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Photo: Jessica Griffin/Philadelphia Inquirer
James Hough spent 27 years in prison making murals for the outside world without getting to see the finished product. Now, he’s the Philly DA’s artist-in-residence.

This makes good sense to me: an ex-offender welcomed at the district attorney’s office as an artist-in-residence. Way to move forward! But in this and other restorative justice programs, the victims of a crime are not left out.

Samantha Melamed reports at the Philadelphia Inquirer, “For nearly two decades, James Hough painted sections of murals that would splash color, bold imagery, and messages of resilience, healing and hope across more than 50 blank or blighted walls across Philadelphia.

“But Hough — who was serving a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution-Graterford — never saw the finished artwork. Each square of parachute cloth he painted was sent out into the world. He saw the finished product only in photographs sent to him by Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Restorative Justice program.

“Then, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life sentences automatically imposed on minors were cruel and unusual, putting Hough in line for a new sentence making him eligible for parole.

“Now, Hough is seeing his work on display for the first time — and expanding his role in making public art as an unlikely emissary for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, where he is taking a position that’s been described as the first-ever artist-in-residence at a DA’s office, embedded alongside prosecutors, investigators and victim advocates. …

“It makes perfect sense to DA Larry Krasner, who sees the arts as central to the criminal justice reform movement, starting with the writing of Michelle Alexander and continuing with the films of Ava DuVernay, right up to Kendrick Lamar’s songs of racial injustice.

[The DA said], ‘The connection between the reforms we’re trying to make in Philadelphia and the people in Philly who are part of that movement are best made in some ways through the arts.’ …

“The project will be supported by Mural Arts Philadelphia and by Fair and Just Prosecution, the national network of reform prosecutors. …

“Miriam Krinsky, who heads Fair and Just Prosecution, sees the project as a pilot for other offices around the country willing to welcome in artists and work with them to humanize the impact of the system and underscore the need for reform.

“She acknowledged that by bringing in someone such as Hough, who came into the criminal justice system at 17 for fatally shooting a man on a Pittsburgh street in 1992 and spent 27 years in prison, the work is also squarely aimed at those who work within the office.

“Hough, who lives in Pittsburgh, envisions conducting interviews and workshops with DA office staffers and people in the community, and using those testimonials to inspire a series of videos and paintings. …

“Before a news conference at the District Attorney’s Office to announce his new role, Hough stopped off near 12th and Callowhill Streets, to gaze up at a striking mural he’d created called the Stamp of Incarceration, working side by side with the artist Shepard Fairey and other prisoners.

“ ‘I was involved with this mural for the whole process: developing the concept, mixing the colors,’ he said. ‘Now, the final step is witnessing it. … I can’t wait for some of the other guys that are incarcerated to get that experience,’ he said. ‘It really places you as an individual who worked on a collective project in the bigger scheme of things, in the sense that you contributed to the tapestry of the city in a meaningful way. And it opens the door to the possibility that there’s more that you can do.’ ” More here.

For a previous post on restorative justice, click here. And here’s one about an indigenous approach and another about using the arts.

 

 

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Photo: Culture Club/Getty Images
Detail from CW Quinnell’s portrait of 17th century poet John Milton.

Never doubt the ability of a motivated academic researcher plodding along in dusty library carrels to uncover miracles. I credit the intense focus of youth, imagination, and the thrill of the chase.

Alison Flood writes at The Guardian, “Almost 400 years after the first folio of Shakespeare was published in 1623, scholars believe they have identified the early owner of one copy of the text, who made hundreds of insightful annotations throughout: John Milton.

“The astonishing find, which academics say could be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times, was made by Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren when he was reading an article about the anonymous annotator by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. Bourne’s study of this copy, which has been housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944, dated the annotator to the mid-17th century. … She also provided many images of the handwritten notes, which struck Scott-Warren as looking oddly similar to Milton’s hand.

“ ‘But I always think “I recognise that handwriting,” ‘ Scott-Warren said, ‘[and] normally I’m wrong. This time I thought: “The case is getting stronger and stronger.” ‘

As evidence stacked up, he said he became ‘quite trembly … You’re gathering evidence with your heart in your mouth.’ …

“Scott-Warren has made a detailed comparison of the annotator’s handwriting with the Paradise Lost poet’s. He also believes that the work the annotator did to improve the text of the folio – suggesting corrections and supplying additional material such as the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, along with cross-references to other works – is similar to work Milton did in other books that survive from his library, including his copy of Boccaccio’s Life of Dante.

