Power tool drag racing revs up youth about skilled trades through art

In the spirit of hit TV shows such as “Holmes on Homes”, “Pimp My Ride” and “Monster Garage”, an unusual after-school program – Power Tool Drag Racing – is cruising into the University Heights community in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood with the help of York. The University’s Department of Visual Arts and the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) have teamed up with community groups and tradespeople for this artist-led project that blurs the boundaries between creative practices and the skilled trades.

The project brings 14 young people aged 10 to 14 from the Jane and Finch Boys & Girls Club to York’s campus for six weeks of workshops. The students will work collaboratively in two teams to soup up and trick out a collection of everyday power tools such as drills and belt sanders, transforming them into customized AC-powered rides.

Right: From left, Bill Thorne, a teacher from Westview Centennial Secondary School, machine designer Colin Harry, workshop participants from the Jane & Finch Boys & Girls Club and guest artist Michael Murphy.

The project culminates in the Power Tool Drag Race Grand Prix taking place Tuesday, May 25, in the parking lot of the Yorkgate Mall. Everyone is welcome to join the teams in cheering on their dragsters as they navigate the challenging race circuit – a specially constructed 50-foot wooden ramp. In keeping with a sport known for amp-cranking speed and style, awards will be given for speed, crowd hype and ride appeal.

Following the race, the students will present an exhibition of their dragsters, concept and design drawings, the official track and Power Tool Drag Racing handbooks at Ms. Lube, an all-female automotive service centre on Bathurst Street.

The weekly workshops started April 13 and will continue to May 18 in the sculpture studio in the Faculty of Fine Arts. Lead instructors are Professor Brandon Vickerd, a sculptor and installation artist, and Toronto-based sculptor Mike Murphy. They are guiding the youth in all aspects of the project, from shop safety protocols and design strategies to racer construction, testing and problem-solving. Trades professionals have been invited to visit the studio to share their expertise in everything from power tool operation tips to airbrushing techniques.

“As high-school tech training and home economics departments decline, it’s more important than ever to underscore the benefits of tactile learning experiences, and art is a great way to do that,” says Vickerd. “While they’re learning to handle the kinds of power tools found in many homes and workplaces, the young people in these workshops are also exercising their creativity and driving the traditions of mixed media and kinetic sculpture in new directions.”

Left: From left, artist Michael Murphy, Maggie Flynn, a student in York’s Community Arts Practice program, workshop participants and visual arts Professor Brandon Vickerd

Vickerd’s own artistic practice bridges high art, technology and popular culture, drawing influences from such diverse subjects as heavy metal music and comic books. Among his recent works was Dance of the Cranes, a performance piece commissioned for the 2009 Scotiabank Nuit Blanche that featured a 13-minute choreographed "dance" performed by two highrise construction cranes.

Steven Laurie, the AGYU’s education and collections assistant, is the mastermind behind the project. A sculptor and performance artist fascinated with "hyper-masculinity", whose work often features some combination of burning rubber, engine revving and stereo thumping, he conceived of power tool drag racing as the perfect vehicle to engage local youth.

In devising the project, Laurie built on the success of his previous community outreach project integrating arts and science: a hands-on educational resource program he developed to enhance students’ experience of his 2008 solo show Art of the Motor at Whitby’s Station Gallery. This new project extends both the concept and the community connections.

“By taking power tools outside of their usual context, we want to demonstrate how creative and challenging careers in the skilled trades can be,” Laurie says. “It’s a hands-on, fun project that has some serious skills development behind it, from physics and engineering to business, marketing and contemporary art. And having professional tradespeople and artists on site to give presentations about their work and the tools they use helps the students connect the dots between the power tool project and potential career choices.”

Right: Workshop participants gather around one of their creations

York’s partners include the Community Arts Practice program, the York University-TD Community Engagement Centre, Office of University Events & Community Relations and Campus Services & Business Operations. Community partners in the Power Tool Drag Racing project include the Black Creek Community Capacity Building Groups, Elements and PEACH (Promoting Economic Action and Community Health). Partners from trade and business include Joey and Mike Fernandez, owners and operators of Daredevil Customs; Ms. Lube owner Jessica Gilbank; mechanical engineer Colin Harry; independent contractor Paul Horrigan; and teacher and trades professional Bill Thorne.

The Grand Prix will take place Tuesday, May 25 with test trials at 4:30pm, qualifiers at 5pm and awards at 6pm in the north end of the parking lot of Yorkgate Mall, at the northwest corner of Jane Street and Finch Avenue.

The exhibition of dragsters, design and production journals will take place upstairs at Ms. Lube, 499 Bathurst St. at College, starting Friday, June 4, at 6:30pm and running until June 17. The exhibition hours are Monday to Friday, from 9am to 6pm and Saturday, from 10am to 4pm.