Storyboard: Nathan Cooke

Cheese, idealism and the ripple effect

The other night, I experienced a weird epiphany while watching an episode of one of my favorite shows, “Chef’s Table.” In the episode, an earthquake strikes a small village in Northern Italy. The audience is told that a warehouse full of delicious Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese will spoil unless someone acts fast.

Enter the head chef from Osteria Francescana, widely reputed to be one of the best restaurants in the world. Long story short, the chef in question ends up devising a recipe whereby he can use all the cheese before it spoils and bring in enough money to ensure that everyone in the village is able to hold on to their jobs. It’s a nice ending for the story and yet I couldn’t help but think to myself: did this man ever consider that his life’s calling would bring him to a situation like this? How did he end up here? It’s simple, really – the chef was an expert. And experts of all stripes are essential to the aid of humanity on a large scale.

This may seem like a bit of an odd tangent, given that the primary focus of my own life has been the intersection of art, commerce and social progress. And yet something about this man’s dogged resolve stuck with me. Frankly, it moved me. Here was a man using his life’s skill set to an entirely different end than what he had originally intended it for. Here was a man who had mastered his craft and was now using that craft to help people.

Now, there’s nothing about this man’s job title that says he needs to provide jobs and a sense of livelihood for an entire community. Contrary to the romantic notion some young people develop, idealism is not always a part of the creative process. How else to account for designers who make ads and design billboards for cigarette companies? However, if you are a creative person who wants the world around you to flourish and continue existing, idealism is very necessary. There will always be art for art’s sake and there’s nothing wrong with that notion – in fact, it’s a rather beautiful one. We must also not confine art strictly to the right side of the brain, particularly when we have seen how much forward-thinking design and outside-the-box creative thinking can benefit our world.

My time at ArtCenter made me realize I could be a designer who had a greater impact on the world at large. I remember having lots of ongoing discussions with my teachers, many of whom I’m still in touch with today. They were committed to finding the purpose in every student. In my case, I hadn’t quite figured mine out. A lot of the conversations that I had with my teachers weren’t necessarily about school. They were usually about abstract concepts: life, art, where I thought my future was taking me. I realized that all the artistic techniques I was beginning to learn could have some ripple effect on the larger world that might not even have anything to do with art.

Eight years later and Sanergy – an organization committed to sustaining hygienic and environmentally friendly sanitation devices throughout Kenya’s lesser-developed settlements – has become a culmination of my life’s work. Our goal was not only to bring a higher standard of sanitation to under-served parts of the world, but also to establish a place where kids like the kid I used to be – equally enamored with art and social justice, and looking to marry the two skill sets – could go to put their talents to use. I saw a lot of my peers graduate and take jobs at places simply because they paid. Given today’s economic climate, who can blame them? And yet, at the risk of sounding like an idealist, (there’s that dirty word again) I really believe that Sanergy represents something more than what is typically promised to emerging artists. It’s a place where people can build out their skill set and find outlets for their creativity that ultimately tips the scale in the favor of a better, more conscious world.

Maybe this is why I got all choked up watching this man on my TV solve such a complex problem. I saw some of myself in him – in fact, probably more than I’d care to admit. Like this man, I started off chasing my dreams without any larger thought as to the global effect my work might have. My time at ArtCenter taught me that all good art not only reflects the state of the world we live in, but in a way, it also improves it. I hope you will continue to support ArtCenter so that our students can persist in their ongoing quest to make this world a more inhabitable and understanding one.

Nathan Cooke
BS 2008 Product Design
Faculty, Product Design

I realized that all of the artistic techniques that I was beginning to learn could have some kind of ripple effect on the larger world that might not even have anything to do with art.

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