In the packed playground of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral School, the Friday night social chatter maintains a steady, low-level buzz, as cliquish tribes of girls and boys smoke cigarettes and drink red wine and imported beer from small, plastic cups. One girl wears a floppy, knit cap which, embroidered with a dizzying display of silver sequins, resembles a flaccid disco ball atop her head. Another wears a short, stiff, lamé dress of alternating cream and bronze-colored stripes; from afar, she appears nude and unevenly tanned. But most are dressed in variations of the same, New York chic, going-out attire: head-to-toe black.
The Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson cuts through the crowd, trailing a small posse of +1s and scampering paparazzo with their flashing bulbs, and somebody carrying a walkie-talkie whispers, “I think there are models here,” to another carrying the same. Then, the music cuts out at the DJ platform––which is next to the open-bar and above the hopscotch and four-square grids––and the Hollywood humanitarian hyphenate Rosie Perez mounts the stage.
She wears a pair of wide-legged black trousers, a slim-fitting white blouse and teeters on high, leather pumps. Her skin is bright and whiskey-colored, and the expression Rosie broadcasts to the crowd posturing before her belies a concomitant reticence and rehearsedness.
“There are people out there who actually believe that the education system in America is working,” she begins. “But I ask, for whom?”
Rosie is a co-founder of the Urban Arts Partnership, a New York based initiative working to close the intellectual, social and artistic achievement gaps of underserved public school students through arts-integrated education programs. She is here to celebrate the opening of RE:FORM SCHOOL, the weekend-long pop-up contemporary art gallery-come-education reform festival––proceeds payable to the UAP––taking place at 233 Mott Street, in what was, until shuttering at the end of the ’09/’10 school year, New York City’s oldest operating parochial day-school.
Huddled figures loom from the propped-open windows that face the yard, their backlit silhouettes still and silent, pausing to hear Rosie deliver her rhetoric: “There is a disgusting and shameful prejudice, here in America, that if you are born into poverty, you must be stupid, you must have a lower capacity to learn,” she says. “I was one of those kids that they discounted. Just because I was poor and I was on welfare, no one took the time to realize that I was extremely intelligent––thank you very much.”
Rosie says this with a precocious sass in her punchy Latin accent; it’s meant to offer a bit of comic relief, but the crowd hesitates out of a practiced “post-racial” politesse.
“And what changed my mind––because I was a pissed-off young person––was that, one day, there was a special trip to see a performance of The Wiz. And when I saw this young, black girl up there, singing ‘When I think of home, I think of a place / Where there’s love overflowing’; me, the tough kid; me, the kid that used to beat up little boys––who was really, inside, a nerd, a smart nerd, who just wanted people to like me––cried like a bitch. Like a bitch.”
The crowd perks up to the profanity, taking this as its queue to cut loose a little. Of course, anyone with a pulse would see the irony here: Rosie, at her most sentimental, wasn’t looking for a laugh.
“Seeing art, live, up there, on the stage, changed me as a person. That’s why I’m part of Urban Arts Partnership. There’s a new way to teach kids, and the arts is a big part of that. I hope that tonight you reach into your hearts, but more important, I hope that you reach into your pockets and buy some of the art that’s here. Because every drop in the bucket counts, because someone’s drop in the bucket changed me for the better. Thank you.”
Beside me, a slim young man in a well-tailored pantsuit says to a leggy blonde fingering her iPhone, “So, I guess there’s art inside?” They share a mutual shrug.
* * *
The school’s interior, once populated by the bags and books and buoyancy of the student-body whose thinning number necessitated its closing, has metamorphosed into a three-story, goodwill gallery displaying work from over 150 of the country’s more prominent––publicity hungry?––contemporary artists.
The men and women milling about the halls and classrooms are a very different breed from those outside, who are mainly interested in playing catch-up and parsing party turnout. These are the collectors and gallerists and, conceivably, some are the artists.
In a cramped, coat closet-sized ex-classroom, a small audience has gathered to watch a somber man with chin-length hair play improvised cello suites––the pitch and tone of which send droplets of water leaping into the air from the two, shallow, rectangular troughs positioned on either side of the behemoth instrument. This is one of several “pieces” contributed by Michael Murphy, an artist and teacher based in Milledgeville, GA, who flew in a group of his students to help set up his super-sized installation art. The cellist was sourced and hired via Craigslist, several days prior.
