Providence Leads in Community Built Art Projects

The Iron Pour at the Steel Yard photo: Howie Sneider

The Community Built Association (CBA) brings its unique approach to art and community engagement to Providence for the first time at their 2024 conference, “Imagining Collective Futures: Coast to Coast.” CBA is a non-profit organization that supports the professionals who engage the community to transform public spaces. It is a national and international network that gathers in a new place every two-years to host a conference and build community together.

The organization was formed in 1989 to provide a network for professionals and to offer information, education, and training to the general public. It grew out of the adventure playground movement with founding members such as Jimmy Jolly, who went around the world teaching hand-skills and helping communities build tire playgrounds. Why? Because discarded tires are everywhere and he was able to teach and empower communities by using their waste to inspire play and it can all be done with simple tools. By teaching them how to build, he also gave them the skills to maintain their work; all playgrounds eventually need repair, and he made sure they had the ability to do it!

CBA has grown since to become a network that incorporates all sorts of public-art, theater, community organizing and engagement, while recognizing at its core the links that exist between co-creation and resilience.

Why Providence

The CBA is an ALL volunteer effort organized by the Board of Directors. In Providence the CBA has three members: Howie Sneider, Executive Director of the Steel Yard, José R. Menéndez, co-founder of Buena Gráfica Social Studio and Assistant Professor at Northeastern University College of Art Media and Design, and Liz Hafey, a transdisciplinary conceptual artist, writer, and activist.

The Steel Yard has been a presenter (and observer at) the last three conferences, sharing Rhode Island’s unique approach to public art with peers across the country, and bringing back inspiring stories, new methodologies and skills. It was at a CBA conference that The Steel Yard first learned about the City Repair Project in Portland, OR, and brought back stories of street closures and sharing that led to the Sims Ave Festival. For the last 2 years, The Steel Yard has closed Sims Avenue during its Annual Iron Pour, added an art market, programmed activities with arts organizations from across the state and collaborated with all of the local businesses in the valley Arts District to create the Sims Ave Festival. This has brought over 4,000 people to a day long experience, free, family friendly and paced to build relationships. The Iron Pour, itself, is a slow paced but spectacular performance that involves the burning of large-scale sculptures that have been crafted by teams of volunteers over the summer and fall. The 2024 Iron Pour will be in early November and information will be available on The Steel Yard’s website and social media soon.

The Steel Yard in its entirety could be considered one big community built project, taking the time to educate and train generations of artists to improve public spaces, believing that anyone can learn skills of art making, and that everyone deserves access to the tools to improve their lives and community. Annual events like the Iron Pour bring together dozens of volunteers to create a true spectacle that puts artists in front of an audience of 2,000 people and models careers and imagination to build a stronger community. It is a fully collaborative vision, coordinated by the community and developing, along with a huge audience of participants, all moving towards the same goal, building community.

Buena Gráfica Social Studio is a multidisciplinary communication design and printmaking studio led by Tatiana Gómez and José R. Menéndez, who are based in Providence. Buena Gráfica’s work is centered in community building through design and their collaborations take multiple forms. Through the lenses of branding, publication, and public space interventions, their work examines the design practice as a platform for multilingual and multicultural communication, dissemination, access, visibility, and equity at multiple scales. Their studio is located in the vibrant Valley neighborhood where they have a graphic design and branding studio practice, combined with a printmaking studio and gallery where they host community zine workshops, wheat paste workshops, and exhibitions on Latin American visual arts and design—part of their project Gráfica Latina.

Buena Gráfica Wheat Paste Workshop with La Linterna Cali at The Steel Yard, Summer 2023.

They are firm believers in the importance of bringing their experience into academic environments and community art organizations. This inspires a new generation of artists and designers to become civic participants in their communities through art and design. They have been collaborating with the non-profit, Youth Experiencing Artistic Hope (YEAH!), in Fall River, MA since 2020, where they have taught foundational concepts of art and design, and directed the design and production of commissioned projects for their neighboring community such as murals, sandwich boards, and community calendars. In the last couple of years, two of the senior students have become leaders within the organization and have directed multiple, large-scale projects of their own!

What will we learn at the conference?

Presenters and organizers hail from South Dakota, California, New York, Boston, Oregon, Kansas and more, and are coming to Providence to learn, to share, and to build together.

A three day leadership workshop will kick-off the conference with a stay at the  House and an intensive exploration of community built practice. The Wedding Cake House is a perfect example of community built philosophy at work. Every inch of wallpaper, tiles in the bathrooms, wooden shutters, textiles, and more was made by local artists working together and with volunteers to restore and transform it to the incredible resource it has become.

