New Work: Queens Metropolitan Campus
Over the past decade, Paula Scher has explored using superscale typography in environmental graphics for interiors and urban environments—corporate headquarters, museums, performing arts centers and schools—most recently in her graphics for the Achievement First Endeavor Middle School. At the same time, Scher has created a series of large-scale typographic map paintings and prints that examine ideas of location and ways of seeing the world. Now Scher has merged her environmental graphics and painting to create a remarkable new work: a pair of murals at the new Queens Metropolitan Campus in Forest Hills, which includes Queens Metropolitan High School and the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, a middle school. The murals were completed as a commission for the Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art program, in partnership with the NYC School Construction Authority Public Art for Public Schools program.
The two murals are located in an atrium and commons at the Metropolitan Campus and each cover approximately 2,430 square feet. One of the murals, a view of the New York metropolitan region with a focus on Queens, was completed this week; a second, of Metropolitan Avenue, will be installed in October. In the murals, New York City sprawls across the walls in vibrant color, wrapping around walls, corners and ceiling, creating a world in a room. As in her map paintings, locations in the murals are misspelled or misidentified; Scher seems to be figuring out the geography along with the students, creating a joyous sense of recognition that mirrors the learning process.
“Everyone is looking up with a general sense of awe and wonder,” says Marci Levy-Maguire, principal of Queens Metropolitan High School, one of the schools on campus. “People feel special in the building, and the mural is a reflection of that. There is a focus on personalization. Everyone looks up at the mural and finds something personal to them.”
“These works marry my love of painting maps with my love of environmental design,” says Scher. “When the viewer enters the atrium, they have entered the painting. They are enveloped by it. Space is altered by it. For that moment in time, all perspectives are skewed. The viewer gets to inhabit Queens in a manner at once, totally familiar and bizarre. The viewer can recognize places and roads and even locate themselves within the map. They are ‘there,’ and then, again, they are not.”
The Metropolitan Campus in Queens is made up of two schools: the Queens Metropolitan High School, a new high school that will serve 1,000 students in grades 9-12; and the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, a choice middle school that will serve 700 students in grades 6-12. The schools are separate but share spaces like the auditorium and atrium where the murals are located. The campus was designed by Urbahn Architects.
The murals were completed in collaboration with Percent for Art, the public art program of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA). The DCLA supports and strengthens the City’s vibrant cultural life by funding public services at and advocating for nonprofit cultural organizations throughout the five boroughs. As the largest government funder of the arts in the nation, the agency works to create and expand access to public programming, provide technical assistance, build audiences, and ensure that arts and culture are central to the City’s economic vitality and quality of life. New York City’s Percent for Art Law requires that one percent of the budget for eligible city-funded construction projects be spent on artwork for city facilities. Administered by DCLA, the Percent for Art program commissions artists to create permanent public artworks in municipal buildings and spaces throughout the City. To date, Percent for Art has completed over 274 projects, with another nearly 67 projects currently underway. DCLA Percent for Art works in partnership with the Department of Education and School Construction Authority Public Art for Public Schools program to commission permanent artwork for new public schools in New York City. The murals become part of the collection of Public Art for Public Schools, which includes artworks by Ben Shahn, Hans Hoffmann, Louis Tiffany, Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, Vito Acconci and Fred Wilson.
Scher was nominated to participate in Percent for Art and invited to create the murals for the Metropolitan Campus. The architectural plans for the school originally designated a single wall in the atrium for the painting; Scher proposed that the mural be expanded to the surrounding walls and ceiling. To begin the commission, Scher painted the New York City metropolitan area with Queens as the focus. The painting is approximately 8 feet by 6 feet, and was completed in 3 pieces.
To enlarge the image for the mural, Scher worked with Michael Imlay, a painter based in Red Hook, Brooklyn. At his studio, Imlay and his team projected the painting on a series of panels and repainted the enlarged image. The finished mural consists of over 100 of these panels—most 4 feet by 8 feet, but others in odd sizes to fit into the atrium’s corners and around its windows and other fixtures. The panels are made of 3mm-thick DiBond and are covered in applied canvas. Painted in acrylic, the panels recreate the dense layering and texture of Scher’s original painting, albeit on a larger scale. Affixed to walls of the atrium, the finished mural is like walking into a dimensional painting.
“I am ecstatic at the process, the scale and the result,” says Scher, “And especially thrilled to see it in a public school.”
Project Team: Paula Scher, partner-in-charge and designer; Drew Freeman, associate and designer. Photographs by Ian Roberts.