Still Climbing Booker T. Washington’s Ladder

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Martin Puryear. Ladder for Booker T. Washington, detail, 1996. Installation view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 2 episode, “Time,” 2003. Photo © Art21, Inc. 2003.

One of Martin Puryear’s most iconic artworks is titled Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), which is a reference to the influential 19th century activist and educator, Booker T. Washington.

Puryear is known for creating large scale sculptures out of wood and other materials that challenge our modes of perception. In Ladder for Booker T. Washington, Puryear represents forced perspective, which is an illusion that makes something look farther away than it actually is. The thirty-six foot sculpture ascends up to the very high ceiling in the gallery where it is displayed (at the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, Texas). The sculpture is a stylized ladder, which curves and gets narrower at the top. While the bottom rungs are similar in size to conventional ladders, they narrow to a surreal 1 1/4 inches at the top. The ladder is lifted several inches off the ground, which gives it the feeling of being suspended in air. Its organic form (the naturally curved side rails were created from a golden ash sapling) and ethereal installation portray a spiritual essence. 

Puryear acknowledges that the title of the artwork was realized after the sculpture was finished (Art21, 2011). The conceptual nature of Puryear’s sculpture and the title leave ample room for interpretation. Although Puryear considers the work to be abstract (meaning that there is no intended narrative element), the sculpture’s physical form and perspective might allude to Booker T. Washington’s point of view and influence on African-American culture during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.

Washington was highly successful in facilitating the development and success of black businesses and educational institutes in an era where African-Americans were denied equal and equitable access to many economic, social and cultural opportunities. However, Washington was also viewed in a controversial manner by some of his activist peers, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, because of his reluctance to advocate for immediate nationwide equality and equity for African-Americans. While Washington’s activism provided black individuals with black-centered institutional and business benefits (such as Tuskegee University and the National Negro Business League), he struck deals with prominent white politicians to gain support for these organizations. One particular deal, known as the Atlanta compromise, was made in exchange for the political submission to white policies, such as segregation. Although Washington’s contributions made significant headway for African-Americans, his reliance and advocacy for blacks assimilating to white policies upheld the status quo.

Puryear describes Washington as “someone who made enormous contacts with people in power and had enormous influence, but he was what you would call a gradualist” (Art21, 2011). While the sculpture is asserted to largely confront aesthetic issues, it also addresses ongoing social conditions. The idea of initiating, maintaining and eventually achieving a goal is symbolically represented via the use of forced perspective. The essential question Ladder for Booker T. Washington asks is: where are we in the progression of equality, equity and social justice? The abstracted organic form, asymmetry and scale of the artwork suggests that the path to obtaining these goals is uncertain and difficult. The floating nature of the sculpture might also allude to the spiritual motif of the ladder (i.e. Jacob’s Ladder/God’s promise of the promised land) and its symbolism during slavery as a means to resist oppression and gain freedom and salvation. We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder is a spiritual hymn slaves sang to express the hope that they will one day climb to God and defeat their slave-owners. Each rung of the ladder (Ev’ry round goes higher higher) signifies tests of spiritual strength that will get them closer to God and deliverance from slavery.

The exquisite handmade craftsmanship of Puryear’s sculpture reflects Washington’s educational philosophy regarding the importance of work to be viewed as dignified and beautiful. In his 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, Washington favors a form of education that teaches students to see “not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity.”

Washington advised African-Americans to value industrial labor in an intellectual and personal manner. He supported this ideology by writing: “when the student is through with his course of training he goes out feeling that it is just as honorable to labor with the hand as with the head” (Washington, 1900). This tenet was a major component of the curriculum at Tuskegee University, because Washington believed that developing professional labor skills and industrious knowledge would lead to self-preservation. The idea of building self-worth through one’s work and the need for industrial and mechanical knowledge is fundamentally sound. The argument that schools are not preparing students for the ‘real-world,’ is still a common critique in educational discourse. It would behoove all schools to provide pragmatic skills and knowledge such as agricultural management and other forms of highly skilled technical labor.

