From Otis Street: Weaving with Wire

Artist Shelley Lowenstein of the Otis Street Arts Project reflects on the workshop she led: WIRED: Line Drawing in Space.

What a year! How can I bring joy into a world turned upside down?

That was my first thought when our studio (Otis Street Arts Project) was asked to create a series of hands-on zoom art classes for The Phillips Collection. I reluctantly volunteered even though I don’t enjoy public speaking. Why not? I asked my inner voices. If not now during a pandemic, then when? Growth. Face your fears and do it anyway.

For some time, I had been weaving with wire, and I decided to share my endless enthusiasm for Alexander Calder while creating Calder-inspired wire portraits with the Zoom participants. It was easy to be enthusiastic about this artist. I fell in love with Calder as a child. I was so amused by his toy figures and hanging portraits. I was not alone: “My fan mail is enormous; everyone is under six,” explained Calder. He believed that “above all, art should be fun.” And what better way to create a relaxed, inclusive few Zoom hours than by focusing on the joyful Calder and his brilliant work. And so, we began to work with the wire while learning more about the man.

Drawing with wire during the online workshop

Alexander Calder, known as Sandy, was a playful genius. He became one of the most beloved American sculptors of the 20th century. Only recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City opened a new exhibit about him. From the review in the New York Times: “The Modern has welcomed Calder back with a beauty of a show that, over the next several months, will make the world a better place.” Calder once said, “I think best in wire.” He was a big man with large strong hands, perfect for bending wire. And he loved to laugh, seeing humor in the world.

After college, he went to Paris to become an artist. He rode a bright orange bicycle around town, with a large spool of wire over his shoulder. He’d studio hop, visiting his famous artist friends to see what they were doing. And often, he would create a portrait likeness of these celebrities, sometimes on the spot, by bending wire—Joan Miró, Josephine Baker, Fernand Léger, Edgard Varèse, and many more. He called himself an “illumination engineer” because the shadow cast by the wire was as important as the portrait itself. Simply put, he was contour drawing in space.

It was on a visit to the studio of Piet Mondrian that his world changed. Studying Mondrian’s geometric paintings of red, blue, and yellow shapes, Calder’s mind turned to the idea of “kinetic art.” What if those big shapes of color could actually move? What if I can draw in space? And that “spark” evolved into the invention of the mobile.

Drawing with wire during the online workshop

Via Zoom, the participants and I began to bend, twist, and curl wire. We made circles and squares. We made hearts and zig zags. We learned different ways to join wire. I recommended using 18-20 gauge wire because it’s easier to bend than what Calder actually used. Basic tools included flat-head pliers, needle-nose pliers, and wire cutters.

In no time, some 54 participants were getting comfortable with the materials. We examined a number of Calder portraits, how he elegantly joined wire connections, how he created various shapes, and how he created simple contour drawings―just the simple outline of the features of a face. No shading. No color. No value. Calder’s genius―he emphasized only the prominent features, not the detail, because our mind can fill in the blanks.

And soon, to the amazement of the Zoom participants, we were making three-dimensional portraits. There was joy in the air on that Zoom. Participants were chatty, asking questions, sharing their work, laughing. We were “playing” with art, as Calder had advised. And the feedback was heartwarming. Above all, art should be fun.

Connecting Human Interaction, Neuroscience, and Art

Whittle School & Studios teachers Dr. Balakrishnan Selvakumar and Dr. Ara Brown on how human interaction, neuroscience, and art inform each other and the high school student.

Students in the Human Interaction and Neuroscience class at Whittle School & Studios explored why humans interact by developing a behavioral framework based on research literature in neurobiology that they then applied to explore a human interaction example of their choice. As part of this project, they were given an option to choose from more than 350 pieces of art from The Phillips Collection and answer two questions: Why does the chosen artwork connect with them? How does their perception of the artwork change when they apply a behavioral framework to it?

Here are podcasts of the work by three students. You can access them here on Soundcloud or via our new digital guide, the free Bloomberg Connects app in the “Teen Voices” section, where you can also access the transcripts.

Calla chooses Untitled (Hood 2) by John Edmonds because the hood in the image reminded her of her first experience with racial injustice: through a conversation she had with her cousin eight years ago about the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American male who was shot dead after being described as an unknown male in a hoodie; and through her aunt’s terrified reaction to this incident because her son, who shared physical attributes with Trayvon, could just as easily be mistaken with fatal consequences. In applying the behavioral framework to understand her experience, Calla interprets the hood as an environmental signal that triggers a reaction of fear and danger in the brain because of how the brain has learned to associate and reinforce the hood with negative contexts; she references behavioral studies to indicate the quickness and negative consequence of these reactions. She concludes by saying how a positive context, such as a positive African American cultural experience, could train the brain to learn to make positive associations and memories that may lessen the negative reactions of fear and bias and the unjust consequences therein.

