UNCA students, faculty collaborate with Mel Chin on Safehouse Temple Door

Press release from UNC Asheville:

Weighing nearly 1500 pounds and standing 10 feet tall, the solid steel Safehouse Temple Door is a collaborative art installation created by 2019 MacArthur Fellow Mel Chin with design, engineering, and fabrication work contributed by students, staff, and faculty of UNC Asheville STEAM Studio.

The commissioned art installation traveled over 650 miles from Asheville, NC to Chicago, IL to become part of a city-wide exhibition affiliated with the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art celebrating the 40th anniversary of the MacArthur fellowship, begun by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Chin was named a MacArthur genius in 2019, and in 2021, he became a recipient of an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts at UNC Asheville.

The functioning steel bank vault door was installed on the facade of its permanent home, the Sweet Water Foundation’s Civic Arts Church, a historic building in the South Side of Chicago that was recently transformed to amplify its community’s rich African American heritage. The door serves to raise attention to lead contamination in water, soil, and housing. The site serves as one of several activation points for the Chicago Fundred Initiative: A Bill for IL.

“Mel’s work is intrinsically interdisciplinary and uses collaborative forces to address the issues of our times,” says Sara Sanders, director of UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio and UNC Asheville alumna. “This approach is central to STEAM’s mission of creating space and resources for collaborative, transdisciplinary problem-solving.”

Sanders led the design and engineering of both projects and was first approached by Chin about creating Safehouse Temple Door at the beginning of fall semester 2020. As lead engineer and project manager, she would engage almost two dozen UNC Asheville students, faculty, and staff on the design, fabrication, engineering, and behind-the-scenes administration to create the Safehouse Temple Door. Throughout the process, Chin, S.O.U.R.C.E. Studio, and Sweet Water Foundation Co-Founder Emmanuel Pratt would provide critique, coaching, and direction to the students.

For this massive project, seven undergraduate students enrolled in the engineering class Creative Fabrication: Art Meets Technology designed and fabricated the two circular parts of the door: the kinetic locking mechanism and the side wheel. Their work took place in UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio over the month-long summer session called maymester, and even in that short time, they encountered challenges and creative opportunities.

“Working with fabricators to achieve your vision takes trust,” says Chin, “and if anybody has gained that, it is Sara Sanders and the UNC Asheville STEAM Studio.”

The Safehouse Temple Door collaboration illustrates the robust educational programs UNC Asheville cultivates through national and international connections.

“Mel’s work is prolific, and he is generous with his wisdom and skill set,” says Sanders. “It is incredibly rare and special for undergraduate students to have access to a teacher and practitioner like Mel, and it is a uniquely UNC Asheville experience for students to investigate an issue, engage with stakeholders, and ultimately contribute to a major sculpture for a MacArthur Fellow that challenges and confronts social and ecological issues to create positive change.”

Safehouse Temple Door at Sweet Water Foundation’s Civic Arts Church is similar to the Fundred Safehouse of New Orleans (2008-2010), where Fundred’s mission to end childhood lead poisoning began. This new installation in Chicago carries the same message in raising awareness about lead contamination in water, soil, and housing. Fundred continues to deliver the message of a lead-free childhood for all and invests in acts of people for actions of policy essential for healing. The Safehouse Temple Door is a proper new icon in Chicago, where conditions of lead poisoning persist.

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