Ann Arbor collaborative art family build immersive basement box fort to fight COVID-19 blues

Family finds meaningful time, distraction in two-month building project

The family has built box creatures and a mask to go along with the box fort.
The family has built box creatures and a mask to go along with the box fort. (Trevor Stone, Natalie Berry, We Draw Together)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Ann Arbor-based collaborative artists Trevor Stone, Natalie Berry and their four-year-old son Felix have spent two months building an ever-changing basement box fort.

While many parents are finding themselves saying ‘no’ to their children while they are stuck at home, Stone and Berry have found a way to say ‘yes’ to Felix’s ideas. They’ve transformed their basement into an interactive and immersive box fort full of gadgets, pulleys, masks, walls, windows, consoles and more.

While Felix has always been involved in Stone and Berry’s art, this project makes every member of the family an equal contributor.

Stone said the box fort allows Felix’s ideas to become a reality while also subtly teaching him how to collaborate, discuss his ideas and negotiate while working together.

“We blend what we do. We blend how we work. We blend our ideas,” said Stone.

The collaborative project gives Felix a way to practice skills like peaceful and friendly negotiation and learning to compromise.

The collaborative family project has allowed Stone and Berry to say "yes" to their son's creative ideas.
The collaborative family project has allowed Stone and Berry to say "yes" to their son's creative ideas. (Trevor Stone, Natalie Berry, We Draw Together)

“The whole thing is there for him to interact with,” said Stone. “If he wants a hole in something, we’ll cut something. If he wants a door in something, we’ll do it, but we tell him, ‘you want us to cut this door? Sure. Window? Yeah. Can you draw it with marker first?’“

Stone said that he and Berry will follow the shapes that Felix makes so as to represent his aesthetic instead of their own. They’ve also made faux-tools out of cardboard and simple machines.

The fort is made from different materials like PVC pipe, tape, paint, zip ties, bubble wrap, container lids, old technology and found materials.

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Berry said that they’ve also been using recyclable items, like oatmeal containers or juice containers, and transformed them into things like jet packs and bowling pins or other simple machines.

According to Stone one of the hardest things about the fort-making process has been finding a balance between having fun and finding meaningful activities for Felix to contribute to. Because he is so young, Stone and Berry have had to find tasks that help him learn skills to make his ideas a reality.

“We don’t want to be like ‘you want to build that? Cool, I’ve been doing that for years. Give me five minutes’ and then just give him the backseat,” said Stone.

Stone and Berry have had to think of tasks that help Felix understand how things work together, such as securing small shelves or how gears work together.

According to Berry, the socializing found in the collaborative art process is fun and tricky, which she said has lent itself to the project and allows her and Stone to say ‘yes’ to Felix’s creativity.

A close up of a corn on the basement box fort.
A close up of a corn on the basement box fort. (Trevor Stone, Natalie Berry, We Draw Together)

The family has been adding bits and pieces to the fort over time so that flat walls have become murals or three-dimensional buildings. The fort even has a pulley system that opens a door.

Building the basement fort has been an opportunity for the family for meaningful family time.

“There’s a lot of things that happen down there. There’s a chance to joke, a chance to play, a chance for me to say ‘that’s a great idea’ or ‘that’s exactly what we needed,’ or ‘I like your solution. Let’s go with that,” said Stone. “There’s a chance for him [Felix] to take the wheel a lot.”

Stone said that massive project has helped to also find a balance for when he and Berry have to draw lines and say no with Felix, but it also creates a sense of nostalgia of Stone’s own childhood.

It’s also a really fun way to spend time together and inspire each other. Stone said that Felix keeps him on his toes and is constantly changing the direction of the project or of an idea, which makes the basement box fort exciting.

Stone said that the project has been helpful in distracting the family from the fact that they can’t interact with friends and their community due to social distancing and the pandemic.

The family has been documenting their efforts with the box fort through videos and a blog.

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