A Conversation With Pepón Osorio
—By Jo-Anna J. Moore, Area Coordinator of Art Education Former Chair, Art & Art Education Department, Tyler School of Art
Laura Carnell Professor
of Community Art
Pepón Osorio was awarded a distinguished MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1999 for his internationally recognized installation art work bridging the gap between museums and communities. The Award earned him a place
among a growing list of scholars and creative practitioners, now numbering 828 since the Fellowships were first awarded in 1981. From all that can be discerned, Pepón is the only MacArthur Fellow on the faculty at Temple University. In 2004, Acting Dean Hester Stinnett coaxed Pepón to join the full time faculty in the Art and Art Education Department at Tyler School of Art and he was hired as a tenured full professor in 2006. Pepón is now a distinguished Laura Carnell Professor of Community Art at Tyler, and he recently discussed with me his ideas about teaching and working at Temple University.
Professor Osorio’s own academic background includes an MA in Studio Arts from Columbia University Teachers College and before that, a BS in Sociology from Lehman College, CUNY. In his native Puerto Rico he studied at the Universidad Interamericana. At present, over forty books and catalogues are devoted to discussions of his distinctive art work. At least thirty-five oneperson shows and hundreds of group exhibitions in Museums and Galleries, and also storefronts,
department stores and homes, have featured Pepón Osorio’s highly structured and personalized installations, which always explore issues that blend community concerns, aesthetic choices, and a remarkable use of materials, media, and, sometimes, performance.
Osorio has always thought of himself as an educator, but Temple University/Tyler School of
Art was the setting of his first formal teaching experience in higher education after almost a quarter-century as a practicing installation and community artist. He reports that he was attracted by the invitation to teach because, for a while, he had been thinking about a way to “translate his artistic method into pedagogy.” Pepón had a hunch that it might be good to “solidify his methodology” and to “connect to an institution.” In 2004, he had recently moved with his wife Meriàn Soto (a Temple University Associate Professor of Dance) and family from New York City. Taking the position at Temple was an opportunity to add to Tyler’s relatively new and growing Community Arts program.
Pepón spoke about what had been his growing interest in working with students and younger artists and he thought that Temple had an “intriguing student body.” He guessed that teaching at Temple might provide an opportunity to work with students who “would give back to their communities.” He was attracted by the location of Temple, in a “perfect urban setting” with a long tradition of ties to an urban workingclass environment. Pepón is very pleased to have furthered the development of “Community Arts” here at Tyler, to help fill what he sees as “a gap in their art education” with a program that encourages students and young artists and members of the community to engage in the art-making process together. This was quite different from where he grew up, where there was little interaction between art practitioners and the community, and few opportunities to see art.
Professor Osorio described the first time that he actually saw an original piece of art work when he was eighteen years old in Puerto Rico. As a young man, he suddenly felt motivated one day to visit the Art Museum of Puerto Rico on his own and he viewed a large painting titled “El Velorio” (The Wake) by European-trained Puerto Rican artist Francisco Oller. The dramatically painted representation of a family around the body of a deceased child made an enormous impression on him. One of the figures reminded him of his grandfather, and Pepón recalls being struck with the awareness that one could experience
a “spiritual connection” to art work, which had the potential to “connect on many levels” with viewers, and could give them access to what he calls the “codes” in an art work. Pepón was enlightened with the understanding that artviewing and art-making can provide new possibilities for the people involved, a chance to learn what is in an artist’s mind and at the same time to discover what is in one’s own.
Professor Osorio loves working with Temple students. He experiences them as “very curious” although he knows that they may not always know what directions to go with that curiosity. He loves the way that students in Community Arts are willing to go to new places as art students and artists. He admires the fact that they have a lot of knowledge of the urban environment. The challenges or frustrations he experiences as a teacher usually involve differences in personalities, students who are “too full of themselves” and unable to make connections with others. He believes that it is critical in Community Arts to recognize that it is not about “going out there and ‘giving’ something to a community” but rather recognizing that one has the potential to “meet people half way,” to participate in an exchange of resources and knowledge with people in the community around an artistic activity. The connections in a Community Arts experience have the potential to help us learn more about ourselves along with learning about others. A willingness to “negotiate” is crucial to the process. It is vital to find a place of strength within yourself and to recognize the knowledge that you can find in a Community Arts experience that is reciprocally educational.
Professor Osorio believes that working with the families in the community helps remind our Temple students about the importance of art, artmaking, and artifacts in people’s lives. He spoke glowingly about people working together in a process, and not just focusing on a product. This is why Pepón sees such a parallel between art and education. The works that are created in a collaborative Community Arts project are truly valued by the community. Pepón spoke about some artifacts made with beads, constructed in a workshop by Dr. Lisa Kay with community families and students as part of a project titled “In Loving Memory.” These objects were subsequently displayed in people’s homes in special places, revealing the reverence held by the family members for the work. Pepón spoke about the engagement of our students in this kind of rich process that helps them with future “creative blockages” and provides a whole range of new possibilities for settings in which to make and display art work.
The university has visions and missions for its students, but Pepón believes that the potential is much greater than simply training for careers. He sees the university fulfilling a role of bringing artistic experiences at an earlier age, outside of school, to many members of Philadelphia communities. He believes that our students can participate in a sustained engagement with the creative process, to foster more encounters with art, artists, art students, and community, to promote the incidents of creativity to which everyone should have access.
Professor Osorio concluded our discussion by talking about the moment when he learned that he had been selected as a MacArthur Fellow in 1999. He and his wife Merian had just decided to make a move from New York City. The Foundation’s nomination process is confidential, so he reported that he was totally surprised by the telephone call, and found it “incredible” until the caller activated the speaker phone and all the members of the panel
in the room called out their “Congratulations!” to him. Pepón says that the most wonderful outcome, in addition to the financial award, has been the opportunity to spend time in workshops and residencies with other MacArthur Fellows: “to be in the company of scholars and artists, people with a ‘vision’!”
Pepón’s colleague, many of us feel likewise, Our Temple University and Tyler School of Art students and community are fortunate as well!
Pepón Osorio (American born 1955) “Drowned in a Glass of Water,” 2010.
Mixed Media Installation displayed in downtown North Adams, MA
Photo credit: Art Evans