Alumna Maria Ryan Uses Design as Activism

Growing up on a wildlife preserve in California surrounded by farms, homesteaders, nature writers, and the Tahoe National Forest, Maria Ryan (Sculpture 2005) spent most of her time outdoors. When she got to CCA and heard about the availability of Center Student Grants, an idea germinated, and the outcome proved life-changing. She used the grant money to spend the following summer studying plants in the Sierra Nevada and teaching a complementary course, titled "Quilting Indigenous Plant Life of the Sierra Foothills." The project combined her love for nature, handwork, and textiles, and in the end led to the production of a public artwork.

"I used an abandoned building as a community center where I held classes for local children. I hired two guest teachers: one a Maidu woman, who taught the ecological and botanical value of each indigenous plant, and the other Louis Bluecloud, a skilled Mohawk artist who gave lessons in graphic pattern design by stenciling.

"Writing the proposal and seeing this project to completion, I recognized the strength that any project acquires through collaboration. I gained priceless experience, working to engage various factions of the community and utilizing local institutions as assets in the creative process."

Ryan's subsequent work at CCA and beyond developed around these thoughts concerning the intersection of environments and communities. She has undertaken creative projects around the globe, and in 2010 she started a foundation for design research, Compass Studios, incorporating her interests in architecture, sculpture, ecology, and design. "It is fundamentally collaborative. Design and architecture are social professions, and collaborative work brings out the best in all. It's a great way to share culture and devise creative solutions."

In August 2010, Ryan went to Uganda for a five-month "design and build" trip. She was there as a sustainable design and planning consultant for a project funded by a grant from Rotary International. "We were working with an extremely marginalized people in a rural district with no running water or electricity. There were three main projects. We built spring boxes to create access to clean water. We built pit latrines out of concrete wattle and daub, and ferrocement, addressing one of the many sanitation issues the people faced. And we helped the community raise goats as a means of income and nourishment.

"The challenge with all of these projects was that we came in with a set of predefined deliverables that were spelled out in the grant -- spring boxes, pit latrines, goat herds -- but then had to simultaneously make the people we were working with the owners of these projects. Not just the end result, but also the process. It's really hard in these situations to come in as a clearly identified outsider and work with the communities without seeming like you're barging in and forcing changes onto a very different and well-established culture. There can be a lot of tension."

Ryan and her colleagues began thinking about some of these higher-level issues: the role of the outsider as an agent of change, making the development of community assets and institutions a priority, and giving the community a sense of ownership in solutions. This line of thinking led to a series of programs within the grant that were intentionally different from the usual foreign-aid-project-status-quo, and to a final report that, again in contrast to traditional development work, was based on numerous voices from the community, rather than just the perspective of the development worker.

Ryan hopes that the report, "One Blade of Grass," will be a significant piece of literature in how Rotary International implements these sorts of grants in the future. "Only a handful of the people in that district speak English and most of them are illiterate, so they tend to be 'silent partners' in development work. Whereas the basis of our report was 100% live community discussion. It was submitted to the powers that grant Rotary International foreign aid in the hope that it will help redefine their standards. Until now, sustainability-related goals have been conceived mostly in terms of physical longevity. We propose new measures that emphasize citizen-led development, social welfare, and vernacular building techniques."

Currently, Ryan is very excited to be translating some of these ideas into an exhibition for the Ghana Think Tank, an ongoing conceptual art piece that was shortlisted for the influential Frieze Foundation Cartier Award in 2010. For this piece, she sat down with a community in Uganda and presented them with a list of problems identified by people in her hometown of Nevada City, California. Examples included "As a pedestrian I feel like a second-class citizen," and "I know more about celebrities than I do about my own neighbors." She asked the Ugandans to come up with answers to these problems, which would then be implemented back home in California, thus turning on its head the traditional one-way street of development work. She is also working on botanical and scientific illustrations for the 2011 issue of Tree Rings, the publication of the Yuba Watershed Institute. She views this as a continuation of her place-based work focused on ecology -- an expression of the influence of environment on people, and vice versa, that is both scientific and creative.

Ryan looks back appreciatively at every step along her career path, viewing it as both a linear trajectory and a continually evolving constellation of mutually informing pursuits. After she graduated from CCA, she attended Columbia University in New York for a graduate course in architecture. "The best laboratory is an art studio," she says. "At CCA I was given the opportunity to realize and develop my many interests: art, botany, ecology, foreign aid and development, design, architecture, community, and urban planning. At Columbia I found out how they all connected. After that I was drawn to work done by Architecture for Humanity, and Katie Wakeford and Bryan Bell's manifesto Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism. Those influences led to my tracking down the project in Uganda, which required me to learn a lot more about community development and planning."

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