Summer 2021

Host Jackie Clay heads to Hale County to visit the design/build program Rural Studio, an initiative of Auburn’s school of architecture that has garnered international attention. We showcase Aaron Sanders Head, a textile artist residing in Rural Studios backyard of Greensboro, AL, and self-taught illustrator, Lo Harris, of Bessemer, AL.

AIRED: June 30, 2021 | 0:26:47

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- Hello again, and welcome to Monograph.

I'm your host, Jackie Clay.

This episode brings us to Auburn University's Rural Studio

in Newbern, Alabama.

Rural Studio is part of Auburn's architecture program.

The program has garnered international attention

for its innovative approach to teaching architecture.

Giving students real life experience

and also serving its community in the Alabama Black Belt.

We'll tour their campus and chat about the education side

of things with Emily McGlohn.

We'll also talk with Associate Director, Rusty Smith

about a new program.

The Front Porch Initiative

which works to improve housing affordability and access

across the country.

Here's Emily.

- Hi.

- Hey Jackie, how's it going?

- I'm well, how are you?

- Great.

- So what's your name and what do you do here in Newbern.

- I am Emily McGlohn.

I'm an Associate Professor of Architecture.

For Auburn University but live full-time here in Greensboro

in Newburn and work at the Rural Studio.

Which is a design/build program

for the architecture students at Auburn.

- So you described the program as design build.

What does design build mean?

- Most of the time in architecture school.

And this is like this everywhere.

Students are working in a classroom, a studio.

And they're given a design prompt

And they kind of you know, work on it in on campus

and they get feedback from their professors.

And which is a fun process

but we go a little bit further than that.

And the designs that the students work on with our,

their professors like me, they get to actually build them.

So they're really learning how to put a building together

after they've made the design.

So it locks in lessons about assemblies

and methods and materials of architecture.

- So why was Hale County a good place

for this design/build program?

- design/build programs do usually go hand in hand

with community outreach.

And usually,

the community that you're outreaching to has a need.

And there is, you know,

there are needs here that we can fulfill.

So that makes us a good partner

for the Newburn, West Alabama community.

We are part of the community.

But you know, we're also new.

27 years isn't a very long time.

In a community,

as you know, established as the ones in the Black Belt.

And it took some time for I think our community members

to become accustomed to us and understand what we do.

And we've learned a lot of lessons.

In 2006,

I think we finished the fire station in downtown Newburn.

And it was the first civic building that we were,

you know, we contributed to the fabric of Newburn.

Was the first building that had been built there

in over 100 years.

And then after that,

we built a town hall and then we renovated an old bank

and turned it into a public library.

So all of these organizations existed.

They were thriving and we've just made spaces

for them to be able to grow and have more conversations in.

So I think the community response is positive.

You know, my clients are always lovely people.

They always thank us for building a house.

But I always thank them for putting up,

for letting you know, for putting up with 20 students

in your business for nine months.

You know, that's, we're really thankful to the clients

because our main purpose is to teach architecture students

about building.

It's not really to save anybody, anything like that.

And so we're always really felt thankful

that we're part of,

you know the West Alabama tri county area

out here in Hale County so...

- So like when students first arrive.

What is the beginning?

What is the like first day like?

- We design that carefully.

And it's been kind of the same way for many years.

We call it neck down work.

So we have a week, it's a workweek.

We call it neck down.

'Cause we're not asking you to think.

We're gonna ask you to think the rest of the time.

But for that first week,

you know, you're doing a lot of just work.

Getting your hands dirty.

And we do, we fix some of our older projects

that maybe need a little work.

We do projects around our own campus.

And it's also an opportunity for the third year students

to get to know the fifth year students.

And then we set about with the design problems

that we've set forth.

And my students, we build a house.

So that's kind of in a,

and then in a nutshell what the semester is like.

And then in the second semester,

my students we finished building house.

I can get one done in about nine months if we have no rain.

Which is, you know, not possible.

- Yeah.

So do it's, those third years that come in,

do they have building experience before they get here?

