The group of teenage boys hanging out at the Philly Sculpture Gym last week acted like you might expect a group of teenage boys to act after a long day at school — they joked around, teased each other, tested out some dance moves, ate some candy.
Visiting the Frankford Avenue space from their West and South Philly neighborhoods for a primer on welding, the group of 15- and 16-year-olds seemed to have little interest in examples of giant welding projects, like how the Epcot Center was designed.
That all changed when artist and instructor Bevan Weissmann had them put on protective gear and fired up his welding torch. At that point, their attention was about as focused as the white-hot flame that was turning steel bars into glowing putty and throwing sparks around the room.
The group was at Fishtown’s Sculpture Gym, 1834 Frankford Ave., as part of the Police Athletic League’s effort to turn young city kids on to careers involving science, technology, engineering, and math – “STEM” careers, for short. After going over the basics of the engineering behind bridges they see all the time, including the supports of the Market-Frankford EL, the group actually got to weld together steel rods to form a small bridge. At the end, they gave it a test as one lucky guy – Dyshawn Oliver, 15, of West Philly, – got to give it a test by standing on the structure. To their surprise, it held.
Weissman said the class at the Sculpture Gym, one of three set up with PAL, is just one way the space, which rents out room to artists and gives them access to tools in the same way that a traditional gym lets exercise enthusiasts use treadmills, is helping out the community.
“For some artists, it’s a way to get access to costly equipment, like the welder we used, but you also need to have space to work and space where you can keep your things,” Weissman explained. “But it’s also all about meeting other artists and forming a community here.”
Weissman actually met Kate Fenerty, Education and Volunteer Coordinator at PAL, at NextFab, a similar collaborative workspace located at 20th and Washington in South Philly. Fenerty, a Northeast resident, talked to Weissman about her work, and soon they set up an event that brought the PAL kids up to Fishtown.
The idea, Fenerty said, was to show the youngsters, who all come from the program at the Audrenried PAL Center at 33rd and Tasker, what careers involving STEM education might look like.
“This is something that most of these kids haven’t really seen or thought about,” said Fenerty. “Now, they can look around and see something that was welded, like their lockers or a bridge, and they know how that gets done and that somebody does it.”
Like others involved with the class, Fenerty hoped more than anything that the welding demonstration would open new doors and create a new line of thinking for the students.
“I think something like this opens their eyes,” she said. “That’s one of the things that I made my personal goal while working with PAL – to let these guys know that things like this and other opportunities exist outside of Southwest Philly.”
Officer Frank Holmes, who says he probably spends more time working with PAL kids than he does with his own, also said the trip to Fishtown was a chance for the boys to think about life in bigger terms than they usually do.
“The best thing is to have them out here looking at different things and thinking about that as a path in life,” says Holmes, who has been working with guys like Oliver for more than four years. “A lot of kids in the inner city, all they know and think about is basketball and football. They don’t know about trades. But if one of these kids goes on and decides to be a welder, I think PAL helped with that.”
For Oliver, the evening of working the torch with his buddies seemed to have had an immediate impact.
“Yeah, I think, after seeing this, I would like to become a welder,” said Oliver. Before that night? “I wanted to be a cop,” he said.
You can learn more about the Philly Sculpture Gym and the programs offered there by visiting http://philadelphiasculpturegym.com. ••