It had been more than five years since our last walk through downtown Springfield and, within seconds, the five of us (the Sirocco Five as we call the Sirocco Blue writing staff, in reference to that incredible Michigan Fab 5 squad, some of whom may end up in Springfield’s Basketball Hall of Fame…) came to a unanimous decision: something has changed here. The former paper mill city that for as long as we could remember was home to vacant storefronts (some with glass covered by yellow newspaper pages dated years before), empty streets (the kind that would make youwonder if tumbleweed might suddenly appear, barreling down Main Street), shootouts in the Peter Pan Bus Station, and the yearly headlines patterned into the minds of all residents – ‘Springfield, again, one of the 100 most dangerous cities in the U.S.’ — suddenly had life.
Even a freezing cold Friday afternoon in late January, arctic wind blowing off of the Connecticut River, had a different edge to it: university students walked around hurriedly in search of their next class at UMass and Cambridge College now on Main Street; Construction projects, cranes, the signs of development all over the downtown area; a general sense of excitement and not despair. Could it just be a few blocks in the center of the downtown, we asked in unison? So we ventured to the North End and got some arroz con gandules, with a side of habichuelas rojas and asked the new owners how things are going in the neighborhood: bien mejor, mijo, bien mejor (heavy emphasis on the much better). Also in unison we agreed that the food at Latino’s Kitchen, despite the slightly less original name than we’ve seen across the Baystate, was also much improved.
En route to John Simpson’s new workspace, our destination, we took a gander at the fantastically curated lobby of 1350 Main Street. Incredible photography of Jazz musicians on the walls, straight ahead Jazz playing on high-quality speakers, a lively café that apparently spills out into the street during the summer with tables and tents set up, unheard of years ago. John, now on the 9th floor of 1350 Main and part of the City Mosaic initiative to bring the arts to Springfield, is visiting professor in the art and art history programs at Commonwealth College (UMass-Amherst) and long-time resident artist in the Hampden and Wheeler Art Galleries on the Amherst Campus. He was the artistic director and creative genius behind massive sacred arts installation project Kathmandu: Tantric Buddhism’s Journey from Tibet to India, which paid homage to Tantric Buddhist deities, Green Tara and Black Mahakala.
Sirocco Blue lead facilitator, Jacob Dyer Spiegel, had the pleasure of working alongside Tibetan Buddhist monks and another one of the great local artists, Mr. Tenzin Rigdon on these projects that weaved their way through UMass-Amherst classrooms and Springfield Public School courses. At Putnam Vocational School local youth learned about arts installations and the philosophy behind these sacred art forms. Later, John Simpson brought the Ancient Egypt project to Putnam, as well. Jacob recalls:
“It was my second semester at UMass-Amherst and I saw a work study position advertised so I walked over to Hampden Gallery and John gave me a paintbrush – there was no real interview process. John just brought me into the project on whim, or so I thought at the time. The process of building temples for Green Tara and Black Mahakala became the hands-on, full-immersion component that found itself in in all of the courses I took that semester. When the World Religions professor suddenly stopped the lecture, for instance, to note someone’s coffee spilling down the long corridor to his podium and explained, ‘that is the Dharma, the natural course of these tributaries of coffee; that is Dharma.’ I could follow him because that same day we had rolled thousands of mantras while thinking about Green Tara as compassion embodied and the monks took turns talking about Buddhist philosophy. The whole project was a meditation.
In the course on world literature, I found the same act of devotion in the mandala’s the monks were working on as part of the project as I did in the fiction of certain Caribbean writers who were referencing West African deities in their novels. And then I’d stay long after work hours and listen to John talk about different ideas he was working on in visual form. He was re-visiting, re-interpreting, re-visualizing—just like the Kathmandu project—the great Hieronymus Bosch.
Embedded in this representation or adaptation, you could see John’s work on Green Tara and Black Mahakala spilling over: there was no boundary between forms and traditions and geographies for him. I loved it. Having the chance to work on a project like that with a master painter—and John Simpson is just that—allowed me to be at UMass but simultaneously far, far away. I remember when we reconnected in Amherst after I did study abroad programs in Spain, Cuba, Brazil following flamenco (the music and dance of the Romani people of Spain) and the presence of West African religions in Latin American literature and art. With a huge smile, John told me that the entire installation was taken to the Smithsonian, re-assembled, and that His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with hundreds of monks, some of whom had worked with us, blessed the project.”
We had actually gone to see one of the projects that John, Mike Cass and team are working on: the erasure of gang-related tagging and the re-creation of graffiti art all over the city.
They paint over tags and gang markers and make murals all over the city, often with kids from the community. Like the participation of the Putnam students, this form of reclaiming public space was a forum for teaching arts techniques and arts appreciation. They also do urban “beautification” projects and did a mural at a local hospital.
Just as we prepared to brave the cold for a tour of the murals, Evan Plotkin appeared, the fellow we had been reading about who brought the Jazz Festival to Springfield, and we learned a bit more about the group called the “dynamic trio”.
Something important is happening in Springfield and certainly does seem connected to the work of John Simpson, Mike Cass, and Ethan Plotkin of City Mosaic. We will continue to write about City Mosaic’s public film screenings, space facilitation for artists, public murals and arts interventions, and the organizing of the 2016 Jazz Festival!