Block Studio Project

When Mat Somlai moved to Minneapolis from Wisconsin, he had decided that he would ease into community involvement this time. It would be a temporary break, but a necessary one. Mat had found himself spending over 60 hours a week running a Zen Center based in Wisconsin—one of the last such centers in the nation to be free and open to the public. After spending long hours to maintain the cost-free structure of the center for little to no pay, Mat had become burned out. He determined it was time for a change.

The retreat was short-lived. His local neighborhood group, the Logan Park Neighborhood Association, held an open house over the summer and was soliciting ideas from community members. Back in Wisconsin, Mat had centered his life around a dedication to community. After he took over running the Center from his parents, who founded it, Mat started an artist co-op. The co-op would freely supply all the materials, provided that participants make two versions of their creation—one for themselves, and one for the co-op to sell to fund the venture.

His inspiration for the Block Studio Project sprung from the ethos of the co-op. The Block Studios resemble Little Free Libraries—the book exchanges that resemble giant bird-houses planted in front yards. Instead of books though, Mat’s Block Studios contain art supplies. People can give and take materials from the box as they please. They can make their art there, take the supplies home, or even decorate the box itself.

Photo credit: Mat Somlai
Photo credit: Mat Somlai

Each studio has a different medium, and Mat encourages its owner to customize it based on their own interests and background. One studio recipient focused his on word poetry magnets because he works in that industry.

Mat has each owner commit to resupplying the studio when it starts running low. They also agree to occasionally host twenty-minute walk-up workshops where they host a showcase of art created using the Block Studio, or a how-to session for the community.

While Mat spends significant time preparing each box, even he doesn’t know where the studio will lead. Once, Mat noticed the studio in front his own house was repeatedly getting emptied, week after week. He eventually noticed the same two girls going up to the box and walking off with the materials inside. Rather than assume nefarious motivations, Mat caught up with them and said he hoped they were enjoying the box, but asked if they knew they were depriving others from that opportunity. No, they hadn’t thought about it that way, and yes, they’d be happy to leave some of their creations and be more conscientious about taking the materials.

Even then, Mat took it mostly as a positive sign that people were making art. It can be difficult to start a project that entirely relies on the goodness in people. Even the best ideas can buckle under the pressure of imagined negative consequences. He gets a lot of questions about graffiti, but he shrugs them off. What’s graffiti if not art? Mat identified in himself an inclination to be academic—to have a plan for all potential outcomes—but said his mother drilled in him a spirit of creativity and spontaneity. He recognizes now that intentions and consequences rarely align, and that’s okay—part of the process, in fact. The perfect is the enemy of the good. The Block Studios are vessels for the serendipitous and unintended happy accidents of life.

If you’re wondering about how to get your own Block Studio though, you might have to wait. He received $5,000 from the Logan Park Neighborhood Association to initiate the project and furnish ten homeowners with a Block Studio. He estimates each one takes about fifteen hours to make, place, stock, and help the hosts come up with a design. With help from a friend, Micah Speigle, he’s completed the first ten Block Studios for Logan Park, but he’s still working on finding families interested in hosting one them. Before moving on to a new neighborhood, he wants to distribute all the Logan Park studios.b

Photo credit: Mat Somlai
Photo credit: Mat Somlai

What he doesn’t want is for this to become a fad. He could ramp up production of the studios, market them more heavily, and sell them across the Twin Cities. They’d certainly be a huge hit in Northeast Minneapolis, where the arts are so heavily revered. He was skeptical though about the long-term sustainability of mass-producing the Studios. Would people actually care about them in the long-term as a tool to build community and create art? Or would they have them just to have them—a hot commodity destined to fade into obscurity? He wants them to spread by intentional, yet organic and sustainable process. Word of mouth is best. Having more studios, he said, isn’t necessarily better.

Despite the idea’s immense popularity, Mat has been surprised by what he sees as a reluctance to accept what’s being given freely. There seems to be an expectation of a defect, a “ok, but what’s the catch?”-moment when given the opportunity to receive or make something at no cost.

Mat firmly believes in the efficacy in giving something away—especially art. “If you’re creative, that changes the world,” he said. “Maybe not in a big way, but if it can affect your life or someone else’s, that’s worth it.”