Swarthmore Arts Secrets

Laura Wagner, Editor-in-chief of The Phoenix, comedian, and personality, performing at NPPR Tiny Desk

Notes from the Arts section editors:

When we were preparing for this issue, especially in anticipation of our new readership from the class of 2023, we discussed the arts experiences at Swarthmore that moved us deeply, and what we can do to (re)introduce this campus and the larger Philadelphia area to first-years and upperclassmen.

Recruiting the veteran writers in the Arts section cohort, we present to you two compilations: one, “Swarthmore Arts Secrets,”contains Swarthmore artistic locations and events that our writers consider meaningful or under-appreciated; the other, “Philadelphia Arts Resources,” includes some of our writer’s favorite museum spaces in the Philadelphia region as well as the student benefits they offer. 

—Rachel and Nicole

“Back from Rio” (1959), Ashlen Sepulveda for The Phoenix

“Back from Rio” (1959)

By Nicole Liu

One of my most treasured Swarthmore memories involves Alexander Calder, a prominent 20th-century artist famed for his history-changing kinetic statues. When I was but a timid freshman dipping my toes into the swirling, chaotic world of modern art history, my professor, the uber-cool Constance Hungerford, pointed a nonchalant finger outside the window during lecture one morning and said something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, Calder, We have one, it’s right there.”

Indeed, situated in the middle of Sci courtyard, virtually invisible to the students rushing from classes or to Chinese food, “Back from Rio” (1959) has been a fixture in the college landscape since its donation in 1967. Learning about it, however, makes the work much more salient to me. When the wind picks up, the white and red vanes of the statue criss-cross, creak, and spin. When the weather is terrible, the white and red vanes are removed, leaving the triangular black base on the grass like a solemn, barren anchor. I especially enjoy days when the vanes and rods are entangled together, and I take a savage, frustrated joy in seeing how they struggle against the wind and themselves.  

My amazement regarding the Calder statue actually has less to do with my appreciation of either artwork or artist; rather, my excitement stems from the magical feeling of learning for the first time about someone who changed the world without me ever knowing about it, and then to realize that the iconic subject of my textbooks and flashcards has also been existing in my life in this other immediate and accessible way. To this day, the joy of this unexpected coincidence still grips me as I trek past Sci courtyard and anchor my mind to the statue. When I am in that space, I feel like I become the hand of a clock with the statue as my axis: I am always aware of my physical presence in relation to “Back from Rio.” Consequently, I marvel at how the process of my discovery transformed my experience of Swarthmore’s campus so unexpectedly and so completely.

As I was researching Calder for this piece, another uncanny and magical piece of information surfaced.  I have always known that Calder is a Pennsylvania native, yet I had no idea that he hails from a family of artists whose fingerprints are all over Philadelphia. Most prominently, Calder’s grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, constructed the golden statue of William Penn that perches on top of Philadelphia City Hall.  I recall all the moments I walked under the statue and felt the pull of its gaze anchoring me to it as the axis of a clock anchors its hands.  

Calder’s work can be found all across the country. In areas closer to Swarthmore, he is proudly and prominently represented in the halls of Philadelphia Museum of Art. The ethereal and majestic “Ghost” (1968), a mobile piece of white scale-like sheets arranged in an almost musical sequence, sprawls permanently atop the second hall balcony of the museum.  More information about the open-air artwork on Swarthmore’s campus can be found here.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Njideka Akunyili Crosby

By Emmie Wolf 

Njideka Akunyili Crosby is not only a prominent art alum of Swarthmore College, but also fanatically cool and infinitely kind. After graduating in 2004, she received her Post-Baccalaureate at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in 2006 and her MFA at Yale Arts in 2011. Crosby has shown her work in renowned galleries and museums such as SF MOMA, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her art has hung in London, Venice, and my home town of Los Angeles. In 2017, Crosby was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Last year, Crosby was given the honorary degree at Swarthmore College and came back to speak at commencement.

In the autumn of my sophomore year, riddled with jitters about getting through high school, I met Ms. Crosby. I introduced myself at the opening of her solo show at Los Angeles’ Armand Hammer Museum. Walking in the forest of her large, colorful, magnificent pictures, I felt like I was tumbling into a kaleidoscope of family, friends, living rooms and kitchens between different worlds and cultures. Her work is unique because it combines prints, collage, photography, drawing, and painting to convey stories about growing up in Nigeria and then moving to the United States for school. Ms. Crosby’s attention to detail, texture, clothing, and textiles in each picture wove me into the canvas as I stood there. When I pulled myself out of the pictures to meet Ms. Crosby, I was awestruck. To me, Ms. Crosby was equal parts pop star and magician. She was warm, encouraging, and humble. My conversation with her inspired me to apply to Swarthmore and study art. 

Before starting my freshman year at Swarthmore, filled with nerves about moving across the country and starting a new school and new life, I once again found Ms. Crosby’s influence calming and warm. Just about once a week over that summer, I went to downtown Los Angeles and stared at Ms. Crosby’s enormous mural that wrapped around MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art). The pictures were almost like movies. Rich in texture, color, and message, the pictures enticed viewers to think about living in and among different cultures and different artist styles. None of Ms. Crosby’s subjects look out at the viewer.  Viewers are not challenged by the people in the paintings. Viewers need to challenge themselves. As I flew from Los Angeles to Philadelphia to begin school, I looked down at the slowly receding landscape and thought about Ms. Crosby’s paintings.

