From climate change to diversity, “Parts Per Million” demonstrates themes of unification.
Three years ago, local artist Ben Volta stepped into an algebra I classroom at South Philadelphia High School where he started doodling shapes with students.
Sketching foundational images such as fractals and Fibonacci spirals, the class unraveled a recurring theme among the assemblage of scattered designs.
“When we were studying algebra,” Volta explained, “We found that out the etymology goes back to the reunion of broken parts, so, all these little parts, bringing them together and making sense of them.”
They then began noticing this concept of cohesion surfacing in other aspects of school life, particularly environmental studies and the demographic diversity of the student body.
Harnessing these different forms of reunion, the students eventually lifted the graphics from grid paper and depicted them through public art, as last week, Mural Arts Philadelphia officially unveiled “Parts Per Million,” a colossal artwork unfurled across the entrances of South Philadelphia High School.
With the school’s facade serving as a canvas, the mural, an entwinement of shades, shapes and countries’ flags, was a product of the Mural Arts Philadelphia Arts Integration Initiative, a program in which teaching artists partner with high school educators to transform educational environments both inside and outside of the classrooms.
“(Mural Arts) works with our students and teachers to make sure that they are part of (the mural),” said principal Kimlime Chek-Taylor. “Because we want them to have a sense of ownership to let them know, ‘This is your school. This is your building.’ When you come in, we want you to love being here. So, the colors to us, mean we’re vibrant, and this is a new beginning for us.”
“Parts Per Million,” which takes over the entire northern wall of the school’s patio coupled by three-story strips of colorful patterns along the eastern wall of windows, incarnates the idea of racial inclusion while concurrently shedding light on climate change.
“What I love about the Mural Arts’ Art Integration program is it takes art and creativity into the classroom and says, ‘When you look at math, when you look at science and you look at it through a lens of creativity, amazing things can happen,” Volta said. “Focus can happen. Excitement can happen, and you kind of step into the unknown with new eyes.”
Studying mathematics and science on microscopic levels, the students were able to draw similarities in sights such as the spirals, which reappear in seashells, hurricanes and galaxies.
While the main portion of the mural features the globe orbited by varicolored lines, the three-story “temperature map,” portrays statistical data through colors, demonstrating the earth’s temperature fluctuation over the course of time.
The project also partnered with PURETi, which treats outside surfaces by preventing grime growth while reversing pollution. The paint of the mural itself is covered with a PURETi coating, which, over the next year, will provide the air quality equivalent of taking 100 cars off of the road, neutralizing nitric oxide levels around the school.
“This new mural at South Philadelphia High School is an incredible example of many different academic disciplines coming together to make something really beautiful,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “…Just like the South Philly community around us, Parts Per Million shows us that we’re all connected in some way.”
For the students, staff and administration of South Philadelphia High School, the mural is also intended to spark a sense of salutation, representing the diverse populations walking the halls of the building and the neighboring South Philly streets.
Home to students from close to 30 countries, the mural has revamped the school’s outside welcome sign, which says “Hello” in several languages.
For both current and future students, the Parts Per Million will echo the spirit of South Philadelphia High School.
“I want (the mural) to show that creativity can make the world a better thing … we all are together basically in this school,” said student and mural contributor Rakim Perry. “We all are different, but we all sort of are the same, because we’re all in this school. We’re all in this neighborhood, and we’re all going through the same thing right now in this school.”
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