Standing beneath the rich gold and brown hues of a Madison, WI fall, three childhood friends have put their lives on hold to embark on a national adventure to enhance communities, share creative passions, and preach collaborative gospel to anyone who will listen. The F.F. Sloth is a mobile collaboration studio born out of a school bus topped with two antique, pop-top Volkswagen buses. This November, lifelong friends Michael Fenchel, Alex Connelly, and Sam Lundsten are leaving behind friends, lovers, and family on an exploration of creativity. Aboard the 7cees, the trio has crafted a studio with music and art equipment, as well as an open creative space. As they travel around the country, the trio will be stopping in cities and inviting people to share ways to create projects that will enhance the community.
Initially headed to Minneapolis, MN, the young and bearded Fenchel, who not only founded the 7cees non-profit, but also serves as the studio’s bus driver, says that the group will head out West to find better weather in the winter [as of press time, the crew is somewhere along the South Dakota highway].
While Fenchel and his companions are credited with gutting the vessel and building the design studio from the ground up, it was a married pair of Volkswagen enthusiasts who brought the F.F. Sloth into this world. Jeremy and Amanda Tarkington, owners of the Arkansas-based Volkswagen specialty shop Tark’s Wagonwerks not only built the bus, but the family of seven actually lived out of the bus for two years. After the Tarkingtons sought sturdier, non-wheel-based refuge, they put their pride and joy on eBay where an invigorated Fenchel discovered his studio.
After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in physics, Fenchel initially tried his hand at a software startup that didn’t pan out. Fenchel was a member of Sector 67, a Madison-based non-profit collaborative hacker space that is dedicated to providing an environment to learn, teach, work on, build, and create next-generation technology -- everything from software, hardware, and electronics to art, sewing, and pottery. He saw the model Sector 67 set for the maker and engineering community, and it was then that he had the idea of creating a community workspace for creative passion. He started traveling around the country, checking out venues in Chicago, New Orleans, and Portland. At every stop, Fenchel met with many people who were interested in a partnership, but he couldn’t decide against one or the other, so he asked himself, “Why not put it on wheels?”
Fenchel turned to eBay where, after a mere 20 minutes of searching, the Tarkingtons “crazy monster” popped up on his screen. Fenchel jumped in his car, and the trio was Arkansas bound.
The bus was in poor shape. The Tarkingtons had called it home for two years, but the bus had then sat idle for five years until the family decided to uproot, liquidate, and move to Florida. The floorboards were filled with rot, and the wiring was old and impractical, but the shell was just the spectacle Fenchel was looking for as the group traveled town to town.
Fenchel’s background made him a natural problem solver, and he worked hard on filing the piles of bureaucratic paper necessary to create a non-profit organization. But with Connelly came a history of website design and illustration, and Lundsten added expertise as a sculptor and painter, so the engineering didn’t come easy. For this, the crew leaned heavily on Chris Meyer, Sector 67’s founder, and the collective wealth of knowledge offered by fellow hacker-space members.
One engineering challenge in particular included rebuilding the entire electrical system on the bus. The Tarkingtons had spliced everything by hand, and the entire system was directly connected. Luckily, they were able to pull in an electrician to share his expertise before anyone took an unsuspecting shock.
“Sector 67 helped us out with basically every step,” says Fenchel. “They helped us determine how to do the body work; how to grind off the rust and fill it in. And with the electrical setup, they helped us put in the right relay and wire up the bus.”
The crew relied heavily on the junkyard for some of the repairs. They were able to corral a new door, a door-operating mechanism, and a new driver’s seat. They also spent some time at the Dane County Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which sells donated building materials to the general public for up to 75 percent off the retail price.
The 13’3” bus is legal in the 49 states with a standard 13’6” clearance, and the crew will use a trucker GPS to help them watch out for low clearances throughout the nation -- though there has been word of an early mishap with a low-hanging lamp at a gas station.
The plan is to trek throughout the nation for an entire year, and the team is committed to a fluidity that allows the project to evolve. For Fenchel, the project is an exploration of what happens when a person has an idea that he loves, and how culture, and the people you come in to contact with, shape the idea and add to it. At the end of the journey, the crew plans to find a spot in the woods to decompress for two months while Fenchel pens a book about his collaborations from the road. Word of a documentary is also in the mix, but has yet to be set in stone.
“A space like this is valuable for engineers who need a space to work, who need to cooperate in a good environment,” Fenchel says. “It’s also really useful for people like us who want a bus to function as a mobile studio, and just don’t have the knowhow.”
The quarters will be close for Connelly, Lundsten, and Fenchel who will be sleeping in the VW buses that include mattresses and a simple, but cozy living space -- the van tops even pop open so they can enjoy a cool clear night once they head West. They also crafted a platform bed on the bus that doubles as a workstation by day. The walls are padded to evoke an inviting atmosphere, and the bus even includes a working shower and sink, so the guys are able to wash off a few days of funk.
What’s in a Name?
As Fenchel took me across the top of the bus to inspect the living quarters, he described that the seven Cs stand for the F.F. Sloth’s exploration in creativity: consciousness, collaboration, cooperation, community, culture, connection, and, of course, creativity.
Atop the bus, Lundsten joined us and stated how the 7cees crew is currently looking for community projects that could use their assistance.
“We’re looking for projects that will be helpful to implement while we’re [in the city],” Lundsten adds. “If the [PD&D] readership has any thoughts on a project we could do or something that we could help with, we’d be interested.”
Fenchel says that it’s possible to keep in contact with the guys through their website, www.7cees.org, he also notes that readers can sign up for their newsletter to stay updated. “We have each other to push one another,” he says. “If you have a project in the garage, we can help by pushing one another and collaborating.” The PD&D editorial staff will also be keeping tabs on the 7cees journey with monthly updates.
As for financing, the beginning of the journey has come directly out of pocket with the aid of a few sponsors. The 7cees will still be able to ride into the West, with the trio surviving on rations, if the group is unable to raise additional funding.
“We give people real-world experience doing what they’re creatively passionate about by finding ways that they can cooperate with us,” Fenchel says. “We have publicity that the bus garners when we roll into town, but we’re also allowing a part of the bus to include corporate sponsors, without sacrificing any of our integrity.”
People will talk, and word will spread of the half-bus, half-VW-van hybrid that has come to town, but Fenchel is also coordinating with maker networks and Arts Wisconsin to reach out to people in leadership positions within each community to help further spread the word.
“We’ll see how many people we can pull in,” Fenchel says, “but even if we just get a handful, we’ll work with them and we will find something.”