Down to Earth: Extraordinary STEAM Learning

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Mary Mattingly, A Technological Abyss, 2020, living sculpture. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

The Universe and nature are such vast and complicated concepts, but that has not stopped creative people from scrutinizing them through works of art. Visualizing the cosmos and our own Earthly phenomena has been a hotbed for artistic thinking and learning since the earliest forms of human expression. From making representational associations of celestial bodies (constellations) to designing sustainable interactive environments (Eco-art, land art, etc); art has been a key element to the exploration and understanding of our natural and metaphysical world. Through a combination of imagination, resourcefulness, experimentation and technology, massive and mystifying issues like cosmology and the Anthropocene are contextualized into a tangible visions that have potential to impact viewers on a social and emotional level.

Stars Down to Earth is a two-person exhibition at the Brooklyn Library (in partnership with the Prospect Park Alliance and More Art), featuring work by Mary Mattingly and Dario Robleto. Both artists visually scrutinize scientific issues, and pose essential questions around events simultaneously happening light-years away and in our own backyards. In their respective art practices, Mattingly and Robleto adapt theories, knowledge and traditions from a spectrum of disciplines and apply them to their work in a manner that transforms abstract thoughts and occurrences into empirical methodologies. Stars Down to Earth and future iterations of this Eco-based exhibition, include experiential STEAM learning through interactive works of art, artist talks and workshops focused on the integration of art and science.

Robleto’s sculptures are carefully researched cabinets of curiosity, which artfully re-frame objects and events from the past into a futuristic vision of mortality and human nature. He achieves this by creating hybrid forms out of unlikely combinations of artifacts and experiences. One of his early works of art is titled You Make My World a Better Place to Find (1996-1998). From a glance, it resembles a spool of thread, but overall, the work is indicative of a performative sculpture that literally threads a spectrum of human beings together. The artwork was created by discreetly acquiring pieces of lint and other small strand-like materials from friends and strangers. Upon collecting these materials, Robleto fashioned them together into one long string, which he spooled. With the newfound material, he tailored and sewed things like loose buttons and ripped clothing back together. From a symbolic standpoint, it suggests that fixing our broken world lies within the collective engagement of finding restorative ways to be united. As a species, we have the ability to mend overarching issues if we combine individual forces and discover the power in supporting each other’s diverse qualities and experiences.

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Installation of Dario Robleto’s work in Stars Down to Earth at the Brooklyn Library. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Robleto is currently collaborating with scientists as an artistic consultant to a project called “Breakthrough Message,” a multi-national endeavor that seeks to determine how and what humans should communicate to extraterrestrial beings. Perhaps two of his archival prints Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun I) and Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun II) would be apt. The prints are inspired by the ethereal elements of 1960s and 70s arena performances. Robleto culminated photographs taken by fans at Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, The Doors, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Janis Joplin, Charlie Parker and Elvis Presley concerts; and arranged them so that they represent gradient beams of light, akin to atmospheric and celestial glows. The imagery would be at once recognizable to all beings who shared the same night sky. However, our musical subcultures might be less familiar to an intelligent being from beyond Earth. It could be a nice and poetic way to explain to an alien life form how the creation and immersion of art illuminates our cultural realms.

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Dario Robleto, Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun I), 2012. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Mattingly’s artistic focus is rooted in ecological development and issues of sustainability on our planet. She creates works of art that illuminate the growing climate crisis, as well as the unsustainable use of organic materials and natural resources for economic and political purposes. Her magnum opus is Swale, an ongoing floating ‘food forest,’ which provides sustainable and healthy nutrition, and raises consciousness about building self-sufficient food communities within urban environments. Additionally, she has created and/or co-created sustainable public habitats, such as the Foodway in Concrete Plant Park, and the Waterpod Project.

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Mary Mattingly’s Cobalt and Nature Morte photographs. Installation photograph of Stars Down to Earth at the Brooklyn Library. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Another project by Mattingly, is an inquiry into the reaping of cobalt, a natural Earth material that is used to make highly profitable products. There is both a creative and destructive impetus for mining cobalt, as evident from its extensive uses, including powering energy turbines and making paint and weaponry. Cobalt-based blue pigments are well known and valuable to artists, while cobalt ore is beneficial to expanding the military industrial complex. The harvesting of massive amounts of cobalt involves  extraction practices that are contributing to climate change and displacement. Mattingly’s material-based explorations, discoveries and insights into Cobalt (2016), reveal stark contrasts involving our reliance on natural resources. Artifacts from Cobalt and her aerial landscape photographs depicting extractive industries, are on display at the Brooklyn Library. Also on view is Mattingly’s A Technological Abyss (2020), a spherical living sculpture that displays and nurtures plants that were growing over 50 million years ago (during the Eocene Epoch) in the region that is now New York. The Eocene was a period of warm oceans and balmy, humid temperatures throughout the globe (the world was practically ice-less from pole-to-pole). The sculpture also holds plants that would survive in New York, if the current rate of expedited global warming continues. Both sets of plants are of the tropical tolerant variety. The parallel between the volatile climate of the Eocene (which led to an extinction event) and the Anthropocene, reinforces the idea that we are heading into a very dire moment in our Earth’s history.

