Growing up, my dad fixed things. All kinds of things, all the time. Broken clocks, torn boots, a radio that played only static—no matter the object, nine times out of 10 he’d go to the cellar of our tiny four-room house and return hours later with a smile on his face, eager to present the once-rent object for our approval.
I hated his skills, hated my patched shoes, darned jeans, and repainted clunker of a bicycle. I wanted what my friends had: shiny, new everything.
I cringe to recall my brattiness. But in an age of disposable living, my dad’s lectures on planned obsolescence seemed as outmoded as Genesis.
Now, I wish I’d paid better attention to his rambling explanations of how things work, since adulthood has made me acutely aware of the beauty of subverting capitalist excess. And, of course, I want to do my bit for environmental sanity.
Although my father died fifteen years ago, I know he would have loved the Fixers’ Collective, an ad hoc group of men and women who meet for three hours every Thursday evening to fix what’s broken. The Collective grew out of a nine-month exhibition at Proteus Gowanus, a five-year-old gallery/reading room/performance space/store on the Gowanus Canal. Each year, gallery proprietors Sasha Chavchavadze and Tammy Pittman choose a theme for in-depth exploration; in 2008-2009, the show was called Mend.
“We had something we called the Fixers’ Collective during the Mend exhibit,” Pittman explains. “We invited people in to do workshops. We had one on darning, another on mending a broken heart. At this session we read real letters that an artist friend of ours had discovered at an estate sale. They’d been written by a soldier to his wife during World War II. The wife was not responding very well to him. The reading was a listening event. Hearing the intimate words of this soldier was really touching.” During the course of that year, Proteus also sponsored workshops on yarn spinning and book making and repair.
At one point, Pittman continues, David Mahfouda came in with a 130-foot American flag that he and a group of his friends had created in 2006. The flag had been badly ripped during a 2008 election night celebration in Union Square Park and Mahfounda came into Proteus hoping to repair it. “Before David came in, we thought we needed experts to show us how to mend broken objects. He came in with this openness and ability to figure things out and very quickly we attracted master repair people to come in and help people with their fixing problems,” Pittman says.
When Mend closed in June 2009, Chavchavadze, Mahfouda, and Pittman decided not to close the door on the Fixers’ Collective; in the subsequent eight months, they’ve assisted more than 300 people from all parts of Brooklyn, helping them restore a host of items, from torn umbrellas, to broken blenders, phonographs, televisions, and lamps.
John Murphy, a 53-year-old professor and camera man/sound mixer, has been part of the Collective since day one. “I’ve always been fascinated by tools,” the Oklahoma native begins. “My mom sewed a lot, really well, and she and her brothers were pilots. All of us loved mechanical things.”
Murphy’s technical prowess was put to the test several months ago when someone came in with a black desk phone from the 1960s. “He wanted to play his iPod through the telephone and wanted it to start playing music the minute he picked up the receiver,” Murphy recalls. “We opened the phone up, examined and explored the wires, and eventually got it to work the way he wanted it to. The job was fun because it combined two technologies, a 45-year-old analog phone and something modern.” Murphy’s grin makes clear how much he loved the challenge of this unusual request. “There’s something so satisfying in fixing something that’s broken, in taking something dead and bringing it back to life,” he says.
Mahfounda agrees. The 27-year-old Fixer began to tinker while growing up on Long Island, under the tutelage of his Moroccan-Israeli father. Then, after one year at Harvard, he transferred to Deep Springs College, a two-year, tuition-free program that accepts a maximum of 26 students a year. The school, founded in 1917 by businessman Lucien Lucas Nunn, requires its all-male student body to do manual labor in addition to studying the liberal arts. “I worked in the shop, on cars and tractors, did plumbing work, and fixed air conditioners,” Mahfouda says. “Basically, we repaired anything on the ranch that was broken.”
By the time Mahfouda returned to Harvard in 2003, after completing his coursework at Deep Springs, he was eager to immerse himself in the art world. As a Visual and Environmental Studies major, he organized numerous events both on-and-off campus. “One winter we created impromptu sculptures by dipping bed sheets in water and letting the winds mold them,” he says. “The idea was that art could be collaborative, temporal, and intended not only for an external audience but for the participants.”
Another project involved bouncing a colorful, hollow, 10-by-10 foot fabric cube down Cambridge’s busy streets. “It was such a likable object that even when we blocked traffic, people smiled,” he reports.
But not all of Mahfounda’s projects have been whimsical. He and some friends sewed a huge American flag—they intended it to be a “reclamation project,” the taking back of patriotism from George W. Bush and the Republicans—which people could play on and under. “Thousands celebrated under it on the night Obama was elected,” he begins. “It got shredded because people wanted pieces as mementos.” While the flag’s destruction shocked Mahfouda, it led him to the Fixers and he currently coordinates the group’s weekly activities.
On a frigid Thursday in February, their room at Proteus Gowanus is packed. Snow has not deterred participants from a special event, a class on how to hang objects—whether cabinets, mirrors, pictures, or shelving—on walls. Teacher Andre van Hoek, a cabinetmaker and owner of Retrogreen, a vintage store in Williamsburg, leads the session.
Van Hoek begins with an overview: “Today, so much is discarded. I see furniture every day that is designed to last five or six years. The Fixers is a counterpoint to that. Fixing things gives you a sense of empowerment. It’s a way for us to take some control of our environment.”
He then gets to the meat of his presentation—determining what the wall is made of, knowing which tools are needed, and deciding the most effective fastener for the project. He touches on the benefits of Robertson screws and gives participants a chance to handle a cordless drill, showing them how to stand and where to place their hands. “You don’t want to drill four holes when you need only one,” he cautions.
By the end of the night, van Hoek’s students have hung a mirrored medicine cabinet on a gallery wall.
According to the Fixers’ website, the Collective’s goal is “to increase material literacy in our community by fostering an ethic of creative caring toward the objects in our lives.”
For David Mahfouda and the other Fixers, this is both a practical and political imperative—a way to make amends for environmental damage and rampant consumerism. “I’d love to see a network of collectives, places all over the country where people can go to fix things,” Mahfouda says. “I’d love to see hundreds of places where people can pick up the skills to make repairs rather than acquiring new objects. Sure, it’s a cultural and moral issue, but it’s also a way for people to be in dialogue with each other. Fixing starts by listening, learning how things were done before. It starts with you taking responsibility for an object, but it’s not a huge leap from this idea to the idea that you also have a responsibility to the world and everyone in it.”
THE FIXERS’ COLLECTIVE MEETS AT PROTEUS GOWANUS, 543 UNION STREET, FROM 6-9 P.M. EVERY THURSDAY.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.