What ‘successful’ people do

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Me, enjoying The Great Outdoors, before the EPA and U.S. environmental regulations are fully done away with and the beauty of nature is destroyed (Photo credit: Ian Engel)

As I noted in a piece a couple of weeks ago, this post has been dwelling in my drafted email folder for quite some time. Whenever I considered publishing it, I found an excuse not to — I’m too busy with work; it’s missing something; do I really believe in what I’m writing?

There’s no denying I tend to seek out challenging — and thus often stressful — opportunities. I crave personal progress and whenever possible I give most of my energy to professional projects. When I did the final revision of this piece, I took on someone else’s full-time publicity job (she went to Thailand, and yes, I’m eternally envious) while also freelance fact-checking and working my part-time job. Some nights, I slept 3 hours; some meals, I skipped simply because I couldn’t stop working. I try to be an advocate for wellness, but exemplifying that — especially in my line of work, media — is tricky. But as I struggled to regulate my sleep and eat nutritious meals, I found myself thinking about what it means to be successful, and I returned to this drafted essay…

***
Forbes piece appeared in my Facebook feed last spring. At the time, I was working about 65 hours a week — half at a lefty national magazine; half at a luxury fitness club. I would roll out of bed at 4:30 AM to drag my sleepy self five blocks to the gym. Five hours later I’d speed walk back to my apartment with exactly 15 minutes to change, pack lunch, and brew a second cup of coffee. For five months, I hardly slept or socialized, and my body shut down. For weeks I battled sicknesses that built upon each other, until I found myself curled up in a Midtown CityMD waiting room, unable to work and in need of an antibiotic. I considered leaving the city when my lease ended last August. I spent much of my summer browsing housing sites. Twice, I had apartments fall through just as I was about to fork over hundreds of dollars for deposits. I finally found myself a new home — a spacious Crown Heights apartment with two wonderful roommates. I couldn’t be more grateful for the changes the late summer brought: a new apartment, a new job, fewer hours at the fitness club, and just a bit more time to socialize (read: sleep).
Although my new schedule allows more freedom, I keep coming back to the Forbes piece. I read “How Successful People Spend Their Weekends” on a Sunday night. At first glance, I was very excited; I figured it would offer some Thrive–esque advice about time, stress and/or money management. It didn’t necessary fail to do that, but I found myself repelled by its assumptions. I was drawn in by “successful” in the headline. Success is a concept I’ve been seriously grappling with for the past few years. But as I read through the Forbes cheat sheet for how to make better use of my weekend time and model myself after “successful” individuals, I grew frustrated because it didn’t apply to me or many people I know.
Some samples of my reactions:

#2 They Designate Mornings as Me Time. 
That sounds lovely, and since I stopped opening the fitness club, I’ve tried to do that more. Still, sometimes I have to send emails, make calls or run errands, because it’s the only time I can. But when I first read this piece, I was already rising before the sun. To have “me time” in the morning, I would’ve had to wake up between 2:00 and 3:00 AM. I was working so much to pay rent — and yet I couldn’t help but wonder, “Does working insane hours to pay my bills on time make me ‘unsuccessful’?” The folks at Forbes probably think so… but I saw it as responsible. I’d rather work extra hours than get evicted, acquire a ton of credit card debt, or have to call home to beg a parent for extra cash.

#4 They Pursue a Passion.
 I agree that “indulging your passions is a great way to escape stress and to open your mind to new ways of thinking.” It’s a key reason I try to work jobs about which I’m passionate during the week. On weekends, I clock in at the fitness club by 7:30 AM, and those shifts on Saturdays and Sundays allow me to maintain my membership, so I can work on weightlifting and attend yoga classes. The gym job is far from a dream position, but it allows me to pursue my passion for fitness, as well as stay healthy enough to spend weekdays on my primary passion: journalism. It’s fundamental to personal development to pursue passions, but if we designate only the weekends for our passion projects, it seems likely we’ll end up miserable the other five days of the week.

