Friday, July 18, 2014

Art of Your World

This Penn crest was across from me
while I ate lunch
John was back today to lead us in Qigong; after two weeks, we're still uncoordinated. Half the circle uses the left arm, the other half is using the right—it's a mess. Then we read Ivan Illich's "To Hell with Good Intentions," about how Americans volunteer to "help" developing countries when really they impose themselves where they are not needed. While I think the speech as a whole makes generalizations (that all U.S. involvement in other countries with the intent to help is unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful), Illich did make some good arguments. For example, he pointed out that the Peace Corps spends thousands of dollars helping members avoid culture shock, but it spends nothing on avoiding the same problem in the people they come to "help." He argued that going to an underdeveloped country to offer help was like going to a poor neighborhood to do the same thing. We had a long discussion in small groups about whether or not Illich was right, and what we could or should do, if anything, to help other countries. It was really interesting; one of the members of my group pointed out that some solutions presented by American programs are temporary and fall apart. Another classmate gave an analogy she had heard, which I liked: if half-dead bodies are floating down a river, do you treat the dying people, or leave them to die while you seek out the source of the problem upstream? She related the "help" given by Americans to nursing the dying people back to health rather than actually addressing the issues causing the problem.

We broke for lunch, and Julia and I found pretty much the coolest place to eat. I got to dangle my feet off a ledge (it was totally safe, I swear!) and look at a giant Penn crest while I chewed my noodles and vegetables (Mom, look, I'm being healthy!). 

We met up with our groups from the first day and took the bus to Magic Gardens (yes, the same Magic Gardens that Alex recommended at the dinner at Butcher and Singer), which was totally not a garden. It was better. 

Mosaic walls. Everywhere. 

Our tour was led by an energetic young woman named Katie, and she started off with some background information about the piece. Magic Gardens is a huge mosaic mural piece which took Isaiah Zagar fourteen years to complete, taking up 3,000 square feet. The three-dimensional aspect of sculptures is extended with the pathways and tunnels meant to involve the viewer in the piece. This is also reflected (pun intended) in the use of mirrors as mosaic pieces to make the observer a part of the art. Katie talked about the meaning of some parts of the work. For example, Isaiah portrays himself in Magic Gardens as a man with a bowler hat and many arms. The bowler hat comes from the piece The Son of Man (the one of the man in a bowler hat with the apple blocking his face) to represent him as any man, every man, and no one important. The "many arms" idea was inspired by the Hindu god Shiva, a creator and a destroyer, which is fitting because as a mosaic artist, Isaiah builds art by smashing glass and tile. 

A part of the piece. Here, I'm more proud of my photography than I am interested in the bottles. :)

When we finished in Magic Gardens, we were led to different buildings to see a basement (the roof, ceiling and walls were all colorful and covered in mosaic art) and walls that Isaiah had done. One of the walls said "Art is the center of the real world," in twisted letters. Katie explained that since Isaiah was dyslexic, he often distorted words to make it difficult for viewers to read, as he saw it. 

Isaiah, the artist
If this wasn't all cool enough, we got to meet Isaiah in a suffocatingly hot lower floor of the museum building of Magic Gardens. He talked about art and his background, explaining that he overcame a difficult time in his life by teaching himself mosaic art. One of my favorite things that he said was that people would come up to him while he worked on the street, and when they would ask how he did that, he would say, "Come on over here, and I'll teach you."

Sometimes, he ended up working with people for weeks. Isaiah was really cool, and it was very nice to hear from him. 

After Magic Gardens, we walked around Philadelphia with two graffiti artists. While we walked to different spots in the city, Andy came up to me and asked me what I thought of Isaiah and Magic Gardens. I answered honestly, and Andy later told me that in the moment I took to tell him about what I saw in the piece, he could tell that I appreciated art. 

We were toured around to see street art, legal and illegal, and I realized as we walked that I knew nothing about graffiti. Some things I never knew about graffiti: a) artists have groups of friends called "crews," like families of graffiti artists, b) Philadelphia has its own unique "font," c) going over the street art of someone who died or is in jail is the one thing considered "off limits" in graffiti, and d) graffiti from an artist can promote the artist's legal artwork. I loved the answer we got when we asked what artists do when they make mistakes: "There are no mistakes."

I did laundry today, and skipped an optional lecture (which, I'm told, ended up being a reflection on the class rather than the lecture on poverty that was planned) so I could fold my clothes to keep them from wrinkling. Julia went, and when she got back, we had a conversation about the article we read in class before we blogged, which I found nearly as productive as the discussion we had in class. Curse Julia and her ridiculously intelligent brain.

The second week of class is over already. I'm liking less and less that I can count the number of days I have left on my fingers. *Sigh.* It's hard to whine about how sad you are that you're running out of time in a fantastic class. 

Tomorrow is Ocean City, which means we're going to the beach for a day. Woo! Sand! Water! Sandcastles in the sand! It's going to be fun! 

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