A few weeks ago I found myself in the parking lot behind a small industrial building. It was raining, I was in St. Paul, and I was lost. I knew I was in the right place, though, when I saw a giant RV parked in the corner—even more so when I noticed a cheerful man waving enthusiastically at me from the window: Alec Soth. The photographer and his studio, Little Brown Mushroom, have been hard at work on a new project called the Winnebago Workshop, an educational program for teens. In the past, Little Brown Mushroom focused primarily on publishing, while dabbling in educational projects through experiments like the Camp For Socially Awkward Storytellers, a program for mid-career artists that serves as the Winnebago Workshop’s spiritual sister.
Winnebago Workshop is a seemingly straightforward concept: a group of young people are invited to take part in a workshop with Soth that focuses on the art of storytelling. The catch? The workshop lasts a week and takes place on a moving RV. What’s more: the RV is traveling to a destination determined by throwing a dart at a map. Oh, and also: the RV picks up teaching artists along the way. The humble Winnebago RV is essential to the success of the project because, as Soth tells me, photography and writing are “so often best when you’re forced into the world and you’re not behind a screen, sitting in your office.” As he puts it, Winnebago Workshop strives to “give that experience so it’s not in a classroom, it’s out in the world.”
During the summer of 2015, Little Brown Mushroom experimented with a precursor program, a weeklong project that consisted of six teenagers and two teaching artists. LBM staffers had thrown around the idea of the Winnebago Workshop for many months and, motivated by the feeling that “we have to do something just to stop talking about it and see what really happens,” Soth launched this pilot program. The group traveled around Minnesota taking photos, telling stories, and discussing ideas. At one stop, as Minneapolis-based artist Andy Sturdevant talked to the teenagers, Soth had his ah-ha moment, realizing that the Winnebago Workshop would indeed work: “The intimacy of being in a vehicle with a visiting artist is so different. And to have an artist talking with students while you’re moving. It was just like, it worked. I felt the goosebumps.”
The focus isn’t on teaching students how to use a camera or how to create good composition. “I don’t care if people use their smartphones,” says Soth, as long as “we can really cut to the meat of the subject matter and of engagement with the world.” A story from Soth about this summer’s Winnebago Workshop encapsulated his goal for students to interact with their surroundings in a real and meaningful way. He recounts:
So we traveled around in the RV. I mean, we would literally throw a dart at a map and go to that place. In one case, the dart hit this rural area, and we thought, you know there’s not going to be anything there. But let’s just go and see what the nearest thing is. And right there is this farm house, and so we were like, “Well, we’re here, we’ve gotta approach.” It ended up being this 75-year-old couple who farms this enormous acreage just by themselves, without their children, without migrant workers, any of it. And the wife takes us down to the basement and shows us her canning system, and the husband takes us and shows us his tractors, and the wife did this little dance for us.
The Winnebago Workshop culminated in a pop-up show projected on the side of the eponymous vehicle in a parking lot in south Minneapolis. There were slideshows and performances by the teenagers, all at a location that was—of course—decided by a dart thrown at a map.
After the success of this summer’s test run, Little Brown Mushroom has decided to go ahead with its plans and officially launch the Winnebago Workshop program. There may be some changes when it does, however, such as encouraging collaboration between participants who are interested in diverse art forms. Soth would like young writers, comedians, and journalists to be part of the Winnebago Workshop and be in dialogue with teenage illustrators, filmmakers, or photographers. “Those lines can be blurred,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”
To fund the project’s future, Little Brown Mushroom launched a Kickstarter campaign in late October (which has already surpassed its fundraising goal). Soth’s aim is to keep the Winnebago Workshop free for all teenagers who participate in the project: much of the funds earned from the Kickstarter will go towards this goal.
After Soth told me about the elderly farmers inviting him and a handful of kids into their home, I asked incredulously if the couple was happy about the situation. “They were!” he responded. “It was a miracle, but it’s the miracle I realize as a photographer all the time. If you go out there, stuff happens, and stuff doesn’t happen if you just sit around thinking about it.” In this age of technophilia, Soth strives to teach teens to leave their computer, get outside, and live—an important lesson that we can all learn, regardless of our age.