This week was the first one I spent at the center with the participants, having spent the past three weeks in the labs at Haverford making art with bacteria. We began by checking out the wood shop again, and participants guided us around the space to—with the help of the woodshop teacher, Sarah*—demonstrate all of the different tools available to us. Many of these were basic saws or sanders that she had adapted to make them more generally accessible (for instance, a sander that would have originally required a lot of dexterous finger movements was now attached to a stationary bike. Participants could work together to sand a piece of wood, with one pedaling the bike, and another holding the wood still against the moving sander). All of the participants worked together to show us how the machines worked, and many were greatly excited by the opportunity. I had the chance to try out a tool that cut grooves into long, cylindrical pieces of wood, and also allowed you to color the grooves in. After this, it was time for snack, so we filed into the cafeteria and wandered around as participants pulled out their bags of food. Natasha and I joked around with Valerie, a participant who was part of our project group, and she laughed uproariously for several minutes at the thought of me and Natasha as cheerleaders. I met a lot of new people who I would not be working with, but will surely see most days when I come back to the center. We returned to the woodshop. As the three of us and four of the participants sat together at the table, Sarah outlined the project we would be doing—creating boxes out of the same kind of trees that we had seen the week beforehand at Haverford, which we would then fill with twigs and leaves from the Haverford trees. We would also make arms and legs for the boxes, to make them resemble bodies (this will tie in later with Natasha’s* project on bodies, sexuality, and gender that we will discuss with the participants as the semester continues). The first part of the process was to decorate the sides of the boxes. We were put in pairs (I’ll be working with Carl*), and we each put some black tea bags into a slow cooker. These will steep and release their color into the water, so we can use them and some rust-water to paint the wood.
Because I’ve spent most of the weeks until this point thinking about my work at the center specifically in terms of disability studies and the ethics of representation (as it relates, specifically, to disability), it’s interesting to shift my perspective in the direction of education, empowerment, and teaching and learning, even in broad terms. It is pretty clear already that we are in no position of authority in the center, something which makes a lot of sense to me, and I find myself deeply appreciating it. The artists who are working with us have worked at the center for a long time, and have each developed their own unique style and strategies for working alone and with one another. However, because the space is established as a very collaborative one (which seems to make all aspects of the art process more accessible, as people with various disabilities can assist their fellow artists in the areas that would normally be inaccessible to those artists), I can tell that we will take a very active and equal role in the creation of these boxes. Because I come in with essentially no knowledge of visual art, my responsibility so far seems to be keeping us on track while the participants primarily guide the creative process, as they have since they’ve worked at the center. My primary goal right now is to make sure that my presence is welcome and calming—I know that for many of the people we’ve met at the center, having their routine disrupted (whether by new activities or new people) can be off-putting and frustrating, and I’d like to smoothly integrate myself so that I don’t become a disturbance. The work we are doing ties so directly into the Kuppers’ selections we have read, and with that reading alongside these visits, I find myself honoring at an even deeper level the self-expression that comes about in these spaces. I feel grateful to be a witness to it, and want to keep reading more in order to avoid taking up too much space or manipulating the process to fit my expectations (of how quickly I think we should be moving in a given part of the process, for instance).
Next week, we’ll continue working to decorate the sides of the box, with the tea-rust solution and designs made out of melted wax. I’d like the chance to speak more with participants who aren’t working on the project with us, and it seems like snack time is the best chance to do that. As I approach my next visit, I’m thinking more about how to make the most of my time there while taking up the least amount of space (in a way that still renders my presence valuable to the participants, so that meaningful relationships are formed on both sides).