“The scholar tentatively suggested in a blogpost that he might have identified John Milton’s copy of the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623, admitting that, ‘in this as in other cases, there’s usually a lot of wishful thinking, plus copious spinning of the evidence to make it seem plausible, and elision of anything that doesn’t seem to fit.’

“But he soon found that other scholars were agreeing with him. ‘Not only does this hand look like Milton’s, but it behaves like Milton’s writing elsewhere does, doing exactly the things Milton does when he annotates books, and using exactly the same marks,’ said Dr Will Poole at New College Oxford. … ‘This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times.’ …

“One highlighted section in The Tempest is the song: ‘Come unto these yellow sands, / And then take hands: / Courtsied when you have and kiss’d / The wild waves whist.’ The unusual rhyme, of ‘kiss’d’ and ‘whist,’ is echoed in Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity: ‘The winds with wonder whist, / Smoothly the waters kist.’

“ ‘We would already have known about that allusion, they are the only two writers who used that rhyme, but you can see him marking it in the text and responding to it,’ said Scott-Warren. ‘It gives you a sense of his sensitivity and alertness to Shakespeare.’ ” More here.

(Looking for a comment from blogger Laurie Graves, a devoted Shakespeare fan.)

Photo: The Guardian
Milton’s annotated first folio of Shakespeare, recently discovered in the Free Library of Philadelphia Library by a Cambridge University fellow. “He said he became ‘quite trembly … You’re gathering evidence with your heart in your mouth.’ ”

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Photo: Mark Makela
Caleb Hunt, left, and Tony Croasdale at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia. In a city known for its punk underground and avian history, the friends have found an overlap that celebrates both niches.

No doubt among the pressing questions of our time, you have been wondering about the connection between punk rockers and birders. Wonder no more. Steve Neumann at the magazine Audubon has answers for you.

“It’s the evening golden hour at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. A whirlwind of swallows swims through the soft light, chasing midges into a frenzy. Nearby on a platform a handful of birders scans the dimming sky, exposed to the marsh and its blood-thirsty elements.

“In plain T-shirts and khakis, the group blends into the woods-y backdrop — with two exceptions. Caleb Hunt, a bookkeeper for an adult-entertainment boutique, rocks a Philly Punx tank top with a fanged, horned Benjamin Franklin splashed across the front. Next to her, Tony Croasdale, the leader of today’s walk, sports an aviary of skin art. A Swallow-tailed Kite, Belted Kingfisher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Scarlet Tanager, and three types of vultures bedeck his legs, collarbone, and arms.

“Croasdale’s tattoos pay homage to two of his biggest life passions: birding and punk rocking. He plunged into the first as a kid when his father took him to Philadelphia’s Pennypack Park to learn about kingfishers. The music came later at age 19 when he launched the vegan thrashcore band R.A.M.B.O. under the stage name Tony Pointless. The collective quickly hit fame with two full-length albums and tours on five continents; but when it broke up in 2006, Croasdale came back to his home city and turned his focus to environmental activism. He eventually went on to found the BirdPhilly education program, which is how he and Hunt, who identifies as a committed punk, met in 2015.

“Though his moshing days are behind him, Croasdale says he still feels connected to punk culture. If anything, he’s found more space for expression by building birding into his practice. The hybrid approach has strengthened his resolve to tend to nature and fight oppression with personal action — a sentiment shared by his many ‘birdpunk’ friends around the country. …

“ ‘Philadelphia has so many row homes with basements,’ Croasdale adds. ‘That fosters a vibrant show scene.’ It was in those basements that Croasdale formed R.A.M.B.O. — an acronym for ‘Revolutionary Anarchist Mosh Bike Overthrow’ — in 1999 as lead singer. …

“Ultimately, that double lifestyle didn’t work out. Before a show in Malaysia, Croasdale and the band’s bassist, Bull Gervasi, went birding in Kuala Selangor, 100 miles away from where they were taking the stage. They gave themselves 10 hours to get back by bus, but it took 12 and they missed their call time.