- Usually no.

We, and you will not believe how quickly they learn.

Most of 'em have really never learned to,

never used a drill before.

So we start from learning to use drills and saws.

To completing an entire house.

And it's an amazing amount of learning

that happens in a short period of time.

And it happens every time.

They are eager, they work so hard

and it's just a lot of fun to see,

you know people grow and find things that they love doing.

- Why is hands-on experience so important?

- Until you get into the field and put what,

put sheathing on a building,

figure out how to attach the sill plate to the slab.

Those, the things that were once just drawings

are now real things in your mind.

And it, I believe makes it makes me a better designer.

And I think that's kind of the,

that is the intention of a design/build program.

Now, architecture students need all sorts of lessons.

It's not just...

Design build is one of many types of ways of learning.

We can't do what we do,

without the professors on main campus

who are teaching the students about the assemblies.

About the paper stuff on the paper

before they come out to us to practice that.

So it's a cycle of, you know, learning from a book,

learning from a lecture.

And then coming out and hearing that reiterated to you

and then getting to practice it.

And then going back to main campus

and then having this,

you know go at it yourself and putting it on paper.

So we, Real Studio is nothing without all of the professors

back on main campus as well and the lessons that they teach.

So we're just part of a system cycle of learning--

- Ecosystem.

Thank you so much for your time.

I was very briefly an architecture student.

I wanna see what I missed.

Can you show me around campus?

- I would love to Jackie.

Let's go.

Reminisce about the--

- The Rural Studio campus

is a sprawling compound of work sites,

administrative buildings,

student housing and a working farm.

Where much of the food for lunch today was grown.

(upbeat music)

While we take a minute to grab a bite with students,

check out Lo Harris.

An illustrator from Birmingham, now living in Brooklyn.

- Alright.

My name is Lauren Lo Harris.

I'm an illustrator

and animator currently based in Brooklyn, New York.

In my practice, I like to focus on joy,

confidence, humanity.

And I like to use, you know, very strong figures

and relational compositions to sort of imagine

more just a kind world.

There's this element of vibrant of color

and characters are very, very strong in my work.

(upbeat music)

I did not study hard.

I am a self-taught artist.

I've always been interested in draw art.

I remember when my dad first got one

of those fatback computers.

I would be on Microsoft Paint all the time.

Just like trying to paint a way with my little mouse.

I never really considered my art form to be that serious

or to be something that could become my career one day.

I thought more that way about creative writing.

Because that's what I was trained in.

And I had that confidence.

So I ended up going off to college to study journalism.

I for the last year or so had been working

in the major news organization in this high,

you know, high stress environment.

Trying to cover the news while you're in New York City

where there's like a whole curfew.

And there are fireworks popping all the time.

And to hear George Floyd dying in your ear over and over

and then to still have to look at,

you know, your coworkers and look at your boss

and be like everything is fine.

To pretend like this conversation about my humanity,

was something that I could be unfazed by.

You know, that's, that was kind of the pushing point for me.

That was kind of the point

in which I drew my peace, Justice.

That piece is very emblematic of that specific time

where we are both in protest and also in a pandemic.

So I want my work to kind of exist in a space where,

we are acutely aware of what's going on.

I want the audience to recognize and appreciate a sense

of joy in spite of the chaos of the world.

Not in ignorance of the chaos or the world.

Although like trauma and pain is a part of the narrative

of what it is to be black and in America,

I am very purposeful in being one of the storytellers

of, you know the other aspect of, the hey like,

here's the joyous side.

Like there's a complex humanity

that goes into that narrative

and not to even discredit the other side of the narrative.

But I think that what I'm doing

is an equal contribution to the full story.

(upbeat music)

Companies and brands and folks kept coming up to me

and asking more about my work.

And, you know, it got to a point where I felt confident

in my ability to kind of fly on my own.

And this is the space.

This is the calling that allows me to actually use my voice

in the way that it was meant to be used.

All of the experiences that I've had actually

all come together in this perfect circle.

Every skill where I thought,

"Oh maybe I should do this instead."