#6 They Minimize Chores. 
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I really hate household chores — but I must also confess to being a stress-cleaner who derives satisfaction from scrubbing floors and disinfecting all surfaces in sight. My journalism job (or “jobs,” since my main gig is freelance and I often work for multiple outlets simultaneously) can keep me at the office late. The hours are unpredictable and when I add that to my attempt to exercise regularly, I don’t spend much time at my apartment. I can occasionally squeeze in some late-night laundry, or vacuum on an afternoon off, but I tend to dedicate one of my weekend afternoons to cleaning, because I like the tidy space and that’s when I have the time.

I am only 23 years old; I have many, many more years in the work force, and I plan to continue working jobs about which I’m passionate. I still struggle with whether I’d call myself “successful,” but I care deeply about the work I do and try to make sure each task aligns with my career goals and personal values. The Forbes list reads to me like advice for people who hate their day-jobs and only tend to their passions (and mental states) on the weekends…but rather than success, I see that as failure. Success should mean pursuing your passions (and finding a way to make a livable profit from that), rather than putting off passions until the two days per week a ‘successful’ person does ‘me time.’ Sure, sometimes I go weeks without a full day off…but when you (mostly) enjoy and believe in what you do for money, you don’t have to reserve your weekends to recover from your miserable day-to-day life. You end up living for more than the weekends; you end up living for every day you get to wake up and take on your next challenge.

(NB: I would like to note that my ability — especially at my age — to pursue a career about which I am passionate has been made possible in part by my white privilege + middle-class suburban upbringing, and the educational and networking opportunities provided to me because of that…in addition to a lot of all-nighters, many missed meals and excessively high stress levels.)

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My struggle to define success

Burnt pastries

While trying to feed myself a subpar dinner, I almost burned down my apartment building.

For months, I have been revisiting the same nearly complete blog post. It resides in my email draft folder—waiting, lurking. Every time I consider publishing it, I stop myself. 

Its topic: Success.

Part of me is turned off by the idea of success—if I consider myself “successful,” won’t I just become complacent?

Part of me is lured in by it—if I consider myself “successful,” won’t that be an indication that I feel fulfilled by my daily life?

I don’t think this internal dichotomy is uncommon, especially among 20-somethings…or dare I even write the dreaded term millennials…but in my day-to-day I don’t often encounter in-depth discussions focused on defining success and analyzing how it pertains our decisions.

My unpublished piece is a critique of a popular news outlet’s BuzzFeed-style listicle about how “successful” people spend their weekends. The listicle’s main premise is that weekends should be reserved for “me time” and passion projects. My argument against that is essentially that success shouldn’t mean doing something you hate every weekday so you can spend the weekends doing what you love (which describes the vibe I got from the listicle); rather, I claim success should mean taking care of yourself and doing something you love every day, and finding a way to live off of that.

And I know, that’s extraordinarily easy to say and immensely more difficult to practice. What’s held me back from hitting that daunting publish button is doubt in my own argument and whether I’m actually practicing what I preach (don’t hate me for this cliché; it’s just too fitting to resist). 

As I type this from the heart of Midtown, guzzling endless cups of tea and coffee to keep my sleep-deprived brain marginally more functional, I ponder my definition and whether my life reflects it. I have spent the last week temporarily doing someone else’s full-time job, while freelancing during mornings and evenings, and working part-time on the weekend (gotta love the Brooklynite’s freelance hustle). 

“Me time” has meant me knocking out from exhaustion in the early hours of the morning, clutching pints of Halo Top or cups of Yogi tea that by some miracle haven’t yet spilled on my laptop (plus facilitating the rescue of a 35-pound raccoon from an eight-foot barbed wire fence and almost burning down my apartment—see photo above—but those are stories for another time). 

As I contemplate my upcoming career and location decisions, I wonder what will be required of me to pursue my passions. I wonder whether I truly want to solidify my currently dubious definition of success, or just keep chasing it; I wonder whether concretely defining success for myself will actually guide me to becoming successful by my own measure; I wonder whether continuous personal growth requires us to allow our individual definitions of success to constantly evolve, and if so, how to navigate that.

