The Stories We Tell
Temple students explore the impact of violence through the interdisciplinary In Loving Memory of… project.
Story by Greg Fornia, SCT ’92
Photos by Ryan S. Brandenberg
This spring, Temple students, professors and local residents traveled together by bus through North Philadelphia’s narrow streets. The passengers were part of the university’s In Loving Memory of… project, which aims to understand how lives are affected by violence and how to make sense of it through art, story and the bonds of family.
Begun in 2008 by Professor Pepón Osorio of the Tyler School of Art and funded by a grant from the Barra Foundation, In Loving Memory of... focuses on violence in Philadelphia’s Latino community. Students investigate the issues and identify ways to celebrate the lives of local families through installation art, photography, writing and video. Through a grant that supports interdisciplinary projects from Temple’s Office of the Provost, Professor Karen Turner and journalism students in the School of Communications and Theater (SCT) joined In Loving Memory of… in spring 2009.
The art created by Tyler students doesn’t hang on a gallery wall, but lives in the homes and businesses of the families who inspired it. The aforementioned bus ride, or “art caravan,” allowed students to see the finished pieces in their environment and to watch and listen to the reports and writings of their peers.
“[The project] is a platform for finding ways to reduce violence in the community,” Osorio says. “Our definition of violence, however, is more than just physical injury. It’s any attempt to dehumanize another person through our words and actions.”
A former caseworker with New York City’s social services department, Osorio is an internationally renowned multimedia artist whose work often depicts the lives of people generally ignored by the art establishment. For example, in a work called “Badge of Honor,” Osorio explored the real-life relationship between an incarcerated father and his son by building a full-scale prison cell with only the most basic items, as well as a teenage bedroom exploding with color, family portraits and commercial products.
“In Loving Memory of… is an opportunity to open eyes and minds to a world out there that has not been completely explored,” he explains. “Students can put aside art theory and begin to focus on art practice as citizens engaged with issues that eventually affect us all.”
Out of the Comfort Zone
In Loving Memory of… paired each local family with two Temple students, one from Tyler and one from SCT. The Aviles family—Maribel, Rafael and their children, Christopher, Joshua and Jennifer—worked with students Sydni Grant and Walter Myrick.
A junior majoring in broadcast journalism, Grant says she got involved in the project based on the prospect of covering news likely to be ignored by the mainstream media. “In Loving Memory of… made me a better reporter,” she says. “I was out of my comfort zone, going to different parts of the city and building my own sources and contacts. I dug deeper into the story.”
Journalism student Sydni Grant (right) laughs with members of the Aviles family; Carmen Rojas (right) enjoys the hanging chair created by Tyler student Helen Upin (not pictured).
Cris Robinson, SCT'09 (left), explores the life of Maria Rojas and her family and the power of bomba in his writing.
Grant, who grew close to the Aviles family, produced a video report that weaves together their story and her thoughts on the multiple meanings of violence. “They are very proud of their Puerto Rican heritage and, in some ways, see the appropriation of Latino culture by the mainstream as a type of violence,” she explains. “Getting to know them also opened my eyes to what they have to deal with every day, like the ethnic tensions between black, Latino and Russian students at school.”
What Grant saw in the Aviles family—the strength they gain from each other and their traditions—Myrick depicted in his art. The art education major drew the family as comic book superheroes who gain power from classical elements such as fire and earth.
“I had a lot of trust in Walter from the beginning,” says Maribel Aviles, “but I wanted to see how other people see us. He understood that we are very united as a family. His work brought me to tears.”
A Venue for Family Stories
Rates of violence are high in some of Philadelphia’s Latino neighborhoods. Maria Rojas, her husband, Harry Tapia, and their three sons have heard gunshots in the community surrounding their small house on Hancock Street. While working on the project, violence also touched the life of Cris Robinson, SCT ’09, a journalism major who was paired with the family: His friend was murdered in a neighborhood less than a mile from the home of Rojas and Tapia. Robinson’s article was meant to provide “a venue for this family—my family—to tell their story.”
As owners of a local restaurant, Rojas and Tapia host frequent gatherings celebrating bomba, the African-influenced drum and dance performance native to Puerto Rico. This tradition is one way the family and their friends and neighbors help prevent violence. “We stay out of trouble because we are always together,” says Rojas.
The experience made Robinson aware of the African influence in the Puerto Rican community and the way tradition might keep a family safe and together. “Cris now wants to learn bomba,” Rojas says, “and how to cook Spanish food.”
Works for the project also were installed at Fermina’s Beauty Salon on North 5th Street, located in the heart of the local business district known as El Bloque de Oro, “the Golden Block.” There, Tyler graduate student Kate Sclavi created a waiting area featuring self-portraits made by many of the salon’s customers during a previous one-day workshop. Additionally, she included pillows made from pants and silkscreen images of indigenous Nicaraguan flowers, both of which represent salon owner Fermina Urroz. When Urroz emigrated to the United States from Nicaragua in the early 1980s, she was employed at a pants factory before becoming an assistant in a beauty parlor.
Sclavi, who worked at Philadelphia’s acclaimed Mural Arts Program for four years, came to Temple to learn more about developing a community-based arts curriculum. “I never before synthesized the role of educator and the role of artist; there was always a dichotomy,” Sclavi explains. “At Temple, a light bulb went on. I can be a teacher and an artist, creating my own art and representing a community.”
Customers, students and curious neighbors gathered in the beauty salon to see Sclavi’s art while Urroz continued working on a client’s hair. “My art,” she says, smiling.
For more information about In Loving Memory of…,
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