One of the beauties of going to your local laundromat is the downtime you have as your clothes are tumbling in the washer and dryer. Sure, you could read a book, check email on your phone, flirt with that cute guy or girl folding their pants, or watch the news. But here’s a thought: what if you could spend that time making art?
That’s the idea behind The Laundromat Project, a New York City-based nonprofit that brings arts programs and education to, you guessed it, laundromats.
“If you have 15 minutes and are in the laundromat, or passing by, here’s something you can do. It’s untapped time and space,” says Executive Director Kemi llesanmi, who after four years of board service, officially joined the team about a year ago.
The organization started in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in 2005. Since then, through their Create Change Public Artists Residency, they’ve commissioned artists to mount socially-engaged public art projects in laundromats across the greater NYC area. And through their arts education program Works in Progress, they’ve offered free drop-in summer workshops at the Laundry Room in Harlem.
Recently, they’ve expanded their arts education to Bed-Stuy and another modest-income NYC neighborhood, the Bronx’s Hunts Point, to anchor Works in Progress there each summer. Much like in Harlem, the idea is that The Laundromat Project will be a well-known staple in these neighborhoods for a long time to come.
“People want to do more than survive. They want to thrive,” Kemi says. “We’re helping people nurture their creative selves, which is part of helping them become their whole being. We want to appreciate that creativity, amplify it, connect it, ignite it, acknowledge it, value it, affirm it—all of those things.”
While the sun is shining, the drop-in workshops give residents something tangible to bring home and instructions for how to do it again. Classes have ranged from making totebags to painting planter pots to constructing terrariums to creating jewelry with charms inspired by photographs of murals in Brooklyn.
The artists who run Works in Progress come from all walks of life and mediums. They’re painters, performers, dancers, writers, muralists, and more. All live in or nearby the neighborhoods where they teach.
Most of the art explores what it means to live in the community, and the hopes people have for it. “Hunts Point is_____,” for example, is a prompt from their tote bag workshop.
A select few artists each year are also chosen to be part of The Laundromat Project’s flagship program, the Create Change Residency, to bring bigger-scale public art projects to their neighborhoods. The Laundromat Project doesn’t just take anyone who can glue googly eyes—only serious artists who are serious about community building are invited to apply.
Once accepted, artists undergo a six-month training program where principles of art and social change are woven together. The idea is that the artists are embedded in the community they serve, asking and listening to what people want, and bringing fresh ideas to the drawing board.
“People like the idea of having building blocks in their neighborhood, like a policeman, or a teacher. We think of artists as one of those building blocks,” Kemi says. “They’re community assets and resourceful problem-solvers who come with questions and concerns from a left-of-center space, opening up possibilities for new ways of thinking. Why wouldn’t that be needed in a community?”
Last year’s projects included remixes of Aisha Cousin’s Mapping Soulville, a make-your-own-street-sign project; Art Jones’ Portrait of a Community as a Block, a multimedia installation focused on stores where people work and shop in Hunts Point; and Shani Peters’ The People’s Laundromat Theatre in Harlem.
And the laundry list of offerings continues to grow. Last fall, The Laundromat Project hosted their first Field Day festival simultaneously in the three neighborhoods—themed around the issues of home, food, and history—with all sorts of free workshops, walking tours, poetry, dance, mini-film festivals, etc.
This year, they’re looking to do even more: in-school and after-school programs, a parent and community circle to help develop programming, commissioning 30 artists for more projects, and starting to put together a toolkit so that anyone anywhere can take their knowledge to do something similar where they live.
The Laundromat Project’s goal with all of this is lasting change—not only a piece of art people can take home with them, but a memory that connects them with their community in a meaningful way.
“We ask our teaching artists to let us know what they hear on the street,” Kemi says. “There were some teenagers walking by this past summer in Harlem and one of our artists overheard them saying, ‘Remember when we used to do The Laundromat Project?’ So it sticks.”
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