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Detroit Nonprofit Uses Industrial Scraps for Art Education

A Conversation with Peg Upmeyer from Arts & Scraps

Interview by Jeanne Dasaro

Industrial remnants and art—two things you may not associate with each other that when paired, create a social phenomenon called Arts and Scraps. Arts and Scraps is a nonprofit organization in Detroit’s eastside, a location conducive to acquiring plenty of industrial scrap materials. Arts and Scraps reclaims and reuses materials that would otherwise be thrown away and with them, creates engaging and interactive art education programs for children and adults. I recently sat down with Peg Upmeyer, Co-Founder and Executive Director, to discuss their work, their approach to education, and the impact they’ve made in Detroit and the State of Michigan.

NPi: Can you tell me about Arts and Scraps and how/why it began?

Peg: Arts and Scraps celebrated its 21st birthday yesterday. Three of us began Arts and Scraps because, for people working with kids every day, we felt there was a need for stuff (actual materials to work with), ideas, and motivation. There are all these materials being thrown away, and there are a whole lot of people working with kids who need stuff. So putting those two things together in such a way that encourages creativity—this helps both sectors. It helps kids learn and have more confidence in themselves because they’re making decisions and manipulating things the way they want to, not the way someone tells them. Kids don’t often get the chance to do those kinds of things—to answer challenges when they can’t be wrong. That’s what we’re all about. Plus it’s just fun. We sneak the learning in underneath it.

NPi: What are one or two things about your organization you may want to share that aren’t necessarily obvious by visiting your website?

Peg: When we say recycled industrial scraps, gasket scraps, or samples, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s very hard for people to visualize that. The hardest part is helping people understand how unique and weird and fun all these materials are. It’s all safe. You can build things using adhesive pieces, but no glue or paint. Everything can go together without presenting mechanical challenges for children so they can really focus on what they’re thinking about and building.

The other thing we have a hard time showing is just how many people really contribute to this place. We get 10,000 volunteer hours per year. Each year, two hundred people with disabilities work or volunteer with us through vocational training programs. 180 factories have people set aside things from the line here and there and make piles. They’re excited when we come to pick everything up. It’s a connecting of many sectors.

In a city built the way Detroit was built and divided the way Detroit is divided, there aren’t many neutral places where everybody comes together and it’s easy to talk. You hop on a bus and nobody talks to anybody… Here, we get people from all over metro Detroit who care about kids to share ideas and talk. We’re a neutral place.

NPi: What impact does the work that you do here have on the community?

Peg: There’s a lot of subjective measuring. The thing we’re starting to see now that’s interesting is teachers and parents coming in, bringing in classes and saying, “I came to Arts and Scraps as a kid and it had an impact on me. I want my kids to have that same experience.”

I remember sitting somewhere where we had posters on the wall, and we were near a table of 20 and young 30 somethings. They said, “Oh, do you remember that place?” and ‘Yeah, it was so cool.” They were [remembering something] 15 years ago. We tend to be the thing that you remember as being really, really cool at your grade school reunion. It’s that experience of not being wrong and working with weird stuff that stands out. It really is important to kids, and one or two sessions can really make a difference.

NPi: Could you go into more detail about what Arts and Scraps sessions are like?

Peg: One of my favorite lessons that we do is called “Space and Aliens.” It’s a kit [that we take with us] to the schools. Everybody sits at their desk, everybody gets their own stuff. The kids think it’s cool because aliens—you think of this drooling, one-eyed creature going AHHHH! We say, “An alien is what? It’s a creature that lives on another planet. But in order to define what that creature is, you have to define what the planet is. So what defines a planet? The distance from the sun is going to determine how long the year is. Its rotation is going to determine where this creature lives on the planet, how much daylight, how much sunlight, the seasons. The density of the planet will influence the gravity which then influences the way the creature moves.”

We go through the whole physical science of a planet. And instead of memorizing all this stuff, they’re inventing their own planet and it’s interesting. After they invent their planet, they have to create a creature that could live there. If it’s a very dense, high gravity planet, it better have some serious leg muscles. If it’s more like the moon, it may have very few leg muscles or just fly and gravity makes no difference to it whatsoever… And they’re in control. Kids aren’t in control very often. That experience is a big deal. They come out of it thinking, “Here’s my creature and here’s why it is the way it is.” They may go back to school and write a paper about it.

NPi: Can you speak about why you’ve decided to do things this way? Why you’ve structured the programs the way you have? How did you decide to salvage materials or reclaim materials and pair [recycling and education] together?

Peg: I haven’t had a lot of psychology training, and it was interesting—in the beginning, it was fairly intuitive. I’m a teacher by trade, and it’s just intuitive that when kids make things themselves, they understand. There’s an old phrase in teaching: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.” That’s been the basis for everything.

