Robots get creative life at Ann Arbor District Library
BENJAMIN MICHAEL SOLIS
JOSH CHAMBERLAIN THE WASHTENAW VOICE
A robot on display at Liberty Street Robot and Repair.
When the husband-and-wife team of Jason DePasquale and Amy Sumerton chose robots as the theme for their 826 Michigan storefront, the only excuse they could gather in their defense was that “robots are sweet.”
And apparently the children of Washtenaw County think so too.
Since September, DePasquale, a volunteer at 826 Michigan, a non-profit writing lab created by author Dave Eggers, has taken various items of junk to the Ann Arbor District Library for his biannual Robot Build Workshop.
DePasquale and his wife, the program director, also own and operate the Liberty Street Robot Supply and Repair Shop in downtown Ann Arbor, which the duo took over in May 2007.
The workshop, held on Feb. 13, allowed Washtenaw’s youngest inventors to build their own robots from a multitude of not-so-everyday objects.
“The project is kind of a free-for-all,” said Sumerton. “The kids can mill around all the different parts and build a robot out of whatever they like.”
Amid the chaos of old Kodak film reels and empty 120-volt transformer boxes, kids from all over Washtenaw County were able to harness the spirit of Dr. Frankenstein, and created metallic beings out of whatever they saw fit.
“The materials they have here are quite excellent,” said Neil Beverage, 10, from Ann Arbor. “I try to do this at home and collect what I can.”
Taking things apart and putting them back together is a hobby of his, Beverage said. But his mother Alissa added that, unfortunately, not every appliance gets put back together.
Yet this is the overall beauty of the workshop, according toAlissa, because kids can learn to put their imaginations to work and nothing gets taken apart.
And even though 826 Michigan did not directly sponsor the workshop, Sumerton said that she and DePasquale have had robots on the brain for quite some time now.
826 is a national not-for-profit company, Sumerton explained, and that Eggers originally needed a way to fund his fledgling writing lab.
“He found some space at 826 Valencia Street in San Francisco to hold the lab, and opened up a pirate shop that sold peg legs and glass eyes in the front of the building,” Sumerton said. “Dave realized pretty early on that it was ingenious, and the shop raised a quarter of a million (dollars) annually.”
This sparked 826 to branch out to eight cities around the United States, each of them having their own theme, selling various mock items as well as the 826 Omnibus, a published collection of the writing-lab student’s work.
“Our theme was originally going to be monsters, but Jason threw that out pretty quickly,” Sumerton said. “He was emphatic that robots were a lot cooler.”
CHRIS ASADIAN THE WASHTENAW VOICE
To most people, an abandoned two-story office building surrounded by warehouses on the north side of Ypsilanti seems as empty of possibilities as it is of furniture. But when indie business owner James Marks toured the building in January, he saw an opportunity to capitalize on local arts buzz and fulfill a
“Ever since I was 16 or 17, the golden dream was to have this place where you have bands and music and art and whatever project you wanted to do,” said Marks, 29, founder and owner of Ypsilanti’s VG Kids
custom screen printing. “When I saw this space, I realized it was kind of ready to go and ready to be used as is for artist spaces.”
Eight months later, the space, named SPUR Studios, is a burgeoning arts community. Marks and SPUR Studios managers Chris Sandon, 31, and Steve Emschwiller, 29, have been leasing the spaces, priced at $125-$350 a month, for about two months and have rented more than half of the 30 spaces.
Musicians rent spaces on the lower level and visual artists use the street level, which also houses the studio’s ping pong table. All of the spaces have wide windows that look into the building, which promotes the sense of community Marks hopes to cultivate.
“Just to feel supported and to feel part of the community is huge, and that’s something that is much more difficult to quantify than the dollar amount you are paying for footage,” Marks said. “When you take people with good ideas who are motivating each other and working off each other and there’s enough of that kinetic energy going on, you can’t help but create this bubbling, gurgling thing that’s spewing out awesomeness in all directions.”
Five black stickers with inspirational bold lettering tape up the studio’s floor plan on the visual artist floor.
“You are in control.” “You are the one.” “Make it happen.” “Take action.” “The time is now.”
Marks takes that advice to heart. With no funding, he convinced the owners to let him sign a three-year lease and pay for the building based on how many spaces he could rent out.
“It’s not like we have a fixed cost; we just kind of collect as much money as we can and give them a percentage of it,” Marks said. “It’s what made the project manageable.”
Everyone at SPUR Studios shares Marks’ initiative and vision.
“Obviously these are people who are doing things and making things, who aren’t waiting for the ‘right’ moment or the ‘right’ idea,” Marks said. “No — you take what you have and rub your pennies together and try to make something happen.”
Artists and musicians are encouraged to do whatever they want with the space aesthetically — they just can’t sleep in their spaces.
“Do anything you want, but have the house somewhere else,” Emschwiller said.
So far, the renters have been very professional.
“I’ve been impressed with how much people have taken their space seriously and done a lot with it already,” said Sandon, who has his own space in the building as a video artist with area-based Dirty Brothers. “This is a pretty sterile space, so how quickly art can convert that to a creative space is always kind of amazing.”
Some artists have painted their spaces bright colors — even black. One artist put in hardwood floors. Cre Fuller, who crafts metal robot heads from self-described “junk,” neglected the paint and floors but spent a month creating a light-up metal robot to attach to his space’s door.
MICHAEL WESTHOFF THE WASHTENAW VOICE
“I had plans to paint and all that stuff, but right when move in date came, I was so excited to just start getting the stuff here,” Fuller, 36, said. “And then I wanted something for everybody else.”
Fuller plans to spend at least twenty hours a week in his space creating the robot heads and expanding his business, Tin Angry Men, which he started in his house two years ago. He wants to start selling online and reach out to wider audiences.
“Making the robots look pissed off kind of satisfies the creative itch — and I don’t want to make them too cutesy, but I thought I might want to establish something that is a little more open to all audiences instead of just the tragically annoyed,” Fuller said with a sly smile.
Ypsilanti’s Shadow Art Fair produced many of the studio’s first renters, including Fuller. Marks held meetings about SPUR Studios at the fair in July, and opened up the studio for those interested.
“I just wanted to see the space, and when I came in, it was like an Easter egg hunt for adults — everyone just descended and went their own direction and I wandered into this room,” Fuller said as he sat at his metal-strewn work desk in a cramped room with windows overlooking trees. “It felt right, it was only one hundred and fifty bucks a month — well within the capabilities of robots to afford — so I just said what the heck and ponied up six month’s rent. Straight off the Shadow Art Fair, the money was still in my wallet.”
As owner of VG Kids printing, Marks knew Ypsilanti had an arts scene to support this project, but he wanted the project to strengthen the arts scene in return.
“Ypsi is developing this reputation of being this cutting-edge arts community, but when I look at it as someone from that scene, I didn’t see enough concrete examples to back that up,” Marks explained. “We need more examples, so when you get here after hearing all this buzz, you can see it was legitimate. That was one of the motivating factors for me.”
Marks also sees SPUR Studios as a natural extension of VG Kids.
“VG Kids is all about supporting artists, makers, thinkers, doers — people who want to change the world and get the most out of life,” Marks said. “We do that at VG Kids by making their T-shirts or their stickers or their posters. Once you understand why we do what we do at VG, this completely ties into that.
“And I won’t be shy: The better the art scene does in Ypsi, the better VG Kids is going to do,” Marks added. “Those are our people and the more we draw energy together and make this pool of rad people, VG is just going to have great things happening around it.”