Firing up Philly kids’ creativity in Fishtown

Fishtown’s Phil­adelphia Sculp­ture Gym in­vites young men to open their eyes to the won­ders of weld­ing. 

A group of teen­age boys from West and South Philly vis­it the Phil­adelphia Sculp­ture Gym to try their hands at weld­ing, as part of PAL’s ini­ti­at­ive to get kids in­volved in STEM ca­reers. BRI­AN RADEMAEKERS / STAR PHOTO

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://phil­adelphias­culp­ture­  ••

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