Weitzman News

Posted May 17, 2016
  • William Cramp Elementary School

  • William Cramp Elementary School

  • PennDesign faculty member Deirdre Murphy (center) with BFA candidate Riley Nelson and alumna Gabrielle Patterson (BFA’15). 

Migratory Paths

Fine Arts Team Transforms North Philadelphia Schoolyard

To paraphrase the famous Joni Mitchell song, what if you unpaved a parking lot — and created paradise? Thanks to a variety of programs and a commitment by a host of city agencies, that’s increasingly the norm in Philadelphia. Barren school yards — often used for teacher parking and not much else — are being transformed into lush spaces featuring sustainable interventions like bioswales, up-to-date play equipment, and art works such as murals and mixed-media pieces.
One recent update at North Philly’s William Cramp Elementary School, originated under the auspices of the Trust for Public Land’s (TPL) Parks for People program, features several installations from Fine Arts lecturer and alumnus Deirdre Murphy (MFA’00). First, Murphy created 50 plexiglass Baltimore orioles. Along with alumnus Daniel Powell (BArch’00), she attached the playfully-plumed flock (they come in azure and amethyst and asparagus tones) to the chain link fence that surrounds the schoolground. Then Murphy, with help from Gabrielle Patterson (BFA’15) and Riley Nelson, BFA candidate, painted a design on the blacktop that graphically represented the swoops and runs of the flyway map of the oriole, a bird Murphy chose after her research revealed that its tract moves through both Puerto Rico and Philadelphia. “That tied into the story of the immigration by the parents of many of the children who attend the school,” she explains. “Everyone was so excited. They couldn’t believe what a little color and pattern did to their schoolyard.”
Before Murphy arrived on the scene, designers at Philadelphia-based Interpret Green, transformed the schoolyard from wasteland to wonderland. They planted a habitat garden, built birdhouses outfitted with live cams, and installed a new kind of air quality monitor that costs a fraction of older models — all with the idea of fulfilling TPL’s goal of bringing students in low-income neighborhoods closer to nature. 
“When they were done, Interpret Green suggested that the project would benefit from some sort of art component,” says Danielle Denk (MLA’00), TPL’s Philadelphia program manager. “I immediately thought of Deirdre because she has such a great body of work about migrations and the movements of birds. She seemed like a perfect fit.”
For the near future, a teaching element — about “the ties between nature and geometry and pattern,” says Murphy — will be incorporated and the community will also be invited to participate in additional creative placemaking endeavors such as photography or oral history projects. 
“By taking a space outside the school and bringing messages into it that suggest that the neighborhood and its residents have value, we’re already seeing new formations of strength,” observes Denk. “There’s now a Friends group for the schoolyard, for instance. This kind of stuff hasn’t happened before in this neighborhood. We’re excited to continue our work there, including at the nearby rec center where we’ll look to connect some of the narratives and themes from William Cramp.”