Teaching with Contemporary Art

Joy and Revolution: Talking with Adam Weiler of Ambrose

If you’re not familiar with Ambrose, well…. you should be. A few months ago on a trip to work with teachers at the Holland Area Arts Council in Michigan I was fortunate enough to meet Adam Weiler, the creative director of this atypical after school club, and immediately became interested in the work his high school artists were producing. The website for Ambrose perhaps says it best:

Ambrose is the greatest after school club in the world. Every month we feature a guest artist, develop a new tee, and complete a skill building collaborative project. Our goal is to grow citizens with strong capacities for creative problem solving, design thinking and entrepreneurship.

I became interested in Ambrose not just because they produce really cool t-shirts, but also because of the buzz that surrounded this group from the moment I landed in Grand Rapids. Many people, including teachers taking the weekend workshop with Art21, had nothing but positive things to say about the work Ambrose has done and the effect it has on kids who participate. Below is part one of an interview I conducted with Adam Weiler this summer:

Joe Fusaro: Tell me a little about how Ambrose is different from other “after school clubs” and how do you sustain participation in this kind of thing when so many projects like Ambrose start strong and then fade over time?

Adam Weiler: When we were first starting the program we surveyed both local business owners and creative professionals to see what they were looking for in potential employees. We found both sides wished they had a deeper understanding of the other- businesses wished they were more creative and creatives wished they had a better understanding of business. This focus on the business side of art and the art side of business sets us apart. Since we’re not associated with or funded by a school system we’ve been forced to take our own medicine and find a funding model that works in order to keep the program going. This year we launched a new line of shirts where our visiting artist of the month designs a shirt that we print with students. We’re constantly trying to find new workable ways for students to be involved in all aspects of the project such as planning, production, branding, etc…giving them more ownership and say in the direction of the workshops.

Regarding student participation – in a lot of ways Ambrose is like any other after school program. Every year students graduate and new students enter – group dynamics and energy are variables that constantly change. I think the personal attention of committed volunteers have helped retain students over the last three years. Professional adults in our community have been really excited about giving back in a way that connects with their passions. We have a solid group of weekly volunteers that are talented, genuinely like each other, and care about students’ development. It’s a trifecta, if you will, and I think it creates a culture that students want to be a part of.

JF: So how do you select artists to work with the group?

AW: The guest artists thus far have been friends of our community and friends of friends. It’s pretty grassroots. There are some really well organized creative networks in our region…and generous. When we’ve reached out to individuals they have been more than willing to help out, which is encouraging.

JF: And when you say students “graduate”, do you mean from high school, or is there some kind of graduation from Ambrose? Do students have the option of working with Ambrose after they are out of high school?

AW: Graduate from high school. We’ve noticed a real need for creative community amongst students who have graduated from school but aren’t pursuing college degrees. Up until this year the program hasn’t had any hard boundaries so those students still stop in for the occasional workshop. Occasionally during college breaks we’ll have “alums” come back to share what they’ve been learning, what whey wish they knew, and validate the importance of foundational skills (drawing from life / observational skills). This year we’re doing things a little differently. There will still be an open door to alums coming back but we’re going to have a hard graduation that marks a student’s initiation into the next phase of development.

JF: Tell me about some of your volunteers… How do they help Ambrose function?

AW: Volunteers champion things their passionate about…share their own expertise and things that bring them life. They see things that I don’t and have brought ideas to the table I never could have. This past month we hosted guest artist Geoffery Holstad, a talented guy out of Grand Rapids whose done some commercial work for some great companies. Geoffery is really passionate about outdoors and wilderness conservation – it constantly comes across in his work. We thought it was the perfect time to get out of our city for a while and connect with nature. Two of our volunteers are backpack enthusiasts and came up with the idea of doing a three day backpacking trip in Northern Michigan. They championed the whole thing – food, schedule, gear, activities. It was an awesome experience for all of us- leaders and students alike. Having that sort of competency and confidence in your leaders has helped tremendously. It decentralizes the process and makes it more communal. Community ownership is vital. We’re all in it together, learning new things and sharing what we know regardless of how old.

JF: But how do the t-shirts get designed? What is that process like? Do you have any favorites so far?

AW: We work with guest artists in advance to design the garment and plan out the month of programming. Most designs are created new but occasionally we’ll use pieces that would be perfect for a tee. There’s a list of constraints we have to work with such as garment options, ink options, size limitations, etc. Typically we use email to go over concepts and sketches. Logistically all design choices need to be finalized by the first of the month because of shipping, production and fulfillment timelines. Once everything is finalized with the artist we work with students to get busy printing them.

Printing is coordinated with a local screen printing shop that’s been supportive of our initiative from the start. Actually, when I first moved to the area five years ago I approached them about doing some design work which they turned down. The rejection was serendipitous though; the initial conversation went on to grow into a friendship, mentorship, and partnership in Ambrose. Once the garments arrive from Los Angeles we work with a small group of students to print them; this is one of my favorite pieces of the whole puzzle. Once students begin to see and understand the production methods used to print goods they’re able to think more critically about their relationship to it.

It’s tough to have a favorite design because each one has conversations attached to it, but there are four that are in my regular wardrobe rotation – Geoff Holstad’s Nature Bats Last (pictured above), Amanda Jane Jones’ Save MI Buy Local, Drew Melton’s Ambrose Script (also pictured above), and Jason Rood’s Storm Cloud.


Tune in next week for part two. In the meantime, check out Ambrose’s work on their official website.