Fact No. 56 – The people make the place

‘The People Make the Place: Creative Placemaking & 6th Grade Social Studies’

This residency introduces the concept of ‘creative placemaking’ (CP) to two 6th grade social studies classes at IS 96 Seth Low, and guides them through a complete CP project.  CP is a process in which artists, business and government leaders, and other community stakeholders work together to answer the question “How do the arts make a neighborhood more livable?”  The residency’s objective is to have students experience civic engagement by collaborating on final ‘public’ art projects, installed or performed within the school, motivated by the question “How do the arts make a school a better place to learn?”  Student teams will each be given a budget of $75 to create a proposed ‘public’ art project for the school community, subject to approval of teachers and school administration.  The residency comprises 10 in-class sessions for each class between Oct-Dec 2013, and culminates in a joint showing at which the students share their projects and process lessons learned.

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Last semester, I had the pleasure of working with two 6th grade honors social studies classes at IS 96 Seth Low in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and their ultra-gracious and intrepid teacher Jeff Bravstein, during a 10-week in-class arts residency funded by the Brooklyn Council for the Arts.  In this residency, we explored ‘creative placemaking’ and made projects inspired by the question: ‘How can the arts make Seth Low a better place to learn?’

Over the course of our ten weeks together, we accomplished a lot.  We started with sensory exploration exercises to awaken our ‘inner artists’ and practice looking at our immediate surroundings (the 3rd floor of Seth Low) with new eyes.  Using all of our senses, we explored and mapped our classroom and the hallways of the 3rd floor, detailing examples of human/environment interaction, natural resources and works of art in the ‘geography’ of our educational space.  Then we studied several examples of public art projects in Brooklyn and other cities and asked questions about who the projects were designed for, why they were placed where they were placed, and what the artists might be communicating through them.  With this background, we divided into 14 different teams to work on public art projects of our own, for display within the school.  Each team had a budget of $75 to spend on art materials, which I bought and supplied for the teams.  As part of the process of creating the projects, each team had to work hard together to complete a project proposal that outlined intended audience, materials needed, budget, location, duration, whose permission was needed, etc. – all the logistics any professional artist would need to think through for a public art project.  Finally, with materials in hand, the teams worked to get their projects completed by a deadline, in time to display or perform their projects for Seth Low’s Winter Concert, just before the winter break.

Among the many different projects that the students pulled off (beautifully!) were decorated bulletin boards with anti-bullying themes, uplifting posters about treasuring your education, creatively designed button-pins promoting reading, a social studies themed board game to aid studying about the stone age, a performance about making room for girls’ voices, and posters that translated encouraging adages from Mandarin to English and Spanish.

It was a challenging and ambitious assignment but the students rose to the challenge and exceeded my every expectation.  They’re not the only ones who learned!  The more experience I gain as a teaching artist, the more I realize that simply asking the question ‘How do the arts make life more livable?’ could be a lifelong education.

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Fact No. 55 – Pay a visit to the sunflowers

I’ve been reading a few poems from Mary Oliver‘s book Dream Work each night before going to sleep while I’ve been out here at Soaring Gardens.  The last poem in the book is called ‘The Sunflowers’, and it’s vintage Mary Oliver, how she graciously re-acquaints us with some living being in nature that we’ve surely noticed once or twice before, and perhaps even marveled over, but have forgotten all about in our busy city/suburban lives:

‘Don’t be afraid / to ask them questions! / Their bright faces, / which follow the sun, / will listen, and all / those rows of seeds — / each one a new life! — / hope for a deeper acquaintance;’

I read this poem the night before I drove down to the Delaware shore for a long weekend break from my break (!) and awoke in the morning from a deep dream where somebody was whispering, urgently: ‘Pay a visit to the sunflowers!’.  The oracle of Google turned up this awesome sunflower maze in New Jersey, which was more or less on my route from PA to DE, so I can indeed attest to Mary Oliver’s further observations:

‘each of them, though it stands / in a crowd of many, / like a separate universe, / is lonely, the long work / of turning their lives / into a celebration / is not easy. Come / and let us talk with those modest faces, / the simple garments of leaves, / the coarse roots in the earth / so uprightly burning.’

And to think that they only live for a single summer!  All that work, for what?  Just to stand in solidarity with thousands of other golden beings in open sunlight and nourish the bees?  That is the question I posed to the sunflowers, and their answer was YES!

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Fact No. 54 – County Fair

While I was washing dishes last night, the aluminum can I was rinsing out for recycling slipped through my soapy hands and sliced open the tip of my little finger on its way down.  My after-dinner plans to head over the annual Wyoming County Fair were side-tracked as I applied direct pressure for an hour or two and wondered when my last tetanus shot was.  Accidents!  They happen so fast.

But so does recovery, thank goodness.  After a somewhat restless night weighing my options, I woke up on the ‘better safe than sorry’ side of the bed and drove myself over to the local hospital to have the pros take a look.  I’m so glad I did.  Not only was my cut going to be fine, the receptionist told me where the fudge booth was located when I mentioned I was heading over to the county fair now that my Steri-strip was in place.  All that for the low, low price of a $250 ER co-pay!

Grrrr.  Anyway, I’ve never actually been to a county fair, so as far as I’m concerned this one delivered the goods.  I can see myself going back tomorrow for another helping of potato pancakes and halushki from The Nices’ food truck, especially since I won’t be opening any aluminum cans for myself in the kitchen for a while.

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A high-school art student in the area made this as her prom dress from books that were going to be recycled!

A high-school art student in the area made this as her prom dress from books that were going to be recycled!


Harvest blessings!

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Fact No. 53 – Soaring Gardens

I arrived in the rain and darkness last night, so I had no idea what to expect when I woke up this morning.  Fortunately, I found this lovely place, where I’ll be spending the next month on residency…

Soaring Gardens main house

Soaring Gardens main house

Studio and State Road 3003

Studio and State Road 3003


Upper studio

Gardens I



Beyond backyard


Side yard


House and yard


Blue spruces




Early self-portrait by Ora Lerman, artist & benefactress of Soaring Gardens



Dining room

Dining room


Sitting room










Upstairs bedroom

Fact No. 51 – The Dangers of Nostalgia

Beauty Sirens

You are beautiful, difficult. Rare. Outside, a new year’s snow and a frozen river, the winter smell of never. Inside, a fire so golden it glows a hollow focus in the now and ever after, in my mind I will compose a thousand letters, send none.

Given the dangers of nostalgia, it’s not a question of coming closer if (sister, lover?) my songs hover anxiously over a bare stage, an echo chamber, while only your own words could ever pin you to a page.

Still, you will switch off the lamp near the window, cast us both in shadow, the better to watch me dance, whiskey in a crystal glass in hand, asking what is beautiful about the music we’re hearing?

As if I understand how rhythm and its exhale, rapture, and your cheerful smile and my foolish laughter, in one quick glance over the shoulder of surrender answer nothing further than time. Time! Time.