WALK INTO the Rotunda on any given night, and you might find the place thronged with 300 young hip-hop fans at the monthly Gathering, break-dancing up a sweat, trying out their mic skills, or writing graffiti on dedicated spaces; 20 music aficionados seated and listening intently to music from the fringe presented by Gate or Ars Nova Workshop; table after table laden with alternative culture for a Zine Fest or Punk Orck Flea Market; or a yoga class, dance performance, puppet theater, or rock show.
How could you encompass that much variety in a single representation?
That was the challenge for the Rotunda's directors and artist Michael B. Schwartz when they devised Collective Imprints, a mural project assigned to illustrate the function and the spirit of the space. The finished piece, which came together via a series of meetings and community paint sessions starting last November, was unveiled May 1 with a presentation by several participants and, in the spirit of collaboration that has marked the creative process, an open jam session.
Both Schwartz and Rotunda executive director Gina Renzi referred to the inception of Collective Imprints as a moment of happy synchronicity. She had long been thinking of a way in which to commemorate the Rotunda, especially as it approaches its 10th anniversary this fall; he had recently arrived in Philadelphia from Tucson, Ariz., and had become involved in the 40th Street Artist-in-Residence Program, which grants West Philly artists free studio time in exchange for their outreach efforts to the local community. Long interested in sparking community interest via participatory mural projects, Schwartz proposed a Rotunda mural as his community project.
A series of planning meetings were held last summer involving many of the organizations that regularly present events at the Rotunda. From the concepts discussed there, the mural was designed and painted during weekly meetings and community paint days (one coinciding with the Martin Luther King Day of Service).
The images spanning the mural panels represent an array of ideas, styles and levels of talent. Representations of religious and musical figures stand beside a factory whimsically emitting popcorn kernels rather than polluting smoke; vegetables dance as B-boys, representing both community gardens and the hip-hop community; a businessman wears an anarchist symbol beneath a three-piece suit; and arms reach down from the sky, embracing people outside the welcoming doors of the Rotunda itself.
As these snapshots suggest, the mural has come to represent not only the Rotunda itself, but the surrounding West Philly/University City area. "The venue wouldn't be the same if it were in a different neighborhood," Renzi said, "and the neighborhood wouldn't necessarily be the same if the venue weren't here. That's kind of lofty and ambitious to say, but I think it's true for a lot of folks. The spirit of the venue and the spirit of the neighborhood influence each other."
One Tuesday evening in January, nine participants sat in a circle on the Rotunda's floor, joined by Renzi, Schwartz and his partner, artist Jodi Netzer. Musician Bill Fieger sat at one end of the room playing guitar, providing background music as he had at every meeting, bringing a different instrument each time. Many of the attendees were involved with the Rotunda, including MC I-Be4evr, the host of The Gathering, and Rashida Holmes, a former Rotunda board member and co-founder of the Girls' DJ Collective, which held monthly sessions there. But there were also a pair of 14-year-old boys from Prep Charter High, there for the first time, curiosity sparked by an interest in the arts.
Schwartz, clad in paint-stained jeans, passed out a worksheet detailing the elements of perspective, then led a discussion about the work in progress, which was laid out in nine panels around the room.
He sifted through a stack of Post-it notes on which were scrawled words related to West Philly:
"Vegan. Unity. Colors. Violence. Theater. Community. Plays. Puppets. Dance." After a few moments, everyone scattered to resume work on the mural. Schwartz, the professional artist, never picked up a brush but encouraged and advised the roomful of "amateurs."
"I'm the artist facilitator," Schwartz explained. "So I'm doing a lot of the administrative work, but also encouraging people to put their own voices into the project. I try to keep my own artistic and aesthetic sensibilities separate, because I'm a professional artist and I don't want that to be something that people compare themselves to. I want them to have their own poetic and creative voices come out and be amplified, which promotes out of the box thinking."
"This is a truly collaborative process where everybody gets a say," Renzi said. "I don't think people are used to working together in this way and they really appreciate the collaborative process more than they appreciate stroking their ego. Ultimately, when the participants look at the boards, I think that they see the process and they see what good can come out of that."
The project's democratic structure has raised questions about whether quality work can be expected from non-professionals. "The argument against participatory-designed artwork is that it doesn't meet the public's expectation of what is aesthetically pleasing," Schwartz said. "But art is something that's learned. We all have it inside of us.
"Creativity is a muscle that we have to exercise, and if we exercise that muscle as a community and nurture it, what comes out of that?
"These kind of projects build community because they get people to think collectively. There are a lot of different aesthetics being tossed together like a salad and it's beautiful. It's dynamic. And you get this effect that is almost impossible to get when you have just one or two people working on a project."
Holmes, who doesn't consider herself a visual artist, pointed out how Schwartz's encouragement was key to transferring concepts to canvas.
"I feel that I have a very vivid imagination, but transferring that to something tangible, that's the part where I kind of shut down," she said. "But Michael has this great way of getting you to see things that you don't necessarily see and to be easy on yourself. If you're a control freak, this is a great exercise, because there are so many people who are part of it, and you have to realize that it's not going to just be what's in your head. Once you let that go, really beautiful things happen." *
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