Sunday, July 29, 2012

The GHOST STORY of "The 94 Effect" Project

Ok, I've put it off long enough.  Gather 'round the campfire, kiddies, it's story time.

So If you've been reading this blog, you know that I'm an intern working under a muralist (I call her Andrea on here... not sure if I should use her real name) for the Mural Arts Program here in Philadelphia.  For 3-4 days a week, you can find us painting up the outside of a public pool in a North Philly neighborhood, usually in shorts and bathing suits, sweating and dripping in the Summer-on-the-East-Coast humidity. One or two days a week, we're in Andrea's studio, working on a different project.

This other non-mural project, is called "The 94 Effect".  The deal is, some psychiatrist had this theory that 94 people are affected by every murder that happens.  From the victim's neighbors to their math teacher to their sister, people all around a murder victim are somehow affected by it.  So the project was going to be a sort of anti-violence/awareness tool, and involve at-risk kids somehow.  So in the first stages, Andrea held a 5-day summer art workshop with some local high school juniors and seniors, at this "really CREEPY building" (her words. I was not here in Philly yet when they all did this). The kids all came up with a fictional murder story, victim, and 94 characters to be affected by it.  For each character, the kids gave them a name, a relationship to the victim, and a description of how they felt about the whole thing.  Along with this little write-up, each character got a "junk sculpture" to represent them.  The kids did a really great job and sounds like they had a blast making these things out of old bottles, glitter, shattered auto glass, sequined fabric, styrofoam shapes, etc etc....just super creative, fun sculptures out of all this crazy stuff.  Andrea and I's job, is to gather up all these sculptures and make them all into one cohesive piece to be displayed in the public (still not sure where it's going to be yet). So our solution was, we got 2 gigantic frames (like 4' x 8' - BIG) and wove all this string in them to create kind of a web. Then, we've been weaving these sculptures into the framed web. That's not all.... with the project budget, we also had enough to hire an engineer to make us these little LED lights that pulse slowly on and off - like a HEARTBEAT.  Each junk sculpture, representing a person, gets a heartbeat light.  It's gonna look awesome. And creepy. Which is the whole point. Also, we're gonna make a book of all the character's descriptions and display that, too, so people can read about everyone.  So, you're probably like, "cool, I guess that's creepy? Sorta?" No. Get this:

Creepy Thing #1: When naming her "fictional" character, one of the students named her character a name of an actual murder victim in Philly.  It was a strange name.  She swears she had never heard of the story before. They re-named the character something else in respect for the victim.

Creepy Thing #2: When the kids were thinking up the murder story, across the room from the student mentioned above, another kid simultaneously "brainstormed" the exact way that the actual victim from Creepy Thing #1, was murdered. Without knowing the story.

Creepy Thing #3: Every time Andrea went to this "creepy building" to do the workshop with the kids, she got severe stomach cramps and would eventually vomit.  Every day she was there.  After the workshop, as she was leaving the room by herself, she describes a "black mist" coming from the back of the otherwise totally bright and sunny room (it had large windows), moving towards her.  She ran from the building and hasn't been back, since.

Creepy Thing #4: One of the kids found an old teakettle in the basement of this creepy building they were working in, and used it to create their junk sculpture. As Andrea was moving everything back to her studio, this sculpture broke (multiple pieces, hot-glued together). She set the pieces aside in her studio.  The next day when she came into her studio, the pieces were re-assembled the way they were supposed to be originally.

Creepy Thing #5: Weird things have been happening in the studio since bringing everything there. While it was just us two working one day, a piece of glass fell off the table on the other side of the room, and shattered. Andrea was working one day and heard knocks at the door (no one there) and more stuff fell off the shelves.

Yes, so maybe the things falling were some weird minor earthquake things.  Maybe the black mist was some kind of weird mold, and that's what made Andrea sick.  Maybe it can all be explained away somehow, but I am one to believe that there's things out there that we don't have the ability to perceive (well, maybe some of us out there can).  Maybe some spirit or something is trying to make sense of this whole murder thing....maybe it's stirring up something painful and making someone mad.  I don't know, really, but Andrea says she could not be more ready to get this project done and out of her life.  Take from it what you will, but it's a crazy world, and nothing is black and white.

Until our next story,


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Art in the Jail

Yesterday was a unique work day.  Instead of my normal schedule, I went to a place called The Detention Center.

I had signed up along with 6 other interns to help out with an art day event that the Restorative Justice folks had been planning at the jail (not state prison...more of a holding center for people awaiting trial).  Usually, the art classes that Restorative Justice (a branch within the Mural Arts Program) holds, are either at the state prison, the juvenile detention center, or the work-release facility.  The Detention Center though, needed some art too.  The classes are usually a series of 10-weeks and are actual instruction in general art.  The event I was helping out at, was planned to be more of a free-for-all style, art making, creative day for the inmates. There would be no formal instruction, just tables set out with projects and materials to work on, and us there for encouragement.  We all were asked to come up with ideas for projects the men could do, and my first thought was of a project I love doing with my students as a supplement to whatever wall mural we're working on - a cut-paper mural!

