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MECA Students 'Sell' Art in Exchange for Community Service
12/18/2012   Reported By: Tom Porter

With Christmas fast approaching, a group of Maine art students is putting a new spin on what it means to give, and to receive. The Maine College of Art in Portland was the setting for a recent so-called "Yankee Swap Pop-Up Shop," where students are "selling" their art work - but instead of dollars and cents, the currency here is community service. Tom Porter has more.

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MECA Students 'Sell' Art in Exchange for Community Listen

Paul Gephardt

"Well, it's part of a program - a new minor at MECA called public engagement," says Paul Gebhardt (above), visiting professor at Maine College of Art, or MECA.

He's standing in a makeshift art gallery next door to MECA in downtown Portland. Posters, prints and t-shirts are on display around him on tables and on the wall. In one corner of the room a student turns a potter's wheel, making ceramic art.

Niki TaylorAll this stuff is on offer, but not for a monetary price. Students taking his public engagement - or "Art in the Community" - class, put together this pop-up shop to address issues of consumerism and consumer activism - students like Dan Heutz.

"It was a class project - we came up with this idea," he says. "And we kind of wanted to bring awareness to the consumerism and things that kind of surround the holidays, and we kind of wanted to bring some of the good intentions back into it."

Professor Paul Gebhardt explains how it works. "The idea is that if you want to buy any of these locally hand-made artist pieces, you can give half the amount of time of that it took the artist to make the project to something in your life."

He says you can donate time to your family, to your friends, or to a non-profit. "If you want a t-shirt that took four hours to make, you can commit two hours of time someplace in your life," Gebhardt says.

MECAAnd that's exactly what Dan Gardner did. "I think it's a great idea," he says. "I think it's an interesting way to get people involved in giving back to their community. The community gets something, the community members get a piece of art work so it's a win-win for everybody."

The 31-year-old Portland resident has just been photographed holding a whiteboard. On it are the words "I pledge 2 hours of youth mentoring." This image will be posted to the event's Facebook page, partly as a way of reminding the art-purchasers of their commitment.

Gardner already volunteers in the community - this transaction means he's going to be busier than usual for the next few days. "I mentor with 'Big Brothers Big Sisters' so I'll put in an extra few hours this week," he says.

Tom Porter: "So every time someone closes a deal, they hold up a board saying what they plan to do, and that's kind of their way of making sure that they don't forget."

Dan Gardner: "Right - holding me accountable."

Stopping by with her husband, Sue Chase has her eye on a small child's t-shirt with original artwork on the front depicting a rising sun. In return for the item, she's going to put in a couple of hours at a soup kitchen.

"Christmas has become so much about commercialism and materialism," she says, "and people go out and they spend all this money that they don't really need to spend, on stuff that people already have, because they feel like they have to give. But this way, they can still get a gift, they're supporting local artists and they're supporting the community, or wherever they volunteer."

As well as helping those in need, paying for something in volunteer hours, she says, gives you more appreciation of the effort that's gone into creating an object. And, as one student here pointed out, it sounds a lot more interesting than simply saying, "I bought it at Target."

Photos by Tom Porter.


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