While riding his bicycle to work, Pepón Osorio, a Laura Carnell community arts practices professor at the Tyler School of Art and installation artist, noticed the shuttered Fairhill Elementary School in North Philadelphia, which was one of the 24 schools that closed in 2013.
To reach out to the community and address the issue of school closures in Philadelphia, Osorio proposed an idea to Fairhill officials on a collaborative art project to honor the school, staff and students.
The community arts project, titled “reForm,” was a two-year collaborative with Temple Contemporary in which Osorio recreated a Fairhill classroom.
“What I have learned is that institutions of higher education have some gaps, and I can get the arts to be a vehicle in filling up those gaps,” Osorio said. “[Art] can connect the dots in your education.”
In 2018, Osorio has received a United States Artists Fellowship Award, which is a grant given to artists that recognizes their compelling work and contributions to their field, and the College Art Association’s 2018 Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement. Osorio is the first artist of Puerto Rican descent to receive this award from the College Art Association.
“Just besides the cultural and heritage aspects of it, it’s an honor to receive the award,” said Osorio, who was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1955. “I am eager that the Puerto Ricans are represented, and I’m glad to see that it’s happening and that they are recognized. And to add to this, I am also of African descent, so for me it’s a double winner.”
Osorio will receive the award on Feb. 21 at the Los Angeles Convention Center during the Convocation at the College Art Association Annual Conference.
Over the course of his art career, Osorio has been nationally and internationally recognized for his artwork several times.
In July 2016, former President Barack Obama announced his nominations for key administration positions. Obama nominated Osorio to the National Council on the Arts.
COMMUNITY ART PROFESSOR
Although the nomination was never finalized due to the transition to President Donald Trump’s administration, Osorio said the nomination was still “an honor.”
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Osorio about his nomination never coming to fruition. “But my excitement was in terms of alignment in philosophy and approach to this nation by Barack Obama. I was very excited about that.”
In his career, Osorio has had his work displayed across the country at museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico. He utilizes mixed media, like figurines, embroidery, fabrics, furniture and sculptures to create large-scale installations.
In “reForm,” Osorio salvaged various tables, chairs and supplies from Fairhill Elementary School.
This contemporary art installation was constructed to represent a Fairhill classroom, with original chairs and tables from the school and a looping video that showed portraits of Fairhill students.
The exhibit begins with iron bars at the entrance, which represent the national school-to-prison pipeline trend. It also included a sign from a recycled Fairhill water fountain that warned “Do Not Drink Water,” which is meant to remind the viewer of the contaminated water issues that Philadelphia elementary schools have frequently faced.
The installation highlighted the disinvestment of Philadelphia public schools in low-income neighborhoods, especially those with predominantly African-American and Latino students, Osorio said.
“We receive a lot of knowledge, but sometimes that knowledge is not transferable in the real world,” Osorio said. “What I think that [community] art can provide is the opportunity to create and to establish those transferable skills.”
Karen Turner, a journalism professor, described Osorio’s work as thoughtful.
Turner and Osorio collaborated on the project “In Loving Memory of…” in 2009, which was a multidisciplinary community art project with audio, visual and installation elements that highlighted Latino families in North Philadelphia. Both Turner and Osorio’s students worked together on the project.
Each student was tasked with interviewing different people within the North Philadelphia Latino community and interpreting their stories and lifestyles in various forms of art, like mixed media, banners and audio and video installations.
“He kind of pushes you and challenges you to think,” Turner said. “And sometimes it can be uncomfortable, because he kind of gets you to look at situations that you don’t want to deal with.”
The fellowship award is given to various artists who are doing “exemplary work” in their field by United States Artists, a national arts funding organization. The recipients are chosen by a Board of Trustees who utilize fundraisers to uplift national artists every year.
“I’m walking on clouds,” Osorio said. “I am honored to be considered and to be recognized by all the people that I esteem so much.”