Murphy’s “USA Pencil Install” is a divisive three-dimensional info-graphic comprised entirely of #2 pencils––which are wood with a black-paint coating, and capped with eraser-heads of either neon pink, green, orange or yellow rubber––and negative space. Into the clean white plaster of a high-ceilinged wall, a dot-dash system of holes has been drilled to form an outline of the United States, with like holes plotted within every square inch of the interior surface area of the nation. The pattern in which the pencils have been plugged into these holes is such that each of the fifty states is identifiable by not only its designated neon hue, but also its percentile average of high school graduates.
Beside this America, a key––written in pencil and coded with eraser-cap clusters––elucidates the value represented by each of the four colors. For the states with the fewest issued diplomas––California, Florida, and Texas, among others––the holes are left empty, bald and gaping, within the neon-orange rubber outlines of their intranational borders.
Murphy’s art is technically precise and of exceptional design; but, being location-bound––or, in the case of the cellist, human––none of it is for sale. Art über alles.
Upstairs, in a long, window-lit room with a particleboard partition situated at its center to create an ad hoc perambulate path of floorspace, framed mix-media pieces occupy just about every spare scrap of blackboard and wall. (The art here in particular, and throughout the entirety of the campus in theory, takes its inspiration from the sanctioned themes of the event––namely, Knowledge, Community, Creativity & Inspiration, and Teachers Who Inspire.)
Two art-rich seeming men in sunglasses and suit-jackets glide over to a set of framed woodcuts by the artist Scott Albrecht. One piece displays the message DON’T GIVE UP in primary colors, the other reads EVERY DAY IS A NEW DAY. They are, for a brief moment, quiet and contemplative, then one man says to the other, “I like these,” and a volunteer swoops in to inform the man that “they are $300 a piece.” “I want ‘em,” he says. The woman asks which, and Mr. Impulsive says he’ll take the pair. Purple dots are then placed beside each; they have been sold in under four seconds.
* * *
More art sells––most, in fact. Or at least that which is mobile and amenable to transit. There is live music on the blacktop, and, to the displeasure of the many parched patrons, little booze left in the ice buckets. One woman, whose skirt skims her knickers, with a neckline south of her navel, expresses audible resentment when someone luckier than she plucks a solitary cup of cabernet from within the sea of drained bottles and dropped dollar-bills.
The temporary step-and-repeat––which has been erected in the concrete alleyway between the playground and the curb––is plugged by a swell of artist-parents with babies Bjorn-swaddled to their chests; their older children zip around the playground’s perimeter on collapsable steel scooters. The party is not yet over, but it might as well be, and these children seem an odd late-addition to the after-school affair.
Curbside, at the school’s Prince Street exit, a broken-down school-bus rests upon cinderblock supports where its wheels ought to be. Layers of aerosol paint have been spritzed on its cheddar-colored body, cartoonish clouds of magenta, grape, baby-blue and silver; and for each smashed-in window, there is an open socket and a web of tempered glass that sags like twinkling lace. Above the windshield and the rear exit, and along the length of each side of its middle, a supplemental ‘T’ has been tacked onto the chains of decal-lettering; the text reads PUBLIC SCHOOL BUST in a bold, black font.
A troupe of four girls in their mid-teens swirls from around the corner at Mott and heads up Prince, toward the bus. They are shrill and sing-songy, and it looks like they are dancing even though they are not. They pause at the bus, unsure of what is before them, then move in concentric circles around its wide berth. “Fifty-four percent of dropouts ages sixteen to twenty-four are jobless?” one reads aloud, disbelieving, from the decal beside the door. Then: “High school drop outs have a life expectancy 9.2 years shorter than high school graduates?” She and her friends agree that it’s Gotta be a joke and Nuh-uh, not for real. And just as quick as they’d come, the girls again bob down the street, away from St. Patrick’s, cheeks fat from laughter, divorced from the four near-empty backpacks that flap and kick at their shoulders.
Molly Oswaks is a freelance writer and editor living in Manhattan's West Village. This is her first story to appear on the site.