25th September 2017

The Steel Yard, Providence, RI

The Steel Yard offers training to citizens of Providence, Rhode Island, for various vocational skills such as metalworking and woodworking, with an artistic focus. It is highly regarded by artists around the world, and is essentially the go-to place for US-based artists seeking a metalworks manufacturer for their design ideas. I met with Tim Ferland, the public projects director, who is an experienced fabricator responsible for the largest workshop at the site.

Ferland showed me around the site, which covers almost three acres, and contains studios for welding, blacksmithing, woodworking, ceramics and jewellery-making. The project began in 2001 when Nick Bauta and Clay Rockefeller bought the site and started inviting artists to use it for the fabrication of large sculptures and installations. Soon the resident artists expressed a desire to teach classes from the workshops, and the project expanded from there to the industrial arts centre that it is today. Walking around I saw a huge range of machinery for all types of fabrication. Stopping by one of the older, more intriguing looking contraptions, I was told that it would soon be shipped to Mexico, where health and safety standards are… a little different.

There are many outreach programs from the site, some of which train young adults to work with tools, and others that help people to attain OSHA certification cards (a US health and safety scheme similar to CSCS in the UK). Most of these classes are run in the evenings and on weekends, because attendees often work full-time during the week. Jewellery workshops are apparently particularly popular because the tools required are small and can easily be used at home, saving the need to rent a dedicated workspace. Ferland also showed me a ‘residents’ area in the middle workshop, home to a number of locals who rent a permanent space in the studio from the organisation with access to the shared machinery. One ‘resident’ refurbishes old tools to be re-sold; another is an artist who works exclusively with metals.

The Steel Yard was established on a large disused post-industrial site with numerous warehouses and outbuildings.

Tim's metal workshop, with current commissions in progress visible on pallets dotted around the space.

The woodwork workshop (left) and ceramics workshop (right).

Ferland expressed some frustration with the success of awareness events in actually generating more than superficial interest in the Steel Yard, citing a recent ticketed ‘Pour & Pour’ night as an example. The event featured a live iron pour whilst attendees sip on freshly-poured wine, though Ferland was of the impression that most attendees were just there for the alcohol and had limited interest in the programs operated by ‘yardies’ such as himself.

One thing is for sure: the success of this project has caused others to move into the neighbourhood, significantly increasing the occupation of vacant and derelict buildings. Many are ceramicists, according to Ferland. The Steel Yard was a useful project to visit for my study of the South Side of Chicago because the area shares much of the same post-industrial character, and the outreach schemes operated from the site play a socio-economic role similar to existing schemes in Bronzeville and Washington Park (such as the woodworking apprenticeships at Perry Ave Community Farm).

The jewellery workshop.

A kiln for the ceramics workshop built into a disused shipping container.