Interview by Matthew Wein

Like a lot of recent college graduates, Siena Baldi works multiple jobs. She teaches art at West Liberty University in West Virginia and the TechShop in Pittsburgh, and has a day job with an IT company in Wheeling, WV. Unlike most recent grads, though, Baldi is the executive director of her own non-profit — a venture she started with nothing more than an empty house and a big idea.

Baldi took a decaying family home in the Martins Ferry, Ohio and turned it into the MITCH Collective, a burgeoning artists’ colony that’s brining new ideas about art and community engagement to the Ohio Valley, just 65 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

Baldi spoke with The Sprout Fund about the MITCH Collective’s origins and the upcoming Insta-Tangram community art printing project, which involves large-scale printmaking, town picnics and steamrollers.

What is the MITCH Collective and how did it start?

The MITCH Collective comes from my grandfather’s name, which was Mitch Wozniak. It stands for the Mastering Innovation Technology and Creativity Home. Its hub is his old home, the house where my mother grew up in Martins Ferry, Ohio. When my grandparents died and she inherited it, my family lived in Chicago, so we had a property manager local to Martins Ferry looking after it. To say he didn’t do a great job is a bit of an understatement. It was basically a huge money pit and was going to be burned down.

About two-and-a-half years ago, when I was a senior at Washington University in Saint Louis, the house had been vacant for a while. So four of my friends from school and I started kicking around the idea of taking some time after graduation to work on the house.

Just after graduation, I moved with two friends to Martins Ferry for the summer and we worked on the house and started the non-profit.  Every single room needed work. So we’ve been whittling away on that for about two-and-a-half years, and we’ve been doing programming for a year now.

So the whole thing started simply because you had a house?

Exactly. It’s sort of strange because I was coming from St. Louis, which has a great arts community. Some people there found out about the project and asked, “Why don’t you do that here?” I said, “Well, I don’t have a house here, I have a house in the Ohio Valley.”

And there’s already so much going on in St. Louis that it makes more sense to try and start something in an area that has some stuff going for it, but isn’t an area known for its cultural activity.

What’s the mission of the MITCH Collective?

We’re dedicated to enriching the community in the Ohio Valley through fostering an ongoing dialogue between local residents and visiting artists, and we’re very interested in promoting sustainability and creativity.

We’re also 100 percent volunteer-run. We don’t have any paid staff. I’m the executive director right now, and I’m trying to focus my attention on building up our residency program. That’s what interests me right now, because it’s something that one person can manage.

How did the Insta-Tangram project come about?

I’d been hearing a lot about these steamroller printing events at outdoor festivals, and part of my background is in printmaking. If you ask someone in the Ohio Valley about art, you’ll wind up talking a lot about drawing and painting. Printmaking is a little more foreign to people around here.

I thought a lot about how to make woodcuts interactive instead of just static images. It hit me that by using these tangram shapes, we could create multiple pieces that could be rearranged.

Instead of using plain shapes that might go in a regular tangram, we’re having designs cut into them. Twenty different organizations from school groups to individual artists, all local to the Martins Ferry area, submitted designs. We translated their drawings with a computer program and created woodcuts of them using a laser cutter, which we did at the TechShop in Pittsburgh.

Once you rearrange them and print them, you’ll get this sort of abstract amalgamation of images.

So in addition to collaborative art, it’s kind of an event?

Absolutely. The reason steamroller printing events are gaining popularity around the country is that the process is kind of a spectacle.

At each of the two festivals, we’ll have a two-hour block where anyone can come up, and we’ll have teams of people that get to create a design from the woodcuts, arrange them and watch it get printed.

What are your goals for the future of the MITCH Collective?

My goal for the collective is to be a magnet for creativity in the Ohio Valley. I’d like to bring in a lot of different forces, be they resident artists or kids from after-school programs, and create a sort of collage of the area.

At its heart, MITCH is supposed to be about art and the community, so I’d like to do other types of projects to reflect that.

What role has Sprout Fund played in making the Insta-tangram project happen?

It would not be possible without The Sprout Fund. A great majority of our budget is from the Spark Award they gave us last fall, and their enthusiasm and encouragement have been instrumental. Sprout’s backing gives us a lot of credibility and has helped us get other grants as well.

 

The MITCH Collective will roll out its first Insta-tangram printmaking event on June 8 at the Martins Ferry Picnic in the Park from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. It will hold another at the same time on June 22 at the Wheeling Arts Fest.