These were some cut paper murals that I've done with kids in the past.  All you need is a big sheet of butcher paper (I like blue - doubles as a sky and/or water), some construction paper, glue and scissors.  I use this sometimes to occupy whatever kids aren't painting on the actual mural at the time.  Kids love it, it teaches collaboration and team-working skills, and teachers love to display them.  So at my table, I was going to have the inmates make one of these, of Philly.

My friend, Dorothy is in town right now, so she tagged along with me yesterday, too.  A good way to spend an afternoon, right?  We arrived at the detention center in conservative dress, were patted down and put all our art supplies through the x-ray machine, and were led to what they called their library (with not one book on the many empty bookshelves).  There were 50 inmates waiting for us, who had signed up for the event.  We explained the projects: there would be a table each for my mural, sketching, card-making, and origami.  The men got up and moved around to the table of their choosing.  The ones sitting at Dorothy and my table, were chatty and engaged.  They seemed really glad to be talking to us, suggesting places to see in Philly, telling us some crazy stories, and asking us about ours.  At first they were really hesitant to start, afraid to "do it wrong" (same situation as my students oftentimes).  We had printed out pictures of the Philly skyline, so they were glad to have that as inspiration for the buildings they made out of the brightly colored paper.  After watching Dorothy and I start to work, they started getting into it themselves.  They combined colors interestingly, cut out intricate little window shapes, created depth by overlapping buildings, and made little billboards and signs of Philly places.  I was impressed by their enthusiasm and abilities.  One guy was telling us about how he's on "Psych meds" but doesn't actually take them (shh, don't tell), and how amazed he was that he was "feeling calm" and not "seeing red" at the moment.  Haha...uhhh....good?  I wish I could show you how their final piece turned out.  They didn't allow phones or cameras inside, or I would have taken pictures.  All glued onto the butcher paper was a big central river with a bridge over it, trees on either side, and buildings of all colors and shapes in the background, and clouds in the sky.  It really turned out awesome.  Everyone who worked on it signed it and shook our hands at the end, thanking us for coming out.  We were allowed to leave their mural taped up to the wall in that overwhelmingly boring room.  It felt good to leave that in there...a little bright spot. 

I was nervous in the beginning, to do this.  I thought it would be scarier than it ended up actually being, though.  I think the inmates were really glad to have us there - a change in their mundane schedules at the very least, and a chance for the artistically inclined to have access to some materials to make something great, at the very best.  Overall, a good experience and I'm glad I did it!

Next blog I really WILL type up the ghost story, I promise!


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Not your average internship

This is not your average coffee-making, paper-copying internship.  I have been through about a week and a half of my internship with the Mural Arts Program, and so far, I am loving it!!! Here's what I've been up to:

Project #1:  

On Monday, Thursday and Friday, I am working on a mural at a neighborhood pool in North Philly.  Not until my first day of work, did I realize that this project was under the "Restorative Justice" branch of the Mural Arts Program.  So, when I showed up and met my Muralist that I'll be working under, Andrea, (names changed to protect the innocent!), I was surprised to see her with a team of 5 men.  I didn't really know anything about either of my 2 projects before I arrived or even before I started, only that one of them was at a pool.  I guess I should have expected that a project that big would probably have assistants hired.  So, still not knowing what was going on, I'm making conversation with one of the men and ask, "So, what part of Philly are you from?"  He answered, "I'm coming from 600."  Me: "Oh, ok.." (assuming that was a street? or something?)  Later after talking with Andrea a bit, I learned that all of the guys are a part of an apprenticeship program that helps inmates in work-release facilities (like "600"), or people that were just released from prison.  So these guys are going to jobs classes where they're learning about resume-making and interviewing, and then 3 days a week, they're out learning skills like painting with us at the mural, carpentry, tile working, etc.   It's pretty cool.  Most of these guys were hand-picked out of their prison art classes, for good behavior and showing promise and interest. 

The mural we're doing is going to be around all 4 sides of the pool building. On the inside wall, we're doing a big design that incorporates the "Pool Rules".  It's a geometric design with a daring, bright color palette.  It's a lot of triangles.  Ok, it's basically all triangles.  It's really nice looking, though.  It's also going to incorporate some tile mosaic, and a poem about believing in yourself. 

