After-school Art For Sale

Writer: 
November 30, 2004
Wainwright: zoologist, sculptor, entrepreneur for young artists

Wainwright: zoologist, sculptor, entrepreneur for young artists. Photo: Chris Hildreth

 

From 1991 to 1997, Stephen Wainwright '53, James B. Duke Professor emeritus of zoology and adjunct professor emeritus in the College of Design at North Carolina State University, headed, among other things, the Bio-Design Studio in the zoology department at Duke. It was, to his knowledge, the only art studio in a scientific research laboratory, anywhere. It even employed a full-time sculptor. And its mission--"to use methods of art and design to create three-dimensional working models of biological systems for research"--was essentially a melding of the two.

Wainwright, like his studio, is difficult to categorize: a discipline straddler, an innovator, a maker of curious matches. To call him a professor of zoology is to neglect the artist in him (he sculpts). And yet, to call him an artist is to ignore the fact that, in recent years, Wainwright has once again transitioned. He is now an entrepreneur, too.

SeeSaw Studio, the latest of his novel creations, is a nonprofit, after-school design- and-business program for youths, located at Five Points, a major intersection in downtown Durham. Where three streams of traffic converge, so too does creativity, enterprising spirit, and an imaginative, ambitious effort to provide opportunities to an economically disadvantaged, though talented, group of people.

Twice a week, forty-five students meet to design and make crafts--jewelry, hats, chairs, pillowcases, and banners--that they later sell in the studio's storefront. "Empowering kids is the basic issue, the major passion," Wainwright says.

He got the idea after a visit to Kenya in 1988 and an encounter with the Kazuri Bead Company, a group of poor village women on the outskirts of Nairobi who had come together to share resources and make clay beads. The income they made from selling the beads to tourists not only helped them put food on the table, but also raised their self-esteem. "They just glowed with confidence," he recalls. Wainwright sought to replicate the model in Durham. Ten years later, with the help of local artists, SeeSaw Studio was born.

"We're trying to show the kids that their creativity can have commercial value," says Amy Milne, the studio's executive director and a graduate of State's College of Design. With responsibilities ranging from managing their materials to keeping track of their production time and costs, students at SeeSaw become more than students. They're aspiring professionals; they have titles ("youth designer"); and they make money.

"They're our colleagues," says Wainwright, and, as such, they're entitled to half of the proceeds on a sale. "A lot of these kids, they might be interested in art, but they've rarely if ever had any reinforcement, any encouragement. So when they create something in here and somebody comes along and offers them cash for it--that's reinforcement."

Through their experience at SeeSaw, nearly 85 percent of the youth designers have gone on to pursue degrees in the field. "To get into a university program, you need to put together a portfolio," says Milne, and SeeSaw helps them do it. But she says there's more to preparing students for the next step than building a portfolio. "In design school, you have to be able to talk about the creative process, what you went through. It's about more than having talent. It's 'Can you push your vision through? Can you market it effectively?' And that's another thing kids learn here--that as artists they have to fight for their place in this economy. Saying 'I am an artist,' is a really bold and bodacious thing to say."

"I've only just begun to admit it myself," says Wainwright. "Since I retired, I've become a sculptor. I don't tell anybody I'm an artist. But I am. We all are, here."