Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”

Edition 05— Daniel Backman

Before the construction of Artists For Humanity’s LEED platinum certified EpiCenter building in 2004, AFH called an empty warehouse in South Boston home. Given free reign over a wide, open space at the age of 14, Daniel Backman recalls how the trust afforded to him was an integral part of his meteoric AFH experience.

Before the EpiCenter, Artists For Humanity called an eclectic warehouse space on A Street home.

As warehouses have traditionally been used as artistic spaces, the old wallpaper factory on A Street, with its heavy sliding doors and freight elevators, lent a transformative and organic nature to Backman’s time with the organization. A Massachusetts native who spent his childhood between Dorchester and Jamaica Plain, Backman wasn’t new to Boston’s art classes and programs by the time he reached the studios at AFH. Frustrated with the other options out there, Backman found that what set AFH apart from these other programs was the distinct clarity of individuality he found within the walls of the A Street warehouse.

Artists For Humanity group photo, 1997

“It was different from what I was accustomed to in art classes, being treated as an individual and being treated as an artist from day one,” he said. “I think other places treat [the title of] artist as something that you earn, whereas at AFH, once you’re working, you’re an artist. You get treated with that respect and treated as a peer by the mentors, not like a junior person.”

Left to Right: The old AFH studios on A Street; Backman painting a mural in the space as a teenager.

The freedom of artistic expression that accompanied that individuality and respect encouraged Backman to explore the endless possibilities available to him at AFH. While he had occupied the mindset of an artist, he often felt limited in the previous art programs he was involved with and was looking to learn more. AFH was different. Backman was able to not only expand his creative knowledge but also begin to determine his identity as an artist and as a young adult.

“The actual studio space was so vast and so filled with excitement and creativity and natural light. Just seeing all the art and what the established teens and artists there were making was really mind-blowing because it was what I wanted to be doing.”

Daniel Backman’s “Forward Slash Furlough,” collage on paper
“ It was the first time I had walked into an art studio and seen work that I identified with. I was like ‘Ah! This is what I want to do’. ”

This inspiration, something shared by many AFH alumni, was a part of Backman’s journey in finding a path of interest that ultimately helped him shape his career and aspirations.

Let to Right: Backman at work; Rendering of Burbank Auditorium project at Santa Rosa Junior College.

“AFH made me want to become an architect even though I wasn’t studying architecture at all,” he said, recalling how his love for painting buildings, cities, and urban landscapes began while at AFH. “It was basically what I did for my entire time at AFH, with some variation here and there. That was my thing.”

Backman explains, “The first thing I painted was a view from the studio. I found the neighborhood of AFH to be very interesting and stimulating because of all the industrial architecture, the kind of part working, part not working, Seaport and waterways that were kind of crumbling. Starting in 1996 through 2002, I observed the transformation of the neighborhood with the construction of the Big Dig and many large new buildings. It was very inspiring.”

Backman leading a project meeting for a theatre renovation project.

Backman graduated from Boston Latin Academy in 2000 and became a mentor at AFH for the following two summers. He then continued on to pursue higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in Architecture, before continuing on to graduate school at University of California, Berkeley. Throughout this experience, Backman recognized AFH’s artistic innovation as an incredibly valuable resource for the future.

“In terms of education, I think it was what helped me to stand out when applying to colleges and grad schools. It was kind of what made me, me. It made me a unique person beyond having good grades. I think more so now than 15-20 years ago, schools and employers are looking for creative people, not just smart people. So being able to demonstrate that and just talk about my experience [at AFH] was a huge advantage in addition to the actual skills I learned.”

“Camper Vandal,” collage on paper
Backman’s graduate thesis at Berkeley was a study to recreate the AFH model in the Bay Area with a large focus on how artists shape their own physical studio space and environment.

It allowed him to experience the business side of AFH, which opened his eyes to the collaborative nature of successful nonprofit models. “I realized that I was very passionate about the art side of it but the creation, organization, and management of a nonprofit is something that is not my strong suit,” he explained, noting how organization and management was not something that many architects thought about when working on projects.

“I realized I needed a partner who had that kind of business acumen and nonprofit expertise to bring to the table.” Although he was unable to replicate the AFH model in Oakland, the impacts of the program remained a strong source of inspiration in Backman’s life.

Backman at the opening of his solo show “Infrastruction” at Hallway Gallery, Jamaica Plain.

The role that AFH plays in empowering teens is something that Backman recognized as extending beyond himself and his own experiences. He realized it was a safe space for a diverse group of Boston youth.

“Boston was a very different place in the mid-90s. It was a much more dangerous and tough place to be a kid. AFH brought us into a safe space where we could be really creative, could contribute, and be pushed towards something better. “

Backman reflects, “AFH made the city a much better, happier, and safer place every summer because the kids had jobs. They had something to do, they had money in their pockets, they were less likely to do dumb, violent, or wasteful stuff. And I think that at its basis, putting all the artists' stuff aside, it’s just important to have something to do. I think looking at other students who really had no other creative outlet or no one else to support them, AFH was just so vital.”

“SpaceShift,” collage on paper

Although the program has evolved and gone through a series of changes since Backman was a 14-year-old in the original A Street building, AFH still remains clear in his mind.

“When I think of my memories, I think of that space, and I can still picture myself in it.” Backman currently resides in Petaluma, California and works as an architect at TLCD Architecture.

Interview conducted and written by Grace Yuh and Jane Elmets.