Earlier today the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation awarded $1,000 in cash to representatives of Ypsilanti’s FLY Children’s Art Center to help fund the launch of a community-wide event called Fabulous Contraptions. After our meeting, I took the opportunity to ask FLY board members Christine Bruxvoort, Linette Lao and Morgan Cox (seen above after receiving their grant) a few questions about their plans.
[In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I’m married to at least one of these fantastic women.]
MARK: You were just awarded an Awesome Foundation grant for a community-wide maker event. What can you tell us about it?
MORGAN: It’s called Fabulous Contraptions. In a nutshell, our idea is to introduce kids to the intersection where art, math, and science meet. We’ve started, and plan to continue to recruit a crew of out-of-the-box engineers and maker-minded adults to collaborate with kids through a short series of workshops that culminate in a large public event, showcasing the completed works and sharing documentation of the brainstorming, planning, and building processes… I’m really excited it. It reminds me of all the reasons I liked physics in school – adding creativity and artistic flair to building machines, and understanding the ways in which objects in our world relate to one another. I’ve always loved making things move and enacting processes by combining everyday objects. It’s like art come to life… kinetic art.
MARK: What was the inspiration for the event?
LINETTE: A couple of years ago, there was a short documentary video that went viral about Caine’s Arcade. A nine year old boy spent his summer vacation at his dad’s auto parts shop, entertaining himself by building a garage full of working arcade games from empty cardboard boxes and duct tape. A lot about that film resonated with us. How beautiful it is to see a kid transform ordinary materials! So we began to think, “How can we empower kids to have a strong and clear vision, and build the confidence and patience necessary to create inspiring things and make them work?”
MORGAN: And the timing was right for us. There’s been an ongoing discussion at FLY about how to bring new challenges and dimensions to the fantastic youth programming we’ve already established… And, when were were introduced to Caine’s Arcade, it really inspired us. We’d been thinking about Rube Goldberg contraptions, and, with the additional influence of Caine’s Arcade, the pieces started falling together.
MARK: If people want to participate, how should they engage with FLY? You mentioned that you’ll have workshops at your Huron Street location… Will there also be sessions in area schools, where people can learn about simple machines, build interactive games, collaborate, experiment, etc?
MORGAN: Absolutely. Our vision is a series of four Sunday afternoons, mid-May to mid-June, where youth, along with adult mentors, can meet up to learn, plan, and build. This will all take place at our Creativity Lab on Huron Street. We also, however, want to leverage our existing relationships in the schools, where we’ve been working for several years, to provide similar hands-on learning experiences for those who can’t make it to the Creativity Lab. We expect to learn a lot of this Fabulous Contraptions series, and to use the lessons learned for future planning.
MARK: When did FLY start, and how many kids do you think you’ve worked with over the years?
CHRISTINE: FLY started in 2009. Ruth Marks, the founder of FLY, envisioned an environment where kids could be free to create in a way that was natural to them. I remember going to what may have been the first FLY class, which was held at the Senior Center in Ypsilanti. When I brought in my two children they were instantly mesmerized by all of the supplies. In fact, I was mesmerized too! They loved the freedom of being able to choose materials and make something truly unique. That was the how it started. Since then we’ve worked with hundreds of children in Washtenaw and in Wayne counties through our after school programs in the public schools and community centers. We’ve also reached out to the community through events and classes at the FLY Creativity Lab.
MARK: It sounds as though this event represents something of a broadening with regard to how FLY sees itself in the community. In the past, you’ve been known primarily for open studio art classes, and this, it seems to me, is more of a “maker” event. Is there a sense that, as an organization, you want to begin thinking about creativity a bit more broadly?
CHRISTINE: I think it all just comes naturally. Now that we have an actual space within the community, we have this opportunity to expand our reach and broaden the impact that quality arts programming can have. You’re right, it’s more of a “maker” event, but FLY has always been about making and creating. Ruth herself expressed that desire at the very beginning… to share that experience of being a maker with young people.
MARK: Why, in your opinion, is creativity important?
MORGAN: Creative minds are the greatest innovators, and, given the state of the world today, we need innovation now more than ever.
