Brooklyn College Professor Matthew Burgess Is PUMPed About His Latest Collaborative Public Art Project

An upside-down rainbow. A caterpillar wearing a hat. An anthropomorphic dog jogging beside an astronaut. These are just some of the elements that make up art of the latest Poetry Urban Mural Project (PUMP), the visionary creation of Brooklyn College Department of English Assistant Professor Matthew Burgess ’01 M.F.A. The vibrant mural takes up an entire wall between two doorways inside David A. Boody Intermediate School 228 in Gravesend, Brooklyn. The artist, Josh Cochran, designed it in response to poems written by eighth-grade English students taught by Natalie Nuzzo ’11, ’13 M.A. It is a precise example of the collaboration and conversation between literature and the visual arts that Burgess envisioned when he dreamed up the idea.

"There is a certain frequency that Josh’s artwork emits when you look at it," Burgess says of the mural, the second one created through PUMP. The first, at the Elias Howe School-P.S. 51 in Manhattan, was a resounding success and made Burgess eager to continue the work at another location. "It transmits something of the energy that went into its creation."

PUMP is the culmination of Burgess’s academic and artistic aspirations. It doesn’t yet have a formal, repeatable structure, but he is trying to find both the time and resources to make that happen, and also get the word out about the potential of the project. Merging two passions, art and poetry, he seeks to create and transform public spaces into something that speaks to—and hopefully inspires—the larger community. And what is created is its own kind of beauty, with both a mature seriousness and a clear childlike whimsy ("serious play" is a hallmark of Burgess’ teaching strategy), something that recalls the innocence of childhood even as it speaks to the realities that children in urban spaces have to regularly navigate. The latter, in particular, is a political statement that sometimes inspires criticism of the project.

"These murals do not please everyone," Burgess says. "Transforming a blank wall into a work of art can be a political act. They make a statement about what we value. So it’s not simple. Some people like walls. Our current administration likes walls. When you paint on a wall, and you paint something vibrant, colorful, exuberant, joyful, and unifying—that will irk some people. Some are interested in dividing and separating and keeping things uniform. These murals challenge that desire. They are celebrations of imagination and aliveness."

A Southern California native deeply inspired by the works of artist Keith Haring and poet E. E. Cummings, Burgess began exploring the relationship between poetry and the visual arts while taking word and image courses at Naropa University. He previously published a children’s book on the life of Cummings titled, Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings and is currently collaborating with Josh Cochran on a picture book about the life of Haring to be released in fall 2019. He says he further developed interest in teaching poetry to young people, which he says "electrified" him, when he came to Brooklyn College and participated in programs which exposed high school students to poetry.

In the program, Burgess got to work with some of the greatest poetic minds in the field, including Ron Padgett, Louis S. Asekoff, and Julie Agoos, while also teaching undergraduate English composition as an adjunct. He also began teaching poetry in public elementary schools through Teachers & Writers Collaborative. "I felt a sense of recognition," Burgess says about walking into his composition classroom at Brooklyn College to teach for the first time. "I was terrified, but I was also struck by how at home I felt. And I thought to myself: ‘This is my purpose.’"

The dynamic of going back and forth between teaching elementary school students and college students raised several questions for Burgess. For younger children, he discovered, writing is oftentimes an adventure, while for young adults, it can feel like a chore. Burgess sought ways in which to reignite the former’s spirit of adventure in the latter.

"PUMP creates this encounter and exchange between artists and young people. The artists are individuals who have survived those challenges and obstacles to our creative development—and they’ve succeeded in making creativity central to their daily lives. So the kids get to meet a ‘grown up’ who places enormous value on the imagination, and the artist, by meeting the kids and reading their poetry, reconnects vicariously to their own experiences as a child. They might remember where they came from, and some of that energy might find its way into the mural."

This approach to pedagogy had a profound effect on Natalie Nuzzo, a former student of Burgess’s. Nuzzo, author of Color Is Dangerous: Equity Through Arts Based Literacy, which will be published with Peter Lang in 2019, started her academic career as a health and nutrition major, but slowly began to reconnect with her childhood desire to teach, which led her to change her area of study to English secondary education.

She says that her course with Burgess, an introduction to poetry class, was another pivotal moment in her education, reintroducing her to her love of the subject. "He exposed me to the fact that there’s this conversation between art and literature—which was something I think, in my subconscious or cellular memory, I knew, but he was just so explicit and direct in saying, ‘Okay, pair a picture with this poem that you wrote. Go look for a photograph or a painting that best brings to life the ideas you are expressing in your work."

Even after she graduated with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from the college, Nuzzo and Burgess kept in touch and continued to share ideas and have conversations about these interdisciplinary notions. Out of these discussions came the idea of creating PUMP’s second mural, this time at the school she had been teaching at since graduating: I.S. 228.