After its display at the library, Mattingly’s living sculpture is going to be installed in nearby Prospect Park (April – June, 2020). While on view in the park, the sculpture will be a setting for additional experiential art programing focusing on issues of clean water. Produced by More Art and in collaboration with local community groups, Public Water is a multisite public art and educational project addressing the ways citizens of New York are connected through complex watersheds that provide drinkable/functional water to upstate and downstate residents. These projects are intended to prompt us to enact ecological ways of learning, making and being, in order to improve our contemporary commons so that facets of biological life that are currently threatened stand a chance of survival.

Mattingly is intrigued by the idea of the commons, which are resources that are accessible to the collective society and are not owned by one single entity (i.e. water, air and soil). Commons are generally maintained by a community of benefactors who develop institutions and systems that have value and offer benefits for multiple users. Swale, Foodway and the Waterpod Project are good examples of commons, because they make healthy soil, clean water and organic food available to the public; and also provide equitable access to an ecological-centered education, so that groups and individuals (of all ages and backgrounds) can utilize common natural resources in a sustainable and ethical manner. A Technological Abyss and Public Water is also based on the idea of the commons. The sculpture is currently located in front of the Info Commons at the Brooklyn Library, which hosts free space and opportunities for the public to access an array of multimedia and professional services. When Public Water arrives at Prospect Park, it will reinforce and build upon (the parks architect) Frederick Law Olmsted’s socially engaged vision of making natural resources and communal recreational space abundant to urban populations. Throughout the course of the project, visitors will participate in dialogues that reflect their personal narratives related to ecological commons and raising concerns about the quality of water and preservation of common waterways. In tandem with artists, educators and environmental advocates, the public will discover innovative ways to collectively build awareness around environmental justice.

As we have begun to see from the aforementioned examples, Mattingly and Robleto’s art reveals how art, science and engineering can successfully interrelate with one another. Each artist’s work poses essential questions such as: how can the artistic practice transform and evolve through working outside of the art field? How can art be harnessed to change the way science is performed?

Developing lifelong inquiries and ethical innovations is a major objective of combining the arts, science and technology into an insightful and participatory-based educational framework (STEAM). The arts give us the permission and tools to think boldly and manipulate materials in a manner that adds an emotional and unique human element to the scientific method. Echoing a quote by astronomer Carl Sagan (from his publication Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, 1980), “imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere,” Mattingly and Robleto have employed their artistic skills to contribute to disciplines such as ecology and astronomy, with actual scientific results to show for it.

Underground Education

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Lee Brozgol, The Greenwich Village Murals: Providers (left panel), 1993, ceramic and mosaic.

The subway seems like one of the least likely places to be inspired in all of New York City, especially with apparently endless service delays, cuts and overcrowded conditions. However, if you allow yourself to look past the bureaucratic incompetence and exercise  a flair for discovery, you will notice that the subway system is a living museum where New York City’s youth have had a major role in creatively communicating their place within the urban environment.

One of the aspects that keeps the subway system from feeling like a dystopia is its abundance of public art in stations throughout the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. There is work by some of the most influential Modern and Contemporary artists like Sam Gilliam, Nancy Spero, Elizabeth Murray, Eric Fischl , Faith Ringgold and William Wegman (who recently contributed mosaics of Weimaraners in human clothes). There is a concise Subway Art Guide, where you can view images and find out the locations of art within New York City’s subway stations.

While all of these great works by well known artists might inspire joy and contemplation during the hectic commute, it is the art of the city’s children that arguably provide the greatest sense of hope and inspiration. The city’s transit system is full of artwork that was realized by the imaginative and insightful nature of kids, both working on their own and collaborating with working artists. A previous Artfully Learning post, Collaborating with Kids: Problem-posing Models for Profound Works of Art, describes how the ‘Four Cs’ of 21st century learning: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Communication, are strengthened when contemporary artists and kids collaborate on projects. These social, emotional and cognitive skills are highly visible in the following examples of youth-centered artwork.

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Lee Brozgol, The Greenwich Village Murals (providers panels), 1993, ceramic and mosaic.

