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Designing confidence

At SeeSaw Studio, kids learn the elements of art, design--and business

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Steven Wainwright is a cornucopia of color. Today he models a kaleidoscopic display of sweatshirt, slacks and jacket, haphazardly mimicking an artistic arrangement. His hat is a curious felt creation: an upside-down funnel with a dome and a curved extension from which a skeletal leaf stands at attention, braving air currents and ridicule alike. Wainwright is a zoologist--James B. Duke Professor Emeritus and founder of the Bio-Design Studio at Duke University and adjunct professor emeritus in the School of Design at N.C. State University. He also proudly admits to being from an artistic family, and having always "dabbled" in art.

He will later be referred to by an associate as: "The man in the funny hat." For now, he will be introduced as the man who dreamed, years ago, of what the SeeSaw Studio in Durham has become.

The Kazuri Bead Company in Nairobi, Kenya planted the seed for SeeSaw and the notion of teaching youth to "design, produce and market their quality products." Wainwright recalls seeing "tribal women making simple clay beads. They glazed them and fired them, then made them into costume jewelry... When they saw total strangers come in and put down hard cash for something they had made, their spirit and their self-confidence rose--you could see that happening. And my wife and daughter and I said, 'This is wonderful, and you know, it could happen anywhere in the world--even Durham, N.C.'"

Ten years later, Wainwright and local artist CiCi Stevens created SeeSaw. The organization describes itself as "a non-profit after-school design and business center [that] provides educational experiences and business opportunities to creative, motivated teenagers." These business opportunities range from commissioned projects to hand-painted journals to anti-smoking campaigns to large-scale murals for local organizations--all student-conceived, designed and executed.

"We chose to focus on high-school-age kids who already have some interest in art and design," explains Wainwright. "We'd provide them with a place and we'd provide the materials. It's a safe place, it's a place where they would meet other people with similar interests and we'd teach them business--how to market their work. And again, you could see their self-confidence come up."

SeeSaw itself has grown in its five years. Its commissions and enrollment have expanded, increases that Wainwright attributes to SeeSaw's director, Amy Milne.

"She's so well plugged-in to the design world," he says.

Milne is the same associate who will call Wainwright that funny-hat name. Today, she can be called a few names herself. Try hostess, question-answerer, mother, teacher, seeker of creative opportunities, artist and graphic designer.

Milne first heard about SeeSaw through a mentor when she was on staff at N.C. State's School of Design. SeeSaw was seeking a director, "and she asked me if I knew anybody who was interested," Milne recalls.

"Yeah!" Milne knew someone who was interested. Herself, for instance, cause who wouldn't want to get paid to teach kids, all day, to get paid to create? Milne is quick to tell you, though, that they don't just consider them "kids."

"We call them youth designers and we consider them our colleagues," she says. "Some of them are doing paid hourly work here as studio assistants and some of them might be here teaching a workshop or something like that. At any given time there are about 15 or 19 students here."

Milne says about 85 percent of SeeSaw designers have gone on to become students in area and national art or design programs, including N.C. State, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, N.C. Central and Savannah College of Art and Design.

By then, the SeeSaw "Design Process," tacked prominently on a studio wall, has sunk in:

Define the problem; Analyze the challenge; Develop a variety of ideas; Refine the best ideas; Finalize the best idea; Test the idea--create a prototype; Evaluate the results; Discover the new challenge.

Mara Mathews, SeeSaw's artistic director, has found this process-learning to be a two-way street. She credits the youth for helping her "get in touch with my own voice" as an artist.

As she says this, SeeSaw youth can be heard greeting guests, explaining programs, ringing up sales, or sketching away--in notebooks, on scraps--at new creations. They are as different as their product designs, united by a will and desire to bring ideas into being.

"One of the things that's unique about our program," says Mathews, "is we serve a wide range of kids. What has been interesting is that the kids that we deal with are from so many different sectors, yet they get along very well. Any conflict they have is based on strictly personal things--like 'Can you move your glue out of the way?'-- stuff like that, but not based on race, or anything like that. That's been exciting."

Also exciting is the impact SeeSaw "kids" have had on their communities.

"They are forced to deal with the public and think about how they think about their art," says Matthews. "So in that way... they are thinking about: 'How am I communicating to these people? What am I communicating to them about? Am I talking to them about themselves? What am I saying about them?'

"So I think that that's one way ... [that they're] being a voice for other people; 'cause that's what I think public work's about--being a voice for others who are not making that art," she says.

SeeSaw is also thinking of more hands-on ways to get adults involved.

"We're going to have a series of workshops where people can pay a reasonable fee to take a workshop, and invite our kids to participate for free," Milne says.

The funny-hat-man stands amid a swarm of youth designers, potential applicants, customers and patrons circulating throughout the room. Though the focus is not on him, it is clear that he is pleased. When asked how SeeSaw Studio ranks on his list of proudest accomplishments, he says, with no thought or hesitation, "I've created other really good things. This is number one."

To learn more about SeeSaw, visit www.seesawstudio.org, call 687-4411, or visit them at 347 W. Main St.

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