With this unsettled definition to consider (not to mention all my swirling thoughts about where I want to live and work), I struggle to determine whether my daily choices are truly enhancing my skills and aligning with my career goals—i.e. paving a path to success.

So, I put these questions to you, internet dwellers:

1. How do you define success?

2. How does passion interact with your definition of success?

Exploring identity formation in the Land of Selfies

Screenshot of Instagram

A screenshot of my Instagram profile

Hi, everyone… (As you should expect at this point), it’s been a while since I’ve shared my thoughts here. I’ve spent the past few months getting acclimated to a semi-crazy schedule working two jobs (both of which I love) in Manhattan. Inspired by a recent conversation with a colleague, I have decided to give myself a writing prompt each week. If I come up with something (even remotely) publishable, I will post it here; if not, I will table the topic and consider revisiting it later…

Lately I’ve been thinking about why I love Instagram (beyond the vain indulgence of capturing that rare, stellar selfie). While recently chatting with a friend at work, I explained that I enjoy Instagram more than most social media because on Instagram people less frequently post awful statements that make me want to unfriend/unfollow them (I’m looking at you, Trump supporters). I don’t consider myself a super skilled photographer, but I love that Instagram allows me to share snapshots of my life with friends and followers, especially through its connection to platforms like Twitter and Facebook. On Instagram, I follow friends, family, foodies, fitness experts, fashion designers, public figures, politicians, artists, musicians, and news outlets. Beyond my love for an app that could be called the Land of Selfies, I am intrigued by how social media both shapes and reflects identity, as well as its impact on how we socialize.

Our social media selves are intentional; they are simultaneously reflections of how we see ourselves and who we want to be. I have frequently encountered arguments that this is a fundamental flaw of social media, but I think that it is actually one of its beauties. Whether our social media profiles accurately capture our personalities is based on our individual capacities for reflection, but ultimately, I think it’s a safe bet that most of us idealize ourselves online at least occasionally. We may present idealized or censored versions of ourselves (even unintentionally), but in doing so we are setting goals, and in an accountable way. We are declaring to friends and family: this is who I am.

The space between who we are in person and online—the space between who we are and who we want to be—offers room for personal growth, if we can force ourselves to see and interact with that space.

Social media allows us to explore our identities in a public sphere, but also from a certain comfort zone—with our computer screens serving as buffers. I want to take a moment to acknowledge how incredibly empowering that can be (before I complain about its downfalls). It affirms the (supremely simplified) speeches many of us encountered in elementary school: “You can be anything you want to be.” Now, as we transition to adulthood, we learn that phrase is untrue for a myriad of reasons…but, we can always improve upon ourselves, and our idealizations of ourselves often come alive in our online profiles. Now I am by no means advocating for lying about passions or personal details online; I’m just speaking from my own experience: establishing a public identity that often displays the ideal picture of me encourages me to be better—strive to fully match that public persona; strive to become my best self.

That being said, there are issues that can arise in this idealization process, which can be exacerbated by our friends and followers’—or even strangers’—interactions with our posts. Social media is often used to demonstrate and reinforce social norms that can be damaging and/or limiting—e.g. In an interview with NY Magazine’s Rebecca Traister, Fusion‘s Collier Meyerson noted: “But I’m not immune to the pressures of marriage or the stain of singlehood. And the place I most experience this pressure is on Facebook.”

This resonated with me. I am immensely irritated by social media posts that tell me—directly or indirectly—what makes me a person, or a woman; what my relationship status should be; what I must have or achieve to be considered successful. I make a very conscious effort to set my own goals and define success for myself, but seeing those judgmental or limiting ideas presented as societal standards online can be tricky to navigate. Social media can expose us to new ideas or individuals, but it also opens up our identities to public scrutiny. If social media has a fatal flaw, I think it’s that it allows us to attack each others’ identities from a distance—from behind the computer screen buffer—lessening the amount of shame we may otherwise feel for imposing our unsolicited judgement or personal standards on others.