The Greenwich Village Murals by Lee Brozgol, located on the platform of the Christopher St.-Sheridan Square subway station (serviced by the 1 train), is an example of how, with the guidance and expertise of an artist, children learned to break down and synthesize complex ideas into symbolic images. Nine students in the 5th and 6th grade from P.S. 41 were selected to partake in this project with Brozgol. The students were prompted to make composite drawings that addressed the topic of identity by illustrating subjects that reflect iconography and actions that shaped the West Village.

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Lee Brozgol, The Greenwich Village Murals: Bohemians (center panel), 1993, ceramic and mosaic.

Choosing who to depict was a challenge. The history of such a vibrant community is a vast and multifaceted topic, therefore the figures depicted in the mural are diverse, spanning time, cultural backgrounds and ideologies. The murals are organized by themes, in which each of the figures are assigned. There are the ‘founders’ who include a member of the Lenape people and the 17th-century Dutch land developer Wouter Van Twiller, which considers the Village’s indigenous and colonial habitation. The ‘providers’ include Mary Simkhovitch, an early 20th century social worker, city planner and  co-founder of Greenwich House, which was initially developed to provide services to help the influx of immigrants adapt to life in the City. The ‘bohemians’ feature cultural icons like Mabel Dodge, a noted art patron who hosted a renowned weekly salon in her apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue. Lastly, there is the ‘rebels’ mural, featuring Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, a political pamphlet that fueled America’s War of Independence. Paine lived at what is now 309 Bleecker Street.

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Ceramic tile from Westside Views by Nitza Tufiño and 17 adolescents. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Another large underground display of student-centered art can be seen if you take the 1 train uptown to 86th Street. There you will find a station-wide collaborative art installation titled Westside Views (1989), by Nitza Tufiño and 17 young New Yorker’s, mostly from the Grosvenor Neighborhood House‘s school equivalency and educational program (The Grosvenor Neighborhood House was a local organization that began serving the community as a settlement house in 1916). The installation consists of 40 ceramic glazed tiles, each depicting an adolescent artist’s visual perspective of the Upper West Side. The tiles feature vibrant neighborhood scenes that celebrate diversity and community spirit. They portray prominent landmarks like the Hayden Planetarium (at the nearby Museum of Natural History), and intimate scenes such as two fathers strolling with their babies, three generations of women sharing food on a bench and children playing on the playground. Westside Views weaves together the colorful myriad of people, places and things that make a neighborhood flourish.

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Installation view of Beautifying Briarwood in the Briarwood/Van Wyck Boulevard station,  2006. Photo by Brian Weinberg on www.nycsubway.org. (c) Brian Weinberg, 2006.

In Queens, students from Briarwood schools made statements on the theme of identity, through a series of mural paintings collectively titled Beautifying Briarwood (displayed at the Briarwood-Van Wyck Boulevard station, serviced by the F train). One of the most unique aspects about this project was that the murals represented the different phases of K-12 artistic development (see: Louis, 2005) because students of Archbishop Molloy High School, M.S. 217Q (middle school) and P.S.117Q (elementary school) all contributed to the paintings. Unfortunately the paintings were removed during station renovation in 2014, although some are archived through installation photographs. From the documentary photographs, it is apparent that these student realized works of art brightened up the dimly lit and monotonous corridors of the station. It also must have been efficacious for students to see their work in such a public setting and to share their symbolic works of art with the community.

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Jimmy James Greene, Children’s Cathedral, 1996, ceramic mosaic. Courtesy of MTA Arts & Design NYCT Percent for Art.

“They were the soloists, I was the orchestra leader,” Jimmy James Greene says about his monumental monumental mosaic mural Children’s Cathedral (1996) in the Utica Avenue station (Brooklyn, A train). The mosaic was created through a discourse that Greene had with local students regarding their modes of playing, learning, faith and cultural celebrations. Then Greene prompted the students to draw pictures based on the dialogue they had. The result is a whimsical and inspiring range of imagery including a mother nurturing her children, a teacher in class, and a large variety of activities performed by children (jumping rope, singing in choir, reading and more). Greene arranged and used the children’s drawings to create his final composition, which adorns the passageways leading to the train platforms.

Besides being great works of art for straphangers to enjoy, these aforementioned artworks reveal the benefits of artists collaborating with young people. The creative process involves many important habits of mind and skills such as making connections between art and daily life, interdependent learning and socialization. These habits of mind (see: Educating Through Art and Costa and Kallick, 1996) have lifelong benefits for developing creative and critical thinking. All of these projects required a cooperative and non-hierarchical structure that fosters teamwork and empowers young people to realize their abilities to communicate symbolically. Their visions provide both a respite for weary travelers and a way to express their place within the City they are a part of shaping and progressing.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bloodworth, Sandra, Ayers, William. 2014. New York’s Underground Art Museum: MTA Arts & Design. New York: The Monacelli Press.