By urging his contemporaries to temporarily accept systemic discrimination in order to concentrate on elevating themselves economically through hard work, Washington’s policies ignored the affect that trauma and oppression have on educational, social and economic development. Despite Washington’s aspirations that systemic conditions would gradually change, unequal and inequitable situations still persist. Some educational environments remain segregated (Meatto, 2019) and there are less opportunities for black and brown individuals to advance economically than their white counterparts.

Puryear contributes to the contextual analysis of his sculpture as “the kind of gradual, illusory notion of upward progress that Washington encouraged blacks to adopt in the nineteenth century against an overwhelming set of obstacles to our advancement” (Powell, 2007).

Over a century later, society is still attempting to climb Booker T. Washington’s ladder…


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Art21 and Puryear, Martin. “Abstraction and ‘Ladder for Booker T. Washington,'” Art21, Nov. 2011. https://art21.org/read/martin-puryear-abstraction-and-ladder-for-booker-t-washington/

Meatto, Keith. “Still Separate, Still Unequal:Teaching about School Segregation and Educational Inequality,” New York Times, 2 May 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/learning/lesson-plans/still-separate-still-unequal-teaching-about-school-segregation-and-educational-inequality.html

Powell, Richard J. “A Conversation with Martin Puryear,” in the exhibition catalogue Martin Puryear by John Elderfield, Richard J. Powell, et al, Fort Worth: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007.

Washington, Booker T. “Signs of Progress Among the Negroes,” Century Magazine, 59 (1900), pps 472-478. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/washington/signs-of-progress.txt

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1901.

Seeing is Feeling – Art & Experience for Visually Impaired Individuals

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Unknown photographer, Rebecca Soyer touching Chaim Gross’ Sculpture Young Girl, 1926, archives of the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation.

Contemporary culture is permeated with sensory experiences that envelope our daily lives. Educational reformer, John Dewey (1938), stated that knowledge is formed by assigning meaning to the sensory experiences that bombard us. We learn when we take notice of sensory information (qualities) that are present in our environment and can attach language to these experiences so we can store them for later recall and sort them into categories so we can see connections between this experience and other experiences. Since just the act of living causes us to experience qualities (sensory information) we are often oblivious of it. It is only when we act upon, assign feelings and react to the information that we form a learning experience.

Learning is not a passive event, therefore we have to actively participate with the incoming information and do something with it in order for this information to hold meaning for us. We draw upon our past history of experience with these sensory qualities and over time form habits, which connect these experiences with feelings and act and react to these sensory qualities. Moreover, Dewey and other Constructivist and progressive thinkers uphold the theory that knowledge is derived from social interactions with others.

Taking this into account, I wanted to investigate how the field of art education addresses pedagogy of active learning that is inclusive of individuals who are either legally blind or visually impaired. These issues have always been of interest to me as an artist, art historian, curator and educator, because I believe that everyone should have accessibility to the visual arts. Art enriches people’s lives and gives them an expressive means for communicating symbolically.

In an earlier post, I discussed how Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind (2017) by the artist Lenka Clayton, utilizes sensory, inquiry and collaborative learning techniques to re-present the work of Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind (1920) in a manner that is accessible and relevant to viewers who are blind or visually impaired.

The aforementioned post also discusses the work of seminal art educator Viktor Lowenfeld and psychologist John M. Kennedy, whose experiential and multisensory pedagogical processes can be utilized to prompt aesthetic responses from visually impaired individuals. Through innovative methods, theories and techniques, artists, art students and art appreciators who have trouble seeing, can immerse themselves in both the creation and viewing of art in profound and personal ways.

Because the arts are so important to our social, emotional and cognitive development, many significant programs have been introduced to make art accessible to the population that is most vulnerable to being left out of aesthetic experiences. It is entirely possible and necessary to include resources in museums and in educational settings that can be accessible by sighted and visually impaired people alike. In fact, including more sensory based learning and viewing opportunities is beneficial for everyone, because as Mitchell (2005) asserts, there are no uniquely visual media even in the most obviously arguable instance of a painting. Mitchell argues that painting is associated with other forms of language and the act of painting isn’t purely visual at all. He states, “seeing painting is seeing touching, seeing the hand gestures of the artist, which is why we are so rigorously prohibited from actually touching the canvas” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 258).

