to see the work they make. This is the model that I really support and want to be involved in.
Lauren: After being here on a Saturday morning will all these kids and their excitement, it makes me wanna go home and make stuff.
Rachel: I think it’s exciting to work with students too. My studio practice is really subconscious. I do a lot of research with art history, art making, and art theory, but when I get to the studio, all the experiences kind of just pour out into my work. It’s like a culmination of everything, so I’m sure in some way the POD experience does go back with me.
Chaitra: It's like any other creative setting—you borrow from people. And the POD students are just so talented that I would like to find things to borrow. I am of course influenced by having conversations with them; that finds its way into my work somehow.
Bailey: I remember when I was working with them as an MAT and taking classes. There were moments I was really inspired by.
Rachi: I just always feel inspired by teaching. Also by the challenge of designing lessons that will be really accessible and engaging to a variety of students and then seeing what happens.
Rachel: I think the most exciting part for me about working with students is sharing the love of art I have. I want everyone to be able to go into a museum or go into an art class and go, “Yes, this is the best thing ever. This is so much fun.” I think I had more consistent numbers of students coming to their RISD studios than going to the programs at their schools.
Lauren: I think they want to be here more than they want to be at school.
Chaitra: Everyone knows RISD, they are proud about coming here.
Rachi: I am just excited to be able to share the RISD experience with the students. That piece of the program feels the most compelling: to bring together two different worlds that are really side by side.
Lauren: Maybe the teens don’t always recognize that when they are at POD, they are actually at RISD. But I think some of them do. It would help build awareness if we went to the other departmental studios. We go to the Museum and Library sometimes, but we should interact more with the rest of the school.
Rachi: One of my big goals is to do a bunch of field trips that expose the students to more of RISD and Providence, rather than just staying in a studio space. We are going to go to the RISD Museum, the Nature Lab, and to the Fleet Library and a trip to the Specials Collections so that they start to feel a little bit of ownership.
Rachel: When I was teaching, during the first week we went to the Nature Lab and we did observational drawings; some of these were the best of the semester.
Lauren: They go to the Nature Lab a lot and that’s always a big hit. But, we would like to have more involvement across campus, have more people know about us.
Rachel: I just think that people don’t really know much about POD, even now that we are in this beautiful space. I was talking to the coordinator and she was envisioning more workshops instead of having one teacher for 10 weeks. For example, having a darkroom photography session for a day and then a loom weaving session on the next. It would be a really cool way to start teaching technical skills.
Lauren: We are having a couple of special after-school programs this spring—one in fashion, one in photography—so we would like either undergraduate or graduate TAs for those. They could share their studios and bring POD teens into their department to see what they are doing. They could even come here and give a talk about their work or give a workshop.
I would open the invite to anyone interested in learning more to stop by on a Saturday morning.
Bailey: We have open studios twice a week; we should invite RISD students during that time. POD is such an amazing program. It connects RISD and Providence. It would be really cool if more people at RISD just knew about it.
Lauren: If people knew, lots of cools things could happen, even if it’s just in some really small informal ways. Sometimes, graduate students are here working on their toy design projects alongside high school students working on their stuff. And they just talk, which is really cool. It’s so nice to see these small moments. I wish it happened more, I wish it were more activated, and I think we are slowly getting there.