Social media has the potential to be a vehicle for self-expression and sharing powerful ideas, but so often we use it to spread undue judgment and hateful comments. I am not calling for the policing of posts for constant positivity or a lack of strong opinions—let’s all remember I work in journalism, which means I often spend my days wading through tragic and/or controversial news—but this personal exploration of why I like Instagram better than other social media has renewed my sense of mindfulness about what I share about myself, especially online.

Like the clothes or makeup I choose to wear (I’ll spare you my anti-uniform rant, for now), my website, my résumé, my work as a journalist…my social media platforms represent both who I am and who I want to be. I see my accounts as opportunities to share myself with others. By being more mindful of what I share, I am practicing a mindfulness about what I believe, what I desire, and how I engage with people.

So, I am giving myself a challenge, and anyone is welcome to join me: I will strive to be mindful, as well as genuine, honest, and compassionate, in my public presentation of myself on the internet. I will use social media to share stories and ideas that strike me as powerful, profound, or positive. I will use my profiles to attempt to honestly reflect myself, but also to hold myself accountable to that reflection, in an effort to constantly improve upon the person I am.

(I will also continue to take selfies and love Instagram because it shows me photos—both of beauty and suffering—that are brief but fantastic bursts of life.)

Note: The second-to-last paragraph is adapted from a personal mission statement I recently wrote for myself, inspired by an awesome interview with Julianne Hough. If you have an hour to devote to a provocative and motivating discussion about developing a personal definition of success, then this interview is definitely worth watching.

Practicing mindfulness – my main takeaway from Thrive

Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington (Photo courtesy of Crownpublishing.com)

Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington (Photo courtesy of Crownpublishing.com)

A few months ago, I wrote this piece, but never posted it. It felt so much more personal than a simple book review. I have been reconsidering it for the past few days, but was finally pushed to publish it after reading a somewhat thematically related blog post by Wil Wheaton.

So, here is my (slightly revised) reaction to Thrive: 

Arianna Huffington’s Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder is about burnout, happiness, and balance; it’s about health, redefining success, and working toward mindfulness.

It fit well with my mentality this summer. My three goals for this summer have been: patience, positivity, and productivity (listed from most difficult to easiest for me).

It’s been a struggle getting through this book, but I have enjoyed it immensely – particularly the conversational tone. The concentrated guidance toward mindfulness resonated strongly with me. At many points I wished I could have read this at the beginning of college. I spent a good portion of those four years rather unhappy. My strongest motivator for seeking this new approach to living is the realization I had the end of college that I couldn’t continue living in a way that sacrifices my happiness. It sounds like a common sense statement that shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it was for me, but living in a way that prioritized genuine happiness didn’t feel natural to me.

Some practices such as yoga proved to have a positive impact on my mental health during my college years, and I have tried to hold on to that feeling through at-home practice, while I attempt to sort out the next phase of my life.

While I was in the midst of reading Thrive, I found out that one of the mindfulness mentors I encountered during college was diagnosed with cancer. She is a young, seemingly healthy yogi, so I was shocked by her diagnosis. But it was a reminder about the unpredictability of life, and as she works through her treatments, I am working more to value my health while I have it.

In addition to trying to maintain a sleep more/eat better/work out regularly lifestyle, I took myself off social media for the a week this summer, in an effort to practice the kind of mindfulness Huffington explores in this rather personal book. Even before reading Thrive, I was well aware that have serious trouble disconnecting. (I even caved and reconnected shortly shy of a week when the #GOPDebate and #JonVoyage were scheduled for the same night.)

If you know me personally, you likely know these social media cleanses aren’t out of character for me; however, this one was the first that was motivated by more than just a personal desire to go off the grid and live in semi-isolation for a few days. It was motivated by a desire to practice mindfulness with regard to every choice I make – even with Tweets or Facebook posts.

A few hours after I finished reading Thrive, I retrieved a package from the mailbox addressed to my sister. It was a Lokai bracelet. Unfortunately, I had been planning to buy her one for her upcoming birthday (fortunately, it means I know her well enough that she would have appreciated the gift). However, the size small was too tight on her wrist, so I bought it off of her and she has ordered a new one for herself. (Update: I have since broke my bracelet and I’ve been meaning to order another.)