‘It was kind of a big deal,’ Croasdale says. ‘It occurred to me that my head was not in the band; it was with the birds.’

“Today Croasdale is the site director for the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center … Working in conservation in West Philadelphia has helped Croasdale resolve a childhood dilemma. When he was 12, he realized that the government and in general, society, couldn’t be trusted to steward the planet and its resources. But it wasn’t until he fell into the punk scene that he was fully able to share that anxiety. ‘I found out there was music, a political ideology, and a counterculture that spoke to these issues. It provided me with like-minded peers,’ he says.”

More here.

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Photo: Philadelphia Water Department
A rain garden manages stormwater runoff in Philadelphia’s Germantown section. 

When I was at the magazine, I solicited several articles about Philadelphia and what people there were doing to bring more of the natural environment into urban living. It’s not easy for any city as budgets are often strained. But when you can make the case that environmental improvements ultimately save costs (or when an EPA is serious about quality of life), you have a better chance of getting things done.

Bruce Stutz at Yale Environment 360 (a great publication I recommend following on twitter @yaleE360) has the story.

“Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia’s favorite son, described his city’s stormwater problem well: By ‘covering a ground plot with buildings and pavements, which carry off most of the rain and prevent its soaking into the Earth and renewing and purifying the Springs … the water of wells must gradually grow worse, and in time be unfit for use.’

“When he wrote this in 1789, many of Philadelphia’s water sources, the scores of streams that ran into the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, were already cesspools of household and industrial waste. As they became intolerable eyesores and miasmic health hazards, the city simply covered them with brick arches, turned the streams into sewers, and on top constructed new streets, an expanding impervious landscape that left the rains with even fewer places for ‘soaking into the Earth.’

“Crude as it was, this network of underground-to-riverfront outfalls through ever-larger pipes was pretty much the way Philadelphia and other U.S. cities coped with their stormwater for the next 200 years.

“But Ben Franklin’s town has decided to take the lead in undoing this ever-more costly and outdated system that annually pours huge volumes of polluted stormwater runoff and untreated sewage into the Delaware and the Schuylkill. Instead of building more and bigger sewers and related infrastructure, Philadelphia has adopted a relatively new paradigm for urban stormwater: Rather than convey it, detain it — recreate in the urban streetscape the kinds of pervious places where, instead of running into surrounding waterways, rainfall and the contaminants it carries can once again soak into the earth.

“The city is now in the seventh year of a 25-year project designed to fulfill an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce by 85 percent Philadelphia’s combined sewer overflows. … Rather than spending an estimated $9.6 billion on a ‘gray’ infrastructure program of ever-larger tunnels, the city is investing an estimated $2.4 billion in public funds — to be augmented by large expenditures from the private sector — to create a citywide mosaic of green stormwater infrastructure. …

“At nearby Villanova University, the Urban Stormwater Partnership, founded in 2002 under environmental engineering professor Robert Traver, had begun experimenting with green stormwater infrastructure. [Howard Neukrug who served as the city’s water department commissioner from 2011 to 2015] developed a couple of low-impact pilot design projects, and in 2009, the Philadelphia Water Department released a revision — 12 years in the making — to its stormwater and sewage management plan….

The city is working now to standardize the construction of green infrastructure and monitor its effectiveness. Costs are coming down as green infrastructure becomes more widely adopted. …

“As the Water Department’s planners expand the network of greened acres, they are bringing social, economic, and environmental investment to often marginalized neighborhoods. [Marc Cammarata, the Water Department’s deputy commissioner of planning and environmental services] says that green stormwater infrastructure projects now support 430 jobs. … Residents already report that green infrastructure projects have reduced crime as green spaces proliferate, says Cammarata.

The Water Department’s website map is crowded with green infrastructure sites across the city. Visitors can zoom in on their neighborhood and see what’s there.”

More here.

 

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Photo: David Swanson/Philadelphia Inquirer
Asiaish Lawrence speaks about his involvement in Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny, an augmented-reality mural that involved students from the Haverford School and Philadelphia’s Mastery Shoemaker Charter School.

At my last job, my very artistic colleague Melita tried to explain augmented reality (AR) to me. It sounded like science fiction. As I recall, she had ideas about using it in one of the exhibits she curated, but I don’t remember what the upshot was. Our workplace appreciated new technology, but not necessarily arts technology.

