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Artists pool ideas and build Chocolate Cake Design Collective

Graduating college, particularly for those in the arts or humanities, is a daunting transition. We’re facing economic challenges that previous young graduates rarely had to confront. It’s discouraging sometimes, yes. But I don’t buy that we are a generation “completely devoid of dreams” as my fellow Detroit Unspun contributor Karen Dybis said in her recent post … and I venture to say that neither do the group of college grads who just launched the Chocolate Cake Design Collective.

It would be tedious for me to spell out every SOUP micro funding group, hackerspace, knitting circle, community garden, and book club in metro Detroit built and sustained largely by 20-somethings. I see where Karen is coming from. I’m just saying there’s way more to the picture… and there are more ways of measuring community engagement than tallying who’s buying a home or starting a family.

As Karen’s post came out, I was interviewing a group of artists at the Chocolate Cake Design Collective (CCDC) who exemplify this.

Photo courtesy of CCDC

Navigating post-grad life, especially around this economy, takes a little compromise, a lot of imagination. And, like CCDC members have found, there’s strength in numbers and collaboration. Several months ago the group set out to rehabilitate the old Toy Factory on 6 Mile and Van Dyke and turn it into a studio and maker space.

“When a lot of us got closer to graduation there was talk about how much we liked to work with each other on projects and collaborate in school and whatnot,” member Danielle Denha recalls. “We started having meetings every week and then after a few months, whoever was willing to take the chance we decided to move forward with it.”

They moved into what they affectionately call their “leaky tree house” in July, 2011. Since then they’ve since worked to restore it to good use, replacing the boards on the windows and cleaning up the century-old floors. The 12,000 square feet of space has afforded several artists the ability to work at a very large scale. “That was part of the allure,” member Katie Bramlage says. “I’ve personally taken on things that I never could before in a dining room.” You can find her mammoth cardboard tube installation on display at COLORS Restaurant.

So while the space still is not yet outfitted for all of their equipment (they’re having problems with the electricity and their kilns), they acknowledge this as their humble beginnings and have sprawling, big plans for the future.

“We all agreed we want a maker space and a place to create work. All of us have different goals in mind for the long term, but I don’t think anyone here would disagree with those goals,” Denha says. “My idea is to work with students and young children, bring them in and show them how art is made and broaden their world a little bit.”

Photo courtesy of CCDC

Member Matt Arnold is interested in expanding the space into a community studio and residency program. “I’d love to take on people right post college and offer them a year of a place to work while they build up their work and maybe get their own studio started,” he says.

For the time being, however, there’s more than access to studio space and equipment. The CCDC allows artists to get the word around about their work. “All of our contacts grew tenfold,” Denha insists. “Just trying to find a space has allowed me to meet a lot of new people.”

“This has been something a lot of us have always wanted to do,” Arnold adds. “In terms of experience in starting something, we all work for businesses that have already started… so here we’re really learning what it takes to start a business.”

Some members have backgrounds in civil engineering or business administration. Others are skilled in certain mediums or crafts, but they say their aim is to teach each other and fill the gaps in their collective knowledge.

“The thing that’s so awesome about going to school in the creative community is that you’re feeding off all the other departments. You’re even feeding off other people in your department,” Bramlage says. “Hopefully, the less narrow your niche is the more creative your work is. I think that’s what’s cool about Detroit, too, is that you’re blending in a bigger scale, post-industrial landscape with a tiny little grass roots movement, where there are enough cracks in the pavement for the small stuff to start blooming.”

“That’s the mantra of Detroit.” Nicky Intalan adds. “It’s community over individual now and that’s what will drive us forward.”

Now how’s that for community engagement?

Deferred … maybe … but we are not a generation devoid of dreams. See Langston Hugh’s1951 poem, Harlem, “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun / …Maybe it just sags like a heavy load / Or does it explode?” I’ve seen more than my fair share of creative and collaborative explosion. Let’s hope this energy is contagious.

To keep up with or contact the Chocolate Cake Design Collective, visit their website.

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