Jul 19

On Broad Street: Mat Tomezsko and Yolanda Wisher talk art and collaboration

by: Carly Rapaport-Stein

Artist Mat Tomezsko and poet Yolanda Wisher are making waves down Broad Street with the beautiful, thought-provoking 14 Movements: A Symphony in Color and Words. The two sat down with me to discuss art, its place in civic conversation, and the fine art of collaboration.

Carly: What was it that drew you to the other artist’s art?

Mat: I met Yolanda through Mural Arts’ Art Education program, and I became familiar with her poetry when she was named Poet Laureate of Philadelphia. I was looking to incorporate poetry into the Broad Street Median project, and while I work with poetry in my work in general, it’s usually my own writing. I felt that for this project, my voice was not necessarily the right one, or even an important one to convey. I fell in love with Yolanda’s book, Monk Eats an Afro, and felt that Yolanda’s words were everything that needed to be said. I explained my concept to Yolanda, and she was into it – and that’s what drew me to Yolanda!

Carly: And Yolanda, what drew you to Mat?

Yolanda: He asked me! I knew about Mat’s work from my own work at Mural Arts, as well as his work in Manayunk, which I go past all the time. When we eat at Le Bus, we see Mat’s portraits – his work is a part of my weekend, part of my family’s breakfast landscape. When he reached out and said he’d like to use my work in some of the public art he’s doing, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool!”

It was great to have Mat reach out, and to be given the opportunity for my words to be in this arena, especially on Broad Street. I spent a lot of time on Broad Street, especially as a young person, going to workshops at University of the Arts, hanging out with artists. The idea that some of our dreams of taking over Philly when we were 15 – the idea that my words could be along that path that we walked – is thrilling.

Carly: Could you talk a little more about the impact of having your work here in the middle of the city?

Yolanda: I’m trying to hold a lot of voices in my work, a lot of voices of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in in Philly – West Philly, Germantown – black voices, women’s voices, mother’s voices – so I hope that the impact is that those voices find a space and a home within the artwork and within that space, which is often seen as a homogeneous, cosmopolitan, not-so-diverse or reflective of the larger Philly – or the real Philly – whatever that is. It’s a compilation of all the different voices in these neighborhoods. This felt like an opportunity to put some of those voices down in a place where people from around the world would be able to hear and see it very prominently. If the artwork can have that impact of holding space for a lot of voices and reflecting some of those stories, even if they’re just tidbits or enigmas of meaning, I think that is worth something.

If the artwork can have that impact of holding space for a lot of voices and reflecting some of those stories, even if they’re just tidbits or enigmas of meaning, I think that is worth something.

- Yolanda Wisher

Carly: That’s interesting, because Mat, when you wrote about this artwork, you wrote about trying to create a space for voices and for dialogue. Do you think the visual art and the poetry open the gateway?

Mat: A lot of the life of Philadelphia takes place elsewhere in the city, but then we have this platform to bring in voices and put them center stage. It’s not a straightforward narrative either – I’m not telling you how to feel about something, not telling you who these people are, or what to make of this – it’s an open-ended thing. There is room for anyone’s interpretation and for anyone’s point of view to be valid, to bring their own voice to the project. That’s evident in the way the language has been incorporated, but also in the way it’s painted as well. Each individual section is painted differently than any other section. It’s gestural, textured, visceral – something that’s truly meant to be experienced in person. And there’s lots of variety. I think that speaks to an openness, a willingness and a curiosity about understanding one another.

Carly: How did that artistic idea influence your selection of Yolanda’s poetry, particularly the poem “My Name”?

Mat: I used a good deal of her book, actually! I took the book of poetry as one work, and started looking at overarching themes throughout it, honing down on word choice and then putting those words together in different situations that created some sort of new meanings and new associations. If Yolanda was going to do a reading of the median, she would be reading parts of poems!