Schools tend to be more open than that. Recently, I read an article that both explains the AR concept and shows how it was used by students from somewhere I once lived. (Years ago, I lived in a third-floor walk-up directly across from the Haverford School.)

Grace Dickinson wrote the augmented-reality story at the Philadelphia Inquirer in October, but the project she describes is available for at least a year.

“Mural Arts Philadelphia is bringing art to life with the city’s first augmented-reality mural, Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny. The project invites viewers to experience a large-scale painting completed on a warehouse at 53rd and Media Streets through the lens of a smartphone app that casts holograms and generates a changing soundtrack as you move from left to right. Picture a metaphysical version of Pokémon Go in which the power of a screen momentarily alters reality around you.

‘To see the augmented-reality mural, you’ll need to download the free app, created by the local production firm Blue Design. It’s available in the Apple App store under the name ‘MuralArtsAR.’ ”

The idea was that people who showed up at 53rd and Media would just need to point their phone screens with the app at the mural.

When you do that, Dickinson says, “Immediately, elements such as light beams, colorful orbs, floating crystals, and sculpturelike figures will begin to pop out from the painting, covering a wall the length of a city block. …

” ‘I like making art that the viewer can look at for 15 or 20 minutes and really get lost in,’ says muralist Joshua Mays, who conceptualized the project with Philadelphia DJ and producer King Britt, the mastermind behind the audio component. ‘Both King and I are futurists, so we enjoyed the idea of going deep in order to create further realms to discover.’

“With the yearlong Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny project, Mays and Britt set out to visualize possible futures for West Philadelphia, involving students from Mastery Shoemaker Charter School, across the street from the mural, as well as from the Haverford School. The collaboration marks the first Mural Arts Philadelphia partnership to connect public and private high school students. …

“Says Mays, who worked with about 30 students, ‘I want them to always remember to aspire for something greater but to also continuously stretch their imaginations — and their imaginations really ran wild with this.’

“Thinking about the destiny of West Philadelphia, the students dreamed up imagery ranging from an undersea world full of squids and water spirits to a landscape where robots intermingle with humans in everyday life.

” ‘I picture clean energy, no smog, with holograms suspending all around us, and a soundtrack of Kanye West’s Graduation album playing on repeat,’ Haverford School senior Garrett Johnson says. …

“Including the students’ ideas in his design, Mays developed a progressive series of abstract images that start with a representation of the African diaspora and end with a portrait of a woman holding a shining seed between her fingers, the focal point of the mural.

” ‘The seed is meant to unveil a world of future possibilities, radiating out to a past that reconnects the main character with her ancestral heritage.’ …

“The audio component, which you can hear through the app, follows the temporal transition of the painting. Drums, chants, and other tribal percussion notes mark the beginning, shifting to trumpet and electric piano tunes inspired by ’70s jazz, and ending with rhythmic, hip-hop-inspired beats mixed with futuristic sounds. …

” ‘I recorded them doing things like riding the elevator up and down, banging on the water cooler, and closing classroom doors,’ says Britt. ‘Then I manipulated the recordings into musical notes — so, for instance, the water cooler became the kick drum, and the elevator was worked into the sound of a keyboard.’ …

” ‘I had the kids come up with a list of questions to ask [neighborhood elders], such as, “How do you think the mural will affect this neighborhood?” and, “What did the neighborhood look like 20 years ago?” and, “What kind of music do you like?” ‘ ” says Britt, who then included snippets of the interviews in the soundtrack.

More here.

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Photo: Tim Tai
The Dancing Monks of Assam rehearse in Philadelphia.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I take tai chi chuan for exercise. The practice is also what is sometimes called a “moving meditation.”

Another kind of moving meditation is performed by the Dancing Monks of Assam in India.

Nancy G. Heller wrote for the Inquirer about an April visit that a group of monks paid to Drexel University.