The Lokai bracelets feature clear beads with one black and one white bead on either end. The white bead is filled with water from Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth; the black bead is filled with mud from the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. It’s supposed to represent the universal human need for balance, and remind us that we all experience highs and lows in life.

I am grateful for this gift from the universe (and my child-sized wrists), as it will serve as a physical reminder to internalize and practice the lessons I took from Thrive. I highly recommend the book for everyone, but especially for young people focused on personal success and just beginning their careers. For me, while I like to believe it would have been nice to read it earlier, I think I found it at the perfect time.


P.S. I am immensely grateful for my friend Erin, who lent me her personal copy of Thrive, and has encouraged me to pass it along to someone else who may benefit from reading it.

What I have to say about The Unspeakable

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum (Photo courtesy of www.meghandaum.com)

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum (Photo courtesy of http://www.meghandaum.com)

Since I’m still jobless (Potential employers, if you’re reading this, here’s a link to my résumé. Please hire me.), I am back to blogging about books I’ve read for fun. One of the most miraculous post-grad discoveries I’ve made thus far is that unemployment and lack of homework allow me to read for pure enjoyment. It’s incredible. As a born-again bookworm, I have realized how vital leisurely reading is to maintaining a high level of happiness with my life.

I’ll admit it: the number one reason I picked up this book is that a reviewer compared her writing to that of Joan Didion. While I won’t go so far as to call Meghan Daum the next Didion, The Unspeakable is well written, honest and enjoyable. I laughed out loud; I related to the narrator. Reading it, I felt as if we were having a long conversation — a telltale sign of a good writer in my not-so-humble opinion. I found myself captivated by her tales of growing up and finding herself; making major life decisions, especially with regard to marriage and parenthood; and confessions such as not being a foodie, which resonated with me and my inability to achieve #domesticgoddess status despite a newfound love of The Food Network and HGTV.

Daum even made me briefly reconsider my instinctual rejection of Los Angeles, which is no small feat – just ask my LA-bound college friends. She also made me consider the acts of reading and writing memoirs, and on a broader scale, why we write.

In May, I wrapped up my final semester of college, during which I was enrolled in the most challenging course I have ever taken. It wasn’t that content was difficult, though making sense neo-Lacanians and higher ed pedagogy is not at all easy; it was emotionally challenging.

Around mid-March I asked to meet with the professor. I was struggling with the course; I dreaded each class meeting and watched the clock intently, silently counting down the minutes until 5:15 p.m. As someone who has always loved school, this was new to me. Even suffering through a semester of calculus in high school wasn’t as painful as the mid-semester class meetings for this course. Before my meeting with the professor, I bought a cup of coffee at the library. My nerves got the better of me and I spilled the coffee instead of drinking it. I was bursting with anxiety when we sat down in his small, cluttered office. He asked how I was – how my semester was going. It took me months to understand why I almost immediately started to cry.

His question – his concern for me – was genuine, which was shocking to me. I have found that when most people ask “How are you?” they don’t really mean it. They often don’t want to hear about your sickly relative or unemployment or money problems. They want to hear that you’re happy and healthy – that all is well. Somehow, real life has become too uncomfortable to talk about. That’s why my mother consistently reminds me not to discuss politics, sex or religion before we leave the house for holiday dinners with our extended family.

One of the key points of this professor’s course was to interrogate the question “Why do we write?” Based on Daum’s collection of essays, I suspect she writes to answer “How are you?” a bit more honestly than many of us are used to. Throughout the book she skips the small talk and invites the reader to take a look at her real story and taboo topics that we often avoid in day-to-day conversation. The course challenged me to do the same, and my dedication to doing so is a major reason why I enjoyed Daum’s writing so much. Telling her truth takes a lot of courage, but she does it well. She doesn’t leave things unsaid.

Next up: Tina Fey’s Bossypants and How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran. In May I was in the midst of a feminist rampage and ended up on Amazon. I justified the purchases by reminding myself that there are much more reckless ways of dealing with my pro-woman rage and doing damage to my bank account than by adding to my already overflowing bookshelf.