Yolanda: I improvised the poem, “My Name”! The last time I read that poem was at the Pew Award Grantee Celebration – it was the first time I’d shared it! It’s improvisational, and I added as I spoke because it’s got a lot of repetition. These words are about leaving behind a legacy, no matter how famous or known you are. It’s like the sneakers you leave on the telephone lines when you move away from the city. It’s like a little piece of yourself that you want to leave on the city – it’s like a mural! In some ways, it’s the desire to leave a legacy behind. That’s my work as an artist.

 

 

  • Yolanda Wisher. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

  • Image of Monk Eats An Afro by Yolanda Wisher. Image courtesy of the artist.

Mat: And that’s what I was most drawn to and what I tried to extract from your book, Yolanda. The book traces this arc of life from being in a family of women, being raised with your mom and aunts, and then the lens widens and you’re examining your neighborhood, and then wider society, and what it’s like to be in America. And then you refocus onto becoming a mother and how things are passed down through time – how things change and how things don’t change. 14 Movements is about moving through time, about experiencing a piece of art through time, but also how things are passed time and how people move through time – how do things change, how does the truth reveal itself from generation to generation.

Yolanda: And I love the walkability of this piece. That sense of being able to move through time, to walk through and read – walking as reading – is an interesting notion.

Mat: And there’s a lot of shapes and images that are repeated throughout the composition, that if you start at City Hall and you walk to the end, you end up seeing a couple of repetitions, but they’re different every time. I took that because a lot of your poetry is based on music, so it’s like there’s a refrain that keeps coming back throughout the whole thing. I also like that idea of when you read the image the first time, then you read it again farther down the road, the context is changed, and your understanding changes.

Yolanda: It’s a new way of reading.

 

 

  • Installing 14 Movements. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Mat Tomeszko works on 14 Movements. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Installing 14 Movements. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Carly: One of the most interesting things in listening to the two of you is how you each spark and build off of each other’s ideas. I’d love to know: how did the two of you work on this project? How do you like to build your art through and with other artists?

Yolanda: It started with a lot of conversation, and I appreciated the attention that Mat gave to the book. At first, I said I could just send him some poems, but Mat was like, “No, I want to read the whole book!”

I’m always inspired to work around visual artists. When I worked at Mural Arts, it was like an idea factory all the time – we could always bounce ideas off of each other, and the same with musicians for me. So to work with someone who had all of those hats to wear, this nexus of music and poetry and art is like a sandbox where we can get in and play.

Collaboration is also about getting new ways into seeing your own work, your potential, and the ways you could be moving. I’m always empowered when I have knowledge of my own process, and I also like to steal from visual artists and their process. The way that they think about and approach stuff may be like a door in my mind that’s been closed for a long time, and it opens that up, and it’s a whole new way into writing poetry. For instance, when I was down at University of the Arts when I was 15, the visual artists were writing in black sketchbooks. Utrecht was right across the street, and I thought, I’m going to get a sketchbook, and see what happens to my poems if I start breaking out of lines. I haven’t written in a journal with lines since I was 15, and it’s a very different experience for me. And the same with working with musicians: there are processes and assumptions of working that are nice to borrow. It frees you up.

Mat: And in a similar way, when I was in Tyler I studied poetry, and I read alongside painting. It always helped me conceptualize. When I understood a concept in poetry, it would then open up a new world of how to understand art again. So it was this side by side learning of how these things operate. If you’re only thinking in one way, it can be a little limiting. I like collaborating with artists, but it’s not like we’re making the same piece. I didn’t really want to reproduce Yolanda’s poetry: I wanted to make something new about it. I’ve collaborated with artists in the past and we get together and have a conversation and come to some sort of understanding, but then we go and do whatever we’re going to do and then when we present it together it’s, maybe not the most cohesive thing in the world, but it says so much more than it would’ve said if we were trying to make it a little bit more refined.

Carly: When you are looking for collaborators, what are the sparks that draw you to that artist or partner?

