When I first encountered the Isabella Freedman art room, it was tipping from its equilibrium state of “controlled chaos” into a more freeform “sprawling chaos.” There were containers and cupboards and drawers, full of splendid things, but there were no labels or an apparent pattern of organization. Items floated in an organic flotsam of “okay, fits in this space” and “Piles left while we ran off to do something else.” The “stuff” was rapidly developing into “Stuff.”
As Rosh Omanut (Head of the Art Room) for the Teva season, my main goals were simple: Make it so we can find the pipecleaners and markers and masking tape. Have enough useful space to run activities. Set aside storage space specific for Teva supplies.
This was a daunting challenge. Me vs. entropy. Taming the beast.
My first task was to survey the place and make a plan. I realized that the art room had hosted many programs of the retreat center, including TEVA, various children’s programming and Senior Camp, but had no centrally vested authority. The chaos I was witnessing was a re-enactment of the Tragedy of the Commons, an ironic metaphor for an environmentally-driven organization. At the same time, I knew the room was a treasury of unknown wonders.
After some investigation (opening and poking into drawers), I unconvered evidence that there had been a series of art-room-organizations and re-organizations, followed by periods of decay. Items were grouped logically together (paints, paintbrushes, paper, pipecleaners, craft sticks, etc), some even in trays or boxes, side by side with a jumble of random things. I also inherited a stash of clear plastic bins that had been purchased for the purposed of organizing the art room, but had not yet been called into service. Someone had also wrassled up some shelving units for bin storage.
Armed with masking tape and a sharpie marker, I set about my next task of containerizing like things. I labeled every drawer, bin or box with a piece of masking tape clearly lettered with its contents. Watercolor paints sets went into a bin marked “watercolors.” Paper (construction, crafting, drawing) went into a paper drawer. Glue bottles, glue sticks and tape went into another bin. Frequently used items like scissors, markers and pencils went into quart containers near the window. Erasers and rules, staplers and staples, rubber bands and paperclips. In my design, all had a designated home.
The TEVA storage space I found had been created by taping a piece of fabric around the edges of an open counter to hide the large rubbermaid storage bins placed under it. I found a sign taped to it: “Teva Supplies. Please do not use.” Though simple, the idea was pretty effective – out of sight, out of mind. The only problem was the tape securing the fabric to the counter wasn’t very sticky and the improvised curtain kept falling down.
One of my trips to town, I was able to get a roll of adhesive-backed velcro strips. I stuck half of the velcro (fuzzy side out) to the counter edge. I sewed the hooked side of the velcro (facing out) to the fabric. When pressed up against the other half of the velcro strip along the counter, the piece of fabric became a removable curtain! We could now hide the TEVA supplies from the attention of other groups using the art room space.
My efforts in setting up the art room and maintaining the space over the course of the TEVA season translated into a strange phenomenon: The art room became an extension of my self. People would ask me, “where is the (blank)?” I would respond unthinkingly “The third dresser, third drawer down, on the right” or “in the bin on the top shelf on the far left.” (They could also tell by reading the labels on the drawers and bins, if they looked.)
It became a point of pride for me to know where every single, weird and obscure thing in the art room could be found. When others “messed up” the room or misplaced supplies, I would become very crabby. I became very annoyed with people who borrowed “my” colored pencils without returning them, or left paintbrushes unwashed and crusty in “my” sink.
At the end of the season, we had a major campus-wide cleaning event where we had to pack up all of the TEVA supplies and put them in storage. The generic art supplies would remain in the art room, for other Freedman programs to continue to use. As Rosh Art Room, I was determined to leave the space in better shape than I had found it. In addition to a massive cleaning, recycling and trashing campaign, I created my magnum opus: A highly detailed schematic of the art room.
Each shelving unit and dresser was indicated, with my handwritten notes detailing the contents of each. I included helpful landmarks such as the doors, windows and plant to help orient map users to the spatial location of items. I hoped that having the locations marked on a map would give some institutional permanence to my changes, even after I moved on to do other things. I also wanted people to be able to find where I stashed the buttons or velcro or acrylic paint even after I moved on to my next adventure, when I could no longer easily tell them “First Dresser near the window, 3rd drawer down.”
I was incredibly proud of my accomplishment. In my map, the shifting chaos of the art room would be crystallized in a moment in time. However, the second I taped my map to the wall (and tucked several photocopies in a drawer labeled “Where can I find?”), my map was already obsolete.
Life at Isabella Freedman doesn’t stay paused, even if I want it to in my memory. It continues on colorfully and chaotically, shifting all carefully laid plans into the hands of our successors who cycle through its buildings and sacred spaces. I am due to go back to Freedman for a couple of weeks this spring as a Teva educator. I don’t expect to be Rosh Art Room for those 2 weeks. Nor do I expect any of the stuff I left so carefully curated to still be in the same places. And surprisingly, I’m okay with that.