Storyboard: Jeremy Zerger

Connection is the antidote

I grew up in a rural area outside of Pretty Prairie, Kansas, a town with a population of 600 people. My nearest neighbor lived half a mile away, and there were 32 kids in my high school graduating class. In high school, I liked making things in shop class. I built a cabinet that stood in my family's house for the longest time. I built a trailer that my dad still uses around the farm. But it never dawned on me that I could make a career out of making. And I didn’t think college was even an option. So right after high school I went straight into the Coast Guard.

My first duty station out of boot camp was Coast Guard Station New Orleans. I arrived in 2005, just a few months before Hurricane Katrina. When Katrina struck, my whole unit shifted to evacuating people from their neighborhoods—getting our boats and helicopters wherever we could to help people who were trapped by the floods. During the storm, all our facilities on base flooded and we all spent weeks sleeping in the back of trucks and in tents. Trailer showers were brought in for us so that we could bathe. It was an interesting time, to say the least.

I spent 14 years in the Coast Guard, where all my duties were related to search and rescue and law enforcement. During that time, I continued making things on the side. As time went on, the desire to pursue a career in the creative field grew. About five years ago, while stationed in San Diego, I decided it was time to make a change. I wanted to be challenged creatively and learn how to use the creative process. I knew the GI Bill, which helps veterans pay for college and other training programs, would help me out.

When I started researching schools, ArtCenter’s Spatial Experience Design program (back then it was called Environmental Design) called to me because it was so different than anything else I had ever experienced. It included furniture design, architectural design, graphic design and even elements of product design. I met with the head of the program, David Mocarski, who has made some amazing furniture, and I thought, “Okay, this could be fun.” I knew the program would put me completely out of my comfort zone.

I entered the program with a love of furniture and architecture. I was interested in how a piece of furniture was made or how a building comes together to create the finished piece. What I left with was a deep understanding of the importance of storytelling. As humans, we are drawn to a good story. We all share the need to connect to each other and to the environments we inhabit. Connection is the antidote to the loneliness we have all experienced. This was especially true during the pandemic (I spent a year and half of my time at ArtCenter learning remotely) which highlighted the importance of connection in my own life.

One of my greatest ArtCenter experiences was the term I spent studying ceramics in Japan with instructors Dan Gottlieb and Penny Herscovitch as part of the Spatial Experience's Pacific Rim relationship with Tama Art University. One lesson that left a big impression on me was learning about Sen no Rikyū, the tea master who created the Japanese tea ceremony we know today. His design of the tea ceremony changed the entire power structure of Japanese society of the 16th century.

While at ArtCenter, I learned that design is not about fashion. Design is not about simply following trends. Design is a tool that must be utilized for serving others, creating safe spaces to meet specific needs, improving our lived experience, and connecting us to each other. Design has the power to change the structure of our societies. I poured these ideas into a project I presented at Grad Show—a proposed civic space for Hutchinson, Kansas, a city about 25 miles north of Pretty Prairie. I called it the Hutch Hub. This space would serve as a public resource center focused on growing and supporting entrepreneurship within the community. I guess you could say it’s a bit like ArtCenter, except for rural America.

I’m grateful not only for the GI Bill, but also to the Ahmanson Foundation, whose generous financial support through the Ahmanson Veterans Initiative Scholarship Initiative at ArtCenter allowed me to pursue my passion for design and to discover how I can best be of service to the world as a creative professional.

Jeremy Zerger
BS 23 Environmental Design
Minor in DesignMatters
Veteran of United States Coast Guard

We all share the need to connect to each other and to the environments we inhabit.

Jeremy Zerger
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