Artist Michele Brody anticipated the green, local movement that currently sweeping through contemporary life. Her installations, often public and site-specific, explores place and marks the passage of time, inviting interaction from viewers as it grows and changes. These striking pieces explore the nature of living, drawing from history and the building up of the urban environment, but most obviously, through the use of growing plants. She recently completed a large installation (with growing plants) at Temple Judea Museum, which explored the transformations in the Jewish and African-American communities in Elkins Park, in suburban Philadelphia. As a departure point, The Art of Memory used the original site of Temple Judea, whose building in 1982 became The Ivy Leaf Middle School, the oldest independent African-American school in Philadelphia, and was recently sold to the International Mission Church of New York, a Korea-based church. She spent time in each community, and incorporated interviews and images into the final work, which she explains in detail in the interview below. Like much of her work, this piece documents a place and its passage in time, using plants and their growth to invite viewers to revisit and refine our own relationship with nature and the man-made environment.
Name: Michele Brody
Birthday: June 12, 1967
Hometown: New York
Marital status: Married
Upcoming Projects or Shows: Earth Celebrations: Hudson River Pageant
Favorite childhood memory: Roaming through the woods near my childhood home in Staten Island
Favorite poet: Honestly, I find this hard to answer since I do not read poetry much these days, mostly fiction or nonfiction
Favorite snack food: String cheese
Last book read: Currently I am reading The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, and the last book I finished was In Cold Blood, which was awesome!
What are some of the different media you work in?
I work in a wide range of media depending on the demands of the project’s concepts. My typical ones have been cast concrete, lace fabric, glass and plastic vessels, plexiglass, copper pipe, hand made paper, hydroponics, digital photography, and light (both natural and artificial).
What interests you about site-specific and public art?
I am an artist who works in response to my environment. I find that the most honest work that I create develops from interacting and researching the architecture, history, natural environment and social connections of a place.
Many of your recent projects explore environmental themes and include living and growing plants, how do these pieces play into your work?
When I work with plants it is often in response to growing what is native to the local environment, as a means towards illustrating the passage of time as well as to capture the sense of a moment in time by how the growth process leaves a stain or mark within the fabric or material it is planted within.
What project are you working on right now?
I will be developing a series of costumes for Earth Celebration’s Hudson River Pageant that will focus on native species to the Hudson River. This will include a set of dresses inspired by my series of Grass Skirts, in which a group of dancers will parade along the shores of the Hudson River on May 9, 2009 wearing dresses of live grasses grown into the weave of the fabric.
Tell me about your recent project, “The Art of Memory?”
How much space do you have? The project was a multi-layered and multi-media installation set in the most hotly contested region of the elections, northern Philadelphia and its bordering suburbs. It focused on the history and use of the building located at 6929 North Broad Street, which was originally built in the 1930s to house the reform synagogue of Temple Judea that was sold in the 1980s to an African American private school, which recently closed and is now owned by a Korea-based Episcopal church. Working from my interest in illustrating the passage of time through the growth of plants in a vulnerable material such as handmade paper, I wanted to create a piece that would literally change and break down during the course of the exhibition as a microcosm of the fluctuating history and social makeup of the neighborhood. The installation was comprised of a room within a room meant to evoke the interior of the sanctuary of the Temple. The walls were covered in handmade paper that hung over an intricate structure of copper piping representing the complex infrastructures that hold communities together. Within these walls were planted speakers that played the stories of various community members that I recorded while living and working in the area. These voices would be tripped off as viewers moved through the space. You were invited to put your ear to the walls to listen to the stories hidden within them. The paper walls were embedded with grass seeds, which began to sprout due to being attached to a drip irrigation system that methodically dripped water down the surface of the paper. Over the course of the installation the paper began to break down revealing the inner copper structure, the speakers, and photographs and objects of Judaica from the history of the Temple. There is a lot more to tell, but it might be better to go online to my web site where you can watch a 19-minute video about the making of The Art of Memory.
What were some of the reactions of different community members to the “The Art of Memory?”
The response from everyone was quite positive. They felt that were learning about a history they had either never known about, or had known of but not in great detail. I especially liked how the students at Temple Building were surprised to learn about the meaning behind some of the architectural details of their school building, such as the Torah scroll on the sign and the use of the chapel.
People also enjoyed the discovery of the show, such as tripping off the sound of the voices, and watching the grass grow. Seeing an art installation was something so new for them, that at first they questioned it as art, but once they got involved and took some time out to understand the project they thoroughly enjoyed coming in to see it.
How did you come to the project, did you enter through the Jewish piece, or was there another pull to this place and story?
The director of the museum had seen my outdoor piece Arbor Lace II at a nearby venue and had interpreted it as a Sukkah, which in concept was right on the mark, since I originally had conceived the piece as a space through which one would enter to pass through as a transitional space. The sukkah is a symbol for the time of the Harvest. A friend of mind then introduced me and my work to her after having mounted a recent show at the Museum. The director then invited me to create an installation for the Museum, which I developed after visiting the space and learning about its namesake, Temple Judea.
You mention using nature as a metaphor for society and history, contemporary critics often say that we urban dwellers lost touch a meaningful connection with the natural world?
To be honest, I think all of western human culture since its development has been out of touch with Nature. We are a people who thrive on controlling nature in order to harness its power to our advantage. My work is about playing with that sense of control in order to show how, left to its own devices, nature usually finds a way to survive even under the harshest of situations. Even if there was a nuclear holocaust, the roach would still be around.
Anyway, I don’t want to be too bleak, but you can see a great example of this in the trees that have grown out of the Angkor Wat ruins in Cambodia.
If someone wanted to do a Michele Brody art tour of NYC, where would their wanderings take them and what would they see?
There are three permanent sites one can visit. The first is the Assay Office Manhole Cover located in the sidewalk between Old Federal Hall and 30 Wall Street. The second is a set of faceted glass windscreens for the Allerton Ave stop on the # 2 and #5 subway lines in the Bronx. And the third is a hand-painted tile mural created with a group of 7th graders on the front facade of PS/MS 194 in the Bronx, the address is 1301 Zerega Avenue.
Can you talk a little about your manhole cover, which is still one of my favorite (somewhat hidden) pieces of NYC public art.
Re-Covering the Cityscape: Impressions of History Underfoot is a public art project that commemorates lost New York City history through the installation of a series of uniquely cast manhole covers. The patterned surfaces of ten new sets of manhole covers have been designed to reference the history and architectural details of eight buildings that have been demolished and two sites in Manhattan that no longer exist. These unique covers will replace a select group of extant ones situated in the sidewalks adjacent to the location of these disappeared landmarks.
As a form of relief sculpture, they will subtly accentuate the existence of a familiar fixture within the cityscape. Rather than proposing a monumental form of visual intervention, they quietly reward the attentive pedestrian with an art form that doubles as a commemorative plaque. The covers continue to preserve the rich graphic tradition of manhole cover design, as well as paying tribute to vanished architecture and historically significant sites. Simultaneously, these "public works" serve as functional portals to the city’s underground services.
By working with the blank canvas of the manhole cover, architectural details, historic textual references, and land formations are abstracted through the formation of a radiating Mandala upon which the experience of the city and its history can be meditated.
I hope some day to finish producing and installing these covers. Unfortunately, due to lack of funds and significant support I have had to put this long term project on hold as I moved on to more immediate projects. But I appreciate your mentioning it as one of your favorite projects of mine.