Our “Fellows Friday” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.
This week, we speak to visual artist Benjamin Volta (2015), who creates intricate public murals and sculptures through participatory methods, often involving education, restorative justice, and urban planning. Volta’s practice stands on the belief that art can be a catalyst for social change, within individuals as well as within the institutional structures that surround them. His work has been exhibited at The National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC and Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia, among others, and his vibrant murals have been seen throughout Philadelphia, at the Philadelphia International Airport, The Center for Art in Wood, and several public schools. Later this spring, Volta will unveil an immersive installation created at the Delaware Art Museum (dates forthcoming).
How did you become an artist? Is there a particular experience that drove you to this choice?
As an adolescent my only refuge was art class. In 11th grade my English teacher put me on notice that I was set to repeat 11th grade. My fear ignited a creative spark. That night, I buckled down and read the assigned book, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The absurd, chaotic, and irrational story of the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, provided the right mixture of inspiration and angst to capture my whole imagination. The following week I presented an artwork to my teacher for extra credit, and through similar efforts I was able to raise my grades enough to pass for the year. That’s how, when I was 16 years old, art ceased to be just a subject I studied in school and began to be a means for survival. I struggled throughout high school and was unsure of my next steps after graduation, but by then I knew one thing for certain: I was an artist.
Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience, what makes this art scene distinctive?
As a young artist I had the privilege to travel the world and work closely with the artist Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival (K.O.S.) program. I felt drawn to the international art community that surrounded the K.O.S. studio in Chelsea, but I had deep roots in Philadelphia. As the demands of my own work with Philadelphia public schools grew, it became clear that I both wanted and needed to fully invest my creative energies on the local level first, and then build outward.
Strong creative partnerships continue to ground me here. For almost 12 years, Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fairmount has provided me with an enormous studio space in which to fabricate large projects and hold workshops with recently incarcerated youth. My extensive partnership with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program continues to bring opportunities that I never imagined possible. The art scene in Philadelphia is distinctive because of its openness. I feel that we are a very welcoming city that searches for innovative ways to bring everyone to the table, like the kids I work with in our public schools. When kids in an elementary school classroom are asked if they consider themselves to be artists, the entire class raise their hands. This artistic identity drops significantly in middle school, and survives in only a small handful of students by high school. Even fewer carry it forward into adult life. With all the challenges that the Philadelphia public schools face, would it not be phenomenal to reverse this trend? Imagine: a Philadelphia art scene that’s distinctive because everyone considers themselves to be an artist—because to be a citizen is to be an artist.
Your practice stands on the belief that art can be a catalyst for change. What are you trying to convey with your work?
Any change evolves slowly. It’s a process of working with individuals over long stretches of time. I average two years with most schools. For example, I worked with one math and science class at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School twice a week for over six years. Art has a unique ability to ignite and amplify change: the process of looking and making always has the potential to create new avenues to understanding. When this process is stretched over time, it allows room for a deep learning experience defined by trial and error.
At Grover Washington Jr., drawing from my own survival story, I set out to see how math and science classrooms could function as art studios. In these newly defined spaces, art-making would develop creative skills for thinking about content. Imagining the transformation of a space together is something that can allow all of us, students and teachers, to imagine ourselves as part of a transformative process. The intention to make something together on a massive scale generates strong collaborative feeling, which can be carried forward beyond the classroom. Many of my projects combine hundreds of drawings that were created within these studio classrooms. These “imaginings” come together to convey a shared search for meaning. At its best, such a project will then beckon others to imagine themselves having a place within the making process. I seek to create and communicate a generative process, both in the making and within a finished work. It is a generative process that invites everyone to take a breath, and then make their own way as a creative force—whether their business cards say “artist” or not.
What is your daily art-making routine?
I have more of a weekly routine, with each day devoted to a different project. Each year, I’m usually juggling between four and six large projects. Most are Philly-based, but I’ve begun to branch out and seek one or two projects beyond the city each year. I recently completed a large Percent for Art sculpture in a youth detention center in Anchorage, Alaska, and I’m in the process of working with New Jersey Transit on large glass artworks for Cranford Train Station in northern New Jersey.
On most Tuesdays, I can be found at South Philadelphia High School, working with ninth-grade students, including an English as a Second Language (ESL) class, and on Wednesdays I’m at Roxborough High School, working with tenth-graders. At both sites, we are working with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program to create large murals that will be realized in 2017. On Fridays, I welcome 15 to 20 recently incarcerated young men to my studio to work on my ongoing projects with the Mural Arts Program’s Restorative Justice Guild. I’ve been fortunate this past year to devote the other two days of my week to research and project development.
In late 2015 I was invited to create a project for the Delaware Art Museum. Concerned about how taking on another out-of-town project could affect my family life, I asked the museum if we could define the project as a family residency. This has led to family studio days on the weekend, where I’m working together with my wife and our two boys to create an immersive installation that will go up at the museum in late spring. During installation, we will hold family workshops, and once completed, the space will become a laboratory where kids of all ages can interact, create, and play.