Major museums, like the Cooper Hewitt and  Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) have implemented programs for the public that include ‘touch tours’ where visually impaired visitors are able to feel the works of art while lecturers give detailed aesthetic descriptions of the piece. Ideally, these descriptions and proceeding discussions paint a picture in the ‘mind’s eye’ of the visitor.

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Visitors are engaged in tactile observations of a sculpture by Chaim Gross. Courtesy of The Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, New York.

One recent example of an educational curriculum being developed and implemented for blind and visually impaired individuals is the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation’s “Tactile Transmissions,” a public educational program that is in conjunction with their current exhibition Teaching Through Touch: Works By Chaim Gross, curated by Sasha Davis and Brittany Cassandra.

During his illustrious career as one of the preeminent American Modernist sculptors, Chaim Gross (1904-1991) implored viewers of his sculptures to engage with them in both a visual and tactile fashion. As a part of his artistic philosophy, Gross wanted viewers to be able to interact with his art through touch, in order to learn first-hand about sculpture and connect to it in a more personal way.

Because sculpture exists in the same dimension as we do, touching sculptural works enables us to experience its three-dimensional form in a profound and engaging way. Additionally, Gross made many of his sculptures using natural materials such as wood, which he hand carved. Therefore, the surface areas of many of his sculptures are brimming with exquisite texture and other elements of art. You can literally feel the artist’s hand and tools that he used for making all of the intricate marks and forms. Allowing all viewers to touch these works of art, provides an intimate hands-on experience that gives insight into how Chaim Gross worked in his studio.

Along with teaching artists (Nitza Danieli, Pamela Lawton, Annie Leist and Deborah Lutz), participants in the at the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation’s “Tactile Transmissions” workshops analyze sculptures and drawings by Gross through multisensory activities and then create their own tactile works of art based on a specific theme (the topic is different each session).

Another seminal organization for developing curricula and technology to facilitate artistic learning for visually impaired students is Art Education for the Blind (AEB). AEB was founded in 1987 by museum educator, Elisabeth Salzhauer Axel, as a reaction to the lack of widely available programs and resources for blind and visually impaired individuals to access and appreciate the fine arts. AEB has published many resources to rectify this issue, including a comprehensive multimedia package titled Art History Through Touch and Sound: A Multisensory Guide for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The publication combines audio narrative with an interactive book on the history of art that uses tactile diagrams to guide the reader’s recognition of specific works of art. AEB’s resources and materials are widely used in museums and institutions throughout the world. AEB also works within school environments.

Psychologist John M. Kennedy has also been highly influential in developing contemporary practices for integrating tactile and other sensory explorations within visual art making and appreciation. According to Kennedy, “blind people are intuitively capable of understanding the visual world, even without training or education.” However, with instructional scaffolding and proper sensory resources, the blind and visually impaired individual’s experience with visual art can be just as replete as it is for sighted people.

Kennedy’s (in Bird, 1991) work with blind individuals creates an equal learning situation for them in the classroom. He used malleable rubber drawing boards, which allowed students to touch their drawings that they carved into the rubber sleeve. Using a simple ballpoint pen creates enough pressure to create a raised line on the board. Through this process, students learned about many of the important formal elements of art (line, shape, texture, pattern) and also formulated a comprehension of symbolic meaning, i.e. the changing shape of a car’s wheel to suggest motion (Bird, 1991).

Using raised line drawings and/or three-dimensional models enables blind students to experience the qualities (sensory information) of a work of art or architecture. This also can be helpful in providing context if for example, when learning about the Gothic cathedrals, the students can feel the shape and outline of either a drawing or model, which along with a historical and detailed description from their teacher will provide a vivid aesthetic sensibility in the student’s mind. The haptic experience coupled with a trip to a cathedral and/or the student’s previous encounter(s) inside of a church or place of worship, provides conditions for the type of perception that Dewey (1938) described as assigning meaning to an experience.

