Summer Centered: Phillip Reid '19 Paints A Picture of Philadelphia’s Public Art Scene
Sponsored by the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, the English major and peace, justice, and human rights concentrator is exploring public art in Philadelphia through an oral history lens.
When it comes to compiling oral histories, Phillip Reid ’19 could do without the bells and whistles. Well, maybe a bicycle bell would be helpful. For the English major with a concentration in peace, justice, and human rights, telling the stories behind Philadelphia’s public art can be done without much more than two tires and a passion for compiling accounts of lived experiences.
"I mount my Mobile Story Center (a second-hand road bike) and dart around Philadelphia in pursuit of new narratives,” said Reid. “The Story Center carries me to different neighborhoods where I ask strangers to talk to me about drawings on the walls; to interviews with local graffiti writers in an undisclosed, underground location; or to chats with arts curators, muralists, and other public artists at various cafes, offices, and noisy bars throughout the city. It’s been a wild ride so far.”
Phillip’s research benefits from the support of fellow public arts enthusiast Conrad Benner, whose Streets Dept blog aims to discover and celebrate art in Philadelphia public spaces. Reid’s self-designed project, sponsored by the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (CPGC), grew organically out of his interests in oral history and street art. Those interests were nurtured last summer, when he served as a CPGC--sponsored intern at Voice of Witness, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that uses an oral history book series and education program to illuminate contemporary human rights issues, alongside fellow Ford Mary Kearney-Brown ’19.
"The idea for a public art oral history project came to me when I was interning with Voice of Witness in San Francisco and living near the city’s Mission district, a historically Latinx and rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood that is famous for its wealth of murals, graffiti and street art,” he said. “Seeing a neighborhood covered in artwork that protested pressing issues like xenophobia, racial profiling, and the inequities of gentrification spurred my thinking about the ways in which public art can render visible the imbalanced power relationships that shape the urban environment.”
Upon his return to campus in the fall, Reid enrolled in “Oral History and Activism” with Visiting Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Gender & Sexuality Studies Anne Balay, who now serves as Reid’s advisor for his summer research.
"Professor Balay’s course was one of the most formative steps in my academic journey at Haverford, and during the semester I became eager to create an independent research experience that would allow me to continue applying and refining an oral historian’s skill set,” said Reid.
For Reid, this summer’s work is an opportunity to refine his interviewing techniques by working with the Streets Dept blog to create a series of oral histories about Philadelphia graffiti writers, street artists, muralists, and leaders of arts organizations. He is also improving a more impromptu interviewing style by speaking with Philadelphia residents about the art in their neighborhood.
"By conducting 20 oral history-style interviews over the course of the summer, I’m getting plenty of opportunities to try and develop compelling interview questions and to work on my interview technique,” he said. “Part of this project requires me to go into different Philadelphia neighborhoods to strike up conversations with residents regarding their impressions of public art that exists in the space. Compared to the more formal, sit-down interviews, those person-on-the-street talks present a completely different set of learning experiences.”
The individual stories that Reid is collecting provide powerful insight into the relationship between street art and large-scale challenges facing one’s community.
"The neighborhood interview series tries to use conversations about public art as a way of opening up thoughtful discussion around what life is like in a given Philadelphia neighborhood,” Reid said. “Those sorts of neighborhood life conversations often steer towards difficult issues like gentrification, police brutality, crime, and the ways in which different systemic inequalities shape the lived experience in a given neighborhood.”
A rising senior, Reid’s passion for storytelling and mobilizing oral histories as a vehicle to share important narratives has spurred plans for his future, which he hopes might include fellowship opportunities to continue to gather oral histories abroad as well as graduate school.
"The more I do oral history and ethnographic work, the more I become fascinated by the tremendous potential and power of that work,” Reid said. “I remain steadfast in my belief that storytelling comprises an essential aspect of any effort to address issues of injustice with the hope of exposing and dismantling systems of oppression. By carrying out an extended period of independent field research for the first time I have confronted the real-world challenges associated to the fields of oral history and ethnography. Even as I am challenged in new and trying ways, though, I ultimately interpret the obstacles as an encouragement, because they serve as proof that the work needs to be done.”