The workshop will include a one day course at The Steel Yard making a decorative frame for a historic marker for the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, designed by local artist and architect Brendan Rose. The second day workshop will take place at Buena Gráfica Social Studio, where participants will be introduced to letterpress printing, and will create multiple communication materials that will be shared during the conference.

“The CBA conference is a chance to get together, share best-practices, and have a ton of fun, while getting energized for community-built work in our own communities” said Steve Wood, Executive Director of Concrete Couch, Colorado Springs, CO

Painting the Viva Fall River Mural as part of the Yeah! CBA project

The conference itself will use AS220 as home base, and for the first time, will have a youth track, where attendees under the age of 30 can gather to talk about the unique challenges and opportunities that they foresee. A share out at the end of the conference will give a chance for everyone to learn from their own perspective and incorporate their vision into our collective future.

The conference will have sessions that explore art in rural communities, different career models, business plans and contract choices, exploration of public art combined with social action, and exchange of challenges and failures that we can all learn from together.  Katherine Melcher, an Associate Professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Environment and Design, will present her studies on the unique benefits of community built projects based on her research of over a hundred artists and practitioners. Throughout the conference, Lynn Elizabeth from New Village Press will bring a selection of independently published work for sale and exploration.

Featured keynotes from Providence-based Adrienne Gagnon, Felipe Ortiz, and Shey ‘Rí Acu’ Rivera Ríos will center ways of building knowledge and skills in community, youth engagement and empowerment, and racial and climate justice. Their diverse practices represent the myriad of ways that community organizing and arts can help bring communities closer together, to prepare for climate impacts and build advocacy for change and self-determination.

The CBA conference has been a huge source of inspiration in my life and my career. It’s amazing to gather with people from all over the place and discuss community-built projects, learn from industry professionals, and create connections across the nation. I always walk away feeling refreshed and inspired to bring new ideas back to my own community.

—Jessica Hammond, Muralist, Sioux City, IA

CBA imagines the future of community art

There is something inherently hopeful and inspiring about CBA artists. They place equal value on high quality work and the broad involvement of community volunteers. The process has dignity and social justice at its core. There are many other ways of making public art that may have less red tape or challenges.  CBA artists, however, believe in the lasting pride, resilience, and strengthened networks created through the Community Built process because of the participation of community in each step.

Our local Providence artists and organizers are truly doing work worthy of the national spotlight. This conference Is a chance to celebrate that and introduce a national audience to our incredible community.

The CBA conference in Providence would not have happened without all of the support of Rhode Islanders welcoming our national peers to our shores. We should celebrate CBA but also the local partners that made it possible to do this, including the Providence Department of Arts Culture and Tourism, the Providence Tourism Council, the Providence Hilton and all of the artists who are presenting and participating.

CBA has a conference every two years, and we don’t yet know where they will go next, but we are certain that a cohort from Providence will be there to continue our cross collaborations, to learn and share with each other.

It takes a village, and in our case, a whole city.

Further reading and resources about Community Built Projects:

Watch Called to Walls on PBS, a documentary filmed by CBA Board Chair Amber Hansen.

Watch Concrete Couch : This Wall Connects us

Read Jimmy Jolly’s Tyre Playground Book

Read about The Steel Yard, Art and Skill building across the country

Check out the CBA website :

Watch Mark Lakeman’s keynote from the 2018 conference

Arlene Goldbard Keynote Address from the 2022 CBA Conference: Possibility, Power, Purpose: Sensing the Demand

José Menéndez is a graphic designer and educator, with a background in marine science communication and landscape architecture. He holds a BS in Landscape Architecture from Temple University, an MFA in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design, and a MMA in Marine Affairs with a specialization in Science Communication from the University of Rhode Island. He is an Assistant Professor in Graphic Design and Architecture at Northeastern University College of Art Media and Design in Boston. José is a co-founder of Buena Gráfica Social Studio, an interdisciplinary design and community engagement studio based in Providence RI.

Howie Sneider is an artist, community organizer, CBA Board Member and has been the Executive Director of The Steel Yard in Providence since 2013. He has taught welding, fabricating, sculpture and drawing. He has collaborated with hundreds of artists to create functional and decorative public-art for temporary and permanent installation across New England. He was one of the 2023-24 Prudence Island Artists in Residence at The Naragansett Bay National Estruarian Research Reserve and is co-host of the 2024 CBA conference in Providence.