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Celebrating The Create Change Cohort’s 10 Year Anniversary: An Interview with Tracee Worley (CC ’09)

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of The LP’s 2009 Create Change cohort’s completion of their residency, The LP is releasing a series of conversations to check-in with each artist to see what they have been up to and to learn about the impact The LP has had on their creative and professional practices. The LP’s Director of Programs and Community Engagement, Hatuey Ramos Fermín, who is also an alum of the 2012 Create Change cohort, serves as the moderator of these conversations.

In the following conversation, Hatuey chats with Tracee Worley (CC 2009) to learn about her life post-LP residency, her career as a systems designer and design researcher at IDEO as well as talking about how creativity manifests itself in her work.


HATUEY: Hi Tracee! We haven’t had the chance to meet before. I was an Artist-in-Residence at The LP in 2012, so I am excited to be continuing the work now as LP staff and connecting with other LP artists and seeing what they have been up to. What motivated you to apply for the residency program? How did that come about?

TRACEE: I met Risë Wilson through some mutual friends.  We were living in Bed-Stuy at the time, and I remember finding out that she had started The Laundromat Project and I began learning a little bit about her philosophy about art and social engagement. At the time, I was in grad school for social work and discovering that I was looking for a bit more. And, at first, I didn’t even see myself as an artist, but we had a few conversations, and she encouraged me to apply.  And I did it on a whim, to be honest. I didn’t really have a big vision for my own art practice. I just thought this would be a cool thing to do in my neighborhood. And I’m so glad that I did it because it exposed me to a whole other world that I wasn’t thinking about at the time, and given my grad school situation, it came at the right time. So, I applied, and even still throughout the whole process, I thought I wasn’t going to get this. But I did, and it all just kind of happened through a conversation with Risë.

H: What was your project at The LP? I know that it involved having people call you and tell their stories. How did you get to that idea?

T: I remember during the application process we had to propose an idea of what we might do in the laundromat, and I don’t even remember, to be honest, what I wrote.  But I had a very different plan at first, and once the residency started, I decided to sit in the laundromat and spend time observing and watching. I did this at a couple of different laundromats, and one thing that I realized was that doing laundry is an intimate act in the sense that you are bringing your dirty clothing– your underwear, etc. — to wash communally with your neighbors! And through that observation, I decided that I wanted to play around with the fact that the laundromat is a public space where this intimate thing happens and this idea led me to create the dirty laundry line, which was a hotline that I advertised in different laundromats all over Bed-Stuy where you could air out your dirty laundry by leaving a secret. When you dialed the number, you had a couple of options.  You could leave your own message, or you could listen to the messages that other people left. I made those sort of tear-off flyers with the phone number on it, and put them up in different laundromats and started collecting messages.

[Dirty Laundry Line Advert; Photo from The LP 2009 Archive]


H: Is there any particular voicemail that you remember that stood out for you?

T: I remember there were an incredible amount of cheating confessions! I’d have to go back to the archives, but I do remember there was one about someone feeling guilty for feeling relieved that their grandmother had just passed away. The caller was her grandmother’s caregiver and was just relieved.  I just think it’s incredible when you give people the channel to say something anonymously–the kinds of stuff that you get is mind-boggling. I was always shocked at the kind of candor that people were leaving on the line.

[Photo of passer-by calling the Dirty Laundry Line Number; Photo from The LP 2009 Archive]


[Audio file of voicemail from “Dirty Laundry Line”; courtesy of Tracee Worley]

H: And how long did the project last?  

T: I kept it going for beyond the residency– probably for like another year. But it was kind of costly, so at some point, I had to stop, but I collected messages even beyond the residency.


[Audio file of voicemail from “Dirty Laundry Line”; courtesy of Tracee Worley]

H: It has been 10 years since you were in our residency program. What have you been up to since your time at The LP?

T:        I feel like I’ve lived several different lives! Immediately after the residency, I started working at an arts education organization in the city, doing curriculum development, and at the time I was very much trying to shape my own art practice beyond the residency.  At that point, I felt confident in my creative practice and wanted to keep it going. After working at the arts education organization I freelanced on my own doing a bunch of curriculum-development work for different organizations. Then I decided to go back to school because I wanted to hone my design skills. I was doing a lot of learning design at the intersection of art and education — so I ended up doing a program at NYU in digital design for learning.  I loved it, and I found that it was what I should have been doing when I was doing social work a few years before. After the program, I got a job working at an architecture firm that designs schools, and that was great. And at some point, I realized that I didn’t want to be involved in the design of another building, so that’s when I started looking for a job outside of architecture, and now I work for a design firm called IDEO.  They have offices all around the world, but I am based in San Francisco working as a designer in a studio called Design for Learning, so most of our clients are in education. I think the move from New York back to the Bay area definitely halted my own art practice.  Right now, all of my creativity is channeled toward work. Design incorporates a lot of art, and I work with a lot of people who are artists or have an artistic discipline.  So creativity is still flowing but in a different way.

H: I see.  I mean, as an artist myself, this is a whole-life thing, right?  There are moments where you’re really productive in your own art and there are moments where you are not involved as much. So, in terms of your work now, how does creativity manifest itself?  

