A visiting teaching artist at the Kentucky School of Art and his students moved off-campus to learn about collaborative art-making inside communities.
C. Ryan Patterson modeled the Smoketown Social Club, the temporary classroom he set up for his six-week course on community art and collaboration, on pop-up community gathering spots that appear in vacant lots in his native Baltimore. He and his students hold classes and community events in the old St. Peter Claver Catholic Church on Lampton Street, south of East Broadway. Metro Housing Authority is allowing the school to use the building, which served as the Sheppard Square Community Center before the housing project was razed last January.
“The concept of the Smoketown Social Club is this pop-up community center,” says Patterson. “We want to welcome other folks in to teach us, tell us and meet us. We’re also artists and makers and we want to have a place to exhibit and make work.”
The Social Club has been open to neighbors who visit for art classes and lectures as well as social events like movie nights and barbecues. Patterson says not all of their events have been widely attended, but each one has served as a bridge to another event or connection.
A practical course on social engagement might not be the first thing that springs to mind when people think of an art school education, but Patterson says it’s important for students to understand that artists can play an important role in neighborhoods.
“They have a lot to contribute, they’re not just an economic commodity to move around in development, like you might see in a lot of urbanist writing about creative communities,” he says.
School of Art students are working on installations and projects, most of which use materials re-purposed from neighborhood scraps, from vines and weeds pulled from the community garden behind the building to giant cable spools and discarded kiddie pools. Art on display ranges from reverse graffiti – scrubbing away dirt on buildings to form images – to large-scale, outdoor interactive games for their final public event, like a ping pong table that’s also a see-saw.
Patterson says his students are following their instincts to create pieces that encourage social interaction without the formal layers projects like collecting oral histories of the neighborhood might require. It’s about bringing people together through art, even if the teetering ping pong table doesn’t necessarily read as “art” on first glance.
“You don’t have to have that awkward moment about privilege, race, class, etcetera, when you sit down to play checkers,” he says.
Smoketown Social Club will close at the end of the month when his class concludes, but Patterson hopes the ideas sparked here will inspire others in the neighborhood and surrounding communities.
Their final public event is next Wednesday. A block party featuring music and an art exhibit by neighborhood wood artist Billy Keith, whom Patterson met when he first set up shop in the church. Keith has lived on the corner of Logan and Lampton Streets since 1994. He burns intricate designs into found wood, using a large Fresnel lens removed from a rear projection television.
“I stand in between the sun and the wood and draw on large pieces of wood with the sun, using a large magnifying glass,” says Keith. “As soon as the light focuses, fire shoots out of the wood, poof, fire comes out of the wood and you chase the fire and smoke around on pieces of wood.”
This will be Keith’s first art exhibit. Patterson has also obtained permission from the family of the late Smoketown folk artist Zephra May-Miller, known as “the Bag Lady of Louisville” for the elaborate gowns she created out of colorful plastic bags, to display some of her work. The event is 6-9 p.m. at the Smoketown Social Club (516 Lampton St.).