Prior to 1986 you worked as a studio artist. What prompted you to shift your focus away from your studio work and instead focus on how art can be used to address the greater needs of a community?
I didn’t just decide to shift from being a studio artist into a social activist to make art for the greater good of the society. When I was a studio artist, I felt something was missing in my life. It led me searching. In 1986 I was invited by the late dancer and choreographer Arthur Hall to build an art Park on his small abandoned lot next to his building in inner city North Philadelphia. That changed my life.
Although I was apprehensive and full of fear, I decided to give it a try. Through the process of a group of novices working together trying to do something meaningful for the place and our time together, something powerful began to take place. Our team was composed of a studio artist, children from the street, and one unemployed adult Joseph Williams, nicknamed JoJo. In this broken place, no one paid us attention. Since no one really knew the right way, we felt free to experiment and explore. A sense of order and purpose gradually emerged from chaos and random activities. At the end of our two months’ effort, a sense of place began to make itself felt.
I had not planned to return. But something deep in the work experience got hold of me. I realized that this neglected empty space is filled with potent possibilities. The enthusiasm from the children, the talent and unpredictability of JoJo, and the freedom to experiment and to make mistake have increased my curiosity and energized my being. I realized that this “bad land” is actually a treasure land, rich in its history and deep in its pain. But Taoism taught me that the place most broken and forsaken is the most ready for transformation. I have so much to learn from this place and the residents in the neighborhood.
My journey has been so rewarding that I eventually quit my tenured professorship at the University of the Arts so that I can devote full time to pursue my passion, to bring beauty and art to places broken in the world.