Is helping me in some way as a part of this.

And I think that it's so fantastic

and so wild that the (indistinct) works that way because,

not only, you know, wasn't I interested in creative writing.

So I do have the ability to convey my words in writing.

But like I also went to this journalism school

and I understand the importance

of really getting to the point.

And, you know, cutting out the fat.

And what's the lead of what I'm trying to do here.

Marketing has definitely helped frame the way that I think

about where my heart stands in the industry.

My interest in digital storytelling animation.

Working as an animator,

has definitely, you know contributed

to the ways in which I decided to put things together.

Like all of these things come together so beautifully.

I felt like,

"Man, if I don't make this decision and do this,

"it would be kind of like the universe

"giving me like free ice cream and me saying no."

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I've gradually been able to push myself.

To create things that would have otherwise intimidated me

as an artist

Drawing backgrounds, drawing objects,

drawing animals, building my universe.

I have this hashtag Lo Harris universe.

I'm obsessed with the idea of exploring the boundaries

and the world that my style can create.

You know, like piece by piece

and just venturing further into that world.

You know, what a donut in "The Simpsons" will look like.

You don't have to, you know, wait for them to dry.

Like you kind of you kind of put this in the style

is so distinctive, so potent.

That you understand how they would go about that.

I want to be able to have that same

sort of like universe and place where people can really

kind of understand how my work works.

And you know they can see my work applied in a variety

of different mediums.

Whether it's printed materials or video games.

Or amusement parks.

You know, when I figure out

how to draw something in my style, I'm like,

"Oh I understand that now.

"Now we have trees."

My work is very approachable.

There is a, there is this invitation, there is this form.

There is this sort of like southern hospitality

that is implied.

You know, I often like to think about how

the characters relate to each other and to the viewer.

So there's just this Alabama.

This southern warmth that is prevalent

in you know everything I do

that underscores my own personality.

People assume that creative work is easy.

If creative work was easy,

we would have many more beautiful things to be looking at.

Let me tell you that.

But people assume that creative work is easy.

And they assume that it's, you know, not worth as much.

You know what I mean?

Because you're not, you know, an engineer or a doctor.

Is sometimes it's just simply out of ignorance.

It's not even gonna be out of,

you know, a predatory sort of intention, right?

Sometimes you just have to kindly educate a client

and say, "Hey, this is how I work.

"Here's a contract.

"I'm in business.

"You know, here are the terms of this contract.

"Including the revisions."

Including you know, "If you have any other revisions

"beyond this point here's a fee."

And that really kind of gets them to say,

"Oh, snap!"

You know, "This is serious.

"And I need to be specific about what I'm asking for.

"And I need to respect this person's time."

I don't think that it has to be all consuming.

I don't think that you have to say yes to everything.

I don't think that you have to work for free

or work for little to no pay.

Or work for exposure.

(upbeat music)

Use your voice

and if you're someone who has a very big voice,

you can also use your voice to make space

for other people's voices who need to be heard.

(upbeat music)

- And we're back.

We are here with Associate Director, Rusty Smith.

At Rural Studio.


- Thanks for having us.

- Yeah.

So tell us about how you ended up here.

- That's a great question.

There's a lot of answers to that.

But one of the most instructive ways to kind of talk

about it was through the lens of the needs

of the professional program of architecture

and what both D.K Ruth and Sam Mockbee

when they founded the program.

Sort of what they began to understand

was one of the real emerging professional needs.

To think about the professionalism of a lawyer.

You know, the sort of the right to equal representation.

In this country is ensconced in our constitution.

In medicine, if you think about that,

you know, sort of a doctor with,

they're driving down the road and they see an accident

on the side of the road.

It's not a moral or ethical responsibility.

It's actually a professional responsibility.

They could lose their license if they don't stop and help

when they see people in crisis.

(bright upbeat music)

- It was right at this moment that we felt the first drops

of rain from a sudden heavy shower that came out of nowhere.

(rain pouring)

The folks at Rural Studio were nice enough

to let us take cover inside Morrisette House.