Yolanda: Mat came to me and he understood that the whole book Monk Eats An Afro was saying something about America, that was just ingrained in the way I was responding to it. So we were like, now that you understand I have a certain view of America, and that there’s a critique of America, in there, in history and that there’s an arc of change that we’re hunting in the process, now what? Now what do we create? I appreciate having that base level of understanding and accordance of “this is the ocean we are swimming in already.”

When I collaborate with others, I don’t want to be underestimated. I want to meet as equals, and make sure that we’re collaborating to create something that is an experience, not necessarily a commodity, and that it’s going to spark conversation. I’m interested in projects that are unveiling stories and unveiling voices that haven’t been heard. But I’m not looking for easy stuff. I think the appeal to me is that it invites you in, and it takes some work. There’s no sheet of answers that you’re going to get at the end of Broad Street, like “here’s how you figure that out.” I feel like a city should have whimsical, mysterious opportunities when you walk around. That sense of respect, equality, and then real depth in terms of the context is important to me.

Carly: Does this hold significance in the context of the DNC and the context of everything that’s going on in the country in terms of free speech and dialogue?

Mat: That’s a big question and I don’t know if I have the answer for it. When I conceived this project four years ago, I didn’t set out to make something that really spoke to these things – I make things as a platform for truth. It’s a hard time right now, but it’s been a hard time for a lot of people for a long time and maybe that’s coming to light right now. This piece is a willingness to change, it’s a willingness to understand one another, willingness to embrace one another at a time when it seems like that is going against the grain. I think that’s important for the DNC, that it can be an emblem of the party if they wanted it to be.  

Yolanda: I know Mat didn’t intend it because this project was ongoing, but it’s just timely.  I feel like a lot of the words and phrases that he was inspired by in the book are also about a generation of young folks who really don’t want to be ignored.

They want to be included in this thing called democracy, this American experiment we’re still trying to figure out. We have to reinvent America, and one way we do that is through art, through poetry. We create the space and the ideals, and we recreate those ideals that don’t really fit us anymore. By virtue of choosing the words of a young black women, who also holds the space for younger people I teach, I feel like my voice is holding space for that, and in some part, representative of that. For the piece to be here at this time, it’s a monument to those voices.

Those voices are threatened on the daily basis nowadays. I think those young people need to see that visibility. Language, art, beauty that’s representative of movement. As a poet, and as the poet laureate, it’s great to have poetry be so visible and so included in a work of public art. I think we’re at a point where artists, and also social workers and community organizers, are on the frontlines doing a lot of this work of reinventing America and to ignore the impact that artists have and to not necessarily want to support that work or to defund that work is something we all need to think about culturally. How do we really value art? And I mean all kinds of art, I don’t mean just the fine art that we see in the middle of institutions, but the art from the neighborhoods and the untrained art, the nonacademic art, the grassroots art. All of that art is really important to the lifeblood of this country, and the bonds that can be made between people.

Mat: And if this can be a lightening rod for discussions like this, then this is an extremely successful piece of art.

Carly: Thank you both so much!

leave my name on the lips of young folks. leave my name in their mouths. leave my name on the lamplights and that big-ass clothespin downtown. leave my name in the cracks on cobblestones, in the condo dust and the playground slides. leave my name to a library in the sands of my son’s imagination. leave it raw and untended, a flower bulb for spring that never rots. a name like a spring that never rots. leave my name that never rots. leave my name with the patina of pursuance. the patina of patience. the patented patina of peace and peace and peace. the sheen of redemption and forgiveness. leave my name, gonna leave my name in the heat of remembrance, the oil of influence. gonna leave my name like a rotted tree, a sapling, gonna leave my name like a seed for my grandbabies to eat, listen in my death for that seed sprouting legs, sprouting languages. legs of languages. a new life. leave my name for life, long, legacy, love. limber love across time and space. a leaving, a leavening of personal justice. leave my name, a rising from maple street, a rag rising from maple street, a rag rolling from the back of maple street, a leaving.

- My Name - Yolanda Wisher

Last updated: Aug 1, 2016

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