Since September 11, 2001, we have been obsessed with ‘connecting the dots’…and failing to do so. Conceptually, the world has become a vast array of points, and the paths and vectors that unite and direct them are beginning to form a kind of 21st century astrology understood (one hopes) by the vast security and intelligence complexes that have sprung up to interpret them.

As people, places, and events become coordinates in a grand matrix of possibility, it comes as little surprise that the paths we create as we walk through space, invisible trails we inscribe on our cities, should be of interest to us. I think of this as I meander an uncharted path through web links, browsing images of Grover Washington Jr. Middle School students tracing crystalline forms created by plotting the positions of landmarks. Distilling the messy, organic world of lived experience into the clarity and precision of geometry takes effort.

Benjamin Volta, Jerry Jackson, and their students generate complex geometric shapes from map coordinates. The students have explored a middle terrain between art and mathematics to arrive at their endpoint. They have translated these illusionistic flatforms into actual objects. In 3D space, these forms look like radio towers, electricity pylons, and they call to mind the Watts Towers. Engaged as they are with information, they belong to a genre of art and design that extends from Mark Lombardi and Edward Tufte. But – engaged as they are in the community from which they arose (an 8th grade class at a Philadelphia school) - they seem like a kind of Modernist folk art.

They look like knowledge…at once crystal clear and confounding. One thing that comes to mind is an image by designers Lisa Streusel and James Nick Sears that appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine on December 3, 2006. It was an immensely complicated tangle of white lines connecting names of places (New York, World Trade Center, etc.) to people (Mohamed Atta, Tawfik bin Attash) to very general nouns (flight school, place of worship, and so on). This inter-penetrating 3D bubble chart is a beautiful mess – the very image of clarity causing confusion. Anyone who hoped to connect the dots in this thicket was looking for trouble.

But aren’t these things the outcomes of any effort to structure something? Loss? An appearance of clarity where none actually exists? People want things in order. And the clarity of a diagram is seductive for how it pares away all the troubling textures of the world.

Mathematics provides a brilliant metaphor to address the complexities of adolescence. Polygons can be regular and irregular, forms closed or open. Line, arcs, and shapes may be tangent, overlapping, or exclusive. Life is made up of these things. However, once a clear but abstract message passes beyond the charmed circle of the community in which it was invented, who knows?

And is it our business to worry about such things? I doubt it. For now, the constructions blossoming in Grover Washington Jr. Middle School are arrestingly gorgeous, simultaneously simple and complex. I want to pull a student aside and ask her to explain them to me. That’s the life they’ll have – one that is carried out by communication from one student to another. That way nothing gets lost,
and all dots will be connected.

- gerard brown

gerard brown is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia

POLYGON BLOOMS created with Grover Washington Jr. Middle School for the ART IN THE OPEN PHILADELPHIA festival on June 9th, 2010.

Wednesday June 9th – Saturday June 12th
Schuylkill River Banks, Philadelphia PA
Along the Path Under the Market Street Bridge
Special Reception on Site Saturday June 12th from 3 – 5pm

ART IN THE OPEN PHILADELPHIA is a new citywide festival that celebrates artists, their inspirations for creating art, and their relationships with the urban environment.Inspired by the tradition of plein air painting, the four-day festival
presents over 35 artists working in a variety of media and styles on site, outside, along the banks of the Schuylkill River in downtown Philadelphia. Complementing this unique display of art-making-in-action will be a host of public programs presented by many of the 34 partner institutions and showcasing the vibrant community of working artists, galleries and institutions that make Philadelphia a major urban art center.


This project was made possible by The Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Ongoing projects at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School are made possible through support from the School District of Philadelphia former principal Gerald Branch, and current principal Terry Pearsall Harget's ongoing initiative to transform the Grover Washington Jr. Middle School into a magnet school for the arts.