Costa, Arthur L. and Kallick, Bena. Habits of Mind: A Developmental Series, Victoria: Hawker Brownlow Education Pty Ltd, 2004.

Landrum, Susan. “Subway Station Art: The 1 Train’s 86th Street Station,” Finding NYC, 29 May 2017. https://findingnyc.com/2017/05/29/subway-station-art-20/

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25475761.

National Education Association. An Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs.” http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/A-Guide-to-Four-Cs.pdf

 

Mosaics and Murals, Celebrating the Plural

Murals and mosaics have a unique place in the collective culture of a society. Like all forms of art, the purpose of public art is to communicate, however, the mural and mosaic speak in an especially elaborate manner due to their size and where they are displayed. Since these works of art are intended to be highly visible in the public space, the design and implementation of a successful public artwork should incorporate elements of the environment where it will be on view. These details might include (but are not limited to) honoring historic moments or figures, addressing public health concerns (see: Keith Haring’s Crack Is Wack, 1986), raising environmental awareness and celebrating particular achievements of the local community.

Some examples of community focused public art projects include murals, mosaics and site-specific relief sculpture created by artists and arts organizations such as Mural Arts Philadelphia, the Chicago Public Art Group, John T. Biggers, Kerry James Marshall, Pedro Silva and CITYarts’, John Ahearn, Rigoberto Torres and the various contributing artists to the Audubon Mural Project. These projects illuminate ideas/hopes/dreams, important community personalities, inspirational achievements, pertinent issues and other relevant topics. 

Murals and mosaics are a vibrant source of enjoyment and efficacy for cities across the world, which is why you’re likely to encounter them nearly everywhere you go. Besides being a destination and attraction for art aficionados, murals and mosaics celebrate diversity and multiplicity of identities and heighten our consciousness to complex conditions in our social and cultural environments. 

The desire for public arts beneficial role within society was evident during the Great Depression (1930s-1940s) when the United States government introduced the Work Projects Administration (WPA). The majority of the WPA’s focus was to provide jobs for the large percentage of unemployed individuals by initiating ambitious projects that included the construction and expansion of infrastructure and housing. The ambitious program also included the Federal Art Project, which provided financial stability for artists who were commissioned to design and implement public artworks. The idea was that having art in public spaces would increase pride, optimism and civic engagement throughout the population. Besides giving artists a stable income, the Federal Art Project livened up municipal buildings such as hospitals, schools and public spaces. There was also an important educational component to the Federal Art Project that employed artists from the Art Teaching Division in settlement houses and community centers where they taught classes to nearly 50,000 children and adults.

Community-based art projects remain a key element in providing inspiration, motivation and creative collaboration among diverse individuals and groups. One of the longest operating public arts organizations in the United States is in the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection, also known as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia’s rich history as a major hotbed during the 1970-80’s graffiti movement, makes the city an ideal place for collective mural-making, which strengthens inner city relationships and enhances economic opportunities for local communities. Mural Arts Philadelphia was founded by Jane Golden in 1984 with a mission to ignite change through the collaborative production of murals throughout the city. The organization’s work ” is created in service of a larger movement that values equity, fairness and progress across all of society.” Through a wide variety of public art-centered programs, Mural Arts Philadelphia empowers individuals to be agents of change through the cathartic and educational avenues. Major contemporary artists such as Kent Twitchell, Hank Willis Thomas and Meg Saligman, have worked with Mural Arts to create public artworks that address local themes of unity and provoke progressive social, economic and political dialogue. Restorative justice is a major focus of Mural Arts’ creative force. Through a transformative creative process, members of the community, victims of violence and formally incarcerated individuals work together with an “aim to restore and rebuild communities affected by crime, maintain inclusivity and sensitivity for victims and to reduce the current recidivism rate.” The program realizes arts important role as a restorative medium that brings people from all facets of life together to create symbolic meaning, exhibit empathy for one another and take action to make transformative changes (see: Educating Through Art).

Another influential and longstanding community focused arts organization is the Chicago Public Art Group, which was founded in 1971 by a group of artists who desired to incorporate public art with public service by working alongside residents from Chicago’s urban communities. Each public art project that the Chicago Public Art Group takes on is informed through democratic discourse and participation between professionally trained artists and local residents from Chicago’s multicultural neighborhoods. These projects are prominently displayed in public spaces such as on the walls of buildings, highway underpasses, or railway viaducts. Among the organization’s core members is Olivia Gude, an influential and renowned contemporary artist and arts educator. Gude is also a founder of the Spiral Workshop, an experimental art education program, which provides art programs for teens, as well as a research platform for art educators to hone and develop contemporary visual arts curricula. In addition to working with the Chicago Public Art Group and teaching (she is currently a professor of art education at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago), Gude wrote a comprehensive survey on Chicago’s public art scene, which is titled Urban Art Chicago: A Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics and Sculptures. Gude’s book is an in depth resource for the powerful usage of public art as a form of placemaking, social engagement and education.

