Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 12:22:12 PM CST

Top Stories

Olivia Sorrel-Dejerine/MEDILL

Starting from left, Mullins, Molina, Jackson and Murray, members of Furnishing for Refugees, show what the shelves they are building will look like.

Student artists to serve the greater good?

by Olivia Sorrel-Dejerine
Feb 27, 2013

furnishing 2

Olivia Sorrel-Dejerine/MEDILL

Murray and Jackson in their workshop.

It all started over a year ago when Lesley Jackson, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, came up with the idea of building and restoring furniture for refugees for a class project.

But it soon evolved to more than an idea, turning into a group of five SAIC students called Furnishing for  Refugees.

Lesley Jackson, Natalie Murray, Jeffly Gabriela Molina, Prima Sakuntabhai and Robert Lococo all have the same goal: exercising their creative and technical skills to benefit a community in need.

“The idea for this project came from an interest in contributing to the community but also building my own skills, finding ways to reuse materials, and make functional work that was also creative but simple and efficient,” Jackson said.

Jackson was the one to reach out last spring to Refugee One – a refugee resettlement agency that provides services to help newly arrived refugees in Chicago – to ask them if they would be interested in the project.

Laura Lonneman, the housing and compliance manager at Refugee One, declined to comment on that collaboration but was extremely excited about it and really encouraging, according to Jackson.  

However, it took a while for the students to gather as a group so the project wasn’t implemented right away.

“I knew I couldn’t do it on my own, I knew I needed to reach out to other people, but I had to find the right group of people,” Jackson said. “It just seemed too big to get to do. I just thought it was too lofty.”

The group was eventually formed, uniting four women and one man with great constructional skills and an interest in community-based practices.

“I think all of us share the same interest, and all of us have art backgrounds, but we all make a lot of functional things too,” said Heather Mullins, the advisor of the project, who was chosen by the students for her experience in design and community-based work.

Lonneman, of Refugee One, helped the group create a list of what would be necessary to furnish a home.

“And then we just started picking pieces that we were interested in constructing,” Jackson said. “We started with the dining table because we thought that this was sort of the center of the home.”

The goal of the group is to construct furniture that could house a family of four by the end of May.

“We are basically trying to do everything but the bed,” Jackson said.

Before the construction, all of the designs go through Mullins so she can give advice on how to make the furniture and choose the construction materials better.

“And that’s where Heather [Mullins] comes in. Really what’s important is that since there are so many different people working on projects, we don’t want one piece really standing out and not really fitting,” Jackson said.

Creating furniture for a group of people as specific as refugees also involves special considerations.

“One of the things that I am learning through this experience is that we have to, as Heather [Mullins] said, make something that won’t be too crazy, that can be just “homey,” well-made and comfortable for these families that are coming,” said Molina, one of the group members who comes from Venezuela.

And choosing the right construction materials is another issue as well.

It’s a constant conversation about what material should be used, according to Murray, another member of the group.

“We have to make side tables and we were just discussing: wood, metal and what if we implemented glass? But then you have to think: ‘Oh but glass could be really heavy, and then what about metal?’” Murray said.  

These student artists chose to use mostly reclaimed materials but also pieces donated by their own families.

For instance, the dining table constructed a few days ago was made from an old doorframe and oak floorboards and has detachable steel legs.

The group is thinking of opening the project to other students who would be interested in joining and who would not necessarily be skilled in furniture construction. For example, a ceramist could construct a set of dishware for the families or an artist-painter could paint the walls, Jackson explained.

But the group of five also doesn’t want too many people to be involved.

“There would be too many cooks in the kitchen,” Murray said.

In the end, Furnishing for Refugees  cannot be summarized as only involving student artists who are exercising their creative skills. In fact, there is a complete philosophy behind this project, and a quest for a unique way of thinking to influence the project..

“We are trying to rethink what the artist role is,” Jackson said. “Why can’t we be makers and creative thinkers but also socially engaged people? It is about thinking critically about what we should be making, what we should be putting out there.”