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Murals and Math: One School's Solution to Graffiti

My work as a public artist is specific to the discovery and interpretation of connections between people and culture through interactive, participatory visual art. For the last four years, Green School math teacher Nathan Affield and I have teamed up to create murals that combine art and mathematics to empower students and connect them to their communities in Brooklyn, New York. These projects build lasting relationships and help students realize their strengths.

Our first project took place in the school with two mapping projects that are permanently installed in our school’s hallways. Based on the sustainability principles of the school, the students went out in their community to collect visual data on what was culturally, environmentally, and personally sustainable in their neighborhoods. They mapped out the neighborhoods using zoomed in abstractions, noting the collected data with symbols.

In 2011, Affield and I created a project where a math class surveyed the whole school on how they were feeling, what color that feeling represented, where that feeling fell on a scale between one and 10, and what time of day the data was recorded. The students then aggregated and color-coded the data to create a 150 histogram covering the back wall of the school. In a line graph organized by the time of day and negative space that color–codes the students’ grades, one gets a full day glimpse into the emotions of the students at any given point of the day. At first glance, the mural looks like an abstract, colorful cityscape. It is only when the mural is “read”, that the data can be understood.

Histogram of Emotion

In 2012, we brought the students outside the classroom and into the community where they teamed up with seniors from the local senior center to graph out weather patterns from 1930 to a projection of the future. In class, students had been studying mathematical modeling and how to use evidence to defend a claim. With daily high temperature data from NOAA, two-dimensional graphing techniques and their knowledge of central tendency, students collaborated to reposition their two-dimensional graphs into a single three-dimensional line graph modeling the past weather cycles that they used as evidence to base their climate change claims. They worked with seniors—some who remembered the historical weather patterns the students had graphed—and passerbys, creating lasting connections among each other and the community.

Weather Mural

This year we will be visualizing the number Pi on another wall on Graham Avenue in East Williamsburg. The design involves replacing the infinite digits of Pi with color-coded blocks and viewing the irrational number as a shape. For the first time, students will see the negative space of Pi and search for patterns. To focus students on the concept of infinity, we chose to use the Fibonacci or Golden Spiral, representing another irrational number, Phi, as the framework for the visualization. As the space in the spiral gets smaller, the bars of the number shorten. When you first look at the image, you might see a shell pattern or a cityscape. Only upon investigation, will you know that it is a representation of Pi.

Mockup of Visualization of Pi

The act of painting murals is empowering. Once a student makes a mark on a wall, it becomes his or hers. When you walk down the busy street of Graham Ave, almost every wall is covered in random tags. We help the students create public art that means something and has significance. Students living in Brooklyn need this kind of connection to their communities because when the students invest in their communities, the communities invest in them. These murals are also made for the neighborhood. The results are not only beautiful images, but also sparked conversations.

The Kickstarter campaign we created has been a wild success, attaining its goal within 48 hours, which has more than doubled in four days. Money beyond the goal will be invested back into the community to create more public art in the neighborhood. Artist Ellie Balk will manage a grant and call for local artists to create another mural in the neighborhood. A scholarship program for students will also be set up. People still wanting to support this project should know that their investment will go directly to the enrichment of students and their community. Consider backing an educational and culturally enriching project.

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