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Wall of Respect (1967-1971) corner of 43rd Street and Landley Avenue, Chicago, IL.

One of the major sources of inspiration for the city’s public artists like Gude and the Chicago Public Arts Group was the Wall of Respect. The Wall of Respect was a mural painted in 1967 on the side of a building at the corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue. The project was organized by the Visual Arts Workshop of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and fourteen visual artists contributed to the mural’s formation. The subjects of the landmark mural were inspirational figures from the African American past, present and contemporary history, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Nat Turner, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Gwendolyn Brooks, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Aretha Franklin and Harriet Tubman. The mural’s fate was ultimately sealed in 1971, after a fire damaged the building’s structure and it had to be torn down. However, the mural’s status has been largely cemented into the hearts and minds of Chicago’s citizens, and additional efforts have been taken to create digital resources that make the mural’s imagery accessible to current and future generations. According to Gude, the Wall of Respect largely catalyzed the creation of a community mural movement throughout the city.

Like Philadelphia and Chicago, New York City has developed an impressive past and present narrative in regards to public art. Between 1972 and 1974, visual artist Pedro Silva and architect Phillip Danzig worked in conjunction with the Cityarts Workshop (an organization incorporated in 1971, which is now known as CITYarts, Inc.) to empower local children in the design and implementation of mosaic scenes for a 400 foot bench (titled Rolling Bench) encircling the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant (W. 122nd St & Riverside Dr, New York, NY). Silva and his young collaborators created both fictional and fantastical imagery that symbolically represented their individual and collective personalities.  The juxtaposition of the whimsical bench with Grant’s stark Neoclassical tomb presents a valuable discourse between the past and present in the context of America’s distinctiveness as a melting-pot of cultural identities. Grant was a Civil War General who led the Union Army to victory against the Confederacy. As a result of the war, the enslavement of African-Americans was legally abolished. While the war ended slavery, the fight social justice and Civil Rights for minority citizens such as African Americans and Latinx is still ongoing. Many of the youthful participants who worked on the mosaic with Silva lived in upper Manhattan (and Bronx) neighborhoods predominantly consisting of black and Latinx individuals. This project provided an opportunity for them to become involved in the world around them through realizing their artistic potential and transforming their community.

 

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Marthalicia Matarrita, Black Vultures, 2014, Located at 3627 Broadway, New York, NY, 10031. Photo courtesy of Audubon Mural Project.

A recent and ongoing public art project based in upper Manhattan is the Audubon Mural Project, which utilizes contemporary art to raise awareness of the natural environment, which is often obscured within urban settings. The project, a collaboration between the National Audubon Society and Gitler &_____ Gallery, commissions artists to paint murals of 314 species of North American birds that are threatened by climate change. The location of these murals are within the neighborhood where famed ornithologist, naturalist and painter, John Audubon lived. While New York City has a diverse ecology, it is often overshadowed by towering buildings and covered by concrete pathways. The Audubon Mural Project places vibrant depictions of these vulnerable birds in a manner that is unmistakably visible to all members of the community. Seeing beautiful and uniquely rendered bird species painted on the sides of bodegas and apartment buildings, breaks up the urban aesthetic uniformity. The project embraces arts ability to foster our empathy towards environmental awareness, prompt us to reflect on how we can make a difference by preserving our ecosystem. Marthalicia Matarrita, an artist born and raised in Harlem, New York, painted a mural of the black vulture, a species of scavenger birds that are enduring significant habitat loss. Regarding the social and emotional connection between the species of vultures and the world at large, Matarrita stated:

“I found that this particular bird gets many negative reactions from people. Not many people understand that its natural survival methods are not predatory—they’re scavengers. They are ones that have the leftovers. Every animal has a role to play and the vulture plays an intricate role in the cycle of life. Helps me sympathize to other beings that struggle daily to live.”

Another important New York City based organization is Groundswell, which was founded in 1996 by a contingent of artists, educators and activists. Groundswell fosters artistic collaboration and learning by means of visual literacy, in order to improve relationships and cooperation, as well as inspire activism among youth from neighborhoods throughout the city’s five boroughs. Groundswell’s team of teaching artists work directly with school-age groups on projects that aim to empower their voice and develop pride in order to make transformative changes in their community.

In addition to dedicated public arts organizations working in the urban environment, municipalities are involved with commissioning public art projects for permanent or long-term display within the metropolis. For example, Chicago’s Public Art Collection includes over 500 public artworks exhibited throughout more than 150 municipal facilities across the city (its most iconic work is Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, located in Millennium Park).

