ASU design students collaborate with middle schoolers on public art installation

Interactive 'Cumulus' artwork to debut at Canal Convergence in Scottsdale


When you ask middle schoolers who live in the desert to describe what water means to them, they say water creates life. And it means cleanliness.

And it’s fun.

So a group of Arizona State University design students is bringing those impressions to life in a public art installation that will debut next month in downtown Scottsdale.

The artwork, called “Cumulus,” will be part of Canal Convergence, Scottsdale Public Art's annual event that features interactive public art, workshops and performances at the Scottsdale Waterfront. The ASU project also received funding from Scottsdale Public Art.

“Cumulus” is a collaboration between 120 students from Tonalea School in Scottsdale and 44 students in The Design School in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. The 10 graduate students in interior architecture and 34 undergraduate students in industrial design visited the children several times this semester. The middle schoolers did activities like coloring in drawings of rain drops, writing their thoughts about water and making paper crowns.

Then the ASU students drew inspiration from the kids’ work as they created the installation, which will debut Nov. 9. Designed to be interactive, the piece will have benches to sit on and parts will light up when people walk by.

Milagros Zingoni, an architect and the assistant professor at ASU who is leading the project, said it’s exciting for the ASU team to create a work for Canal Convergence.

“It has a history behind it and they’re all well-known artists,” she said. “I convinced them that our students could produce to the level of everyone else.”

While the ASU students were contemplating their installation, the city was launching “Scottsdale for All,” an effort to create a diverse community.

“So the umbrella for our studio was, ‘What does it mean to make a community in the context of water in the desert?'"

On Friday, the Tonalea students visited ASU, touring the school, learning about design and seeing how their input is creating a piece of art that thousands of people will see. But the field trip was meaningful in other ways as well, according to principal David Priniski.

“For our kids, the majority would be first-generation college kids,” he said. “This is very eye-opening for them to see all this.”

Toni Makinde showed the children the studio where she and the other master’s degree students spend hours at work on their projects.

“We left it in this state because we wanted you to see the real deal,” she said of the long, cluttered table.

Makinde said she’s never worked with children before.

“It was a learning experience for me and it was something I was honored to have done,” she said. “Their minds are very fresh so it was great to pick their brains for new ideas.”

The children watched a video that showed how their ideas were literally transformed into the artwork. For example, curled strips of construction paper on a crown became curly designs on the benches.

“I hope the kids can see that they designed something,” said Amanda Ahlman, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in interior architecture. “And we hope we show them that college is more than math and English and science. It can be design too, which is fun.”

Collin Smith, a clinical assistant professor, told the students what it’s like to be an industrial designer: “I’ve designed everything from cars to shoes to toilet-cleaning products to toys.”

The industrial design students produced 16 interactive “water drops” that will be part of the “Cumulus” installation. Their class is co-taught by Smith and Magnus Feil, an assistant professor of industrial design.

“For junior-level designers, it’s sometimes very hard to break the barrier and talk directly to stakeholders and users, but it was useful and surprising for them to learn the children’s perspective,” Feil said.

“They never could have had these insights without the collaboration.”

Top photo: Tonalea middle schoolers look at the model of the "Cumulus" installation during a field trip to The Design School on Oct. 26. Their ideas about water in the desert helped inspire the public art piece created by ASU students. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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