Dean Bond Rose Garden, courtesy of scottarboretum.org

Rose Garden

By Rachel Lapides

Trekking to class, it’s easy to overlook the landscape of the Swarthmore campus. 

Whether I’m running late to a class in the Science Center, walking home with an armful of books, or getting ready to spend a long night in McCabe, cutting through Parrish Circle is often a speedy, distracted, frustrating task. As such, it took me an embarrassingly long time to actually take some time to look around me.

The cul-de-sac on the east side of Parrish is bordered by the Dean Bond Rose garden, a breathtaking collection of hundreds of roses. As someone trying to keep a pot of roses alive in my dorm room, I can only begin to appreciate the serious effort that has gone in to keeping the wide variety of flowers blooming.

The roses intertwine and contrast in their various types, creating a colorful, delicate mosaic.

Ben West House, Isabelle Titcomb for The Phoenix

Ben West House

By Ash Shukla

The Visitor Information Center, the Pub Safe House, the Ben West House, and sometimes, “that house with a boat in front of it.” People know it by many names, and rightfully so. In its nearly 300-year history, the humble stone edifice that stands facing North Chester Road has worn a hefty number of not only practical but also symbolic hats. Today, draped in the knots and petals of the surrounding magnolia trees, it thrives in its virtual immortality as a landmark of not only Swarthmore College but also the fleeting scraps of genuine artistry in early American society.

Given his legacy as one of the first distinguished artists of European descent in North America, Benjamin West bears a surprisingly sparse presence on the college other than lending his name to his birthplace and the surrounding parking lot. Other than a few lesser-known paintings and sketches of his that remain in the Friends Historical Library and his “Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity From The Sky” in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, few physical artifacts of his remain in the area where he grew up. Then again, Pennsylvania, too, bore little influence on him; after his birth in 1738, he only stayed in the colonies for a measly twenty-five years when he traveled to Europe in 1763, never to return to the New World. 

Though we generally remember so little of him other than his name, his influence on the era of painting and portraiture remains — not only through his own pieces, but through his tutelage of the other greats during that era of American painting. We see his influence every time we pick up dollar bills, because Gilbert Stuart, who painted the immoral “Athenaeum,” studied under him. We see his influence every time we visit American museums, because Charles Willson Peale, a pioneer of museums, studied under him. It is nearly impossible to study American history without absorbing information through historical paintings, through the lenses of people who mastered oil and canvas under his watchful eye.

His house itself, with its robust history spanning centuries, represents countless values and sources of motivation to countless people. Above all, however, it serves as a representation of the struggle that many of us face when we come to Swarthmore — whether we stay home or whether we leave, and how we and our places of origin will remember each other.

More information about the Ben West House can be found at https://swarthmorephoenix.com/2018/11/01/west-of-the-old-world/

Clay Conley ’20, co-founder of NPPR Tiny Desk, performing

NP(P)R Tiny Desk Concerts

By Esther Couch

In response to a lack of artistic outlet at Swat over the summer, co-founders Clay Conley ʼ20 and Lauren Savo ʼ20 hosted NPPR Tiny Desk Concerts, weekly concerts in which any performer was welcome to sign up for a spot to showcase their talents at the NPPR Apartments. All performances over the summer can be found on the NPPR Tiny Desk’s YouTube channel.

The original National Public Radio Tiny Desk Concerts series are videos of live concerts that take place at host Bob Boilen’s desk in Washington, D.C. Though NPR Tiny Desk focuses on finding artists interested in musical endeavors, NPPR Tiny Desk welcomes any type of performance, including stand-up and poetry readings. Conley elaborated on the objective of the concert series and the reason for the assorted performances.

In an interview with Conley, they explained the inspiration behind the Concerts’ creation. 

“The mission of our club is to provide an audience and recorded material for any performer. We do not care if you are good or bad because we have no concept of good or bad. All performers are welcome. We have had singer-songwriters, bands, comedians, and classical musicians … [Tiny Desk] is trying to make performance at Swarthmore finally accessible. Hegemonic masculinity and virtuosity have run the Swarthmore music scene for too long, and frankly there aren’t enough performance opportunities for people to get their voices out.”

Anyone who stayed at the Apartments over the summer saw Luca Poxon ʼ22, assistant manager and coordinator, religiously papering NPPR with customized flyers that advertised the performing artist on the Tuesday before a performance. On Wednesdays, Conley would, in a frighteningly subtle way, manage to plug the upcoming show in all conversations. And on every other day of the week, all NPPR residents were left with door decs reminding them to attend Tiny Desk.

Though Conley is no longer advertising in this way, they included a note to those who may not necessarily be interested in performing.

“We are also still looking for people who want to be involved in the behind the scenes administrative work. Our most important job, I think, is to get people to come. Half of the performance is the audience. Our performers have something to say/express and they deserve to be heard.”

During the school year, the Tiny Desk Concerts will take place every Friday night at 9 p.m. in NPPR Apartment 303. 

Nicole Liu

Nicole Liu '21 grew up in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, China, but came of age in Boston. She has run out of cool facts about herself. (For more information, consult her bios for the English Liaison Committee, the Writing Center, and maybe the upcoming issue of Small Craft Warnings.)

Rachel Lapides

Rachel Lapides is a sophomore from New York City studying English and Psychology. She loves plants and is slowly turning her dorm room into a garden.

Esther Couch

This is Esther Couch. She writes.

Anatole Shukla

Anatole Shukla '22 is an Editor Emeritus of The Phoenix. He is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and studied economics, linguistics, and Russian language while at Swarthmore.

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