In 2017, the city of Chicago produced its first “Year of Public Art” with proposals for new public artworks, a Public Youth Corps, a Public Art Festival, city-wide exhibitions, performances and tours. The city commissioned several major public art projects including a mural conceptualized by Kerry James Marshall, which was funded by Murals of Acceptance. Kerry James Marshall is a contemporary artist that recently transferred his successful studio practice to the street by creating a monumental mural titled Rushmore (2017), which adorns the west side of the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E Washington St, Chicago, IL). Marshall grew up in South Central Los Angeles and now lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. His work is widely exhibited and collected and he is considered among his generation’s most renowned painters. Marshall’s paintings are typically very large, however, the 132-foot-wide, 100-foot-tall Rushmore represents his largest work to date. The mural pays tribute to twenty women from Chicago’s past and present, who have made vital contributions to the city’s cultural scene.

Marshall’s aesthetic composition  resembles the formation of Mount Rushmore, which is a massive stone monument in the Black Hills region of South Dakota, depicting the carved faces presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. In Marshall’s painted version of Rushmore, the faces are carved out of the trunks of gargantuan trees while cardinals carrying white ribbon fly around them. In the background is Chicago’s city skyline with its notable architecture. Overall, this mural offers the public an enlightening perspective that shifts away from the mainstream patriarchal paradigm. In a monumental way, Rushmore addresses the gender gap in the subject matter of public art, where women are not represented as equally or equitably as men in works of public art.

Marshall’s devotion to the city he calls home is a sentiment felt by many other artists such as John T. Biggers, John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres. These artists have contributed public artworks in order to raise the collective consciousness of their local community and celebrate its multicultural identity.

The murals of John T. Biggers address a myriad of issues affecting the lives of black Americans in domestic settings. Biggers was not only a brilliant muralist, as a professor of art education, he taught generations of artists and art educators. His devotion to community engagement and creating works of public art that are symbolic of African American history, was influential in Rick Lowe’s development of Project Row Houses in Houston (See: Want to Make Art and Education Great? Start with Community). Biggers’ public artwork are a response to racism, patriarchal structures and social inequality. They represent uplifting domestic and spiritual scenes, inspired by symbolism from African myths and legends. Realizing the importance and the need to portray women more prominently in society, his murals often feature seminal African American women such as The Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education (1952), which depicts vignettes of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Phillis Wheatley. The painting envelops the wall of a room at the Blue Triangle Multi-Cultural Association‘s headquarters in Third Ward, a historic and culturally rich African-American community in the southeast Houston management district.

Another iconic Houston mural by Biggers’ is History of the International Longshoreman’s Local 872. Biggers painted this massive mural in 1957 to celebrate the labor contributions by African American longshoremen working on Houston’s docks and ports. It was initially dedicated to the International Longshoreman’s Local 872, a predominantly black worker’s union.  For years it covered a wall within their union hall, until black and white unions were integrated. The painting is currently displayed on a wall in the second-floor auditorium of the ILA Local 24‘s headquarters. It is an awe-inspiring testament to the endurance and pride of black local laborers.

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John T. Biggers, History of the International Longshoreman’s Local 872, 1957, casein on Masonite panels, 48 x 288 inches.

Collectively, Biggers’ Houston murals, which he painted in historically black neighborhoods, make up an important part of Houston’s multicultural fabric. They express and symbolize the spirit, strength, compassion and ingenuity that African American groups and individuals had in shaping the American landscape.

John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres have devoted the majority of their artistic careers to representing the South Bronx community in a personal and unique manner. After meeting at Fashion Moda, an influential community center and art gallery in the South Bronx, Ahearn and Torres collaborated throughout the 1980 and 90s and occasionally still work together, although Torres relocated to Florida.

Ahearn and Torres frequently worked outside of their studio on the sidewalk where they interacted with passersby and invited members of the neighborhood to pose for their relief sculptures, which were created using a lifecasting process. Ahearn and Torres made two copies of each cast and gave one of the sculptures to the sitter. The duo also created large scale murals, which are affixed to the facade of neighborhood tenement houses, which makes them an integral part of the community’s landscape. These murals, made between 1981 and 1985 are: We Are A Family (Layman, Victor and Ernest, Kate, Towana and Staice, Felix and Iris and Smokey) located at 877 Intervale Avenue; Life on Dawson Street (Thomas, Barbara, Pedro with Tire and Pat and Lelena at Play) located on Dawson Street at Longwood Avenue, Bronx, NY; Homage to the People of the Bronx: Double Dutch at Kelly Street I (Frieda, Javette, Towana and Stancey) located on Intervale Avenue at Kelly Street, Bronx, NY; and Back to School (Maggie and Connie, Kido and Ralph, Jay with bike, Titi in Window) located on Walton Avenue at 170th Street, Bronx, NY.

