Working with local artist Lina Montoya, art history professor Sarah Scott is helping to make art, history, geography, and community come to life for her Wagner students and for elementary school students in Port Richmond.
Q Tell us about your pathway to community engagement at Wagner.
A My interest in working with the community has come from sharing my love of art with many people. I feel that art is a great medium for communicating with others.
About six years ago, the students in my First-Year Learning Community worked with second and third graders, teaching them about art and taking them to the Brooklyn Museum. While we were working on that project, the Port Richmond Partnership came into fruition. It brought my attention not only to what we can do with the children in Port Richmond, but also how we could use this love of art, and art as a communicative tool, to contribute to the physical community. For me, making art more visible in the community has become a priority.
Q Can you tell us a bit about the Mariposas Amarillas (Yellow Butterflies) project?
A The Mariposas mural project came from the creative mind of artist Lina Montoya. Thanks to a grant from the Department of Transportation’s pARTners program, she transformed a chain link fence into a piece of art, entitled Mariposas Amarillas (Yellow Butterflies). Montoya created an image of the New York City skyline on a 1,400-square-foot section of this fence along one of the main roads of Port Richmond. About 18,000 bright yellow plastic cut-outs in the shape of butterflies and 10,000 blue plastic cups went into the project. Dozens of volunteers helped install these pieces, including two Wagner students, Alison Caraballo and Daniela Gutierrez de la Garza, who were interns working with me and with El Centro del Inmigrante last summer.
Not only does Mariposas’ bright color transform that drab stretch of roadway, but its imagery also reflects on the Port Richmond and greater New York City community. This community in which we live is made up of many different people from different cultures and different places. Not only are these people from different global origins, but they also are constantly moving — just like the butterfly.
Q What was your role with Mariposas Amarillas?
A My role was to develop outreach programming for elementary schools around the mural. I received a grant from Wagner’s Mollica Family Fund to do this work. Together with my First-Year Learning Community students and fellow professor, Ousmane Traoré, we had three in-class workshops with third- and fourth-graders at PS 20 around the mural’s themes of diversity and migration. PS 20 is located in the heart of Port Richmond, just a short distance from the mural. At that school, 75 percent of the students are Hispanic and a third are English language learners, reflecting the influx of immigrants into this community. The PS 20 workshops included walking trips to the mural, discussions about world geography and family heritage, and a presentation by the artist about her work and inspiration. The final big component of the workshop was a tour at the Staten Island Museum, developed by the Wagner freshmen, again around the themes of the mural. We served 175 students last fall!
Q How has this work affected your students’ learning?
A After the mural was created, my Wagner students went to see it, but they did not quite understand its iconography. As we talked about the iconography in class, they became aware of what it means.
In my art history class, which is an introduction to the ancient world from a global perspective, we were reading articles about Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, and the exchange of cultures that took place through trade groups. Light bulbs began turning on in students’ minds. Students realized that migration and cultural exchange today is not so different from the exchanges that occurred 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
When we took the elementary school kids to the mural, they added their own butterflies. Wagner students realized that having the elementary school kids involved in making the mural was part of their learning process. The students learned that involvement of the community makes art important and valuable. And that cultural exchanges even occur between elementary school kids and Wagner students while working together on the Mariposas Amarillas project.
Q What’s the next step in this collaboration?
A The second half of the Mollica grant will be used this fall, when Lina and my new crop of freshmen install a partner piece on campus. We are also discussing what new outreach program we might do this fall around a new mural to be installed across the street from the original Mariposas project in Port Richmond.