JiaJia chooses the photograph, Keep Going, the eighth photo of the series Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad by Jeanine Michna-Bales, because it transports her to a moment in history when a slave escapes for freedom and, it reminded her of a quote by Frederick Douglass that talks about the uncertainty and danger of this escape. In applying the behavioral framework to this moment and quote, she views the slave’s experience in terms of how the brain and the nervous system can trigger a response of flight and fuel the body to act to escape through a powerful physiological reaction that overcomes the perception of danger that might otherwise be inhibiting; she uses the geographical location, including the thorny swamps and the light of the stars as contrasting environmental triggers of physical pain overcome by hope. She concludes by saying that applying the behavioral perspective to the photograph created a physical connection to it―it made her feel the moment in history and better understand the quote by Frederick Douglass.

Ella chooses a painting by Paul Klee, To the Right, To the Left, because the mysteriousness of the painting’s geometric images moving side to side intrigued her and made her want to know more about the artist. However, reading about the artist didn’t give her a reason for why the artwork appealed, instead it made her have conversations with friends and family about it that she enjoyed despite still not understanding the reason for the appeal. In applying the behavioral framework to this experience, she compares the artwork and the fun conversations that it engendered to the reward circuit in the brain and how it affects behavior. Specifically, she compares how the process of anticipating the reward can be more rewarding than the reward itself to how the conversations with friends and family about understanding the artwork were more enjoyable than understanding the artwork itself. She concludes by saying how this experience influences the way she perceives art and its effect on human interaction.

Based on these examples, art that speaks to a student can trigger a connection to a poignant conversation from the past, a moment in history, or a personal reflection that forms the context through which the neuroscience of racial justice or slavery or the role of reward in human interaction can be explored. How can this approach be scaled to integrate art and behavior to a greater extent in a high school course and to more students?

From Otis Street: The Artist’s Book as a Time Capsule

Artist Beth Curren of the Otis Street Arts Project reflects on the hands-on workshop she led: The Artist’s Book as a Time Capsule.

As an artist, I believe everyone has a creative streak―it just has to be discovered. As we all gradually came to terms with the limits and extremes of life during a pandemic and political strife, it became even more important to consider ways for artists to give back to the community. Artists and arts organizations offered many ideas: print exchanges for fundraisers, online presentations and tutorials in every genre imaginable, virtual exhibits and gallery tours. On a smaller scale, I created packets for the 22 houses on our small cul-de-sac and most every home participated in the Middleton Lane Prayer Flag Project.

Making artist’s books during the online workshop

When David Mordini, our director at Otis Street Art Project, outlined The Phillips Collection’s Saturday afternoon online workshops, we realized it was possible to reach an even wider community. These sessions were an opportunity to engage people in something new, something that they had never tried before. I chose artists’ books since it is a favorite genre, combining hand skills, art skills, and writing skills. It made sense to design a workshop that called for materials that nearly everyone already had at home: pencil, ruler, 8.5 x 11 in. paper, scissors, glue, and a popsicle stick/round bladed knife for creasing the paper. With these tools, we made three structures: a Book-in-a-Page, a Petal Fold, and a Flag Book. For content, participants could use photos, stickers, crayons, magic markers, images, and text cut from magazines. I always encourage students to make two to three identical models―repetition fosters muscle memory and the mission is for the students to be able to re-create the structures on their own.

After much discussion with David, I chose the theme of a Time Capsule. The three structures would incorporate images and text; when finished, they would be put in an envelope, dated, and put aside to be reopened sometime in the future. Suggested prompts included: “How has this pandemic affected your sense of yourself? What do you hope for in the future? What do you want to remember or to remind yourself that makes this year different from all others?”

As always, there was a lot of prep for the workshop: a PowerPoint presentation; hand-outs and notes; pre-cut paper so that I could repeat the same steps over and over until the participants felt confident that they had mastered each structure. David had set up a little studio at OSAP and we had a short dress rehearsal with Emma Dreyfuss and Miguel Perez from the Phillips and that was very helpful. Over fifty people signed up for the class; that was both gratifying and a bit intimidating for my first Zoom workshop but the enthusiasm and excitement from the participants was very encouraging. There was a wide range of ages and skill levels but these basic book structures are very flexible and allow for endless variations of text and imagery.

Making artist’s books during the online workshop

The best part was when we did a show-and-tell at the end. People are full of surprises and ingenuity. The variety and ingenuity of their pieces reflected, I think, their response to making art during a crisis. Many of the children were all ready to put their masterpieces in boxes and bury them in the back yard for their future selves to find.

As for me, I was both overstimulated and exhausted: trying to connect and engage with that many people in their little boxes on the computer screen was a real challenge. But it was so, so worth it. And I think I learned a lot, too―there are steps I would modify if I taught this online again: I’d teach two structures instead of three; I’d leave more time for individual work; I might schedule in a few breaks. But those are small quibbles. It was a fabulous experience and one I hope to have the opportunity to repeat.

Artist’s books by Beth Curren: (top) My Fortunes (flag book structure); (bottom) Solar Eclipse (book-in-a-page structure)