When Andrea Nugent visited family and friends in her native Philippines in 2010, it was her first visit in three decades — and the first visit ever for her American-born daughter, Michelle.
For Michelle Nugent, one of the most memorable sights of the trip was a popular form of transportation, rickshaw-like tricycles called pedicabs, featuring rear, hooded cabs with seats for passengers.
"My second cousin pedaled us. He was 40 years old and pedaling his butt off," she recalled.
But the pedicabs were more than a cultural highlight. They were an artistic vision for the younger Nugent, a graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art. What she loved most about them were the spirited conversations and interaction they fostered between pedaler and passenger.
"It struck me as really exciting and meaningful, an intimate means of transportation," she said.
Now, for her thesis in MICA's Master of Fine Arts program in Community Arts, Nugent, 25, of Charles Village, has started The Pedicab Project, which she promotes with the slogan, "Transportation-driven conversation."
Five-foot-two and 110 pounds, she gives people free rides in her own, art-trike version of a pedicab, complete with a working bell; and she interviews the passengers for a series of oral histories.
"I think of it as an interactive kinetic sculpture," Nugent said.
On her website, http://thepedicabproject.tumblr.com, and in a pamphlet that she hands out to potential passengers, Nugent writes, "The Pedicab Project records, preserves and shares American oral histories collected from interviews within (communities) through a series of pedicab rides physically operated by community artist Michelle Nugent."
"Join the journey," she writes.
The project is Nugent's way of exploring her cultural heritage as a Filipino-American and its influence on her artwork. The pedicab rides also offer passengers a platform for sharing stories about their own heritage, culture and identity.
"Do you have a compelling story to tell about yourself, family, friends or community? Ride the pedicab and share your story," Nugent writes.
Looking for passengers
Nugent, a former AmeriCorps after-school community art teacher at Guilford Elementary School, began planning The Pedicab Project in September 2011 and began riding the pedicab around late last summer. She has taken oral histories from 30 passengers in the Charles Village area and at MICA Place, a community-outreach campus in east Baltimore, where she parks the pedicab in her cubbyhole studio space when she's not using it.
She has trolled for passengers at community association meetings, a block party in Lake Walker, recent events such as The Big Draw in Wyman Park Dell and at the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly. But she also has picked up strangers in the streets.
One of her passengers was Cymantha Governs, 38, a writer for Johns Hopkins Medicine International, who met Nugent at the block party in Lake Walker.
"It was a good time," Governs said in an email.
Governs, who is of Middle Eastern descent and is married to a black man, said she was excited to have a conversation with Nugent about race because Nugent is of Filipino descent and "I feel like the race conversation in Baltimore is often solely about black and white."
Nugent expects to graduate in April. Her thesis presentation in Station North from March 29 to April 14 will be part of a larger show for MICA Masters of Fine Arts graduates. After that, she hopes to post all of her oral histories online.
But she has set no limit yet on how many oral histories she will do.
"It's totally up to me," she said. "At this point, this is a work in progress."
Nugent's pedicab is basically a gearless children's bicycle with a third wheel and a covered sidecar — "a modified tricycle," as she describes it. Made of recycled materials and found objects, it has a bench chair, big enough to seat two children, for passengers. The attached, hooded cab is fashioned from plywood, PCU piping and streamers, with a canopy made of fabric from a window shade.
Nugent has decorated the passenger seat and canopy with collages of magazine ads. The roof and poles come off.
"It's collapsible," Nugent said.
In addition to fostering conversations, the pedicab is a conversation piece."I get stares," she said. "I get dropped jaws. Children are wide-eyed."
It's an odd feeling for Nugent, who despite her very public project, describes herself as an introvert and says she can feel people's eyes following her.
"I'll know that this person is looking at me with this crazy contraption," she said.
But Nugent, an aspiring college art teacher, also dreams of starting a nonprofit program working with communities to build their own pedicabs, exposing children and young adults to art.
"Ideally, I would not want to charge money for them. This project is pretty personal. It might look pretty goofy, but it allows me to interact with people. It becomes a vehicle for conversation."
On Saturday, Nugent, wearing a recorder on her arm, brought her pedicab to the farmers' market, assisted by one of her roommates, Beth Mendenhall, a graduate student studying political science at Johns Hopkins University, who served as a volunteer recruiter of passengers.
The market crowd was wide-eyed, including MICA President Fred Lazarus, of Roland Park, who had heard of Nugent's pedicab, but was seeing it for the first time.
"I think it's fabulous, but wouldn't I?" Lazarus said, admitting, "I'm biased."
"I think the idea of using it for oral histories is a great way to engage people," Lazarus said.
Nugent's stay at the market was short-lived. A member of the market's board of directors gently but firmly asked her to leave, saying it was too crowded for her to pedal her pedicab down the narrow main aisle.
"Let's go to Plan B," Nugent said resourcefully, and began pedaling up 32nd Street toward Greenmount Avenue. On the way, she met recently widowed Eric Rogers, 50, of Towson, the maintenance director at Calvert Hall College High School, who was on his way to buy nuts at the market, and invited him to ride with her and give her an oral history.
"I'm game," said the Baltimore native, a former resident of Wilson Park off York Road, who told Nugent about his family's tobacco farming history, his five children and three grandchildren and why he loves the Baltimore area.
"I think (the Pedicab Project) is nice," Rogers said afterward. "I wish her success. She seems determined and she has a good heart. I couldn't walk away from a person like that."
Nugent also gave a ride to psychotherapist and yoga instructor Lauren Going, 33, of Ednor Gardens, and her daughter, Asla, 3.
"It was fun," Going said, as Asla rang the pedicab's bell. "It looks just like a rickshaw."