I'm really learning a LOT.  I'm learning all kids of stuff about materials and process and what it's like making community murals.  Won't get too specific, but there's really just nothing like the information you get from doing something like this hands-on.  Andrea is amazing at answering all my questions thoroughly.  That was another reason I really wanted this internship, too...because trying to be a Muralist, can be lonely.  You can't get a master's degree in mural-making, as far as I know at least.  Muralists I've reached out to online have been unresponsive, and the other muralist I met in Eugene wouldn't help me because I was her competition.  I don't want to re-invent the wheel, here.  I want to learn how to do this job, and do it well.  But not all that many people do this for a living.  I have a lot of what I need already, but there are a lot of things specifically relating to the business and process of being a public artist/muralist, that they just don't teach you in art school.  And Andrea is here, an experienced muralist and wealth of information.  I get along with her great and feel really lucky to have been placed here.  I'm getting along good with the men at the site, too, while still keeping my guard up. I'm really excited to be on this project - it's a gorgeous design that's stretching my art comfort zone (ME  with a ruler, templates and a level? Not too common in my artwork) and it's also stretching my social comfort zone (not used to working with inmates, either).  I like the "make an ugly building much, much prettier" aspect, combined with the "do-gooder" aspect.  That's essentially what the MAP strives for - both of those, in some capacity, for each project. 

Tune in next time for the GHOST STORY that is Project #2! (No, really, it is.) That's a long story I will tell another day!

Stay cool out there, East Coast! (We hit 100 today!)


Saturday, July 7, 2012

I'm in Philadelphia!

I arrived here one week ago, today. My facebook status yesterday: 

"Flight to Philly: $256. Rent for room in West Philly: $310/mo. Being face to face with my dreams and destiny: priceless."

 I'll explain why I feel that way in a minute. For now, let me just say that regardless of life-changing internships, the city is cool. It's big, it's hot, it's diverse, it's loud, it's a HUGE CHANGE coming from Eugene, Oregon. I've made my way through cities before, going to summer programs in Chicago, living in Oakland and going to school in San Francisco, adventuring through L.A on weekends during college.  Never been to the East coast though, and the number one difference I've noticed so far, is that things are so OLD!  I feel like my neighborhood is a community of castles: decorated down to the last crystal doorknob, painted unexpectedly bold color combinations, each home unique and yet unified with it's neighbors. I love my West Philly neighborhood!

Besides all the new-ness and exploring, what's really getting me, is this internship. All I've had of it so far, was the orientation (we start working on Monday).  All it was, was an introduction to the other 14 interns and to the program and organization itself.  We played name games. We talked logistics. We filled out tax info.  The part that moved me almost to tears, was when the Director of the organization came in, and started talking to us about the programs and how she feels about them. A short run-down of the Mural Arts Program, and what they do:

They make community murals. This means, they involve the wall owner, community representatives, and the artist, and come up with a design that represents the community or can show the world something about the people in the neighborhood. Then they paint it, usually with people from the community helping as well. 

Art Education: They work in schools with little to no art programs, and make murals together with the students to decorate their school, and/or teach art lessons. (This is what I do with Lane Arts back home.)

Restorative Justice: They work with inmates, most serving life sentences, and teach art classes. They also work with newly-released prisoners, or people just out of halfway houses, and give them an apprenticeships in carpentry, tile-working, building repair, and other types of work related to large scale city mural making. And it's working. Nationally, about 65% of people go back to prison after getting out. After this program, about 13% go back. 

Behavioral Health: They create studios and artistic hubs within clinics and teach art classes and make murals together. They do this with mental health institutions and rehab clinics - art therapy. 

Porchlight: They work with suicide prevention programs, victims of violence and other at-risk groups, and put an artist in there to help.

It's using ART as an INNOVATIVE tool, to help save the world, basically. 

This is Peace Corps-style community development. This is about boosting neighborhood economies.  It's building community and self-confidence in school kids. It's giving people in the justice system a way to feel some self-worth and the chance to make something positive with their own hands. It's giving hard neighborhoods a way to claim and be proud of their place in a big city. It's a way of changing things in a smaller, grass-roots type way, rather than through policy or big money. (Peace Corps, Peace Corps, Peace Corps!)

Since getting out of Peace Corps, I've been looking for something like this - a way to combine my art with something bigger. This is what I want to do with my life, and these people are doing it.  And I get to follow them around for 2 months!  I wanted this internship so badly, I applied twice, getting in the second year I tried. I had ridiculously high hopes for the whole thing, and it's relieving to see that they seem to be all they were cracked up to be.

What I'll actually be doing, is working on one of the community mural projects, under a Muralist working for the organization. It's gonna be a big garden picture, and it's at a pool. SO painting in my bathing suit! :)

 I know I'm gushing. It's just that, I feel such a sense of destiny and that I am on exactly the right path. I don't know where it's going to lead me yet, but I know I'm pointed in the right direction. My heart is happy. 

I will keep this updated....