Maintenance Art: Ecology, Civility and Empathy through Artful Learning

With the pandemic still looming large throughout the world, especially here in the United States, it is important that we all do our part to stay safe. This means being cognizant of our actions, and taking the necessary logical and compassionate steps to help ensure that the every community has equal and equitable resources to support the health and well-being of individuals. Staying at a physically appropriate distance (6 feet or more) from others while in public, as well as wearing a mask, have proven to be effective ways of mitigating the public health risks related to COVID-19 . These are simple, but essential actions that every citizen should be driven to apply to their everyday lives.

While many of us have been staying home and keeping physically distant as best as possible, there has been a workforce of individuals known as ‘essential workers’ keeping our culture thriving. These laborers provide invaluable services like healthcare, transportation, education, safety and access to nutrition. They are doctors, nurses, EMTs, fire fighters, pharmacists, grocery store workers, delivery persons, sanitation workers, bus drivers and train conductors, janitors and construction workers to name just a few. Essential labor has kept us safer, healthier and more fulfilled at a point in time when spirits can be low.

Several contemporary art endeavors have integrated elements and themes of essential labor and communicated the experiences of essential workers. One mode of contemporary art, called social practice, is an aesthetic movement, a social revolution and an experiential learning process all at once. It is is an art medium focusing on engagement through human interaction and social discourse (see: Helguera, 2012). Social practice is a broad artistic discipline and can include more traditional means for making art (i.e. painting, sculpture, photography or performance), as well as art that is devoid of traditional materials and solely based on experiences. Social practice artworks often combine both of these elements to support a variety of personalities who learn, participate and experience things through different lenses. Often times, social practice is rooted in progressive pedagogical frameworks like constructivism, which acknowledges that understanding and knowledge is constructed in accordance with learners’ prior backgrounds and experiences.

Eric Mathews at Socrates Sculpture Park. Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park.

Eric Mathews is a Queens, New York based social practitioner whose professional and personal expertise combines horticulture, art and youth education. In his very prolific standing within the community, Mathews works as an educator, arts administrator and gardener. He’s the co-founder and executive director of a non-profit called  The Minor Miracles Foundation, as well as the Director of Grounds & Horticulture at Socrates Sculpture Park. In both of these roles, Mathews designs and facilitates experiences for people to benefit from urban ecology and participate in outdoor art viewing and community cultural events. Within Minor Miracles, Mathews’ role as an educator has inspired the growth and artistic development of children living in Astoria Houses, which is one of New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) public housing developments. Prior to engaging in programing through Minor Miracles, many of these children did not have the access to equal and equitable cultural experiences that are afforded to their neighbors living in the gentrified and affluent areas of Long Island City and Astoria.  Another mission of Minor Miracles is to promote youth fitness and whole body wellness. They fulfill this through group play and activities that encourage socialization and critical thinking among diverse groups of participants.

Youth from the community at Socrates Sculpture Park during the annual ‘Day of Play.’ Courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park.

Minor Miracles has worked in collaboration with Socrates Sculpture Park since 2011. Since 2012, their annual ‘Day of Play’ event has incorporated the ‘Days of Heroes’ series, which presents interactive workshops and activities to give teenagers perspectives on different civic career paths that they might embark on after high school. Students gain insights on various professional roles that give back to the community, and get hands on experience regarding what it entails to become essential workers in the near future. In addition to learning technical skills that will help them at future jobs, the participants build conceptual and critical skills that strengthen their social and emotional understandings about the world around them. Artist, Shaun Leonardo, works with the teenagers to define and assess what being a ‘superhero’ means. They talk about their own extraordinary qualities and any additional characteristics they aspire to develop, in order to make their collective environment a better place. This form of experiential learning gives these students a head start in determining their paths to success and formulating lifelong missions to graciously support their fellow citizens.

As public parks are considered essential, they have been open throughout the course of the City-wide shelter-in-place order. Although his work is always essential, Mathews’ maintenance of public spaces for all members of the community to coexist, enjoy and learn together is an invaluable resource for our resilient city. While many of the administrative staff is working remotely, Mathews has been onsite to maintain the park’s grounds, which includes a variety of native flora and cutting edge contemporary art, while always greeting visitors from a safe distance.

Mathews’ work at Socrates Sculpture Park and throughout the Astoria community, helps a wide range of individuals become absorbed in a creative and collaborative process, while gaining firsthand understandings about a social, cultural and environmental issues. Through becoming producers of valuable shared experiences, these individuals will likely be motivated to continue shaping and maintaining the world they want to live in. This is important especially for the youth, who will blossom into essential planners, leaders and activists working towards creative solutions to a myriad of societal issues.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Helguera, Pablo (2012). Education for Socially Engaged Art. New York: Jorge Pinto Books. p. 22.


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