Long before Steve Wood founded Concrete Couch in Colorado Springs, Colo., he was a rock-climbing artist, hands-on and heart-centered, an optimist willing to risk failure. He connected the dots of his personal passions.
Leading the 15-year-old arts and education organization that is Concrete Couch, Steve brings together the wise and the learning, the right and the left, the bold and those who need it in a community-lifting collaboration.
When Steve, 56, sat down with Humanitou, we talked about his eclectic skill set and his creative fearlessness, what makes a good teacher and what his legacy — after leading around 800 community art projects in the region and counting — really is about.
Humanitou: What is your life with art?
Steve: I’m the youngest of five. All my older brothers and sisters, in an effort to keep me out of their hair, would give me pencils and paint brushes, take a few minutes to get me set up, and then I was gone for hours.
My dad was a college professor but he did a lot of building and had a big garden. He was always fixing something. He had a nice little shop. I got used to tools being part of the repertoire of creating.
After going to Colorado College, I knew I was interested in art and geology, and somewhere in there, rock climbing. There’s connections.
I was making a living doing drawings of climbers, selling them to the climbing magazines. And I was making T-shirts. That’s not a fat living so I was looking for other things. I started teaching at Bemis Art School and also at Colorado Outward Bound school.
Humanitou: Tell me more about the climbing artwork.
Steve: I was making prints and T-shirts. That was pretty easy, because people were seeing the drawings in Climbing magazine, and Rock & Ice and Climbing Art, so they were familiar with them.
And the Mountain Chalet was selling T-shirts. That was cool. That was a part-time job, too. I never worked at the Mountain Chalet proper but they had me do their window displays, and I built little climber dioramas. That was for my habit. I got to buy all my climbing stuff there as trade-off for those projects.
Then, the Concrete Couch connection is Outward Bound. It’s trying to get different people from different backgrounds tools to work together, really to be successful in the world. The vehicle was the outdoors, mountaineering, climbing.
I think the goal really is a community-building goal. When you go back home are you going to have a larger circle, a bigger level of confidence and understanding about how you can work with others to do more stuff.
I wake up and I’ve got a mission. I don’t see it as a progressive or conservative or liberal agenda. I just see it as a human agenda.
That resonated with me and the breakthrough piece was I was teaching at Bemis and a flier came across my little cubby box. It was from John Ryan who ran the downtown bus terminal for Springs Transit. He said, “Hey, do a mural down here. There’s no stipend but we’ll buy all the paint.”
I thought it would be cool to do as a class. We painted this mural and I was hooked. It was a community process.
All the connections with people and getting lots of ideas, and how do you boil it down so your finished product isn’t like cottage cheese, a homogenized hundred ideas?
You draw out the best themes and the best visual images, and you combine them and end up with something that’s really cool. That was my taste of it and I thought, I’ve got to learn about this.
Humanitou: Community is central to what you and Concrete Couch do. Do you have any idea how many community projects you’ve led in this region?
Steve: Yeah, community is at the core of it all. We have like 800 projects in the whole 20-plus years (including before the founding of Concrete Couch) I’ve been doing the real focus of community projects.
It’s a whole range of things that connect like a web, that all tend to build on a core mission of building community.
If there was one way I was fired up about this, that would be great, but luckily Concrete Couch is a collective so there’s all different threads that have come in. They all help to weave together to make a stronger whole.
I’d say the main threads would be a creative element and, especially, construction projects. There’s so much creativity in building a house, say. There’s a million little steps you’ve got to think of. I’m not talking a Frank Gehry building, just nuts and bolts of putting things together and planning things out.
That leads into all these jobs training attributes that are just so cool. And it leads into the sharing of skills. You might have some old, cantankerous Vietnam vet that has not really that much interest in art but knows how to weld. Put him together with some kid that wants to learn how to weld to make a sculpture and you get this great interaction.