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John Ahearn, Ismael Ismael (Tire Shop)  2017
epoxy enamel on fiberglass
(L) and Monxo BX  2017, acrylic on plaster (R)

In 2017, Ahearn teamed up with a local South Bronx business and a local college professor to create two relief sculptures that are installed on the facade of the Marwa Tire Shop (250 E. 139th St., Bronx, NY). The figure on the left is a local mechanic named Ismael. Ismael works at the tire shop that his likeness presides over. He holds an impact wrench for changing tires and wears a yellow Superdry t-shirt. To Ismael’s right is a relief of Monxo Lopez, a Puerto Rican born professor who resides in the Bronx and teaches Latinx culture at Hunter College. The two sculptures are part of a dialogue about the unique and diverse nature of the neighborhood, which is mix of small businesses, industry, residential housing and academic institutions. Through the subjects he has depicted, Ahearn’s public artworks highlight the importance of keeping local businesses thriving and honoring the essence of the neighborhood’s diverse residents.

In the educational sphere, murals are a popular school placemaking project across the country because of their overarching benefits such as expressing unifying messages, diversity of identity and pride. Planning murals involves organizing students and faculty in a democratic decision making process, which eliminates the banking model of education in favor of problem-posing pedagogy. Mural making embraces studio habits of mind such as making connections, creating meaning, taking action and assessing/reflecting. The initial discussions, research and delineation of teamwork is as equally important as the final product. The fruits of the creative and collaborative labor are generally exhibited in a highly visible location in order to engage the school community, creating a public display to rally around (see Andrea Mastrovito’s Kickstarting project: Collaborating with Kids: Problem-posing Models for Profound Works of Art). Murals might also inspire further inquiry and activism into important themes and issues that affect student’s lives both in school and in their neighborhoods. Overall, public art in schools is elementary, my dear readers!

Do you have experiences creating murals or public art within a particular community? Are you an educator that has collaborated with your students on the creation of a mural? I’d love to hear about it so please comment below or send me an email.  


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Capps, Kriston, “The Gender Gap in Public Sculpture.” 24 Feb. 2016. CityLab. https://www.citylab.com/design/2016/02/the-gender-gap-in-public-sculpture/463170/

Chan, Yuki. “5 Ways School Wall Graphics Build Community and School Pride.” 27 Oct. 2016. RainMaker Blog. https://www.rainmakersigns.com/blog/5-ways-school-wall-graphics-network-with-students-and-stimulate-morale

Cohen, Michele. 2009. Public Art for Public Schools. New York: Monacelli Press.

Goodyear, Sarah. “Can Murals Change a Neighborhood?” 2 Jul. 2014. CityLab. https://www.citylab.com/design/2014/07/can-murals-change-a-neighborhood/373831/

Gude, Olivia (2000). Urban Art Chicago: A Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics, and Sculptures. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

Kennedy, Roger G.; Larkin, David (2009). When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy.  New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

Miss Rosen. “A Portrait of love, life, and community in the South Bronx.” 30 jul. 2018. huck. https://www.huckmag.com/art-and-culture/art-2/a-portrait-of-love-life-and-community-in-the-south-bronx/

Social and Emotional Learning – Our Public Space, our Personal Experience: Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection

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Krzysztof Wodiczko, Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection 2012, Union Square, New York, NY. Courtesy of More Art

Krzystof Wodiczko’s artistic practice transforms public spaces into sites of collective memory and historical memorialization. He has worked with diverse populations including the homeless, war veterans, and victims of global atrocities such as Hiroshima. Wodiczko’s work is often temporal and doesn’t physically alter the space. Rather, he creates a metaphysical alteration of our perception of events and public spaces by projecting poignant imagery and narratives directly on well known buildings, statues, or other iconic structures in urban environments. His installations are largely politically charged and powerfully engage the viewers to reflect on their own trauma and relationship to both past and current events.

For example, Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, comprised of videos of fourteen U.S. Veterans talking about the effects that going to war has had on them. Wodiczko projected the video on the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Union Square so that each participant’s image embodied the form of the sixteenth President.

Wodiczko’s work presents a great opportunity for educators to discuss the personal ramifications of historical events and iconic sites. Public art works such as Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection supports social and emotional learning (SEL) because it shapes social awareness, self awareness, and relationship skills by bringing a diverse population together inside the park to share in a moment of empathy. In making these poignant projects, Wodiczko relies on a strong collaborative relationship built on trust and engagement from both the subjects of his work and the viewers. Another major aspect of Wodiczko’s work is bringing an awareness and contemplation of the social and emotional connections we have to public spaces. In conjunction with Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, More Art developed a curriculum for middle school classrooms that explored the historical and contemporary functions of Union Square and the role of public spaces within the community at large.

