I recently caught up with Kaitlin Pomerantz, an artist and adjunct lecturer in Philadelphia, and my former student at #HGSE. After developing her ideas and initiative  in my class, Building Democratic Schools, she received a grant for curricular development from the Sachs Program For Arts Innovation to support the creation of a class at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design. This spring, she is teaching the pilot round of MATTERS: Connection Arts + Design to Materials, and Materials to Labor + Land. 

The central questions of MATTERS are:

How does matter transform into material, and back again? 

What hidden labor, sites, social and ecological costs and processes go into the production of a “blank” canvas and other “raw” materials? 

And why– for artists, designers, architects, preservationists, creative educators, builders, and anyone working with materials– do these realities matter? 

MATTERS has 15 students, a mix of graduate students and undergrads, from fine art and design, architecture and landscape architecture, and sustainability studies. The class enrolled quickly, with a waitlist of another 15 students. The Sachs Grant supports Kaitlin to lead the class as she had hoped, as a field-based studio-seminar hybrid. The first half of the semester, students visited the Materials Library at the University of Pennsylvania, the first papermill in North America located in Germantown, a waste management facility in North Philadelphia called Revolution Recovery with an affiliated artist residency called RAIR, and the work of a biodesign artist at the Asian Arts Initiative. For each visit, they had a set of supporting readings, and a hands-on making exercise- with the purpose of asking students to reflect on our current conditions of material production, how they got to be this way, what the ethical and ecological implications are, and how a better awareness of land and labor conditions and history could influence their creative practices and ethics going forward. In the second half of the semester, students will further individualize their studies, and take on independent or collaborative focused projects looking carefully at a material or material situation of key interest to their studies and career. 

Kaitlin hopes to teach the course again, and to partner with other organizations and practitioners to create additional MATTERS-themed programming. She sees these issues as urgently necessary to building a more care-ful and sustainable art and design culture, and has noticed in her time working in art schools and programs throughout Philadelphia, a deficit of interdisciplinary, relational and ecologically oriented arts pedagogy. 

Her students agree. Here are some quotes from their weekly journals: 

 Architecture graduate student: 

“In my program, we build models that cost hundreds of dollars and utilize toxic chemicals like epoxy resin because we are required to, then throw them away at the end of the semester. Not only are we taught that our time, money, and labor is disposable, so are the materials.“ 

MFA student/painter: 

“Something I am left thinking about is the pollution caused by the paper making industry, both historically and currently. I’m wondering how and why additives came to be added to papers that gradually worsened the industry’s environmental impact.”

Student, undergraduate: 

“It’s so important that we take a step back and re-evaluate the practices that have become automatic, rote and interrogate the ways they have been engineered, marketed into being by racial capitalism and settler colonialism.”

Student, undergraduate  in Biology/Design: 

Connecting with our materials and being able to acknowledge them as more than just matter, in the same way we humans are more than just matter, can transcend our relationships with our materials. 

I’m excited that Kaitlin is part of our community of authors for our upcoming book: Building Democratic Schools: A Global Perspective. 

Students making paper at Rittenhouse Town, the first papermill in North America, situated on Lenape/Delaware Land off the Moshone Creek in the Wissahickon. Kaitlin in purple jacket
Students at Revolution Recovery, a waste management facility in North Philadelphia. (Photos by Alina Wang)

Students at the Materials Library at University of Pennsylvania.

Mid-semester “Material Exploration” pin up. Quick, responsive material gestures to reflect on site visits and readings.

Examples from the “Material Bios” assignment. Above: a plaster cake that says “It’s a girl” with a huge mushroom and spewing out. Created by Ari Vamos.
A burnt coffee/sugar mixture, reflecting on student’s relationship to these materials and their Honduran family history. Created by Camila Irabian.

Gabe Garcia
Erin Morris
Robert and Bodie on the couch 
Junk mail, grocery bags, dryer lint, dog hair, unmated socks, toothpick, hot glue, paper mache
The dog’s hair accumulates like falling snow on a wool rug. I’m always trying to get his animal hair out of other animal hair. How many inches did we get this week? Where’s my other sock?