Winnebago Workshop puts young artists on the road to discovery

Arts / Article

Photos via Little Brown Mushroom. Video via Kickstarter.

Saint Paul’s Little Brown Mushroom publishing house has a history of providing young creative types with new artistic vehicles, but never one as literal as The Winnebago Workshop project. The latest venture from acclaimed photographer Alec Soth and the organization is an “art school on wheels,” a refurbished RV where teen artists from all over the world can collaborate on projects, live as a community and bring their work to people who might otherwise never see it. The Knight-funded project recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help bring in students, recruit artists and mentors, keep the engine running and otherwise get the show on the road.

As so often happens, the inspiration for the Winnebago Workshop sprang from another artistic endeavor. “A number of years ago, I did a collaborative photography project with four other photographers and a writer in which we drove from Texas to California,” said Soth. “I ended up buying an RV for the trip. It was an incredible experience. There was so much creative energy being on the road together and I learned a ton.”

Once Soth had the vehicle in mind, it didn’t take long for him to decide how to use it, and what kind of artists he wanted to attract. “A couple of years ago I gave a lecture at a local high school. To be honest, I sort of dreaded it. I figured the students wouldn’t be interested. But it turned out they were bubbling with enthusiasm. This experience reminded me of when I was younger, and so inspired by artists who worked on the road. So I put two and two together and came up with this idea.”

Much of Soth’s recent work with Little Brown Mushroom has focused on photography and other visual art as a storytelling medium, specifically the idea that art forms often thought of as non-narrative can still tell powerful stories. As he’s explored this concept from various angles, he’s pulled together unlikely collaborators from a broad range of artistic and personal backgrounds. Attendees of 2013’s Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers at the group’s Saint Paul studio, for instance, included writers, photographers and filmmakers from as far away as Germany and Venezuela.

As the “Socially Awkward” moniker suggests, Soth is well aware that this type of close collaboration doesn’t always come easily for these artists. “One of my goals with this project is to create a platform for artists who normally work in solitude to collaborate and do live events. So I’d like to bring in writers, illustrators, photographers, painters, video artists and so on. I like the idea of these kinds of artists getting to access the energy of the performing arts.”

If populating an RV with a menagerie of far-flung artists, some of whom wouldn’t necessarily call themselves storytellers, for the express purpose of telling stories sounds like a volatile proposition, that’s part of the point. Soth is a great believer in unpredictability as a font of art. “I’ve been involved with a number of ‘pop-up’ art projects over the last five years,” he said, “And I’ve learned that what makes these events successful is spontaneity. That is more important than balance. Unlike a book or exhibition that you spend years tweaking, a project like this is simply about sharing creative energy with each other and with the audience.”

So will the Winnebago Workshop be rolling into your neighborhood in the near future? Your guess is as good as Soth’s. In keeping with his philosophy of spontaneity, he plans to let the adventure unfold in classic road trip fashion. “A big part of the fun of going out on the road is creating the itinerary. I don’t want to take that away from the teens. I want to work together to find our path.”

The Winnebago Workshop is now raising funds on Kickstarter. Visit their page and contribute.