By K. Faith Morgan, associate editor
I’ve been thinking about Rubin’s Vase—the illusion where you see either two faces or a vase depending on how you see the positive or negative space. (I’m not sure what it says about my psychology, but I always see the vase first.) It’s fascinating. The physical properties of the image never change, but your perception does.
I think there is a special set of people who create Rubin’s Vases with their ideas. They are the people who look at the world, see a negative shape, and use the negative shape to form a positive solution that perfectly fills in the gaps. Their ability to discern the situation and present a creative solution is something so extraordinary that even the negative can become a positive.
This is a look at the work of seven of my favorite Rubin’s Vase makers. Instead of being overwhelmed into inaction, these are the people who use their creativity to tackle troubling issues. Especially during the holidays, several of these creative nonprofits offer products that are not only perfect for your gift list, but also give back to those in need.
1. Negative Space: Students Expelled from Traditional Schools
Positive Solution: Blue Ox Millworks
Blue Ox Millworks is located in the heart of the Redwood Forest. Using all traditional tools (no machine on the property was manufactured after 1948), Eric Hollenbeck teaches students who are in court-ordered schooling programs how to work with wood. As a former infantryman and veteran of the Vietnam War, Eric’s story is deeply tied to the rehabilitation he offers students. He doesn’t quite fit into society the way everybody else does, so he understands his students in a way that nobody else can. “They’re great kids. There isn’t anything wrong with them; they’re just doers and not sitters,” he says.
2. Negative Space: Refugee Unemployment
Positive Solution: Billboard Bags
Operating under the maxim, “We will be known by the problems we solve,” the Atlanta-based organization Plywood People is tackling a local issue with a project called Billboard Bags. The Atlanta suburb of Clarkston is not only the most diverse square mile in the country, it’s also home to a large international refugee population. Here Plywood People founder, Jeff Shinabarger, launched a one-year job and life skills training program aimed at giving refugee women a leg up. Using discarded billboard tarps as their material, the ladies are trained to sew bags, pillows, and other accessories, which are available for purchase through Plywood’s online store. Billboard Bags not only creates skilled workers, but also offers a place where refugee women receive individualized mentoring, fair wages, English classes, and invaluable community support.
3. Negative Space: Grieving families of fallen soldiers
Positive Solution: Matthew Bears
In 2009, 29-year-old Captain Matthew Freeman left behind a wife, parents, and siblings when he was killed in action only nine days after arriving in Afghanistan. Inspired by her son’s sacrifice, Matthew’s mother, Lisa, decided to use her skill with a needle and thread to bring some comfort to those grieving a similar loss. She started the Matthew Freeman Project. The families of fallen service members send her uniforms, and she uses as the material for teddy bears, which she sews and returns to the family. “There’s a smile—kind of a tearful smile often—that comes,” Lisa says. Now several seamstresses strong, Matthew Bears is giving a special, huggable reminder to those left behind.
4. Negative Space: Homelessness
Positive Solution: Homeless Fonts
It’s a ubiquitous sight in cities around the world: cardboard signs with a common request for help. Spanish charity Arrels Foundation has launched an initiative using those very signs to bypass the pan-handling process and create income by turning the unique handwriting of several of their clients into fonts that can be purchased by brands and designers for use in products and advertising. “You’re writing says a lot about your personality,” says project participant Francisco. With a current catalog of five fonts and more to come soon, Arrels Foundation is instilling dignity and respect into the very thing that so often degrades the homeless.
Bonus: Be sure to check out Dallas-based artist Willie Baronet’s project, We Are All Homeless. For several years, Willie has been purchasing handwritten signs from homeless individuals across the country. He’s developed them into art instillations, and he’s in the process of producing a book and documentary film about his experiences. “It’s not us and them; it’s just us,” says Willie.
5. Negative Space: Ocean Pollution
Positive Solution: Ocean Sole
In a strange ocean- current phenomenon, vast quantities of discarded flip-flops from as far away as Indonesia wash ashore and litter the beaches of Kenya. “In a perfect world, we should have no rubbish,” says founder Julie Church. Her foundation took a small but significant step toward ridding the beaches and oceans of unwanted waste. Out of the litter, her artists create beauty. After being thoroughly cleaned, the flip-flops are glued into blocks, which craftsmen carve into colorful sculptures, beads, and other products, which are sold in shops all over the world.
6. Negative Space: Clean Water Scarcity
Positive Solution: Paper for Water
A child dies every 20 seconds due to illnesses born in unclean water, and two American children have decided to do something about it. In November of 2011, sisters Katherine (5) and Isabelle (8) started folding origami ornaments and selling them at a local Starbucks with the goal of earning $500 to offset the cost of drilling a well in Ethiopia. Three years and over $450,000 later, the girls have funded more than 50 wells in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, India, Mexico, Uganda, Peru, and Zimbabwe, and continue to sell their creations online. “If you have clean water and sanitation training, then you know what spreads diseases, and you can help,” they say.
7. Negative Space: Human Trafficking
Positive Solution: Punjammies
An estimated three million women and girls are currently enslaved in India’s sex trade. Escaping from the situation is an important first step, but it’s only the beginning of a long journey of recovery and rehabilitation. International Princess Project was established by Shannon Keith to aid in that journey for former slaves. Working with indigenous organizations already doing the rescuing groundwork, International Princess Project runs sewing centers where they train and employ women at better than fair trade wages to create Punjammies—a collection of ladies pajamas and loungewear sold online and around the world. “With each Punjammie, their stories and their voices are heard,” says Shannon. All of the revenue from Punjammies is turned right back around and reinvested in the sewing centers. Between the ladies they employ and their dependents, International Princess Project is providing dignity and support to over 450 individuals.