In his position managing the fabrication studio for the Art, Culture, and Technology program at MIT, Graham Yeager has his hands in everything — literally — and he could not be happier. After earning his undergraduate degree in ceramics from Rochester Institute of Technology, he spent a number of years making art while working in a variety of occupations: art retail shop manager; painter for hand-crafted bicycles; ceramic technician; and managing a Gold’s Gym. Deciding to reinvigorate his career, Graham earned his master’s degree at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University.

His journey as an artist continues to grow at MIT, as he shares his skills with students and supports their development as fellow artists. His skills are called upon by his children every year at Halloween (his favorite holiday), for which he creates detailed costumes. Over the years he has constructed lady bugs, monster trucks, a siphonophore, a Dragonborn, a chicken, a bush, a Tie Fighter (from Star Wars), multiple mammals, and a Tressym.

What do you do at MIT?

The short version of what I do is help people make cool things safely. Our studio is this beautiful mashup of all sorts of different production methods and materials in one location. We have the capability to work with wood and cut it in all sorts of different ways and glue it together; facilities for metal fabrication; ceramics; sewing; electronics; 3D printing; and other fine art–types of options. It’s this really great space that has a little bit of everything. I help support that making. Students from across MIT take ACT elective courses, and we have our graduate students working on their master’s degree. I hold workshops, collaborate with faculty to integrate those demos into their curriculum, and am on call if the need arises: a student’s project calls for building something out of wood, or embroidering a patch, or even propagating seeds with their own blood. That’s more complicated! But we can jump through hoops to make that happen.

Someone actually did that?

Yes, one of our grad students. A lot of what we do is try to make those things possible. For students taking electives, the training is more straightforward, such as showing someone how to weld or laser-cut acrylics. For our graduate students, things can get a little weirder, and that’s when we work with MIT’s Environmental Health and Safety (EHS Office) and learn how to do stuff safely. Rather than asking for forgiveness, we try to go the permission route first. Who do we need to talk to so, for example, we can make sure people don’t misunderstand that a little sound speaker device hanging from a tree isn’t a bomb! Those little things are important.

You bring a range of skills to your role. Tell me about your background.

My background is remarkably eclectic, and I have a lot of experience with all these different things. My father was a carpenter, and I did a lot of work with him growing up. My mom was a teacher, cook, and artist. I was exposed to making, creating, and destroying as a kid. I always did art and tried to negotiate what that would look like as a career. I initially went to college for industrial design, but I didn’t like how everything looked the same. And I always had an interest in different materials. I loved putting something soft with something hard or something sticky with something slick. Ceramics can do a lot of that – it can be so many different things, which is one of the reasons why I was attracted to it as a material. I’ve been sewing since home economics back in middle school. I picked up welding and working with metal at SUNY New Paltz.

Before graduate school, my practice was making interactive sculptures. I think objects in museums receive very little time to be viewed. The idea behind my work was to reward the onlooker for staying to look and interact with the sculpture. They pick it up and something slides open or reveals a whole other part of the sculpture they wouldn’t have seen if they just walked by.

Now, I have a public art practice. It has been on hold during the pandemic, mostly because I just really enjoy being with people for these types of projects. I start with the idea of play or interaction and then figure out what I need to build or make to support that idea. That has exposed me to all these different ways of making and different materials. This background and experience have helped me be good at my job here. A nice part of what I do is support students’ research, such as getting new equipment or new materials. One of our grad students wanted to do etching, so we invested in an etching press.

It sounds as if there are opportunities for you to learn along with the students.

Exactly – I’ve done a lot of screen printing, but etching was new. I found that a lot of traditional etching chemicals are very toxic and checked with the EHS Office to find the least toxic things we could work with. The end result was finding a photo-polymer resin option that was nontoxic. Consultations with grad students are fun for me. They have an idea and want to figure out what to do.

I’m constantly humbled by how smart and talented all the people and students I’m working with are. It’s amazing day to day. They come in with all these different experiences and talents. What I love about the shop is how that integrates people together. You have different ways of thinking, and different ways of solving problems, experimenting and working together.

What part of your job do you find challenging?

The challenging parts are just being realistic with myself around what I’m good at and staying in my wheelhouse. I’m not the best at a digital design space. I’m much more into touching my materials rather than designing with a mouse. Luckily, the people I work with are often really good at digital spaces so there’s some nice synergy there.

Getting permission and going through the right channels can take a long time. That can be a little frustrating, but I think it’s a really good lesson for students to be successful once they graduate. There were certainly some challenges with being remote for a while, but I think we solved some of those pretty successfully. It’s very much a team effort. Within SA+P there are two other fabrication technical instructors, and we’re constantly sending students to each other. It’s lovely to work with many other talented people that have experience with things that I don’t have.

Making mistakes and trying new things is really important, and I try to set up my shop that way. You get to experiment. One of the things I’m proud of is the culture and community of our shop now. It has evolved in response to the world and my personal growth from the different trainings I’ve taken through MIT’s human resources. I’ve focused on the physical safety of the space, as well as students feeling supported to fail with a project. They’re very focused and remarkably successful in all other ways, and then they come in here and can’t get the materials to work the way they want. That can be very humbling. So right from the beginning I wanted this space to be welcoming to a variety of different skill sets.

The orientation we provide students is very intentional around empowering our users to speak up around any safety issues. Whether someone is using adhesives without gloves or saying something that’s discriminatory or using the wrong pronouns. I want these to be learning experiences and for users to know that none of that stuff flies here. You can’t be unsafe and you can’t be a jerk. I think those concepts have always been a part of what I believe, but now they are intentional and on paper.

Did you ever think you would be at MIT in terms of bringing your skills and talents to work here?

Absolutely not! It’s so interesting how we find our way through the world. It makes total sense now. I took a lot of time off between my undergraduate degree and going back to grad school. I was making a good living working as a salesman at Gold’s Gym, but I would go to my basement studio making art sculptures and think, “If I can make a living doing this, I can make a living in the art world somehow.” So, I decided to go back to school. The work that I did at the gym — interacting with people — was a huge foundation for what I do now. I create these experiences, and I listen a lot.  So all these things along the way allowed me to pick up different skills. It feels pretty cool to think that – yeah — I work at MIT.

By Maria Iacobo
Originally published on the SA+P Intranet