CHRISTINE: Creativity is really at the core of being able to apply knowledge to real world situations. Knowing “the how of things” is important. To really understand something, though, you need to experience it. The arts, I believe, can provide that connection between science, technology and math, and make what we teach our children today of more value later. Giving them an opportunity to create now will serve us all in the future.
MARK: Would you say this is especially true of the young people in Ypsilanti who you’ve been working with these past several years?
LINETTE: Well, yes. I wouldn’t say that teaching creativity alone will break the cycle of poverty, or erase the achievement gap, but I’m certain that it will help. Ypsilanti needs kids who are able to imagine a great future for themselves and to figure out how to make it happen. Creative kids are kids who are skilled at transformation. They are confident kids who know they can navigate challenges. That ‘s good for them, and good for all of us as a community too!
CHRISTINE: The kids we work with are great. I’m always amazed at how creative and how adaptive young people are. That’s the beauty of the experiences we’re offering at FLY. Whenever I engage in a FLY class or event, I’m learning something from them! Here in Ypsilanti, I see it all of the time. The kids are truly amazing.
MARK: Can creativity be taught?
MORGAN: I think of it in terms of fostering – to the extent that we are each a product of our environment. If we provide young people the time, space, materials, and perhaps some amount of direction, the result may be an outpouring of creativity. Or not. I believe exposure is important no matter what.
CHRISTINE: Yes, I agree. It’’s really exposure that’s key. Creativity can be taught, I think, but it can also be diminished. When we’re young, we’re not afraid to make mistakes, so we do anything that our hearts desire. That’s where a lot of the beauty in a child’s artwork comes through. But lack of programs, and a lack of experiences, can disrupt this creative process and make us less creative adults, more fearful of our own ideas. Providing people with the opportunity to be a maker, and to see the value in creating, can strengthen or even rebuild those creative thinking skills.
LINETTE: I think of creativity as a muscle that needs exercising. We all have it. Will it atrophy or grow stronger? If our culture values it, and depends on it, we can cultivate it to be an important factor in making all of our lives better.
MARK: Completely off subject, I understand there’s going to be a bratwurst eating challenge at the Wurst Bar coming up in the next few weeks, with proceeds going to FLY. What can you tell us about that?
LINETTE: It’s called The Wurst Challenge: Jaws for a Cause! We’re honored that Jesse from the Wurst Bar reached out to us wanting to help FLY succeed. Details are evolving: all I can say is, stay hungry. And there will be a veggie option!
MARK: For the past year or so, after many years of operating out of storage spaces and the like, you’ve had a physical location on Huron Street, in downtown Ypsilanti. How’s that been working out for you?
CHRISTINE: I think that it’s been going great! It’s come with its challenges, of course, but I feel like we’re really becoming part of the community here in Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti is my home so anything that I can do that makes me feel like I am a part of this place makes me very happy. When we didn’t have a visible space in the community we were really only known by the families in the public schools and in the centers where we offered after school programming. Now people that walk by will stop in to see what we do. Even people without children are becoming familiar with what we do. We’ve had the chance to participate in events downtown and I feel like that involvement is making FLY a more successful venture and Ypsilanti an even better place to live!
MORGAN: Yes, the lab space is a huge asset. We’ve been expanding our class offerings and hosting newcomers more and more. There’s something for everyone – the space isn’t just for children.
MARK: How will this $1,000 A2Awesome grant be employed?
LINETTE: It will help us make this free event happen. It will go toward supplies and help us document the event. A hands-on community collaboration is a special thing. We don’t know what kind of an experience this will be until we do it, but I’m hoping to see kids excited and empowered to make things. I’ll be delighted if we see all kinds of hands-on learning happening among kids, parents, and neighbors! Let’s make something extraordinary happen!
MARK: Do you need donated cardboard, tape, or other materials?
CHRISTINE: YES! Other materials? We will be looking for artists and other creative thinkers to help us with this project.
MORGAN: He doesn’t know it yet, but I’ve been scheming a way to recruit my brother to help as a mentor. He’s an engineer, and a project like this is right up his alley. He’s a problem solver. If something needs to be built, repaired, or modified, he’ll figure out the best way to do it. So yes, we need cardboard and related supplies, but we also need dedicated visionaries.
[If you have an awesome idea that could be realized for $1,000, let us know. Grant deadlines are on the last day of each month.]