Art Galleries:
 The Original Instagram

A West Philly high school student reflects on how we curate our lives

Illustration by James Heimer

Illustration by James Heimer

By Cameron Swann

The first time I realized that I could make my world beautiful was during a summer program from The School of the New York Times, where I spent two weeks looking at how the curation of art affects how we perceive the art itself. My teacher, Anthony Titus, taught me a lot during those two weeks, but one thing he said stood out: Everything is curated. 

That really resonated with me, because in our society today we are so connected to social media—we see things, whether they are Facebook feeds or the walls of a gallery, in the way others want us to perceive the images. We are all trying to make our lives seem beautiful and interesting, even when they are not. I’d take pictures at events that would never happen again, places I wasn’t sure I would be able to visit again, things that I wanted to remember and brag about to the people I’d meet. 

Instagram in particular, with its emphasis on pictures and not text, is curated, and people usually only take pictures of the aspects of life they think others will deem beautiful and opulent. When I was reflecting on that fact, I thought of ways to turn my daily life into something beautiful, worth showing. I kept thinking I had to memorialize a moment I’d only do once in my life. I thought the ordinary and routine in my life couldn’t be considered beautiful—until I experienced the Whitney Museum of American Art, also in New York City. 

At the Whitney, the architecture and exhibits create a light-hearted and bright atmosphere that makes both the art and surrounding neighborhood look picturesque. The exhibit where I found the most beauty in the ordinary was “Where We Are,” which took pieces from the Whitney’s collection to show American lives from 1900 to 1960. It was broken up into sections by stanzas from the W. H. Auden poem “September 1, 1939.”

The poem and artwork showed everyday life and how things change dramatically whether you view an experience closely or at a distance. I found myself looking at a historical vantage point at the exhibit’s pieces about daily life from the Great Depression and World War II—when life wasn’t at its finest and happiest. And yet, there were beautiful creations from people documenting everyday lives, lives that were neither beautiful nor opulent in the way we measure on Instagram. One painting that stands out was “Gettin’ Religion” by Archibald J. Motley Jr.: It’s a colorful image of people in Harlem going home after a night on the town, dancing and playing music as others look on under the beautiful blue light of the moon. 

It made me realize that in the turmoil and dismay of our lives today, we can still find the artistic in everyday moments, even in the dirty work of society. I plan to create beauty and happiness by taking photographs of the mundane—I hope others will create their own beauty as well.

Cameron Swann is a student at West Philadelphia’s Workshop School.

Off the Grid

Community members work on what will be Philadelphia’s first Earthship.

In West Philadelphia, organizers use tires and earth to create an ambitious and energy-passive home

At a glance, the open-air lot at the corner of 41st and Lancaster appears to be littered with garbage—tires piled up in the northwest corner, mounds of dirt and cement mixed in with empty bottles and cans. But these familiar objects are not strewn about randomly; they have been intentionally collected to build the first urban Earthship. When it’s completed, it could be the most sustainable building in Philadelphia.

An Earthship is a passive solar house made from both natural and recycled materials (such as earth-filled tires), which makes it much more affordable to build than a conventional home. The design is the brainchild of New Mexico based iconoclast architect Michael Reynolds. Five years ago, Philadelphia resident Rashida Ali-Campbell watched Garbage Warrior, a documentary about Reynolds, and her life was changed. “Explosions went off in my head,” Ali-Campbell says. “Why haven’t we seen that here already?”

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Farm Films: Urban farming documentary double feature at Drexel tomorrow

For all those guilty of drooling over the fresh produce sprouting up in Philly’s many urban farms, it’s time to stop staring and learn about the roots of this growing movement. The Westphal College at Drexel University is hosting a special screening of two farm-focused films tomorrow, Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. First, watch "West Philly Grown," the story of West Philly’s own Mill Creek Farm, a community provider of organic produce and educational programs. Then, stick around to learn about Detroit's urban farming scene in “Urban Roots,” which screens at 7:30 p.m. Once you’re thoroughly motivated to get digging, discover how to turn your farming dreams into reality with a panel discussion featuring leaders of the movement. Admission is $5 or free with a Drexel I.D. The screening is at Drexel’s Bossone Research Center (3140 Market St.).

The Lunch Wars: For students and adults fighting for better, healthier school lunches, fresh cafeteria food is an issue of respect

Philadelphia high school student Seth Brown is frank about it: He started skipping lunch more and more this past year. “The rate has increased this year,” says the 18-year-old rising senior at West Philadelphia’s Parkway West High School, “because my English class is above the kitchen.”
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Cover Story: Growth Industry

Nic Esposito and a new generation of urban activists are starting in the garden

Answering a question about his favorite things to grow is a challenge for Nic Esposito. After a few nods to his Italian heritage—eggplants, tomatoes—he settles on a response that speaks volumes about the work he is doing in his West Philadelphia community: “I love planting perennials,” he says with a smile. “It might make me sound lazy, but I love the idea of putting something in the ground—like rosemary or berry bushes—and seeing them grow back. It gives you a stake in where you are.”

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Environmental Effects

Patients as Person, City as Healer?
by Nathaniel Popkin

In the earliest days of the Center for Community Partnerships at Penn, a project I was a part of for a few years in the mid-’90s, we considered (but never executed) a “misery/happiness index” for West Philadelphia. The index was an idea of the historian Lee Benson, the Dewian visionary who believed that an engaged university was a unique engine of participatory democracy. Benson didn’t hope to facilitate another study of an urban neighborhood, but rather he wanted to create a quantifiable tool to help West Philadelphians reflect on the relationship between the quality of their own lives and the condition of the city they live in.
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Free Flow

An abandoned building becomes a hub for social activism in West Philadelphia
by Natalie Hope McDonald

Just off the Number 10 Green Line, west of the sprawling Penn and Drexel campuses and trendy restaurants, past the tiny street corner bodegas and dimly lit bars, a group of aspiring social activists saw something special in an abandoned building at 41st and Lancaster Ave. Up for sheriff’s sale a decade ago, the dilapidated storefront dating back to the 1920s had been taken over by squatters and musicians who mostly borrowed the neglected space for band rehearsals and impromptu powwows.
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