Sophomore Art Majors Take on Socrates Sculpture Park

Sophomore students pose next to their self portraits which will be on display at Socrates Sculpture Park in May.

Sophomore students pose next to their self portraits which will be on display at Socrates Sculpture Park in May.

On October 20 and 21, 2016, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts’ (FSSA) art teacher Mrs. Spata took her sophomore ceramics class to the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. Socrates Sculpture Park was once an abandoned riverside landfill and illegal dumpsite until 1986 and now serves a greater purpose for its community by displaying art.

FSSA students worked with Kim Charles Kay, a supervising artist for the park, on an educational project. Kay taught the students about the currently exhibited artist, John Ahearn, who grew up in the South Bronx. The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs commissioned Ahearn to create a series of sculptures for a local police station in the ’80s. He casted life-size sculptures of his neighbors and ordinary people to represent the community’s character, the very community he grew up in. “The South Bronx Bronzes” raised questions about race, identity, and socioeconomics.

According to the artist’s website, the people of the South Bronx rejected what Ahearn depicted them to be. Many were offended and felt Ahearn didn’t create sculptures that represented them. Another opinion was only black artists should represent black subjects. He was shocked at the controversy and took down the sculptures a few days later. Ahearn believed the people were looking at his work and were not having the right conversations.

“Kim Charles Kay made the students well aware of the artist John Ahearn, a white sculptor. He tried his best to represent common people in the Bronx in the ’80s. He was blown away by the misinterpretation of his work,” Mrs. Spata said.

Kay posed several questions to FSSA students, asking what they thought of Ahearn’s work and to respond to his story. Sophomore art student, Olivia McLernon, spoke passionately about how the people reacted to Ahearn’s work.

“It was messed up because every artist put their time and effort into their art. You want it to be displayed and you want people to admire it. To think about how long it takes to make that and for someone to reject it, it would break your heart. You worked so hard and no one is appreciating it,” she said.

Mrs. Spata believed the students learning about Ahearn’s work reinforced the idea that it’s okay to document what you see and not just what you think you see.

“The students were able to formulate their own opinions. Since these kids are in 2016, it might be hard for them to understand how people viewed these sculptures in the ’80s. Yet they asked with great questions like why, what was going on then, and what is the message the artist is trying to send. They wanted to know the history before formulating their opinions [on Ahearn’s sculptures], which is what we are trying to teach them: to gather visual clues and expressive, formulation qualities. They were able to do that, which made me proud,” Mrs. Spata said.

The art majors used what they learned about John Ahearn and spent two days creating self-portraits at the sculpture park. Some of the students admit they faced challenges while painting themselves. Carlos Lazo a sophomore art major stated that he never painted before this workshop.

“I didn’t know anything about painting so I liked how we got to paint and I got to develop skills,” Carlos said.

Olivia said she was happy learning new methods and techniques as well.

“We learned new terms, such as ‘wet on wet’ painting and ‘glazing’. I didn’t know any of those terms,” Olivia said.

In addition to learning painting techniques, students learned more about observing their faces in different lightings.

“I got to know my face and how to use color in different environments because the light would constantly change and we had to work around that,” she added.

Socrates Sculpture Park will be combining self-portraits of students from all over New York City to create a larger painting that will be on display at the park this May. FSSA sophomore art majors’ work are just a few pieces to the puzzle.

“For the project I learned there is more color to human skin. I didn’t know there were greens and blues in my skin until I painted it,” sophomore Jasmine Hong said.

Students worked with the visiting artists to move away from basic colors in their painting as well.

“They tried to move us away from using black and white because it would de-saturate our skin tones and would make us seem less alive. They wanted us to use saturated colors,” Jessica Kataev added.

Through this workshop students gained a better understanding of the art world and how to formulate an opinion based on what they learned. Not only did they develop their artistic thinking, most developed their painting skills or even learned how to paint for the first time.

“Learning about John made me realize how tough being an artist can be. I learned different ways to paint. The experience was nice and we get to show our paintings, not a lot of people get that chance,” sophomore Nelson Ramirez said.

Even the location became an inspiration for these students.

“The park itself and the different sculptures resonated with me. I wouldn’t see sculptures like this in any other museum,” Jasmine Hong said.

– by Theresa Vu ’17