Update: I finished Bossypants on my way to New York and loved it. Before I read Moran’s book, I’ve started Thrive by Arianna Huffington. Clearly I’m still in my memoirs-written-by-successful-women phase. I suspect I’ll need some fiction soon! 

Corporatism, feminism & the health food movement

Food, Inc. is a documentary released in 2008.

Food, Inc. is a documentary released in 2008.

Last night, I finally got around to watching Food, Inc.

I have been tempted to hit ‘play’ nearly every time I have logged on to Netflix the past few months (which is actually not that many times thanks to my crazy college schedule). Finally, at the beginning of my winter break and still recovering from finals/the nasty cold that’s kept me in bed for a week, I decided to watch this documentary.

I grew excited the moment I saw the name Michael Pollan flash across the bottom of the screen — he’s one of my favorite foodie folks. I discovered him while transcribing an interview for “Food Fight: Feminists and Femivores,” a piece published by In These Times in June 2013.

Food, Inc. (2008) is a few years older than this article, and has been mentioned in conversations, articles and books that explore the health food trend among white middle-class Americans — including Emily Matchar’s “Is Michael Pollan a Sexist Pig?”, which is mentioned in the In These Times piece.

The film achieved a few things: it made me afraid to set foot in a supermarket or fast food restaurant ever again; it showed a rather comprehensive picture of the industrial world of American food and farming; and it reminded me how frequently the public has no idea how most food in the U.S. is produced. It also showed the financial struggles — those of the farmers, beholden to the major corporations, and those of the people shopping for the cheapest deals at supermarkets and fast food establishments.

Now that much of our food is engineered, according to Pollan, our bodies are hardwired to desire three things: salt, fat, and sugar. But talk to any white middle-class 20something or 30something and those are three things we’re taught to fear (at least, that’s been my experience attending a pricey private college in New York State). There is a portion of today’s American society that knows full well not to touch the cookies, canned cranberry sauce, and other ‘conventional’ temptations.

Personally, I try to limit my grocery shopping to the farmers’ market and a nearby co-op; I eat local, organic foods whenever possible. I grew up taking dance classes, and whenever I can work it into my hectic schedule, I attend yoga classes at a studio in town. Whenever I have a spare moment, I peruse a close friend’s food blog and carry my Whole Foods reusable shopping bag to pick up groceries. However, I am deeply intrigued by this recent cultural obsession with health, and how it’s so often contained to young, wealthy white women.

Matchar included a quote in her Salon piece that speaks to this trend:

“The return to domesticity by young, intelligent, educated women like you see around here is a reaction against a broken food system in America,” says Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on food culture. “We’ve lost our connection to traditional handmade cuisine, kids could have shorter life spans than their parents [because of obesity and poor diet], there’s global warming. This new food culture is a response to an industrial model that’s not working.”

Matchar’s Salon piece is a fascinating look at feminism and the kitchen, and she makes the notable point that problematic eating habits and processed food entered the “normal” sphere in the U.S. far before feminism — hence her swipe at Pollan with the headline, since he’s been quoted as partly blaming feminism for the families of today eating poorly.

However, Matchar also writes, “The historically inaccurate blaming of feminism for today’s food failings implies that women were, are, and should be responsible for cooking and family health.”

Before I go any further, I should note that I am a rather vocal feminist with one too many horror stories from the kitchen. However, my investment in healthful eating and interest in the health food movement have motivated me to believe strongly that both men and women should understand how to cook healthful meals for themselves and their families. That means women are in part responsible for how they and their families eat. Unfortunately, this belief is often at odds with the financial realities of many Americans, which has led to my interest in how the health food movement so often excludes those with low incomes.

I have recently immersed myself in the concept of food justice and explored some of the activism that accompanies it. Part of my interest came from my work on a capstone class project called Just Ithaca, for which I wrote about holiday season food-related charity; part of my interest came from exposure to a program created by my local co-op of choice, GreenStar (about which I have also written). My more recent interest in how money fits with my convictions has caused me to carefully consider buzzwords, trends and movements, especially those that seem on the surface to align with what I believe. I have been considering what I want for the health food and food justice movements I’ve observed, and in some instances supported.

