Every day for the past month, a revolving group of artists, volunteers, students, and ex-offenders participating in re-entry programs, have worked together on what amounts to the largest Mural Arts project yet.
Today, a handful of journalists from around the country ― in town for the National Association of Black Journalists convention ― are even laying down their pens and pads to take up hammers and drills in the "Restored Spaces" initiative now underway at Bodine High School for International Affairs in Northern Liberties.
Picking through piles of construction piping, reclaimed wood, and chain link fence, these men and women are gradually assembling a trellis-covered, 220-foot bench that will rise and dip through part of the schoolyard.
The installation ― designed by Scott Shall of International Design Clinic, a locally-based nonprofit that practices "guerrilla architecture and humanitarian design" ― is comprised of 26 units that resemble crates and measure approximately 5' by 5'. The pipes act as bracing, the fencing forms the body of the bench, and wood slats serve as seating. Stuffed inside the hollow body: a compost of "locally harvested" rubble that includes everything from torn up asphalt to the cardboard boxes that the workers' drills came in.
"The idea is that everything is re-used," says Shall. "Nothing leaves the site." At places, this muck will receive a top coat of soil and will be planted with foliage that will peek through the structure.
This bench ― part architecture, part garden, part fantastical presence ― is actually the final stage of a three-pronged project that started with, as expected, a mural (by artist Eurhi Jones), and then incorporated mosaic work (by artist Beverly Fisher).
It's scheduled to be completed by mid-September. The mural and accompanying mosaics sprawl across the four faces of the school ― which sits in the middle of a large lot that stretches from Orianna to 4th and George to Cambridge streets, and is surrounded by neat rows of intact housing.
A Hokusai-like wave splashes across one wall, a mosaic'd transom echoes the 1924-era tilework around the main entrance, and bright pink flowers dot another wall.
While certainly beautiful and thoughtfully composed (it uses abstract patterns from around the world to reference various cultures), the work is almost startling in its in-your-face, graffiti-like presence.
Back in May, Art Commission members agreed. "I find this to be a shock, visually," Chair Moe Brooker said, expressing dismay at the alteration of an elegant brickface that exhibited no signs of deterioration.
Why hadn't the Commission been consulted, he and other members wondered?
According to Kate Jacobi, a project manager at Mural Arts, the mural and mosaics were granted approval from the School Reform Commission.
"That may make the action legal," responds William Burke, director of the Art Commission. "But that doesn't make it right. It's still a public building."
Other, smaller-scale projects under the Restored Spaces rubric have not gone before the Art Commission either, Jacobi points out, even though they too were on public school space and, in one case, a rec center.
Only because the Bodine project required construction permits was it kicked over to the Art Commission for greater scrutiny, she says. (The Commission granted approval to that phase of the project.)
Jacobi also points out that it was Bodine that applied for consideration as a Restored Spaces site, and the community response has been positive.
The artwork has "helped instill energy in the site," says one neighbor, Matthew Emerson, who lives across the street.
"To the best of my knowledge, the neighbors view it as a great project," concurs Matt Ruben, president of Northern Liberties Neighbors Association.
He adds that Mural Arts and NLNA have kept in close touch throughout the process.
As Mural Arts ventures into larger scale, multi-faceted space-making projects, though, such questions are bound to come up again.
In the meantime, anyone who wants to join the journalists, students, and, yes, enthusiastic neighbors, in finishing the Northern Liberties project is welcome to do so today, or any other day.