School of Art, Media, and Technology

Thesis Showcase: Liz Belfer and Lea Faminiano Help NYC Schoolchildren Paint Themselves As Superheroes

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In this series, second-year D&T MFA students explain what they are doing with their thesis projects, where they apply what they’ve been learning toward their personal interests. Lea Faminiano and Liz Belfer have teamed up to create Guardians of the City, a public art project driven by schoolchildren envisioning themselves as heroes in their communities. Below, Belfer and Faminiano explain how their project took shape, through working together, and listening to their own creative voices. By Rachel Signer.

What’s the main idea of your project?

Urban public art projects, with schoolchildren, where they design superheroes to protect their neighborhoods, and to raise awareness about social issues through the art. We conduct workshops with the kids, mainly ages 6 to 11, where we ask them to think of a location in the city that they think needs protection, and they create a superhero for that space. We’re working with schools to install the superhero art projects in their buildings, and we’ve been working with City Hall’s Parks and Recreation and Education departments; they’re helping us find spaces where we can do workshops and installations. And we’re working with the Department of Design and Construction to install them on construction nets at construction sites.

We did a pop-up workshop at Union Square, and teenagers were participating. We’re posting the sites on our website, and people can vote on the top ones. Parsons has something called Playtech where public school kids come in and play with our interactive games, and this weekend we’re setting up a photo booth with superhero costumes, where the kids will take their own photos and envision themselves as superheroes, and fill out an ID card. We did this because we saw many kids were drawing themselves as superheroes. We also designed a superhero training camp for kids at one school, focused on protecting yourself and your neighborhood, and etiquette around public art. We tried to make our project really technological in the beginning, but we found that we preferred using organic materials and working with our hands.

How have you funded it?

We have a Kickstarter fundraising profile to raise money for materials, and we just met our goal a few days ago. A reporter from Atlantic Cities noticed one of our posters, and then the Deputy Mayor read the article and sent us a personal e-mail saying he loved our project and he donated $200 to our Kickstarter. We wrote back to say thank you and then he invited us to City Hall.

Does your project have a business model or plan for moving forward?

We definitely want to continue the project. It keeps on growing. Eventually we want to see it grow to be a worldwide program and we’ve reached out to international schools. And we want to reach out to local businesses here and have them adopt an installation.

Lea Faminiano

What was the most challenging aspect of your project?

We had to get permission for our user groups and installation sites, and we just had to ask people—like building owners, and the companies who regulate public spaces—and it’s worked out for us pretty well so far.

What surprised you while you were working on it?

The kids just came up with such surprising, inspiring, funny superheroes. At first we just gave them cards and asked them to design a superhero for a location—very simple—but so much came out of it.

Liz Belfer

Our peers have been great help. Even if they’re working on something completely different, I guess because of the way the ‘design mind’ works, they can provide feedback. We were in a game-focused thesis class, but it didn’t matter that our project wasn’t about a game. There’s this idea of a certain type of ‘perfect Parsons project,’ but when we tried to make our project what we thought everyone wanted, we weren’t happy with it. When we just listened to ourselves, it was incredibly successful.

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