Social and Emotional Learning – Our Public Space, our Personal Experience: Moon Guardians

Paulo Freire (1970) called for an educational model where we learn by participating in social and political events. To him, education and politics are inseparable and the student is as equally responsible in the creation of knowledge as the teacher is. There are many examples from contemporary art that vividly depict these ideas. This ongoing examination will take a look at socially engaged works of art within the public space that are made in collaboration with diverse populations.

Ofri Cnaani’s Moon Guardians (2013), was a video installation (produced by More Art), which the artist projected on a historic building in Gansevoort Plaza. The site-specific project examined the socio-historical context of New York City’s Meatpacking District, which has undergone significant changes throughout its storied history. In realizing this project, Cnaani worked with local public High School students who interviewed several longtime residents from the neighborhood. Many of these residents, including a butcher, a drag queen, an art gallerist, and an elderly couple, could no longer afford to live there. By reflecting on their memories of the neighborhood before it became the fashionable hub it is today, they portrayed a vibrant narrative of its diverse history. Cnaani filmed them in a style that is distinctly haunting. Each of these characters appeared every night, lit up from a vista on the building, and performed moments from their lives when they lived there. The result was a powerful juxtaposition of old and new New York.

Moon Guardians symbolically details the relationship between the oppressor (gentrification) and the oppressed (displaced longtime members of the community) by conflating the two groups together. We are invited into the past, but cannot fully escape reality because we are aware that the people we’re viewing are essentially spectres that appear from within an unfamiliar frontier. The working class, small business person, and loft dwelling artist have vanished in favor of high-end products, chic-boutiques, and luxury apartments. The contradictions between the gentrifiers and the gentrified and the realization of the inequity between the two groups is exemplary of what Friere coined the ‘critical conscious.’

Ofri Cnaani speaks about Moon Guardians (2013) from More Art on Vimeo.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Freire, Paulo (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art – Art and Ecology

Brandon Ballengée’s Love Motel for Insects and Amy Youngs’ Holodeck for House Crickets are great examples of how contemporary art has the ability to enhance a K-12 curriculum that focuses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) learning.Love Motel for Insects (2001-ongoing) is a public art installation raising awareness about local ecosystems by connecting humans and nocturnal anthropods in a symbiotic relationship. The nocturnal insects are attracted by UV lights, creating a performative scene when the sun goes down. These ‘social sculptures’ bring humans and insects together in an intimate setting and offers a unique opportunity to witness tiny and often elusive organisms in action. Ballengée accompanies these installations with talks and workshops for individuals and groups of all ages.

Holodeck for House Crickets from Amy Youngs on Vimeo.

Holodeck For House Crickets (2005) was a whimsical installation that envisioned what life is like for house crickets by re-presenting them in an eco-friendly environment inside of a glass terrarium that simulates the cricket’s desired natural environment. These house crickets were originally bred in a climate-controlled laboratory to be sold in pet stores as food for reptiles. These crickets could not return to their natural environments because the environment outside of the laboratory was not conducive to their wellbeing. Youngs wondered where these domesticated crickets would choose to live if they had the choice and created an interactive installation as a result of her inquiry. Holodeck For House Crickets provides a safe bubble for the crickets to thrive and interact with one another. The artificial and natural setting provided an environment where the house crickets thrived. It also allowed for an intimate viewing experience that raised awareness about the crickets and their role in the environment.

Love Motel for Insects and Holodeck For House Crickets illustrate how we can utilize art in a non-intrusive manner to create something that gives us insight into the natural world. This type of experiential learning develops our thirst for inquiry and empathy for the environment. Visual arts and the sciences focus on making explorations, discoveries and insights about the world around us. The scientific method and the process that an artist embarks on are not too dissimilar. Scientists and the artists establish their subject matter via an inquiry based process. They both research their subject matter extensively, pay close attention to details, make diagrams and sketches, work with a variety of materials, test their hypothesis (the artist makes studies in the studio while the scientist conducts experiments in the lab) and revise their project(s) as needed. The arts make scientific analysis and data more personal because artistic expression creatively encapsulates the human experience on a social and emotional level. When the two disciplines are combined in the classroom, students develop habits of mind that make them creative problem solvers and innovators while working on an issue that they find value in.

Art educators can effectively collaborate with science educators to create a learning segments that combine the artistic process with the scientific method. For example, looking at work by Brandon Ballengée and Amy Youngs, and studying ecosystems, students can create their own unique eco-art projects that include making aesthetic and hospitable habitats for local wildlife.