Revitalizing Providence’s industrial arts traditions at The Steel Yard
Outside of the Steel Yard’s main studio building on Simms Avenue in Olneyville sits a compelling, mysterious, metal object. Like so many of the projects that come out of the Steel Yard, a unique educational center and workshop for arts and industry, this object straddles the line between form and function, and might be interpreted as a piece of sculpture or as something more utilitarian; perhaps an extremely elaborate mailbox, or a very uncomfortable diving bell.
In actuality, this sturdy piece of metalwork is a time capsule. Filled and sealed a few seasons ago as part of a celebration called “Futureland”, the time capsule contains photos, art, messages and statements by Steel Yard employees, students, volunteers and friends. It awaits the completion of renovations currently underway to expand and improve the Yard’s facilities, at which point it will be planted in the earth among new trees, to be opened in the year 2027 by the “Yardies” of the future.
Events like Futureland - which asked attendees to imagine, participate and invest in a future for the Yard, the city and their world at large - are part of an amazingly rich and creative schedule maintained at the Steel Yard. On any given evening one might find the place filled with grandly restored classic cars for a “cruise night”, or ablaze with the cascading sparks, music and craftsmanship-meets-showmanship of a dramatic after-dark iron pour. On other nights the Yard is filled with the industrious noise of students hard at work during “open studios” or attending workshops on anything from blacksmithing to bicycle repair.
The nonprofit Steel Yard also offers a menu of multi-week courses for all levels of students, from jewelry casting and wheel-thrown ceramics to glass fusing and found-object welding. Special Weekend Welding Workshops offer intensive instruction to hone the skills of a craftsperson or encourage a nascent artist. Some weekends are even themed, like “Welding With Mom,” a multigenerational workshop to which children were encouraged to bring their moms, and vice versa.
The face of the Steel Yard – formerly Providence Steel and Iron, one of the area’s largest industrial fabricators – is changing and becoming more diverse as Yardies work to make the industrial arts ever more approachable and inviting, and to draw a wider audience to try their hands in the studios. Youth programs are growing quickly at the Steel Yard — summer programs like Camp Metalhead, as well as year-round youth enrichment partnerships, are encouraging a new generation of makers. More experienced professionals are involved with the Yard’s Public Projects program, where they produce the trash cans, bike racks, tree guards, fences and other pieces of industrial art that can be seen all over Providence.
Students and staff alike are excited by the Steel Yard’s increasing visibility. “There are 350 to 400 artist-made trash cans installed in the city now. We’ve had 70 different artists working on public infrastructure projects,” says Howie Sneider, public projects coordinator. “Artists at the Steel Yard are making stuff that’s actually changing the landscape of Providence. I think that makes us, and Providence, really unique.”
So what will things look like in 2027, when it comes time to crack open the Steel Yard’s time capsule? In many ways one hopes it will be the same: vibrant, fun, inspiring, ever changing to respond the social and infrastructural needs of the city, and always willing to throw a really creative party.
When asked for her vision of a Yardie future, Executive Director Drake Patten remarks on how little time the excitement around the Yard leaves her to muse about such distant days. The scope of her answer, however, makes it evident that she has a big picture very much in mind. “In twenty years there’s going to be a really great list of businesses, patents and designs made by artists who came through here, who collaborated with the Steel Yard at some point.”
Patten foresees these collaborators spreading the Steel Yard model across the country, adding, “The Steel Yard itself is completely unique to Providence, and could only have come into existence here. But I hope that people everywhere are inspired by the ‘how’ of this place. Every community has the potential for its own version of the Steel Yard within it.”
To learn more about the Steel Yard, register for a class, volunteer at an event, or even hire the Yard for a special project, please visit www.thesteelyard.org.