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The Word on the Street in Manhattan and Philadelphia

The Word on the Street in Manhattan and Philadelphia

NYC artist Gene Schmidt brings the words of Zechariah and 1 Corinthians to two urban landscapes.

Over the past few years, New York artist Gene Schmidt has embarked on a series of projects that have taken his work to the streets. Combining elements of performance, pilgrimage, and sculpture, his projects are often inspired by, or are explorations of, biblical texts in the context of an urban environment. While these projects are done in public for anyone to see and respond to, for Schmidt they are spiritual journeys and lengthy prayers with physical weight and dimension.

In Manhattan Measure, the first of these journeys, Schmidt measured the width and length of Manhattan—literally, with yardsticks. Inspired by the prophet Zechariah's of a man going out to measure the width and length of Jerusalem, and ending with a cross-shaped sculpture made with the nearly 30,000 red, numbered yardsticks used, the project took over a year to complete.

Next, Schmidt was invited to Philadelphia to propose a project. In thinking about the City of Brotherly Love, Paul's great text on love from his first came to Schmidt's mind. Using panels of scrap wood, each with a letter cut out like a stencil, Schmidt constructed a copy of the entire text. The text was spelled out by leaning the panels against buildings, walls, and fences, and was repeated over a six-mile journey through the city, composing "Lovetown PA."

This Is Our City's Christy Tennant interviewed Schmidt about his work. Special thanks for the accompanying images to Alicia Hansen, who has documented both of Schmidt's projects.

When did you complete Manhattan Measure? How long did you work on it?

I completed Manhattan Measure in January 2008. A documentary about the project has been screened at several film festivals around the country, but I haven't found a place to show the sculpture along with the photographs and film as a complete exhibition, so in one way I feel like it is still unfinished.

Lovetown PA was completed in October 2010. I made four trips to Philadelphia over five months, and spent 12 days doing the project on the streets. Before I could begin in Philadelphia, though, I spent about a year of evenings and weekends collecting and preparing the scrap wood for the panels.

How does your faith inform your work? What role does your faith play in your creative process?

I've been re-reading Daniel Siedell's book God in the Gallery. In that and his other writing, he talks about art as a liturgical or ascetic practice. In other words, the work is not merely informed by, or illustrating one's faith, but making art is a way of actually practicing one's faith. I've been trying to approach my work in a similar way. Lovetown PA was primarily an opportunity for me to meditate on Paul's text in a new way. I could have spent a year reading and studying that text at home, but collecting the wood, assembling the text, loading and unloading 1,600 pounds of letters, setting them up and taking them down over and over, gave me a relationship with those words that I never would have had otherwise.

Obviously, it was an art project, and there was a public side to it, but I got the most benefit from it. That sounds kind of selfish, but it's just the way it works out.

For someone who has not really taken time to consider the role public art can play in adding a sense of flourishing to a public space, how would you suggest someone approach public art?

I'll offer an example from Lovetown PA. As I was out working at one point, a car drove by and the driver honked the horn and shouted "amen" out the window. Now, I truly appreciated the gesture, and I know the text is much loved by many people, and I won't assume I know exactly what that person was trying to say. However, if a person, including myself, reads that text without having at least a moment of sober introspection, then it is a missed opportunity for that person. When something other than an advertisement gets our attention and nudges us out of our routine, it can be an opportunity to meditate on something important, even if for a moment. It's the same kind of opportunity as when a funeral procession goes by. It's not the only way to approach public art, but it's not a bad place to start.

How does public art help bring flourishing to a city?

I suppose those opportunities for meditating on important things that I mentioned before can be useful on the way to flourishing. I want my city, and all cities, to flourish, but I think there is mostly hard work and weeping on the way to getting there. And when I say hard work, I don't mean my little art projects. I mean truly hard work done by many people trying to make their cities better. I had the privilege of meeting quite a few of those people on my way through Philadelphia.

How do you hope people will engage with your public art?

I try to leave it very open for people to engage with, or not, as they like. I can't control how people respond, especially when I'm doing something out on the streets, and embracing that lack of control keeps the project more alive for me. When I'm leaning the words "love is patient, love is kind" against a building, and the owner comes out yelling and cursing at me, it's a much more valuable love lesson for me than a pat on the back.

Did you get to see the respective communities in Philadelphia and NYC gather around your work or show direct engagement with it? If so, what did you experience with that? Any cool stories of people engaging with your work that left you, as the artist, inspired or encouraged?

Other than two or three negative experiences, the people I interacted with in Philadelphia were very welcoming. One of my favorite things about these projects is the spontaneous or random moment. One such moment from Manhattan Measure: I was measuring north to south through a grassy area with big shade trees in Central Park on a beautiful July day. Two little children, a boy and a girl, were playing there. As I came by, laying out a row of 50 yardsticks, they became very curious and started following me. When I went back to pick up the yardsticks they immediately, without asking, ran in front of me and began picking up armloads of yardsticks and bringing them to me. I had a very efficient system for picking up the yardsticks in the right order and packing them neatly back in my cart. These kids were a complete wrench in my machine, but a really joyful, beautiful wrench, and the extra half hour I spent reorganizing my yardsticks was totally worth it.

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