To finish our interview.

(upbeat music)

And so we get caught in the rain.

We're inside of Morrisette House now.

And we were talking about professionalism in the field.

- Yeah.

So, yeah, so one of the fundamental goals

when the program started was to,

you know, sort of think about architects

in this kind of professional responsibility to act.

And it's this kind of fundamental notion

that equitable access to good, healthy places to live

and work is an inalienable human right.

- So those founding principles that you mentioned.

How does that translate

or how does that shape the way

Rural Studio thinks about housing.

- Oh, that's a great question.

The, it's changed a lot over the years

because we've learned a lot over the years.

And we continue to learn

how complex a nested up of an issue

housing access and affordability really are.

And so yes, the cost of housing.

What it costs to build is really important.

And we focus on that.

We continue to focus on that

in our housing affordability work.

But anything that we can do, in the larger system

of procurement of the housing

that can also make that home more energy efficient.

More durable and resilient.

Lead to better long-term health outcomes for our families

and strengthen the, those community and family networks

that our families live in.

Those are really the four areas where we can really

begin to start addressing housing affordability

in a real, really meaningful and impactful way.

And that's what we attempt to do through Rural Studio's

Front Porch Initiative.

Which is the program which takes our housing affordability

research that started all those years ago

through the sort of really naive,

but instrumentally important program

that we call the 20K house initiative.

That was really solely focused

on what it costs to build a home.

We're now working with partners more broadly

in the areas of primary finance, secondary finance,

energy performance, insurance, durability and resilience

and even the healthcare industries.

To really begin to understand the larger constellation

that housing operates within.

And understanding that system of procurement

in a comprehensive way to address these,

you know, systemic challenges to access and affordability,

is really the goal of that program.

- What communities do you operate in?

Like, so Front Porch Initiative

isn't just in Hale County, is that correct?

- Right.

Well, so this is, there's actually one place

that we don't operate.

So it's a, Front Porch Initiative works everywhere

outside of the kind of the 25 mile radius

that Rural Studio works in.

Front Porch Initiative takes those housing products

that have been designed here by students.

And we take those products and offer technical assistance

to other housing providers.

So they build the homes themselves.

We offer the the sort of the plans,

the drawings, the processes and working with those partners

to make sure that the way they procure that home,

is really strengthening the community.

- Well, thank you for having us here

and sharing the Front Porch Initiative with us.

- You're very welcome.

We really appreciate the interest.

It's been a real pleasure having you guys join us.

- And thank you for joining us.

To close out our show,

we'll visit an artist just down the road in Greensboro.

(bright upbeat music)

- People have a connection with textiles.

They have a knowledge of what textiles are.

They know about quilts.

They know about clothing or garments.

Using that familiarity is a great way of using textiles

to reach people really easily.

(bright upbeat music)

I think a lot of mediums have a lot of gatekeepers

where it's a little bit difficult

to find information out about processes,

especially with dyeing and botanical things.

And none of this is being done in a vacuum.

There's a whole community of people doing this work.

I think the broader that community is the best way possible.

I think teaching is one way

of kind of increasing that community.

I started teaching fairly quickly.

When I started natural naturally dyeing,

dyeing with indigo especially.

I was able to travel

and like meet interesting people every weekend.

Who were really diligent about doing,

about hand sewing and about dyeing.

And so I would teach either quilt making

or natural dyeing or hand sewing,

or sometimes multi-day workshops that would be,

day one, you dye your fabric.

Day two you use that fabric, you dyed to make a quilt.

So it'd be pretty like intensive workshops.

And when you're someone who's gonna spend,

you know, 5 1/2 hours a day hand sewing

that's a very specific kind of person.

And so when you're able to just surround yourself

with those people,

it's kind of a magical thing.

And also I love teaching for that reason.

And also I think teaching is a great way

of getting really good at something relatively quickly.

I think that you sort of encounter any kind

of issue you could encounter with something

when you're teaching.

And so you're really good at troubleshooting

within that medium.