There’s the ability to make something that you contribute to the community. And that is so much like, I did all this work and now I’m giving it away. I think those are the things that you get the most out of, because you’re able to get feedback from people.
It’s out there, so it’s a little scary. There’s often fear with my school groups, like, “This a great site. Everyone’s going to see it. What if we screw up?”
A lot of kids say that, especially, the most at-risk kids that have had some experience with screwing up. It’s like, “No, we’re going to go through a process. It’s not all going to be easy but, I think, at the end we’re going to make something really awesome.”
Humanitou: There’s transformational power in this work.
Steve: Another one of those threads that’s really strong is sustainability. We like to use a lot of recycled materials, and we like to build with really simple things.
Once in a while, somebody’s like, “Oh, I should teach you guys how to use the CNC machine.” Don’t bother. These kids are never going to see another CNC machine.
If they go into the fabrication field, they may run a CNC machine everyday but, in general, I’d much rather teach them how to work with some hammers and drills, and use their imaginations and some recycled materials. Simple stuff.
“Inspire.” A community sculpture temporarily placed at the intersection of Hwy. 24 and 21st St. in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2018.
Another facet of sustainability is every community has all kinds of assets. Even in your most impoverished community there’s people with all these talents and skills and materials and tools. There’s all this stuff. There’s churches and all these affiliations.
People often tend to focus on the negative. There’s a long list of negatives. But if you come at it from the other way — What are the positives? — and try to lift those up, then you’re really building sustainability.
That extends to the students, to learning a little bit more and meeting their neighbors, and getting new skills. Then they have more sustainability.
Humanitou: Do you have a sense of legacy about this work, the lasting impact of the projects and the ripple effect of the community-building and teaching?
Steve: Right now, if you look at our society, we’re divided but we have so much more that connects us than separates us. Right now, people are drawing these really sharp lines. That’s not a good survival strategy. I’m sorry, it isn’t.
We’re fighting among ourselves? There’s enough real problems. We should be working together more. I know a lot of people on both sides, if we’re talking politically, who are really pessimistic about the world.
There’s a lot of things to be seriously bummed out about. But sitting around bitching about stuff or posting on Facebook does nothing for me. What Concrete Couch offers to people, and definitely to me, is I wake up and I’ve got a mission.
I’ve got something that I know I’m trying to do that I feel like directly addresses that middle area that everyone’s concerned about.
If you work with kids and help them realize they have a future, you’re going to have people support that. I don’t see it as a progressive or conservative or liberal agenda. I just see it as a human agenda.
But to talk about the legacy, I really think that Concrete Couch has been crowd-sourced, crowd-created, and continues to be changed and mutated and permutated by all the people who have worked on it. That legacy I definitely want to keep going.
Part of it’s self-interest, because I want to be involved with it.
Humanitou: I have seen you on the street playing trumpet, like during the Emma Crawford Coffin Races & Festival here in Manitou Springs, Colo. I see your skills out there with the trumpet, and with creating, building, sculpting, painting, teaching. Not to mention leading a nonprofit, building community and on and on.
I’d say that range of talents and efforts bucks the convention of labeling ourselves one thing we want to be when we grow up.
Steve: I’m so glad you brought that up. That goes back to our preceding thoughts with legacy, and on our joint legacy. The music jam came out of nowhere, and I’d never played music. I had no musical background.
The kids at the school couldn’t play in the jazz band if they weren’t in the orchestra, but some didn’t want to play in the orchestra. With block scheduling, it was really hard to fit in both, so there were kids that were quitting music.
One of our teachers, Ben Lewis, he’s in the band Grass It Up, and we were chatting one day about that issue. And he’s like, “Let’s do a jam band.” All ages, all instruments, everybody’s invited. And all the classes are free. So, no barrier.
We did that for three months. It was so cool, I was loving it. One day, he’s like, “Steve, you’re always opening the door and bringing kids in, you’re talking ’em up and making sure everybody’s comfortable. But no instrument?”