Yvonne Yen Liu captures my feelings toward it all quite well in the In These Times discussion: “We need a food justice movement that attacks patriarchy, class inequality and corporate control of the food system.”

That’s a movement I’d like to see.

Ithaca artists start community conversations through public pieces

By Jessica Corbett and Sally Young

This is one of many murals featured on the streets of Ithaca, New York. (Photo by Sally Young)

This is one of many murals featured on the streets of Ithaca, New York. (Photo by Sally Young)

Marla Coppolino has worked as a science illustrator for more than 20 years, but recently she took her artistic skills to the streets of Ithaca to paint two electrical boxes at the intersection of Albany and Court Streets.

Coppolino’s boxes were part of the 21 Boxes project commissioned by the City of Ithaca through the Public Art Commission. Through the project, artists were contracted to paint electrical boxes around the city.

“I enjoyed doing this public painting project because I feel it gives everyone the chance to stop and appreciate artwork, right there by the street, along their daily walks,” Coppolino said.

Coppolino works at Cornell University, but is also an artist and a malacologist, meaning she studies land snails on the side.

“I like to showcase snails as something very beautiful and help change public perception about snails, because most people think they’re pretty gross and slimy,” she said. “When they look at how beautiful snails are, I can start to talk to them about how important snails are to the ecosystem.”

The artists who create public art in Ithaca say they would like their works to open a dialogue among community members.

“I consider art to be a communication, and public art opens that conversation to everyone,” Jim Garmhausen, another artist in the 21 Boxes project, said. “It is very gratifying as an artist to plant a visual message in a public place for people to see and interact with. Working publicly has changed my relationship with my community, and changed my art from a solitary, studio-bound practice to something more like storytelling.”

Click the graphic above to check out an interactive map of street art in Ithaca on Ithaca Week.

Click the graphic above to check out an interactive map of street art in Ithaca on Ithaca Week.

Public art projects in Ithaca are not solely the work of the Public Art Commission. The Downtown Ithaca Alliance spearheads the “Art in the Heart” project with support from the commission. The “Art in the Heart” project displays pieces from mid-June to mid-November. The alliance has been using Cayuga Street and Creek Walk for art corridors.

“We always like to buy more public art but we are now in a situation where we need to find places for our pieces,” Kris Lewis, operations director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said. She said that in the commons re-design, only two spots were slated for public art.

Despite the great support for public art in Ithaca, graffiti is still an occasional problem. It is rare that a commissioned piece of art is graffitied, but it does happen, commission members said. They said they would like to redirect the energy of those who do the graffiti into making more permanent public art.

“I would love for some of these graffiti artists to have time to be able to make beautiful pieces. Some of these pieces that are just done on the run aren’t as nice for me,” Caleb Thomas, a commission member, said.

“Part of the rebellious nature of graffiti is not just about doing it in a clandestine situation,” Grace Ritter, another commission member, said. “It’s about transforming our landscape into something beautiful. It’s not necessarily because it’s illegal; it’s more about taking something that’s maybe ugly and you’re creating art with what you have.”

City resources that are used to cover graffiti could instead go to employing the people who are doing the graffiti, Frank Nagy, director of parking for the Department of Public Works, says.

“What I’ve seen is where we put art I don’t see graffiti,” Nagy said. “Where I don’t put art, I find graffiti. I would rather spend the money on the art than to spend the money on constantly cleaning the graffiti.”

Public Art Slideshow

Click the above slide to view and audio slideshow about public art in Ithaca, New York

The artists and those commissioning the work, whether part of the commission or the alliance, share a vision for what public art brings to the Ithaca community.

“I think it’s important to have public art. It enlivens a community and we feel very committed to continuing to have a public art exhibition,” Lewis said.

“I think that public art is an important and necessary part of a community’s landscape,” Garmhausen said. “It lends a sense of inclusion and humanness to a city, counteracting the dry predictability of urban planning. I find that coming across a piece of public art brings a spark, an enlivening to the moment.”

Read this story on Ithaca Week