By Tammy Scileppi
Big ideas dwell within Queens’ only tiny house.
And this home is like no other. It’s just a small wooden structure with windows that stands in a local driveway. But that’s not the only thing that makes it special, for it serves as a springboard for fresh, new ideas.
This unusual dwelling is being used as a creative tool to help promote community engagement and collaboration, and even skill development. Through October the 8.5-by-12 foot structure with cedar siding set on wheels will provide a cozy spot for anyone who wishes to engage in meaningful dialogue about community … over tea and pastries.
The recently completed tiny house project was a true labor of love. Designed and built collaboratively by local volunteers, it’s the brainchild of a daring social practice artist who has always believed in the power of community. Yvonne Shortt’s uber-innovative project – located at her Rego Park studio – is causing quite a stir in that nabe and beyond.
“I started community tea in my practice last year, and thought having a space specifically dedicated to tea, pastries and conversation was a great way to engage with others,” Shortt said.
Anyone can sign up for a free 45-minute session around the home’s main feature – an Asian-inspired tea table, which Shortt designed and built.
Featuring different installations every one to two months, the house will morph from one thing to another, but will always remain a community incubator to grow ideas and bring people together. This fall it’s being used as a tea house to discuss local concerns as well as the important topic of what she calls “dwelling.” Next year, it will be transformed and serve another purpose, according to Shortt, who is RPGA Studio’s founder and executive director.
As a longtime Queens resident and active community-minded creative person, she has been busy conjuring up new works for the public to enjoy, through her studio, with the help of like-minded people – like sculptural pieces that entailed working with local students and neighborhoods. And her recent accomplishment, the Elmhurst sculpture garden, spruced up an ugly, debris-filled lot. She has also been able to create unique interventions and virtual reality pieces that educate and inform. This year’s Queens Art Intervention, which just took place over two weekends across 15 communities, showcased RPGA Studio’s tiny house. The theme was “dwelling.”
“Dwelling is a very important word and can be looked at from a physical, spiritual and emotional perspective,” said Shortt. “I have held prototype tea sessions in my studio and learned so much, specifically relating to dwelling from a physical perspective – about several frameworks that people are using to afford to live in certain communities.
“One of the other things that I found so incredibly interesting is the fact that we could learn without spending lots of money individually for tools and building materials.”
Since the tiny house’s inception last October, and over the course of the project, meaningful life lessons were learned and embraced by those who participated.
So dwelling stands for much more than one would imagine.
With Shortt’s help, folks explored design, do-it-yourself building and resourcefulness; how to use tools and become independent; the value of teamwork; women’s empowerment; and lots more.
She emphasized that the project was all about putting down the gadgets, listening and engaging. It’s all about community.
In her practice, the artist said she usually starts by asking a question. In this case: “How can I learn how to use a miter saw and at the same time help others learn as well?” From this initial question, so much has happened.
“I bought one miter saw, invited people to learn with me how to use power tools, created a meet-up and explained my goals. By the third meeting, over 100 people signed up. They came to learn, meet new people and share their skills,” she recalled.
The goal: To design and build a tiny house, which could then be used in the community to help others gain skills.
“Over the next five months, I developed the framework for teams involved in design, sourcing, skill-building, fund-raising. People volunteered their skills to teach others and we grew as a community,” said Shortt, who wanted to develop a nontraditional model for learning. “One woman, Barbara, who is older and never used tools (a generational issue), picked up a driver and learned to build.”
Shortt’s daughter, Rebecca West, 14, was also on the skill-building team.
“She was on the roof putting up plywood, in the house cutting pieces with a jigsaw and teaching others. And my mom also learned to build,” Shortt said.
Thanks to 41 people, aged 14 to 65-plus, mostly women, a collective vision became a reality. In June, they spent five weeks, four days a week, building a tiny house on wheels.
“It was an awesome experience,” Shortt said. “We finished the outside. We learned electrical and installed it ourselves. A volunteer electrician taught us and reviewed our work.
“I realized it was important to take this vehicle and make sure that we could give back to so many other people. Queens Council on the Arts has given us not only money but expertise. People also helped raise money.”
One participant, Kelly, taught a self-defense class and brought in $350. Lisa taught a yoga class and raised over $300. Two artists sold paintings and donated the proceeds. A 5K run raised $500.
Shortt’s other daughter, Clara West, wrote a grant to a foundation and attracted $1,000.
“I think it was such a boost to her self-confidence,” Shortt said.
Her husband also pitched in. She said he contributed over $5,000 to help defray the cost of the build: he was on the roof putting on weather shielding, at Home Depot buying screws.
The total cost was $22,000 for building the house. Small businesses gave as well, like Matiz, BareBurger, and Ridgewood Savings Bank. And this year, City Councilwomen Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) and Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) are supporting the endeavor, according to Shortt.
What were the lessons learned?
“It’s about people and our desire to connect to make communities better,” said Shortt. “Building this tiny house community incubator allowed so many to learn how to build, it gave us new skills in how to collaborate, in understanding what our expertise was and how we could help others. I think so much can be taken from this project and applied to so many facets of life.”
Eventually, the house will start to travel. Expect for it to become a design and build studio from April through September 2018 that will tour Queens. Women will learn together from others how to make furniture for one month. Then it will transform into a room of one’s own for another month, according to Shortt.
“The focus of this will be a quiet place for one person to rent for an hour, to sit meditate, write, play the violin… whatever,” Shortt said. “I firmly believe, as Virginia Wolf said, ‘We women need a quiet place to grow ourselves as women.’ ”
Tiny House is open for tea and conversation through the end of October at the Rego Park location by Shortt’s studio. Please RSVP by emailing yvonn