Diversity and design. Resourcefulness leading to opportunities. For Ashley Gange (’99), these words and beliefs keep bubbling to the surface, as she continues to find new paths to take.
A graduate of both California College of the Arts and Columbia University, Gange has worked across multiple fields within architecture, interior design, animation, public art, and sculpture. The diversity of these experiences informs her approach to design, which is her passion.
One of her recent architectural works was being involved in the design and construction of Women’s Opportunity Centers in Rwanda and Kosovo, a 4-tier educational campus in rural Rwanda (pledged as a Commitment to Action at the Clinton Global Initiative), and project management for commercial and retail spaces - from design through construction with Sharon Davis Design, an award-winning socially-minded design firm in New York City.
As noted in her online bio, Ashley is devoted to what she calls resource preservation and careful consumerism, and is committed to community development through design. From where did the ideas spring? We can go back to Ashley’s years at Sycamore School, and how experiences at school created opportunities to challenge and grow her own ideas.
“Sycamore was very much about community. It wasn't a community based on anything other than academic excellence and acceptance of people that were from all walks of life,” she says. “I think that was nowhere else in Indiana - a really special thing.”
After Sycamore, Ashley went to Michigan to Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding high school for the arts. It was soon after she graduated from high school, still keeping the lessons of Sycamore close, that she knew instinctively that she needed to keep moving and continue finding new artistic challenges. “I was really only applying to art schools - that was the trajectory,” she says.” I had already majored in visual arts for three and a half years at Interlochen, so at that point I decided to go to California College of the Arts, a very old school out in California in the Bay Area. I was really excited to get to a coast.”
While in California, Gange finished college, then headed to New York to continue school at Columbia University. Even as she was going through her college and graduate studies, she was still using lessons learned in art at Sycamore as an anchor to the new things that she was experiencing. “Eileen Prince was a huge influence,” Gange says of the Sycamore’s founding art teacher, who is still teaching and just completed her 33rd year at Sycamore in 2018. “What I still really value about her as a person, an artist, and a teacher is that she believes in rigor in the arts,” Gange says. “She's not someone who will tell you all art is good whether you actually put effort into it or not. She believes in true craftsmanship and rigorous understanding of concepts. I think that those things and art history are things that you don't find at a lot of public schools, especially now having my daughter starting in public schools in New York. I can see that's a very special skill set that Mrs. Prince brings to Sycamore.”
While focused on the aspect of art, sculpture, that most interested her at Sycamore, Gange now sees the path that led from those early passions to where she is today. “Sculpture was the thing that I decided I was infatuated with and really the only thing I wanted to pursue when I was at Sycamore. I went to college for sculpture, and by the time I finished my degree as an undergraduate, I had opportunities to intern at General Motors doing concept car modeling before working for public artists in California. I loved it. It really became something that was natural and kind of easy for me.”
What wasn’t easy for Gange was a project that she became a part of in Rwanda, aiding that country’s women.
“I was given the opportunity to work on a project in rural Rwanda for a Women's Opportunity Center (WOC),” she says. “This would be a place where women could learn entrepreneurship farming practices and craft making, as well as seek counseling.”
What made the project difficult was distance and the country’s recent history. Women in Rwanda are continuing the rebuilding of their country in the aftermath of a devastating 1994 genocide. Women have provided the groundswell of energy, coming from rural villages, all the way to the national parliament, where women now hold two-thirds of the seats.
“It was a scary process to get involved with, because projects like this take years and usually don't ever come to fruition,” Gange says. “But this one did. The thing that I am most proud of about this project is that, as a team, we worked largely from New York but really challenged ourselves to integrate, as best we could, into the community and into the shoes of people who were going to be using this center.”
The center offers classroom space where women can learn new business skills and where cooperative support networks and other groups can meet regularly. “We decided that doing it with the help of the community would probably be the only way to succeed,” Gange says. “Never having set foot in Africa, let alone Rwanda, we worked for over two years from New York and from other offices with consultants all around the world and also worked really closely with our local partners in Rwanda to formulate a way that we could create a successful outcome for this project.”
The innovative and environmentally sustainable design is built on a five-acre campus. From the entrance along a well-traveled road, market stalls are accessible to the public. On the grounds of the WOC, facilities include a kitchen and restaurant, guest lodging, a large celebration space, and organic vegetable and fruit gardens.
For all of the beauty of the completed building, its completion involved a lot of sweat and muscle. “We actually found an opportunity in the lack of building materials,” she says. “We could set up things like brick-making cooperatives for the women who were already going to be the beneficiaries of this building; they would actually be producing the bricks that we would use to build the site, making bricks one by one, by hand.”
Inspired by traditional Rwandan meeting spaces, classrooms are shaped as circular pavilions and are at the center of the WOC. Behind the WOC, there is a large commercial demonstration farm in a fertile valley. At the center, women learn things like bread-making, coffee agribusiness, culinary arts, food processing, and tailoring.
With architectural expertise from award-winning architect firm, Sharon Davis Design, and initial investments from private donors, the groundbreaking WOC opened in Kayonza, located one hour from Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali. “After two years of working in a project team based in a small studio in New York, I had the opportunity to go to Rwanda for the first time and see what we had helped create.”
The diversity of education, skills, and projects that Gange has been involved in over the past 20 years, according to Ashley, is a reflection of her time at Sycamore. “A lot of other gifted programs do really make it scary for a kid to try something that they might not already excel at,” she says, citing music as an example of how she worked at something that wasn’t necessarily a passion, but became a building block for future endeavors. I played violin and euphonium at Sycamore, and I loved them. Now, I don't think my neighbors at my apartment would be so keen on me playing a large horn that I hadn't picked up in a decade or two,” she laughs. “But I think those were things that really created pathways in my brain for thinking and learning for the rest of my life.” It was at Sycamore that she remembers being encouraged to try many things, and not necessarily to be defined as the science kid or the art kid. Instead, she was encouraged to actually believe in herself and her ability to cross platforms and disciplines.
“I think Sycamore really fosters an environment where learning is a lifelong practice,” she says. “You don't expect to just think of school as something separate from work or practice which is separate from life. That’s something that I still carry with me.”