“The Dancing Monks of Assam live on a remote river island in India and devote their lives to celebrating the Hindu god Krishna through the arts. Eight of them visit Philadelphia this week on their first-ever U.S. tour, initiated by a Philadelphia dance company with roots on that same river island. …

“Unlike dancers in the better-known Bharatanatyam and Kathak styles, ‘Sattriya dancers do not stamp their feet or wear ankle bells, [co-artistic director of Philadelphia’s Sattriya Dance Company — Madhusmita] Bora said. ‘Their movement occurs mainly in the torso.’ …

“At home at their monastery on the river island of Majuli, in India’s Assam state, the monks have the same religious obligations as members of any monastic community. But they also receive rigorous daily instruction in traditional singing; how to play drums, cymbals, flutes, violins, and conch shells; plus mask-making, yoga, and dance. They often join the monastery as children.

“Everyone studies everything, and eventually each monk chooses an area of specialization.”

If you are interested in weaving, you can also learn about Assam’s “Cloth of Vrindavan” here. The Inquirer article describes it as “an elaborate silk cloth once woven in Assam. It uses the now-extinct lampas technique to tell stories from Krishna’s life through stylized images and ancient Assamese text.

” ‘Growing up in Assam,’ Bora said, ‘everyone heard about this cloth.’ But no one saw it, since the textiles themselves, and records of their whereabouts, had long since disappeared.

“Then, in the 1990s, a British textile curator chanced upon several 17th-century examples in London, Paris — and the  Philadelphia Museum of Art. …

“Thanks to support from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage and some other sponsors, the ancient Assamese script on the Philadelphia textile was decoded as part of the dance project. Bhabananda Barbayan, an Indian monk, translated the cloth’s images into movement.”

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Photo: anekoho/shutterstock
As art classes get cut back, Philadelphia foundations are stepping up to protect a vital part of education.

In this time of cutbacks in school arts programs, it is heartening to see some organizations stepping up to the plate. If the trend continues, we may all need to start volunteering in schools — just as scores of parishioners at my church did for an amazing arts and crafts day yesterday. The only problem is, Who has the time for sustained volunteering when government doesn’t do its part?

In Philadelphia, foundations are providing some respite, as Mike Scutari reports at Inside Philanthropy.

“In June of 2013, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission approved massive cuts in funding in what critics referred to as ‘The Doomsday Budget.’ Cuts included mass faculty layoffs, reduction of materials and athletics programs, and the complete elimination of arts and music programs.

“Four years later, Peter Dobrin, the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s culture writer, surveyed the city’s music education landscape and convincingly argued that funders sufficiently rose to the challenge, pointing to city’s web of innovative music education programs, including:

  • Play On, Philly!, launched in 2013 with seed money from Carole Haas Gravagno and the Lenfest Foundation.
  • The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra’s Tune Up Philly, which receives support from Impact100, a women’s giving collective.
  • AristYear Philadelphia, which will pay 12 arts teaching fellows in area schools with a high percentage of children from low-income families. The Knight Foundation has supported both Artist Year Philadelphia and Play On, Philly!

“Knight is only one of many influential funders active in the city. William Penn Foundation has doubled down on arts education, allocating more than $12 million over the last 4 years …

“The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, meanwhile, recently awarded more than $2.5 million to a new program called the Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth.

“Other examples include the Neubauer Family Foundation, which, in tandem with other local organizations, is ‘working to figure out what arts education programs are here already to determine what’s needed’  …

“The city’s financial woes were so calamitous that, funders, most of whom already had extensive footprints in the city, had no choice but to respond en masse. …

“In many cases, we’re not talking about your standard music education programs.

“Play On, Philly!, for example, is billed as ‘music for social change.’ Its 2017 summer programming included anti-child obesity and ‘active play’ programming at neighborhood recreation centers. ,,,

“More than ever, funders tend to support arts experiences that are immersive, experiential, and drive positive social outcomes.

“Now, consider the supporting role of big data in framing the arts as a means for driving social change.

“Play On, Philly!’s pilot collected data to show that students in the program improve their self-perceptions, academic motivation and school attendance, all while learning to play and perform a musical instrument. …

“Funders, increasingly beholden to this ROI [return on investment] mindset, are more inclined to cut checks when backed by compelling data. …

“All involved parties agree that access and equality is the key. Funders, more than ever, intuitively rally around this idea. Breadth is important, as well — ‘the net must be cast wide to capture all the talent out there,’ said Dorbin. Music education shouldn’t be just for future Julliard students.”

More here.

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