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Got an Issue? Sweat It Out!

Art Profs Earn Grant for Peacemaking through Saunas

 The Mobile Sauna begins bringing people together in 2018.
The Mobile Sauna begins bringing people together in 2018.

By David Perry

The Finns have it right. The Russians have a saying about it.

Misha Rabinovich, an assistant professor in the Art & Design Department, believes the folks of Finland have for centuries been onto something that could unite people sharply divided by politics, core beliefs and regional slants. The sauna.

In shedding clothing for towels, people peel back their armor .  According to an old Russian saying, everyone is equal in the sauna.

Thanks to the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), Rabinovich and two collaborators have won a  $10,000 grant that puts the sauna at the heart of a conflict-resolution project. The artists are bringing a mobile sauna to Boston and plan to hire conflict-resolution specialists to help people at odds find common ground while they take a sauna.

“It’s an equalizer,” says Rabinovich. Saunas offer respite from the cold, as well as relaxation and restoration, he says. In steam heat, there’s perspiration, detoxification and bonding.

His project, called Sweat It Out, will bring a handmade mobile sauna currently stored in Connecticut to Boston’s artist-friendly Fort Point district in the fall of 2018. Rabinovich’s collaborators include his partner, Caitlin Foley, an adjunct faculty member in the Art & Design Department, and conceptual artist Heather Kapplow. The three of them have long been immersed in sauna culture.

The mobile, wood-fired sauna was crowdfunded and built by the DS Institute, a think tank/art group that includes Foley and Rabinovich. The heat comes from a UL mobile home-certified, ultra-efficient stove, built by a Finnish-American family. It is built on a trailer using salvaged century-old hemlock and tamarack wood.  The interior, which seats seven, is made of hand-prepared, untreated cedar. Benches face the stove. The stove rests on a bed of noncombustible tiles.

The sauna’s front wall stands 8 feet, 11 inches tall at its highest point, sloping down to 7 feet on the back. It sits on a mobile trailer bed 12 feet long and is powered partially by “sweat batteries,” which run on human perspiration and represents “released stress,” according to Rabinovich. Once collected on paper towels, the sweat is now “externalized and no longer doing damage inside the body and mind.”

The sweat battery does produce energy, but its symbolism may be more powerful: A community of sauna folks, sometimes unknown to one another, gathering to provide energy.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when they moved to Boston, Rabinovich and Foley looked for saunas. They found there was a dearth of them. They met Kapplow, also a sauna fan.

“We thought, how do we engage the mobile sauna in Boston?”

With the NEFA grant in hand, the group is now working with the Fort Point Arts Community to find a location that will be MBTA-accessible.

They will hire conflict resolution professionals, from the traditional to those who practice psychomagic, a nontraditional form of shamanic psychotherapy.

At some point before the first sweat breaks, Rabinovich and company will issue an “open call” for people with conflicts.

Rabinovich expects the sauna itself will do much of the work when it comes to settling disputes. 


“It is a perfect setting for people to find common ground,” he says.