2009 alum Jenna Vanden Brink has expanded participation at the Union Project from a few dozen to 1,000 learners.
Move with a group of friends to an unfamiliar city in a new state where you don’t have a job but only the conviction that you want to try living as a Christian in community.
On the face of it, it’s hardly a promising post-graduation formula. But for two different Calvin art department alumnae, it’s proving to be promising indeed.
The summer after graduation, Jenna Vanden Brink ’09 and 10 friends chose Pittsburgh as the site of their experiment in Christian community. For work, she signed up with AmeriCorps and was placed at Union Project, a community arts and enterprise center in the city’s East End. She brought so much energy to the place that after her term of service was over, Union Project hired her to revitalize its arts program.
It was a perfect match. At Calvin, Vanden Brink had immersed herself in ceramics, and for 10 years the heart of Union Project’s arts program had been a ceramics co-op, where a few member-artists made pottery to sell.
“But it wasn’t really lining up with Union Project’s mission to be a community-based program,” Vanden Brink said. “So the director said to me, ‘OK, build it, make it good.’”
She started by scheduling ceramics classes for the community and devising a collaborative way to run them: She recruited new members for the ceramics co-op and offered them lower rent in the pottery studio in exchange for their service teaching classes.
“That makes studio space more affordable for the ceramic artists, and teaching helps them build their résumés,” Vanden Brink noted. “Then, because we don’t have to pay teachers, we can offer classes at a lower cost while still generating revenue, and also offer plenty of scholarship help, which means more community participation. It’s win-win-win.”
Ideal in concept, the arrangement didn’t, at first, draw crowds of new participants to Union Project.
“We’re at a really interesting crossroads,” Vanden Brink said, “where the largely Caucasian and wealthier Highland Park neighborhood meets the primarily African-American, lowerincome neighborhood of East Liberty. We want to be a safe place for people of both communities to mix it up. But in our big old stone church of a building, we had a reputation of just being here,
not going out into the community much.”
So out Vanden Brink went: to after-school and summer-school programs, senior centers and local festivals, handing out fliers and making little clay birds with anyone willing to get their hands dirty.
Art department revisited
Carina Kooiman ’09 happened by one of those festivals. In Pittsburgh with her new husband and a group of friends working to establish a community house of their own, she also had spent many hours in Calvin’s ceramics studio, some of them with Vanden Brink. Soon after their reunion, she joined the ceramics co-op at Union Project.
“It’s like being a freshman all over again,” Kooiman said. “At Calvin, I was running the ceramics studio by the time I was a senior. But now at Union Project I’m surrounded by artists who have 20 to 30 years experience, all of them willing to share their knowledge. I’ve had a great time creating there.”
“It’s co-op members like Carina who make our studio a welcoming place for students of all ages and backgrounds,” Vanden Brink said. “That’s the thing that makes me proudest about Union Project, that people say they feel safe and welcomed in our space.”
In fact, since Vanden Brink was hired on, arts program participation at Union Project has grown from a few dozen adult learners to over 1,000 children, youths and adults.
Some of them helped her finish restoring 155 stained glass windows in the organization’s historic church home. Broken and stained with pollution, the 100-year-old windows had to be taken apart, each piece of glass cleaned with a small wire brush, then the luminous puzzle reassembled. Vanden Brink learned the skill herself, then taught community members. Together they finished, in January, the project begun 10 years ago.
“It’s really incredible to walk into the space and see this golden brightness,” she said, “and to think of the hundreds of hands from many different neighborhoods that touched these windows and made them glow. It was a simple way to build community and to bring about the kingdom.”
To read the blog of Kooiman’s community, see www.ruinrenew.com.