I think teaching will always be,

some kind of part of what I do.

I try to tell people that it's all like the process.

You know it's not about,

people always ask like, "What do you do with it afterwards?"

And it's like, you don't have to do anything with it.

You know, you don't have to make a full quilt.

You don't have to make a full stitch tablecloth

or you know, you can just make these things

and put them in a drawer and it's gonna be okay too.

'Cause you because you spent that time actually doing them.

And then and your life's gonna improve in ways

from spending that time, making that work.

When I spend more time

doing that intimate kind of hand stitching work.

I make better decisions,

'cause I think more about what I'm doing.

I have a much better tendency

of planning things a bit better.

And I think that every kind of aspect

of that, in that way of my life kind of improves

when I spend a lot of time hand stitching.

I think if more people took that time of hand stitching

or whatever that kind of handcraft is,

just for like 20 minutes a day.

I think people would be sort of surprised by the clarity

they got from that.

(bright upbeat music)

We moved to Greensboro a little over two years ago now

from Nashville.

For me and my partner, Tim, he's a musician.

And we really wanted to have time to devote to our work.

Really kind of wholeheartedly.

And we wanted to our work to reflect that.

And we knew we weren't gonna have the time to do that

in Nashville because the cost of living was just so high.

And so, and also I was teaching a lot of workshops

on the road and he was always traveling to tour.

So we were paying a lot of rent

for a place we didn't really live that much.

I think that Greensboro is a surprisingly,

interesting diverse community.

More so than I think people might anticipate

when they see sort of just a surface level

kind of view of it.

And I think that we've been really fortunate to be here.

I think that at this point,

I don't know that I could live anywhere else at this point.

(bright upbeat music)

So I've always wanted to have some sort of public space

since I knew you could have a public space.


I think initially it was more of just a traditional gallery

space in my mind years ago.

That's I think what led me to kind of more,

behind scene (indistinct).

We're sort of figuring out

like how that part of things worked.

(bright upbeat music)

Part of what I really wanted to do

was I really believe in the,

like the vocational potential of making art.

I think that it's,

I think people should be paid for making work.

And I think it's something that you,

can be paid for if you really work at it.

And I think if you know the right,

if you're taught, if you're exposed

to the right sort of system of doing that.

And so I really wanted to blend

to that sort of local creative economy.

By having a space for people to sell their work.

And to see work for sale

and to get just the familiarity

with more of like a broader art market as well.

But initially to that, there's also a gallery space.

So there's no,

you know, there's no requirement for like commerce either.

You can just walk in and like see beautiful things.

And experience and if you wanna take something home,

you can.

But you also can just take home that you know,

what you learned that day by seeing a natural dyer,

by seeing a demonstration of quilting

or whatever I'm working on in the studio space as well.

(bright upbeat music)

The real goal is to be able to have a workshop

meet here in the studio space.

Walk down to the garden space,

harvest from the garden,

and then walk back here

and make dye from what they just harvested.

(bright upbeat music)

So the full sort of experience of seeing something

from like ground to cloth.

I think is a pretty,

it can be a pretty transformative experience.

So I liked the idea of being able to do it all.

In like two square block in Hale County, in Greensboro.

When you live in a small community,

you really, you feel like you're a part of

like a living community.

You see impacts of your decisions in real time.

You see like businesses get supported and succeed

or you see businesses not get supported and not succeed.

And you see all that happen.

I think in a much more direct way

than you might see in a bigger city.

And I think that there's always been an impetus for success

in a big city to, in a bigger metropolitan area

to establish success for an artist or for a musician

or someone like that.

And I think that that's changing, I think kind of slowly.

But I think that part of moving here

was just like a shift and the idea of being productive is

and what being successful is.

And being fulfilled is

and the south has been frequently mined for it's resources

versus being sort of invested in.

And I think that those tides are slowly turning

I think in a broader sort of way.

I think we're in for kind of a wild ride.

I think it's good.

I think it's gonna be good in a small town

to cross the Black Belt.

(upbeat music)


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