When artist Michael Sturtz moved into West Oakland in the 1990s, he knew the tough waterfront neighborhood was a hotbed for sculptors. Thing is, nobody knew each other. Sturtz changed all that by establishing The Crucible, a community of practice in the form of a non-profit industrial arts school. What began as ad hoc classes in Sturtz’s live-work space and weekend bronze casting BBQs in his backyard has grown into a vast 56,000 square foot studio that hosts 500 courses each year on arts and crafts as eclectic as welding, jewelry, neon, blacksmithing, woodworking, kinetics, and, fire performance. Last year, more than 5,000 students got their hands dirty at The Crucible, learning how to express their creativity by shaping, pounding, cutting, and molding steel, ceramics, fabric, enamel, and dozens of other media. Another 3,000 school children, mostly from the surrounding community, participated in The Crucible’s mostly free youth programs.
“The Crucible is all about accessibility,” Sturtz says. “Anyone can take a class here and almost anyone can teach here too. You don’t need a master’s degree. You don’t need anything other than a passion for teaching, experience doing something, and the desire to share what you know.”
Supported by tuition, donations, and fundraising events like fire ballets and an annual Fire Arts Festival, The Crucible’s unbridled independence is unparalleled by traditional art schools. Where else could one take a class called “Cold Flesh and Hot Metal,” with live nude models posing in the foundry?
No, The Crucible won’t be bringing nude models to the upcoming Maker Faire, May 19 and 20 at the San Mateo Fairgrounds, but Sturtz and his crew will be on site again this year in their ERV (Educational Response Vehicle), a restored 1970 International fire truck with a full metal shop on board and a bonus flame thrower that spews fire 30 feet into the air. They’ll demonstrate a variety of industrial arts, from welding to glassblowing, and also show off their custom Die Moto Biodiesel Motorcycle that recently hit a top speed of 121 mph at a land speed competition.
Read more about The Crucible in the next issue of MAKE: (Volume 10), on newsstands May 29 and in subscribers’ mailboxes a week or two before.
(photo of fire truck by Steve Double)