72U’s Maria Scileppi makes unlikely connections to take creators out of their comfort zones
Story By Shanee Edwards | Photos by Shilah Montiel
Alone in a new city, concept artist Maria Scileppi began an experiment she called PeopleScape. Her goal was to make a new friend each day for an entire year.
Scileppi documented each new friend and brought all 365 souls together for a culmination event at an art gallery. Instead of paintings or sculptures, “the art was the relationships,” she says.
The project pushed Scileppi out of her comfort zone and taught her the importance of authentic human connection.
Nine years later, Scileppi’s job is to push others out of their comfort zones and help them forge new and exciting connections. She’s director of 72U, a tuition-free creative residency for artists, techies and makers.
72U was the brainchild of John Boiler, CEO of the international advertising agency 72andSunny, which has its L.A. office in Playa Vista’s Hercules Campus.
Scileppi says the agency’s mission is to be a “platform for personal growth and creative self-expression,” and Boiler wanted to have an in-house program that exemplified the values of the company. 72U seems to be a new way to bridge the gap between art and commerce.
“It’s a total dream job,” Scileppi says. “I got to have a blank slate and design the program. I wanted to work with people who have different skills than I have, from different backgrounds culturally, and create a safe place to take risks and take on really ambitious projects.”
72U courses are three months long, and they happen three times a year. Teams of makers are curated from all over the globe.
The people skills Scileppi learned from the PeopleScape project come in handy while forming teams, and each session is designed according to the participants’ backgrounds.
“I think of them as my palate. The program is designed to take them to the next level creatively and professionally. I choose projects that will leverage their skills but also push them out of their comfort zones,” she says.
Past 72U projects have included short films, a digital poster that passersby can manipulate to create new music, two four-story murals in Hollywood and an interactive learning sculpture that translates screams into visual expressions via bubbles, floating ribbons, flying pompoms
and other objects.
Finding such opportunities is an essential part of Scileppi’s job.
Last fall she managed to find an empty lot on Abbot Kinney Boulevard that her team converted into a pop-up park for community-driven events.
“We had seven people on the team, six different countries represented. We had one architect who had just finished architecture school but had never built anything. So I thought, ‘Okay, we’re building something.’”
The Venice Pop-Up Park incorporated free Wi-Fi, modular seating, a performance stage and a chalk board for brainstorming sessions, but Scileppi says the most challenging aspect was a requirement that the land have a fence around it. This is where innovation and creativity really came into play.
“The group came up with the ‘fenesk,’ which is a fence that turns into a desk. This was a space that was supposed to be adaptable for all types of community uses like yoga, food tastings or talks. When the park is open the fence comes down and turns into desks. You know clearly from the street whether the park is open or not, and it creates these nice windows that frame the park.”
The connection between a program that creates a pop-up park and an advertising agency that creates TV commercials doesn’t seem terribly obvious, but Scileppi says the ties run deep.
“I think it’s a clear manifestation of 72andSunny’s mission, and it really does put the participants’ creative and professional needs first. 72U is an opportunity for the company to reach out and connect with the community. It’s also a way to inspire people. There’s no way to know how many connections have been made or ideas that have been spawned from the park we built.”
Like so many industries adapting to life in the 21st century, advertising is changing, too. 72U seems to be a starting point for creating an authentic relationship between brands and their increasingly savvy consumers.
“So it’s not necessarily connected to advertising as we would define it in the traditional sense. But it’s our way of connecting with culture, and that’s what 72andSunny does as a whole for our brands. Our work is a little different because we’re not trying to make advertising. We’re trying to connect and be part of the cultural conversation.”
The same way Scileppi sought out that “authentic connection” in her one-friend-a-day project, 72andSunny seems to be searching for a similar relationship with consumers. But is blurring the lines between making, creativity and commerce a good thing?
“You could technically say what we do is one big advertisement for 72andSunny, just in a different form that we’re not used to,” she says. “But there’s a purity here. A lot of times, people think that advertising doesn’t have that authenticity, and people can’t believe it, wanting to know the ulterior motive or catch. But our work really is to give back to the creative community and to inspire.”
Scileppi says she’d love to create projects right here in Playa Vista.
“We’re always looking for talent — interesting people with different backgrounds. I call them wonderful weirdoes,” she says. “So, I put that out to Playa Vista. If anyone’s doing anything interesting or is curious, I would love for them to reach out and let’s get a coffee.”
For more information about 72U or to contact Scileppi, visit 72u.org.