I’m like, “Yo, dude, I’m 50 years old. That’s like rocket science. What are you talking about?”
He said, “You can’t come back next week unless you have an instrument.”
Through a strange series of events, I’ve always loved the trumpet and we’ve always had a trumpet in the house, an old beater, starter model I got at a yard sale for five bucks. I brought it in.
Now, I feel like I’m an advanced beginner. Loving it. For me, music is totally foreign, so anything I’ve learned is not what I started with or what I brought. I’m just a participant in this great train of Concrete Couch.
Isn’t that cool that the organization makes space? Here I am, founding director, and I’m learning something that I totally love, maybe more than anything. I’m just learning it and playing, clearly not leading it.
Humanitou: I had no idea you were a “beginner” when I’ve seen you out there playing. Amazing. I see a fearlessness and a joyfulness in you with that. I had assumed it was just one more talent you’d been working with forever. What is that?
Steve: Super fun. (laughs)
Humanitou: Is that just a willingness to be real and unafraid of limitations? So many of us stop ourselves before we try. Really. What is that?
Steve: I didn’t know I was going to be successful at it. I figured, this is a good suggestion and I’ll try it. If I fail at it, then that’s a good role model for the kids.
I’ve had kids say, “I play the guitar and you’ve got enough guitars, but I’m kind of interested in learning trumpet.” Well, this is a great place to try it out. “I don’t know if I’m good enough.” And I’m like, “Yo, I tried it. I did it. I’m still learning.”
There was a young lady who was in sixth grade at that same time. She played trumpet. She was half a semester ahead of me, so she was always showing me things like scales and stuff.
She said, “You know what I love about this? It’s like we’re playing music. I’m still working on ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ in class and here I’m just part of the band.”
Somebody would keep the beat going, the rhythm, and we’d pass around solos. You’ve got your first instrument ever and you’re in this group of 10 and you’re doing your first solo? That is something.
In the world of being a good teacher, you want to build in success experiences where people still learn. There’s a balance. You want to push them but they need to have enough measure points along the way where they can feel like, “I got to here now. That’s cool. Now I can try this.”
I wasn’t really afraid of it. Did I know how much fun it was going to be? No, except I saw my boy playing and clearly he loved the music. I thought, “Man, I wish I’d done that in school.”
Humanitou: At a certain point in age, it becomes an easy excuse to say, “I’m too old for that. If only I’d started as a kid. Can’t do that now.” That willingness to learn, and to learn from a child, is a great lesson.
Shifting gears, what’s a pivotal struggle or experience in your life that has been a shaping factor?
Steve: My parents were teachers so I was used to that teaching method. Having a career where I was engaged in teaching and education seemed like it made sense.
Then, much more recently, about five years ago, my wife gave me a book by Bill McKibben. He’s an environmentalist. He’s got a number of books. This one was an examination of global warming and all the challenges, which are coming down the pike.
It was terrifying. It was a terrifying book. It’s four big, long chapters. The first three are like, “You’re screwed. You’re screwed. You’re screwed. Here’s all the data.” And then the last chapter, it’s like, “So what are we going to do about it?”
I was reading that and was like, “That’s Concrete Couch. And that’s Concrete Couch. That’s Concrete Couch.” It was like we’re the playbook for his whole last chapter.
It made me feel good about what we’re doing, but it also really opened the door. We need to have more of this, a strong environmental, strong humanistic, sustainability core.
Humanitou: You’re a positive guy. What fuels your joy and optimism in a world full of such serious bummers?
Steve: I really think I got it from my parents. They might not have been happy about what’s happening in the world, but they always looked forward to going to school, because they had an opportunity to work with people who were fired up about learning.
You think, “Public school? Is that how they are?” Well, they are if you’re a good teacher. If you’re a good teacher, you set up a dynamic where people are like, “Wow. I learned something cool. Thanks.”
That’s a good feeling.