[About the materials]—we used to live in Kansas City. Hallmark had a program there that used all the scraps. There are models for this kind of thing around the country. I had been to a couple of those places, and it was just very intriguing. There was a lot of stuff being thrown away here in Detroit, and I wanted to create a job that combined everything I thought I could contribute to the community. Scrounging and getting things, figuring out what to do with them, figuring out how to inspire adults working with this stuff is really my passion. The materials tend to be fun because nobody has seen them before. It brings a level of enthusiasm to the work.

NPi: Can you tell me about the communities you serve? You talked about going into schools and we’re also sitting in a classroom space, so I’m assuming people come here as well. What types of people come here? Young, old?

Peg: With the Scrap Mobile, we travel throughout southeast Michigan. With the 10 foot truck, we travel all over the state. We just got that, so we haven’t done a lot of statewide programs yet but we may. We work with kids who are just old enough that they won’t put things in their mouth, all the way up to seniors. We can find something for anybody. If someone has a disability, we work around that. So as long as you don’t eat anything, then we’re okay. [Laughs]

NPi: Is there a service or a program that you’d like for Arts & Scraps to offer that you’re not currently offering?

Peg: Right now I think we would just like to do more of what we’re doing. We’re reliant on program income to do things. We know what people want because they’re willing to pay for it. We’re constantly reevaluating how our programs can work better based on input people have given us. There are plans for big things someday, but for now we’ve just added some fairly new things and refining those.

I think serve groups the way they want to be served. If something big hops out, we’re light-footed and can jump on it pretty quickly. When the whole idea of Scrap Junction came up, we had it built and done in about six weeks, so we’re pretty responsive. We’re always open to working in new ways and collaborating. Every program we have was invented because somebody asked for it. It’s much different when you’re accountable to your clients rather than to a foundation somewhere because you actually do things that people want.

NPi: What are some of the collaborations you’ve done?

Peg: We work hand in hand with all the groups that come in. Everything with Arts and Scraps is a custom experience… it’s a partnership. We’re members of the Cultural Alliance for Southeast Michigan, and right now we’re exploring some pretty major collaborations on about six fronts with different arts organizations around the city. We will see how it all works.

The latest thing we’re doing, which is very exciting—and this was something we had always wanted to do, but were waiting on funding for, and we did get the funding—we do a lot of parent workshops and work with materials people have in their homes. We surveyed 100 Head Start families to make sure we wouldn’t write this project over anybody’s head. We created a list of materials everybody has already or has access to, and we wrote a workshop [using those materials]. We used to charge $50 for it. Teachers almost always paid for it out of pocket.

Well, we can’t do that workshop for $50 anymore because we’ve grown bigger, so it’s $100. Teachers often can’t pay that much, so what we’re doing is filming it. Now we have six projects anybody can do from home for less than $5 total. We’re filming six 10 minute segments so that in a parent meeting, a teacher can play the video with an introduction about how the curriculum is all there, why you’d do the workshop, how to introduce the workshop to kids… It will be a teacher’s workshop they can use until the DVD dies, which is supposed to be about 10 years.

NPi: This also seems to be a good relationship building activity between teachers and parents.

Peg: The hardest thing for parents is not wanting to do [workshops] for the kids since for adults, creativity means making a thing. For kids, creativity means making. We’re too quick to [direct] kids to that thing when they just want to mess around. But adults can have just as much fun as the kids do with these workshops.

NPi: What keeps you coming to work every day?

Peg: That kids smile. “I made this. This is so cool!” Absolutely, absolutely. Because you know that [feeling] goes on. We call it “making the magic happen.” When I start feeling a little overwhelmed, the best thing I can do is sit down—and this sounds completely backwards—and work on a grant. That distills it all down to, “What is the need? How have you identified that need? Are you meeting it? What are you doing? What steps are you taking? What is the outcome?” When you distill it all down to those things very concisely in order to present the program to somebody, then you remember, “Yeah, this is why I’m doing this.”

NPi: That’s great. Unfortunately, I don’t think about grantwriting that way. Maybe I should remember that. [Laughter]

Peg: Yeah, you can motivate yourself all over again.

NPi: OK. Lastly, where could your organization use help?

Peg: We need more volunteers, and we could use help running this store. The store is up 45% from last year. Given the economy, people are moving away from our more expensive programs and coming into the store to get materials. We’re look for corporate groups or any groups of people to come in and help stock the store on Fridays.

How to Get Involved:

To volunteer, make a donation, or get more information, click here to visit the Arts & Scraps website or call 313-640-4411.

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