How the philosophy behind the Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center could solve the world’s problems

A bold headline perhaps, but hey, it’s true. In June, I visited the CIADC to learn more about the new nonprofit arts center in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and was blown away by the facilities and philosophy behind the Center. What resonated most was the founder’s focus on not having prescriptive end products in the classes. It seems there is considerably less room and encouragement than there was in past decades, even in realms that are supposedly promoting these efforts, to make original work via trial and error and creative problem solving.

Last year, there was some criticism (that I very much agree with) of Legos (gasp!), drawing attention to the fact that these building blocks are not quite the creativity-inspired units they once were. Instead, we purchase pre-made kits that direct us to follow instructions with every brick having a predetermined location. This does not exactly build skills that lead to brilliant discoveries. Beyond this, the kits even tell you what girls can build vs. what boys can build, which should drive any self-respecting human insane. I don’t understand how innovation has a gender, do you? How exactly are these projects contributing to our/our kids learning process?

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Beautiful, non-gendered, monstrous creation that will never be made twice (left) vs. a prescribed, cutesy end product with only the exact pieces needed to make the same prepackaged item every time (right).

Of course, this isn’t only a Lego phenomenon, not by a longshot. I took a painting class with my nieces a while back and everyone had to paint the exact same image–every kid was looking around to make sure they were doing it “right.” The paintings were still adorable, sure, but I found the process to be anxiety producing because we had to focus on recreating an expected end goal (the teacher’s example painting), instead of focusing on playing with color and space and creating something out of our imaginations, which can never be “wrong.” This isn’t about being touchy feely, it’s about not correcting a Picasso when he paints something a different way. As a society, we mass manufacture, buy wholesale, feel pressured to keep up with norms, and are called out on all of our choices on social media to keep us in check. If we all do everything the same way, how on earth will we ever progress, solve the problems of the world, push the boundaries of the arts, etc.? How will we ever do anything great?

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CIADC Member, Natalie, forging steel belt buckles by heating the steel round stock and hammering into shape with the 24oz Craftsman ball-pein hammer.

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The hammer and anvil are a classic combination for metal makers.

But I digress…the point is simply to remember the spirit of creativity and the benefits it reaps.  I believe this spirit is captured at the CIADC. None of the projects shown were for classes that specifically taught belt making or frame fabricating or, lord knows, bike trailer manufacturing. They simply evolved as the process unfolded. Methods changed, mediums changed. This is encouraged, not frowned upon.

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When you want ultimate control of the fastening torque, nothing beats a good old manual phillips head screwdriver. Laura, the CIADC Woodworking Department Manager, is assembling a plywood cross-cut box for the table saw.

Basically, classes at the Center teach you about a specific medium and you decide the trajectory. If you decide that you want to work with metal and wood simultaneously to complete a project you dream up, all the better. The idea is not to limit but to expand options and methods. As someone who works in various architectural fields, I can’t tell you how useful it would be if architects, engineers, and contractors would cross-collaborate!

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CIADCs founder and Metalworking Department Manager, Matt, shows students the Craftsman aviator sheet metal snips while cutting 18ga steel to be bent into an open-faced box. Snips are great for cutting both geometric and organic forms from sheet metal.

The man behind the initiative, Matt Runfola, was kind enough to send some pictures of the CIADC students and members in action. You don’t have to be a member to take classes, by the way, but members do have additional privileges such as discounted classes.

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Long-time CIADC student, Jeremy, demonstrates an outside-the-box use of the Craftsman 24” Carpenter Square. Here, he uses it to set a parallel fence to cut perfect sizes on our metal cutting band saw. Jeremy is working on a bicycle cargo trailer at CIADC.

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Having the right tools on hand make the tasks safer and easier. New CIADC student, Shelly, adjusts the miter gauge for the table saw with combination wrenches. Shelly was cutting beautiful mitered wood frames for her 2D art.

The best part about tools is that they can be used in many different ways for many different things–this is but a tiny sampling of how the CIADC will use the tools we shipped from Craftsman. For more information on the wide range of class options and the philosophy that guides the Center, please check out their website. Tools help us to make our world more functional, interesting, and beautiful, but of course the most versatile tool of all is our noggin. Use it. Explore. Have fun out there!
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The Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center: Forging Creativity. Literally.

photo 4 copyI’ve been playing around with metal arts since I was 15, so when I heard that a multidisciplinary arts center with welding and forging facilities was moving into a giant warehouse near my home, some blood vessels burst in my eye. There are not many of these spaces in Chicago, so I immediately contacted Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center (CIADC) founder Matt Runfola to see how to get involved and how Craftsman might be able to help.

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The Chicago Radio Laboratory signage still remains in the building, and Matt is proud of the history of the space, which gave birth to Zenith Electronics via the work of makers a century ago.

Matt ran the Evanston Arts Center’s metalworking program for the last 13 years, but when the organization made plans to move to a new building this year, the new space was unable to accommodate metalworking facilities. So Matt decided to go off on his own and go bigger and better by taking over a poured concrete and masonry building that would be mighty hard to burn down. This woodless construction allowed for welding, forging, and even casting to take place in the building and with a full three stories to play with, there was ample space to fabricate objects using any methods he could dream up.

Forging and metalworking equipment!

Forging and metalworking equipment!

So, beyond the firey arts that make my heart swell, there are numerous other workstations in the CIADC building, allowing for glass blowing, wood working (which Craftsman will now be providing numerous tools for, since the greatest need was in this department), and even 3-D printing and electronics. This is all very intentional–the purpose is not to teach people how to fabricate a prescribed end product, but to make them work out a project using a broader creative process.

Woodworking space.

Woodworking space.

Basically, you could learn to make a wood table top, then learn how to weld a table base, then cast a vase to sit on top of the thing. Then you could buy some flowers for the vase, model a necklace on a computer, and fabricate it at a jewelry station and have a damned dinner party. It’s not about production, it’s about process and creating something that is truly unique and from your own wonderful brain.

3-D printing studio space.

3-D printing studio and electronics space.

This way of thinking reminded me of my time spent with the Austin Tinkering School and their philosophy of learning and fostering true creativity and problem solving skills, which we are sorely lacking these days. If you can’t make this one way, figure out another way, or take the project in a new direction. There are a million ways to accomplish a goal and nothing is right or wrong. That’s the fun of it and what expands our brains. That’s art, science, alchemy, and what’s going to get us through any number of sticky situations in the future, in and out of the studio.

For more on the CIADC and to sign up for classes (this session is starting soon!), click here.

Where the magic happens. (Photo courtesy of the CIADC)

Where the magic happens in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of the CIADC)