The Roots of Using Art to Teach the Legacy of African Americans in PhiladelphiaBy Tara Nurin |
Philadelphians are privy to many rich distinctions, with the city’s nearly ubiquitous community-empowering murals being not least among them. Certainly much of the urban population admires these towering artistic additions to the landscape as they go about their daily lives, and many have even taken a walking, driving or trolley tour to get to know them a little bit better. But it’s a safe bet to speculate that few Philadelphians have studied the murals to any great academic depth, and it’s an even safer bet to guess that even fewer have actually helped to paint one.
Today and the coming months and years could change that, as the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program’s (MAP) large-scale public paint day invites residents and visitors from around the world to contribute to not just any mural, but one that can be argued will be the coolest in MAP’s portfolio of more than 3,500. MAP artists and employees will oversee a process that will allow passersby on Independence Mall to add some free strokes to several five-by-five foot pieces of parachute cloth that are beginning to depict the members of The Legendary Roots Crew. The developing mural, which will be the latest addition to the Albert M. Greenfield African American Iconic Images Collection that decorates more than fifteen neighborhoods across the city, will hang in the South Street Headhouse District starting in October.
Leading up to that, The Roots are showing up around town to promote their oeuvre, and frontman/drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and some of his bandmates are using their relationship with MAP to positively influence the lives of kids up and down the east coast.
Joining the movement
It started when Executive Director Jane Golden and staff brainstormed about how to properly celebrate the vast collection of African American themed murals throughout the city. In 2010, MAP began collaborating with the African American Museum in Philadelphia to identify iconic murals portraying themes related to the city’s African American history, narrowing the field from over 100 to the curated selection of forty-seven. In December 2011, Special Events and Marketing Manager Almaz Crowe was brought in to help market and promote the new Collection, and because MAP’s staff had been looking for someone with a deep connection to some of Philadelphia’s African American cultural scenes to narrate the self-guided podcast, cell phone, and public tours they were developing, Crowe called a contact in The Roots’ management team. When she put in a request for ?uest to voice the script — which would also include interviews with artists, activists, civic leaders, and media personalities who are fans of the work — his manager immediately said yes, the international hip-hop star and house musician for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” would be happy to contribute.
Within a few weeks, Crowe and former staff member Kevin Slattery were with Thompson in his dressing room at New York’s 30 Rockefeller Center while he recorded the script in two-and-a-half hours. Crowe remembers that he was more than a consummate and eager professional who got excited about learning new bits of history, but that he also was able to provide some of his own information.
“He even knew how to pronounce the name of Nadia Chilkovsky Nahumck, who, it turns out, ran the Performing Arts School of Philadelphia, the private school he attended as a child,” Crowe said.
Because the session went so well, both parties agreed to maintain the relationship. They launched the idea for The Roots Mural Project, which will commemorate the band’s evolution from local hip hop artists and musicians to international influencers. And, at the Wall Ball fundraiser MAP hosted last month to honor the musical Philadelphians, Thompson and Roots MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter met with a group of teenaged MAP art students to trade stories about life in the musical world.
“The kids had their hands clasped over their mouths,” described Crowe. “It was amazing to see both Tariq and Ahmir giving them tips, asking what they’re good at and what they want to do, talking about video games, and getting amazing feedback from two guys they idolize.”
Crowe said Thompson had expressed a lot of interest in the educational component of the collection as he recorded the tour narration, asking what role young people would play and how they could make it dynamic and multi-dimensional. Crowe is working on giving Thompson a chance to experience that answer for himself by trying to schedule the busy band for a visit to a classroom where students are using his tour and the collection itself to learn about the legacy of great African Americans who’ve advanced art, science, sports, learning, culture, and social justice in Philadelphia and beyond.
Educating the next generation
In the fall of 2010, staff at AAMP led an unusual focus group. They gathered teens together to ask them what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it. What the adults in the room found out — sometimes surprisingly, sometimes not — was that their representative sample from the Philadelphia School District wanted desperately to take part in their schoolwork. They didn’t want to read words from a piece of paper but they did want to delve deeper. For instance, when studying art, they wanted to dive beneath the surface of how it’s made to instead study the color spectrum and the lives of the painters and the geographic and historical context and maybe, darn it, the whole huge, messy, confusing, beautiful psychology of the thing. They wanted to be amazed.
Museum staff took their findings to MAP and together developed a lesson guide that practically explodes with interactive options for using the Iconic Images Collection as a springboard for research, discussion, collaboration, and creation that aims to teach students about art and place and time.
The 34-page guide first tells the story of murals generally and the Mural Arts Program specifically, with grade-appropriate questions to consider, like, “What are some of the reasons … youth had for writing graffiti in the 1970’s and ‘80’s? Do you think graffiti can be considered art? Why or why not?” Then the guide blooms into a choose-your-own adventure curriculum replete with lesson choices and sophisticated activities for before, during, and after touring the murals in person or viewing them online that allow teachers, parents and students to engage with the murals on an artistic, socio-political, or ethno-cultural level.
Within each category there are numerous subcategories; for example, within the ‘Color as Communication’ subsection of the ‘Murals as Art’ category, one mid-tour assignment asks students to discuss how the mural might have been interpreted if an opposite color scheme had been used. The instructions read, in part, “Building on pre-tour activities and discussions, have students recalling their knowledge of the color wheel and mood/language associations to support their understanding of the power and significance of color application in art.” So not only are there myriad topics and themes that encourage the guide’s use in history class, social studies class, art class, English class, or gym class, because the lessons typically use the murals merely as a springboard for critical thinking, writing, discussion, research and creation, each one is in itself multi-disciplinary.
Further, the guide’s developers, being aware that some schools have limited means, ensured that many of the lessons can be accomplished with just a pencil and paper. Though the curriculum was borne out of the desire to plug holes in the Philadelphia School District’s stripped-back art offerings, it has been accessed by more than 3,500 students from up and down the eastern seaboard since it launched in February 2011.
The staff is working to further promote the curriculum to give it a wider reach, and their hope is that ultimately, every student in Philadelphia and every young visitor to AAMP and the Mural Arts Museum at The Gallery at Market East will use the guide to learn about African Americans contributions to the world in which they live.
Community Paint Day for The Roots Mural Project
When: Tuesday, July 3rd from 2 to 5 p.m.
Where: Independence Mall, Market Street, between 5th and 6th Streets
More info: The public is invited to participate and make their mark on The Roots Mural Project. All materials are provided, no experience necessary.