Arts project reaches deep into community
Photo by Nate Clark
|In last spring’s “The Souls of Young Folk,” the Art Sanctuary youth ensemble performed African dance while video projections appeared on the screen behind them. The video was created and arranged by Temple students.
When Billy Yalowitz first visited the Church of the Advocate in 2000, he knew this was the center he’d been seeking in order to establish a new community arts partnership.
Yalowitz had just joined Temple as an assistant professor in the art and art education department after several years as an adjunct in the University of Pennsylvania’s theater department. Now, he was looking for stories in the North Philadelphia community, and artists and community organizations to partner with, for a new interdisciplinary program between the North Philadelphia community and Temple.
The church, which houses an organization supporting contemporary black art called Art Sanctuary, had been a focal point for the civil rights and Black Power movements of the ’60s, and is a historic national landmark.
“It’s really a national treasure in terms of its role in civil rights and the African-American [liberation struggle],” Yalowitz said.
Working with Art Sanctuary founding director and writer Lorene Cary, a three-year pilot program called the North Project was formed, combining after-school programs for area youth, University courses and intergenerational forums in the community. The collaboration would have many benefits for community members of all ages, as well as for the Temple students who worked with them. The culmination of the project is an annual spring performance in the Church of the Advocate, incorporating high-school students’ performances, community artists’ works and elders’ stories, and Temple students’ documentaries, art and multimedia presentations.
“Reciprocal interaction between the University and the community has been the hallmark of the project,” Yalowitz said.
“This type of program challenges assumptions: the University’s about what defines art knowledge, and the community’s about its ability to access external cultural and intellectual assets on its own terms,” Yalowitz explained.
“Each has needs from the other and assets to offer the other.”
Photo courtesy Billy Yalowitz
|Artistic director and art education assistant professor Billy Yalowitz talks with Derrick Elliott, Sedell Brown, Rossi Williams and other Art Sanctuary youth during rehearsal week in the Church of the Advocate.
Now in its fifth year, the Cross-Disciplinary Arts in Community Program at the Tyler School of Art has turned stewardship of the North Project over to Art Sanctuary and is a consulting partner in creating the performances, which take six months and more to prepare.
Planning meetings for the April 2006 performance began earlier this month and registration for Temple students to take part during the spring semester is under way now.
The ‘brown paper bag’ test
The productions, largely featuring local high school youth, are pure electricity.
Each year, the performance centers around a theme relevant to the neighborhood it’s based in: In its first year, the theme was “North Called Home”; in 2004, the theme commemorated the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education with “Reflections in Brown:Separate/Unequal/Still?”
The most recent performance focused on young people’s experiences in “Souls of Young Folk.”
“Souls” played to a packed sanctuary in April 2005. In an evening that ranged in mood from passionate to somber to contemplative to celebratory, the youth acted out scenes about their neighborhood and its history, taught the audience about segregation, sang about their place in the world, and danced dressed in traditional African costume to live African drumming.
Behind them and to each side of the stage, projections on large screens created by Temple students supported their messages. During the neighborhood scene, film footage of Diamond, Norris and Susquehanna streets rolled behind a young girl talking with a community elder about pride and socialization through block parties.
While children called on audience members to take the “brown paper bag” test, explaining that the Cotton Club in the ’20s and ’30s had refused entry to anyone whose skin was darker than the bag, the screens displayed bags with written words: “Color me human”; “It’s just skin”; until the final bag was crumpled in a fist and torn apart.
Between scene changes, documentary-style “public service announcements” showed young schoolchildren reading poetry. As part of the performance process, local artists had conducted poetry workshops on themes from “Souls” in two of Temple’s partnership elementary schools, Duckrey and Dunbar. Temple students shot video of the children reading their works, which were edited by Karen Malandra, a doctoral candidate in Temple’s urban education program and coordinator of the Arts in Community Program.
In the short videos, small children clutched the papers with their poems and shuffled nervously as they read their feelings about their fathers and mothers, their neighborhoods and their self-images. Still shots of the classroom often followed the videos, showing previous young readers in relaxed poses, now smiling un-self-consciously.
Crossing disciplines while exploring lives
As a space, the Church of the Advocate is impressive. A gothic cathedral amid brick rowhomes, its stained glass and vivid indoor murals depicting scenes and figures from the civil rights movement add weight to the performances and messages.
“The church is a place where we can create performances based on oral histories and the local knowledge of the community,” Yalowitz said. “The elders there became our first local scholars.”
In a field where artists work with community members to create artworks that are based on and reflect them, North Philadelphia and the church are a rich resource.
“The community’s stories become a sort of text for the Temple students, who in turn take their arts disciplines in new and unexpected directions,” Yalowitz said.
In the Cross-Disciplinary Arts in Community Program, students from across Temple’s schools and colleges take a sequence of three courses: theory, methodologies and specific communities, and a field internship.
The work they do is, by its nature, interdisciplinary, drawing from all of the arts and the liberal arts. “Dance, theater, communications, urban studies — all of these students are needed to make it work,” Yalowitz said. “The program encourages undergraduates and graduate students to apply their resources and intellectual disciplines to create artworks that are highly interactive and rigorous.”
For master’s students and faculty, the work they do generates scholarly activities, including publishing and presentations in local and national conferences.
In the growing field of community-based art, Temple is gaining recognition for the work of people such as Yalowitz and Malandra, who were joined last year by installation artist and new art and art education faculty member Pepón Osorio at the Tyler School of Art, as well as Eli Goldblatt in the College of Liberal Arts. Temple’s Cross-Disciplinary Arts in Community Program is the first of its kind on the East Coast, and in spring 2006, the University will co-host a conference on community arts with Art Sanctuary and another local community arts organization, the Asian Arts Initiative.
Senior geography and urban studies major Elena Botkin-Levy, who participated in the “Reflections in Brown” program in 2004, said, “Basing our learning in the real world, with real people, in actual projects has made me better able to internalize and really learn information and concepts, as well as more aware of myself and how I want to effectively work for change in the world.”
- By Betsy Winter
|For more information about the Cross-Disciplinary Arts in Community Program at Tyler, call 215-204-9147. Students who would like to become involved in community arts projects can register for Art Education 251, “Interdisciplinary Seminar in Community Arts,” for spring 2006.
Art Sanctuary: www.artsanctuary.org
For more on the growing field of community-based art, visit the Community Arts Network Web site: www.communityarts.net.