T: I mean, it’s a consulting practice, and we get clients who want us to help them creatively solve a problem, and I think that they choose us over other management consulting firms because of our creative approach to problem-solving. Everything that I do is trying to really think outside of the box because we’re asked to help develop a strategy for something that might give someone a competitive edge or help solve a problem, and we have to figure out how to make that happen. The process is highly collaborative.  We work in project teams — anywhere from two people to 10, depending on the scale of the project — and it’s multidisciplinary, so I’m also a systems designer and design researcher.


[IDEO Studio space; Photo courtesy of IDEO]


H: What does it mean to be a systems designer or a design researcher?

T: That’s a great question. IDEO’s origin is in product design. Some of the earliest projects were for Apple.  The company designed the first Apple mouse.  And those kinds of product-design projects, in a lot of ways, are kind of simple. You’ve got this particular product, you’ve got a person, and you’ve got to figure out how do we make this product work for them.  It could be, ergonomics or the way that it’s shaped, how heavy it is — but, increasingly, the company has taken on way more challenges that are systemic in nature. For instance, I was just working on a project for the government of the United Arab Emirates, where they’re trying to make lifelong learning a desirable thing across the country. Which is a complicated task! You’re dealing with the K-through-12 system, university system, workforce — and all of these systems have to come together. In my studio there are three systems designers — people who can kind of move from the macro to the micro, making sure that whatever we’re designing, it’s not just like one user, one product.  It’s really designing an entire ecosystem around — making sure that system is aligned towards the vision.


[Photo courtesy of IDEO/Palmwood]

H: Going back to the LP for a minute.  What’s one thing you learned during your time at The LP that you still carry with you?

T: Before I even knew about IDEO, I feel like the way that I approached my LP project was as a design researcher. Like as I said, I went to the laundromat, and I sat and observed, and I took notes. I didn’t necessarily have an artistic vision.  I actually wanted to create a project that was attentive to the vibe in the space. And in order for me to understand that, I just needed to go in there with a beginner’s mindset, and I found so much creative inspiration from doing that. It’s interesting because, in every job that I have done since that time, I really have taken that experience with me. I think that art can solve problems, but that’s not necessarily what art has to do.  

H: Let’s say you had a second chance to do the residency all over again, knowing what you know now,  what might be different?

T: I think I’m inclined to say I’d probably do the same project, but increase the scale. You know, back then, I don’t even think I had an iPhone.  I mean, I knew iPhones were a thing, but, smartphones have evolved tremendously since then, so I think that there are new technical capabilities that I probably would tap into. I do think I would still start with observing and listening, and build a project from there.  I think maybe what I would do this time around is get even more intimate, and maybe I would interview people.

H: From your time at The LP what was one moment that stood out?

T: Well, I can’t think of a specific moment, but I have to tell you that meeting Petrushka [Bazin Larsen] was a very special thing, and to this day, she and I are still good friends. I learned a lot from her.  She knew a lot about the art world. It also gave me a different picture of what art can be because I was an amateur.  I didn’t go to art school. I don’t have an art career, and I always had this vision of an artist as like the lonely, rogue person kind of working by themselves. But the way that the whole residency was set up, it was super collaborative, and you got a lot of feedback. I felt like I got a really good art-school education just by going through the program.  It was something that was collaborative, community-focused — and gave me a lot of ideas about why art is so important and how artists can actually have a place in the city and have something to contribute to issues that no one thinks about. You know, when you want to solve an issue in Bed-Stuy around housing, why shouldn’t you call an artist? You should, and I think that process really helped me have a vision for why artists need a seat at the table in the city and in community.

[Photo of Tracee from The LP 2009 Archives]

H: That’s beautiful.  I mean, that’s why we do the work, right? Artists are not living in a bubble somewhere.  You know, they’re part of community. They’re, you know, everywhere, right? And that doesn’t need to be the MFA folks.  

H: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to yourself from 10 years ago?

T: I mean, I spent too much time agonizing over the question, “am I an artist?” I had confidence in my creativity, but I think I got a little too caught up in the label. So, my advice to myself would be to just relax. For me, my artistic practice will be something that I sort of move in and out of as I need to.  

H: What exciting projects are you up to that The LP community needs to know about?

T: I’m really excited about the work I’m doing with Palmwood, a creative organization founded by the government of the United Arab Emirates and IDEO to foster generosity, curiosity, and creativity in the UAE and beyond. Working alongside people of all ages, we’re designing new solutions for governments and communities, developing creative capabilities in the people of the UAE, and opening up new conversations about what is possible through design. Last summer, I worked on a project where we ran a series of creativity camps for kids. The task was to get 10-14-year-olds to design the future of the country. Their ideas blew us away and gave us so much hope for the future of humanity.


[Photo courtesy of IDEO/Palmwood]

H: That’s amazing. So, that’s all the questions I have. I really appreciate the time and it’s been nice to catch up!


Tracee Worley is an instructional designer based in San Francisco, CA who loves to create student-centered learning experiences. Her work forms connections between design and the theoretical and scientific study of learning. The intention is to create environments that enable communities to learn, work, play, and connect more richly.

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