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Michael Sturtz Fosters Collaboration of Arts, Industry and Community

  • Jan Sluizer

Michael Sturtz says discovering art helped him through what he recalls as his unruly, rebellious, semi-suicidal teenage years.

"I found making art to be so rewarding and so grounding and so reassuring of who I am and who I could be," he recalls, "that when I see people that don't have that in themselves, I just feel like – if they could just have that experience of getting what's inside of them out a little bit more, they would have the [assurance] and the confidence and the gusto to go for their dreams."

After getting his Bachelor's degree and traveling the world to study art, the young sculptor returned home to Oakland, California in 1998, only to find it lacking a cultural arts scene. So he decided to start one.

A mission to foster creativity

He hosted potluck meals, bringing together artists who were working in the same medium but didn't know each other. The gatherings grew and soon Sturtz purchased an empty warehouse to house the project he called The Crucible.

Artists were able to rent affordable studio space there, and some of them were paid to teach their form of art to the community.

In its first year, 300 students took classes in crafts like welding, glass-making and blacksmithing. Now in its 10th year, the industrial arts center offers 750 courses, expanding from the "fire arts" to include jewelry, textiles and woodworking. Five thousand students, ranging in age from 8 to 80 take classes at The Crucible each year. Half the young people are on scholarship.

Sturtz says The Crucible's mission is to encourage a greater appreciation of the industrial arts, provide learning opportunities for the general public, and foster creativity. Anyone and everyone can be creative, Sturtz insists,even if it's in their garage or in their kitchen. "[They could be] gluing things together, nailing things together, making something that speaks of who they are and their relationship to the world."

Sturtz describes going from being an artist to a teacher as an amazing feeling. They both try to have an impact on the world, he notes, "but as an institution that's teaching so many people and making art accessible to so many people year after year, you just see the ripple effects [of teaching]."

Creating with fire and light

The Crucible holds an annual four-day Fire Festival fundraiser. This year, a city parking lot was turned into an outdoor art gallery of odd-shaped metal sculptures that shot tongues of flame high into the night sky. "Fire is a very powerful element," Sturtz says. "People are fearful of it, but they're drawn to it."

With fire-related classes the most popular at The Crucible, Sturtz says it was only natural to have a fund-raiser that celebrates creation through fire and light. "This is where you are taking that creative spark, using fire to transform materials and, ultimately, it transforms people. It empowers them and inspires them."

One student who has been empowered by fire used safely is Mike Brown, 16. He has taken almost all of the courses offered through The Crucible's youth program and now belongs to a welding cooperative, making projects for local businesses.

Brown says that what he has learned at the Crucible has changed him; it's given him the confidence to voice his opinion and speak up to people. And he adds that Michael Sturtz taught him one of life's important lessons: never to give up, for anything is possible.

A 21st century apprenticeship

At least one phone call comes in each week requesting information on how to start a program like this. Recently, Sturtz sent a team to Wellington, New Zealand, to help an art studio there break into the fire arts.

Sturtz compares The Crucible to the guilds and apprenticeships of the late Middle Ages; it's just a newer approach. "Art schools are very conceptual and very expensive. Not everybody wants to do that," he observes. "People just want that hands-on experience. They want the community."

With The Crucible more successful than he could ever have imagined, Michael Sturtz says he's pleased that other communities are as fired up as he is about the power of art to change lives.

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