From Otis Street: The Head as a Vessel

Artist Lisa Rosenstein of the Otis Street Arts Project reflects on the hands-on workshop she led: The Head as a Vessel.

When the pandemic began in March of 2020 it was as if I’d tripped and fallen down the stairs into a very, very dark hole. Never mind that my home is filled with light and I want for nothing, I was even fortunate enough to have the company of my daughter who’d moved home temporarily. Still, I felt helpless and that perceived lack of control led to a time of darkness and reflection while solidifying my belief that we are all part of one big seething organism. It was a shocking and disorienting time to be without access to my studio and my practice of non-verbal processing.

Once the shock wore off, I came to realize that being sequestered in a sheltered space with few distractions created an environment of vast possibilities. One possibility presented itself to me on a Sunday as I was reading the newspaper (hard copy, believe it or not!). The articles and accompanying images were deeply distressing as usual.  I read on, my reaction turning from grief to anger to physically tearing the paper, crushing, squeezing, and twisting it until suddenly I was holding a misshapen bowl.

First bowl, April 2020. Photo by Lisa Rosenstein

Holding that physical object in my hands opened me up and I felt a subtle lifting of my spirit.

From that moment on and for the next six months I continued the bowl making process, even incorporating some older newspaper articles (having always been a collector of words and images). It was my way of being present in this moment of history that included the pandemic, the continuing horror of police brutality toward people of color, and of course our destructively dysfunctional governmental head. The bowls proliferated filling every surface of my home like a field of emotional mushrooms. At least until my daughter suggested I just pile them up one inside the other. This daily ritual became a time of integration, my awareness expanded even as my physical space had contracted.

Bowls Grow Like Mushrooms, April 2020-October 2020. Photo by Lisa Rosenstein

The process of making the bowls is uncomplicated:

  1. Read the newspaper until an image or a set of words sets off an emotion or deeper thought.
  2. Get a plastic mixing bowl, any size. I prefer the smaller ones; they are more intimate.
  3. press the newspaper into the bowl and add water, continue pressing until you have an image you like. finish the edges as you please. squeeze out excess water.
  4. Place the finished bowl into a sunny spot or near a heating vent in your home.
  5. Once the bowl is dry remove it from its mold
  6. The bowl is complete and will hold its shape though it has no binders and will eventually decay.

The simplicity of the process was perfect and I was thankful to have a meaningful idea ready for the Phillips Hands On Workshop program.

Making bowls during the online workshop

The Head as a Vessel workshop emphasized our minds as places of introspection, change, and growth and it was my intention that the Zoom workshop be a symbolic safe space for the participants to share their thoughts and feelings through the act of art-making.

I led the participants in the making of four bowls. The final two bowls were the most meaningful. The first, what I called the pandemic bowl, was focused on what the participants had been living through and feeling since the pandemic had begun. The other I named the future bowl and asked the participants to think about what they wanted for the future. I had two pre-made bowls at hand and invited people to call out words pertaining to each topic. I inscribed these words into the appropriate bowl. Once this exercise was complete, I filled the future bowl with soil and crocus bulbs. As a finale the pandemic bowl was set on fire and burned to ash. It was a satisfying and cathartic moment.

We are all living through a complex historic time. Humanity is a collective organism and what each one of us does affects the other in a never-ending circle. We can choose to stay in the dark or grow to the light.

In February 2021 the bowl of the future blossomed.

Bowl of the future, February 2021. Photo by Lisa Rosenstein



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)