When Jim Toia attended the first O+ Festival last year, he knew it would be a great place to showcase his students’ work while opening their eyes to the power of street art and certain grim economic realities. Held in the scenic enclave of Kingston, N.Y., the one-of-a-kind festival allows uninsured artists and musicians to barter their work for medical services in the form of teeth cleaning, cancer screenings, and eye exams.
“I thought the cause was really unique and timely in that it combined a celebration of art with political questions about how our society structures and values the health care system and where we are in terms of dealing with that,” says Toia, director of the College’s Community-Based Teaching Program. “I thought it was an interesting place to be both socially and artistically.”
He also recognized that a new festival would provide plenty of opportunities for his students at Lafayette and area high schools to submit meaningful art for public display.
“It was inspiring that you could have two groups of people, doctors and artists, willing to work together for the betterment of the community,” says Ben Herchenroether ’12 (Pittsburgh, Pa.), an art major who ended up making a piece on the fly while in Kingston with Chris Angeloni ’12 (Sykesville, Md.), a neuroscience and art double major. The two were hanging a print Angeloni had created in Photoshop of Rene Magritte’s painting of a man with a green apple in front of his face when they noticed a ledge on the building’s wall.
They both agreed it would be fun to do a drawing of a person made to look like they were sitting on the outcrop holding balloons with the O+ logo.
“I guess we’ll have to come back to do it,” Herchenroether recalls saying.
Overhearing the conversation, Joe Concra, one of the festival’s founders and a local artist, invited them back to his studio to make the print, which turned out really well, Angeloni says.
“It was really cool being there,” says Angeloni. “There were lots of live bands and really interesting people.”
While his Lafayette students were directed to produce individual pieces, Toia tasked the 15 students in his Community-Based Teaching Program with creating a mural that integrated art, science, creativity, world issues, and the environment with the festival’s theme of ‘Exchange.” It was not only a challenge artistically, but socially as well, requiring a good amount of team work and cooperation.
“We learned a lot about collaborating with other people and how sometimes you have to sacrifice your ideas for the betterment of the piece,” says Shannon Clarke, a junior at Easton Area High School.
“It helps you overcome your ego,” adds Megan Ericson, a sophomore at Phillipsburg High School.
Students labored for about two months on the 30-by-30-foot mural, ultimately depicting an amalgamation of several elements including tree branches and roots extending from a curly-Q light bulb, a chemistry beaker containing primordial ooze, origami cranes, a map of Africa to signify the cradle of civilization, and a brain.
“It’s the whole idea that the right brain is art and the left medicine, but everyone has both sides,” says Amanda Jimenez, a Phillipsburg senior.
In addition to his current CBTP group, about seven Lafayette students and six former CBTP graduates participated, including Andrew Rivera, a first-year student at Northampton County Community College, who portrayed an elephant closing his own chest wound with stitches.
This year’s festival was held Oct. 7-9 and featured 25 bands and 60 artists, many of whom pasted their work on buildings throughout town. About 50 doctors, chiropractors, dentists, and therapists traded about $45,000 worth of health care services, says Kevin Paulsen, a volunteer organizer. “We had people come from all over the world,” he says.
Asked how the work of Toia’s students compared to other artists’, Paulson says, “They did a great job. It was right up there.”
Although none of Toia’s students took advantage of the medical and wellness services, they did make several trips to the Hudson Valley community before and during the festival to help with installation and absorb the festival vibe. Participating in the festival gave students an opportunity to see the potential of the creative process outside the classroom, and the way it can affect other people.
“They got to meet the festival organizers and volunteers whose varied occupations and talents made something that large a successful operation,” Toia says. “It also opened their eyes to some of the struggles people without health insurance must deal with. Some of our students felt so strongly about the O+ Festival that they asked if it could come to Easton.”