Artists fire up a neighborhood

Hammer IBY CHRISTOPHER HARRISON ELDRIDGE

Seven years ago the corner of 38th and Chicago was in a state of decay. Lots had been vacant and boarded for decades: few businesses; no community activity; no development.  In the words of Victoria Lauing, “There was a hunger for change.”  In response to that hunger, Lauing and like minded residents Heather Doyle and Maren Christenson came together to found the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center, a nonprofit organization for artists and students of all levels working with “fine and industrial art forms that are produced using heat, spark or flame—collectively known as ‘fire arts’—including sculptural welding, blacksmithing, glasswork, jewelry making and others.” The goal of this new organization was to provide an open, affordable and supportive environment for anyone interested, while serving as a catalyst for positive change in the neighborhood. This raison d’être was built on the work of economists like Ann Markusen and David King, who have written extensively on what they call the “artistic dividend”—the capacity of art space to instigate change and promote prosperity in cities rather than being a product thereof. As such theories gain increasing traction among both academics and policy makers, the Fire Arts Center (commonly known as “CAFAC” around the shop) is being held up as proof of principle on Minneapolis’ south side.
Now, six years after opening its doors, CAFAC has helped make proximity to 38th and Chicago a selling point for realtors and turned Lauing, Doyle and Christenson into paladins for the arts as a catalyst for growth and vitality in the community. CAFAC now draws students from all over the tri-state area who quickly fill up every class they offer. Students are of all ages and range from those seriously pursuing the industrial arts to people fascinated by the idea of making their own hammers and coat hooks.
One of the focal points for CAFAC has always been the local youth population.  CAFAC provided them a place to call their own through the SPEAK Project, taking in kids and giving them, in collaboration with existing youth resources, an artistic outlet, along with teaching them marketable skills. As Heather Doyle, CAFAC’s artistic director and the creative force behind SPEAK, put it, “We could appeal to kids in a way that other art forms probably couldn’t. There’s something very empowering about using a 3,000-degree furnace or cutting steel with a plasma torch.” Through these classes, at-risk youth collaborate every year to design and fabricate a piece of public art, investing in their local community while they learn project management, teamwork and other universal skills—along with welding, grinding and everything else that goes along with metalwork. Each piece is built around a selected theme relating to social justice issues, which the students interpret and translate into the installations that can be found all around Minneapolis.
Among those who consistently see the appeal of fire arts have been juvenile convicts, members of the Hennepin County Home School program, who have been major contributors to every year’s SPEAK Project. Since CAFAC is their only off-campus training site, many of the kids jump at the opportunity, and are then liberated by the trust and responsibility granted them. As one such student observed, “We get to make tools and use forging equipment here and then go back to a place where we aren’t even trusted with metal forks.”
Brad IThe SPEAK Project prides itself on helping these youths find and develop their own voice, even when it comes into conflict with authority. One year’s project theme was “protecting the innocence of youth,” and the participants wanted to represent the flawed ways in which society teaches them to protect that innocence. Part of their design was an iron tapestry of broken shields, portraying the myriad social tools and structures people use for emotional defense, and one of these components was a pair of handguns, barrel to barrel beneath a banner reading “Destroy Peace.” When this small part of the greater whole was noticed by the group that had commissioned the work, Doyle was told that it was unacceptable and must be removed. On receiving this news she sat down with her students and told them that they had two options. “We can take it out and move on, or you can defend it.” After a long, round table discussion it was decided that they would defend their art, and the students collectively penned a letter explaining the idea behind the depiction and its importance in the context of the work as a whole. They took that letter to all of the decision makers and convinced their patrons to let the work proceed. Through the guidance of the SPEAK Project they developed the skills to creatively articulate their thoughts and trust their own vision in the face of resistance, resolving to solve problems through the system by force of argument, and seeing the results of their hard work in a permanent installation of public art. The volunteer staff of CAFAC considers this a prime example of everything they can hope to achieve through these programs.
This year SPEAK is working on a bike rack to sit on the corner of 38th and Chicago, inspired by the Japanese art of bonsai—the cultivating and training of miniature trees. Still under construction, the bike rack includes a 5-foot steel “bonsai,” designed in accordance with the traditional rules of Japanese design, and should be on display sometime this coming spring.
2016 marks the first year that CAFAC has been eligible for state funding, and with that they plan to expand and deepen their programming, providing even more opportunities to inspire potential artists. As Lauing put it, “We’re always planting seeds.”

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