A tiny house for art

Students build portable art studio in Stanford intensive

It started out as a solution to the lack of affordable space amid sky-high Oakland housing costs. Now, designer and performance art producer David Szlasa's portable art studio has made its way across the bay to Stanford University.

Before the birth of his first son nearly two years ago, Szlasa realized the art studio in his living room wasn't going to cut it. With the help of a grant, he built a mobile art studio to park in his driveway. Since then, Szlasa says the studio has taken on "a life of its own" and served as the work space of many San Francisco artists, who have used it to create a variety of art forms, from sewing to shamanistic rituals.

The studio, which Szlasa named "Studio 1," was for some time stationed on Market Street in San Francisco. It found success, he says, in large part because of the thin barrier it presented between the artists' work and the public.

"That's really what the hallmark of the studio has been -- it's a very easy point of entry," he said. "A lot of people stop and are curious about the structure, and that starts a conversation."

The presence of an art studio in a space where one would not normally expect to see one serves as an "urban intervention" in a congested area such as Market Street, he added. It is in many ways a "disruption," Szlasa said.

"One day, a tiny house shows up on the sidewalk and it's a totally different type of set up," he said.

In a recent two-and-a-half-week arts intensive ("Tiny Eco Houses for Artists: Social Practice, Design/Build") at Stanford, Szlasa guided 12 students to create Studio 2. The studio was built at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve -- a biological field station near the university campus -- and was sources almost entirely from materials found on the site. Workshop participants tried their hands at using nail guns and circular saws.

The arts intensive fit well with Jasper Ridge's mission of education and research, according to Sarah Curran, Director of Programming and Partnerships at the Stanford Arts Institute. Curran, who first worked with Szlasa on another project at the preserve three years ago, works to make sure there is art everywhere on the Stanford campus.

"I thought this would be a really interesting method to do that since it is a portable, movable art studio," she said. "Because this studio is sustainable, it's mobile, it doesn't have a permanent footprint, it's green, off the grid and solar powered, it seemed to fit a lot of what Jasper Ridge was about."

The nearly 80-square-foot building uses insulation and paint left over from previous projects, a re-purposed window and wood from a live oak which fell of natural causes on the property.

In addition to serving as a resource for materials, Jasper Ridge was also a significant funder for the project. Executive Director of Jasper Ridge, Philippe Cohen, said the studio helped normalize the presence of art on the preserve.

"My image of it is during the time it was on the preserve, it would provide a venue for arts classes and visiting artists to have a space to do work and a space to interact with other people," Cohen said.

He, along with a number of students, hoped the studio would be able to spend part of the year on the preserve and part of the year on the main Stanford campus, where student artists could create and display work.

Marveliz Santos, a fifth year civil engineering student at Stanford and the teaching assistant for the intensive, helped draft a letter to the university requesting that Studio 2 be stationed on campus. Getting the green light is proving difficult, she explained.

"The students got really attached to the house and realized we really do need more arts spaces on campus," Santos said. "Now, the push back is from the university. The Land, Buildings & Real Estate Office needs to go through a lot of paperwork to make sure it's a safe building."

According to Curran, because the studio does not fit into a set category at the Department of Motor Vehicles, it's taking time to secure the license plates and proper paperwork to drive it to campus. Stanford is also assessing the structure for potential risks before insuring it.

Though specific plans as to how the studio will be used this academic year are still being determined, Curran said there is a possibility of priority being given to the students who were involved in its construction.

Szlasa now lives in a farmhouse in New York's Hudson River Valley. He hopes to bring the tiny house movement to the East Coast with his project, Range Studio, which is currently in the fundraising stages.

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