Pompano (2007) described how tactile learning, such as touching an object like a chair, allows visually impaired students to understand an object’s formal qualities as well as its essence. Her research with blind students explored the possibilities of learning through tactile and systematic approaches while studying the design of chairs. In other words, teachers can guide the students through the physical experience by describing the different parts of the chair while the student’s hands are touching it. In addition to the physical experience, the teacher will impart historical and technical knowledge upon the students regarding the chairs. While the students are engaging in the tactile discovery of the chair, the teacher can have them think about the common parts of the chairs they are engaging with and then list them. Teachers should coach the student along in their discoveries by asking the students questions about what they’re observing so that the experience of sensory perception and formal analysis become learned habits.

Art educators can make the leap from their students’ recognition of an object to their perception of an experience through social interaction and situated learning in the classroom. Verbal communication from the teacher is a key component to both recognition and perception. It can be equally helpful for sighted and blind students in the same classroom to hear the teacher describe an aesthetic object in terms of its features, which include but are not limited to physicality, location, history and narrative.

According to Castellano (1996), the goal is to have the blind student become a full participant both inside school and in their community. She suggests an increased verbal communicative approach in the classroom, wherein the teacher describes what is going on in the classroom in great detail so that the student can get as clear a picture of the lesson plan as the sighted students. Paying attention to details can help the visually impaired student construct a mental picture within the art classroom. It is through instructional scaffolding that the arts educator can help the blind student associate certain aesthetic qualities of an artwork with their own life experience.

Kuell (2009) describes a case study of a blind student named Melissa who was encouraged by her art teacher, Verna O’Donnell, to create art in the same capacity as sighted students. O’Donnell’s methodology came through trial and error, but she always had several backup plans if one method wasn’t working or engaging. She came up with a way that Melissa could explore art making through sensory perception such as focusing in on the smell and feel of the art materials. O’Donnell also organized her art classroom with very tactile objects (vibrant masks etc.) that both her blind and sighted students would appreciate. She also chose art units that would tap into the student’s personality and creativity such as mask making and imaginary landscapes. Through encouragement of both the teacher and her classmates, Melissa built up her confidence in addition to developing artistically along with the rest of her classmates. In fact, the other students asked O’Donnell about ways they could make their artwork more tactile, so that they would be appreciated and become accessible to everyone in the class.

In conclusion, it is definitely possible for blind individuals to comprehend visual media similarly to those who can see it. Classroom teachers and museum educators should understand how they can create an atmosphere in the classroom or museum that will support and prompt students/visitor’s awareness of the sensory information we are often oblivious or refrained from employing when interacting with art. Every museum collection can be combed through in order to find works of art that would be stable and captivating enough to be handled and expressly interpreted in a tactile manner.

Through both classroom/gallery conversation, tactile exploration and studio time, visually impaired individuals can relate haptic information to their experiences and connect essential qualities to these experiences that are necessary for learning. As educators, we can enhance the experience by asking engaging questions, passionately describing aesthetic qualities by incorporating a wide variety of sensory images and encouraging students to express themselves by forming habits of artistic learning. This will give a wide range of people the confidence and joy that art and art education should have on their lives.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Art Education for the Blind and American Printing House for the Blind . Art History Through Touch and Sound: A Multisensory Guide for the Blind and Visually Impaired. 1998. Louisville: Optical Touch Systems Publishers.

Bird, K. (1991). The Possibilities of Art Education for the Blind. Future Reflections, 10 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr10/issue3/f100325.html

Castellano, C. (1996). The Blind Child in the Regular Elementary Classroom. Future Reflections, 15 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr15/Issue3/f150302.html

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & Education. New York: MacMillan.

Grimm, D. (2010) Teaching art to the blind student. Art Education Daily. Retrieved from

http://arteducationdaily.blogspot.com/2010/12/teaching-art-to-blind-student.html

Kuell, C. (2009). Tapping the Creativity of Blind and Visually Impaired Students. Dialogue, 45 (2) Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr28/3/fr280307.htm

Lowenfeld, V. (1939). The Nature of Creative Activity. New York, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Mitchell, W.J. 2005. “There Are No Visual Media.” Journal of Visual Culture, 4 (2).

Pompano, J. (2001). Teaching Art to the Blind / A Study of Chairs. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Retrieved from http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/2001/2/01.02.07.x.html

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.

ahearn_torres_BX

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/