K-Fai Steele is an artist from San Francisco by way of Philadelphia. She uses technology as a way to explore drawing, writing, and storytelling. She is also interested in how libraries and museums can be places for youth to learn technology, and how a more creative, inclusive approach can engage youth who don’t have access to or aren’t interested in traditional engineering and computer science. In an effort to explore that idea, she writes and draws children’s books about non-traditional characters who discover their own learning pathway through using technology as a tool for self-expression.
K-Fai was also one of our Kickstarter backers! We learned about her work when she sent us a video of a Circuit Scribe project she made using the light sensor circuit module, motor, and a watercolor sketch of a dog. We recently collaborated with her to create the chicken greeting card circuit artwork, which we released as a downloadable project last year. We recently had a chance to chat with her about her work and her inspirations:
What are your favorite tools when creating/making?
I always start with a big piece of paper and one of my favorite things to draw with. I want as little as possible to frustrate me and get in the way of the idea or the thing I’m trying to communicate. Even when I think about circuits, I’m always drawing them out before I take out any components. I definitely problem solve through a pencil before I even go near a breadboard.
What was your inspiration behind the Electroninks chicken greeting card?
I was asked to make this card sometime in November or December. I’m originally from New England, and my dad heated (and still heats) the house with a wood-burning stove. Every time I go back (usually around the holidays) that stove is going, and everyone, including the cat, are vying to cozy up to it. I had moved to San Francisco in October, and was feeling particularly far from the winter and that fireplace and that sense of coziness when I was drumming up ideas for images with LEDs.
What inspires you in general?
I think I never strayed far from my childhood love of picture books, cartoons and stories where animals were proxies for humans. I think you can express so much more with, for example, Sam Eagle from the Muppets, versus an adult male actor who is taking himself really seriously. I spend a lot of time observing things (in museums, walking around the city, looking at people, looking at books in the library, looking at people’s curated collections on the internet) and then making things (drawing, writing, electronics, recently ceramics). There aren’t enough people in the world who are making creative art with technology, so when it’s done well (Daniel Rozen, Jie Qi, IDPW, loads of things out of F.A.T. Lab) it’s better than a million Maker Faires.
You gave a TEDx talk on The “Maker Movement” in libraries, why is it important to have makerspaces available in libraries?
The library was one of the most important places to me when I was a kid: I knew that little occult shelf in the children’s section inside and out, and it fed my imagination like gasoline. In retrospect, it was a really important resource for my family because it was the only free, guaranteed-to-be-open place we could go where I could have learning opportunities that were aligned with the things I was interested in. Libraries today are one of the only places where people can go to access free information and free internet. They’re one of the only equalizers we have left. It makes so much sense for them to offer opportunities for youth to learn about digital media and creative technology.
What can we do as community members to help our youth lead the making process?
Volunteer, or join a group. So many libraries, museums, and nonprofits are looking for help. It’s also a great learning opportunity. The biggest challenge I find in starting a maker program is that people don’t think they have enough expertise. Just jump in. It’s fine (and really good for you) to learn something entirely new, and I think it’s important to acknowledge in front of kids that despite being an adult, you don’t know everything.
What techniques can teachers use to increase individualized learning for kids?
Pay attention to the things your students are interested in that fall outside the spectrum of what they’re learning. Design your curriculum so that there’s enough latitude for them to explore those interests and weave them into classroom assignments. Life isn’t about separate subjects and disciplines anyway, right?