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Practicing What He Teaches
Andy Walker may not know what each of his students is doing during summer vacation, but they would not say the same. That's because Walker, a veteran teacher at the Stern Center of Perelman Jewish Day School in Wynnewood, is on the verge of completing a project that not only incorporates many of the same principles and themes he has taught in his classes, but formed part of his curriculum during the 2011-2012 school year.
The Renewed Urban Studio Tent, or RUST, is a self-contained, stand-alone studio space made entirely from found, reclaimed and recycled materials that will be available for artists to use throughout the month of August.
RUST represents the culmination of over a year's worth of planning, research and execution for Walker and his partner, Andy Heisey. "We were both working with urban renewal and were interested in using the materials that were being wasted all around us into making some kind of art," Walker explains.
He describes the project as "like an igloo, a wigwam. It's kind of an urban tent, because it's made out of urban materials" that would otherwise be destined for landfills, vacant lots and any of the other innumerable spaces in the city where illegal dumping occurs.
Ironically, the exhibition space for the studio will be a vacant lot in Center City. The lot, located on Broad Street between Spruce and Pine streets, is owned by the University of the Arts, where Walker and Heisey met during their time in the school's graduate program in ceramics, painting and sculpture. The lot is frequently the site of installations, most notably Shay Church's clay whales in 2010 and DesignPhiladelphia's Not a Vacant Lot event featuring the Play House Cube for performance art in 2011. Walker is no stranger to having his work displayed on Broad Street: he has been part of juried shows at the University of the Arts for years, and the Kimmel Center commissioned a work, The Gift, from him earlier this year.
Walker is grateful that his alma mater not only agreed to let him and Heisey use the space, but that it was available during the summer, when he would be able to devote all of his time and energy to completing the structure, which, at 18 feet long, 9 feet high and 8 feet wide, is large enough to accommodate three people at the same time.
The studio, which will be completed and open for use by Aug. 3, does indeed look like a wigwam, albeit one constructed according to the tenets of "reduce, reuse, recycle."
The frame is made of reclaimed wood, including some discarded from the kitchen of one of Walker's neighbors -- "He threw all of his paneling out, so I took it. I thought we were going to need to buy at least some wood, but there is so much out there!"
That includes the contents of a chicken house that Heisey salvaged and added to the ever-growing collection of materials in his Harrisburg backyard, where the majority of the pre-opening construction has taken place. Heisey laughs as he recounts that he has accumulated so much material that "the neighbors thought I had an alcohol problem, because I had so many beer bottles in my back yard."
The bottles will be conjoined to form the windows for the studio, and the improvised apertures should provide "lighting to give the studio an intimate feel" inside, according to Walker.
While the windows will be completed before the exhibition opens, Walker has intentionally left some of the construction until the last minute: From Aug. 1 to 3, people are welcome to come to the lot to take part in putting the finishing touches on the studio. Walker looks forward to seeing some of his students and their family members taking part.
"I'm hoping we can get a lot of the kids to come out and help us build the project," he says. "They can just pick up whatever object they want and stick it right in and make their own collages." He is unsure of just how many will show up, though. "It's hard because it's right smack in the middle of summer."
Regardless of how many of his students come, Walker, who teaches fourth grade, knows that the families and administration at Perelman are supportive of his efforts. "They allow me to do the work I do," he says, "and they actually help me to promote it. I think they realize that it enriches my teaching."
He says that the school's progressive approach toward "teaching very traditional Jewish values also allows me to do it in a way that is contemporary, to make it part of what the students' lives are today."
As an example, he recalls that he was able to "talk about the structure we're building, talk about how you can use math to build the physical structure," just as he was able to link his project to current events and social studies in order to personalize the issues surrounding the environment for his students. "They realize that we want to go beyond the books. It's about how you can actively work on the world yourself and empower it."
But what kind of example is Walker setting for his students with a temporary exhibition like this? What will happen to the studio -- and, more importantly, the materials it was built from -- once it closes at the end of August?
Like any good teacher, Walker has an answer that both satisfies and engages. He and Heisey have designed the space to be modular, so that if someone wants to buy the bottle windows or the laser-etched ceramic tiles or the hand-pressed arches -- really any part of the structure -- they can do so. And whatever is left will be on display, along with the art created in RUST, at Mt. Airy Arts Garage in November -- the first iteration, he hopes, of RUST never sleeping, of the project being rebuilt, repurposed and reinvented. u
RUST will be open until Aug. 27 at the vacant lot at 313 S. Broad Street, between Spruce and Pine streets. Participation in building the structure is encouraged on Aug. 2. The opening will be Aug. 3, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and will feature food and music. For more information, go to http://andyandyrust.com.