SUNY/Empire State College News, Summer 1998, Page 4&5

Mark Scheflen: Illuminating Art

By Hope E. Ferguson

"Twiga" the giraffe sits on a windowsill above the head of the receptionist for St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery. Three ground hornbills survey the street from the sculpture garden of the historic landmark church; arrived upon after a winding walk through a maze of verdure on a mosaic and tiled walkway. They are just two of photographer/artist/ethnographer Mark Scheflen's "light sculptures," pieces made by combining his photography with frames of molded wood covered by clothbark, which lit from behind, look like illuminated windows.

Mark Scheflen '88(alumni), is director of the Visual Arts Program at the church founded by Peter Stuyvesant, first governor of New York in 1646 when Manhattan was still know as New Amsterdam. Scheflen pointed out the spot where Stuyvesant is buried in a crypt on the church grounds.

The historic church has made a reputation as an arts space. There is a polished wood floor in the sanctuary, which, on days that services do not take place, is converted to an auditorium for Danspace, founded in the mid-'70s to provide affordable performance space to independent experimental choreographers. The Church has also been home, since 1992, to the experimental Ontological Theater, and to the Poetry Project (founded in 1966), where contemporary poets read work throughout the year, and nascent scribes can enroll in writing workshops.

Founded in 1995, the Visual Arts Program is the newest addition in this constellation of arts projects. Scheflen proudly showed off the gallery, where a photography exhibit was being hung on a day in early April.

Interns from the neighboring Parsons School of Design help hang the shows, and the Visual Arts Program and school split the cost.

Scheflen founded the Visual Arts Program following a show he participated in observing St. Mark's day, which is held annually the last Sunday in April. The program began with exhibits by different local groups, including the Women's Caucus and Visual AIDS. Scheflen then "got together with Timothy Lomus, the art teacher," at The Third Street Music School Settlement, and began working with students there. He also started to work with children from St. Luke's School in the West Village. In addition, Scheflen directs a photography internship program with ninth and 10th graders who attend an alternative high school.

Scheflen, a former furniture maker, draws on his interest in anthropology, building and photography to create his works. He grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, the son of an academic, and it was there that he learned to "love for nature" wildlife and photography in a series of trips to Africa. He spent most of his time in Kenya, but also visited Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa and Namibia.

In 1986, accompanied by his then 12-year-old son, he took a four-day journey from Kenya to Uganda by train, where they endured cushion less seats-with exposed springs the whole way. The people of Uganda, he recalled, were drained, both spiritually and of resources, from the years of war they had endured during the regimes of presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote.

Scheflen has traveled to Africa seven or eight times during the last 13 years. He established a special relationship with the people in the Makueni and Machakos district of Kenya. It was the school children there whom Scheflen enrolled in arts exchange with children in Greenwich Village last year. At the suggestion of the Archbishop of Kenya David Gitari, he stayed at the home of Bishop Joseph M. Kanuku. Although he originally had hoped to teach photography, because of the Children's lack of technical skills, he realized his time would be better spent on art. So he drove to 15 or so schools in the district delivering art supplies- crayons, paper, pencils,- and giving students free rein as to what they wanted to express. Three weeks later he went back to collect everything, driving a little Suzuki, the bishop's car, which I fixed everytime it broke down, because the bishop told me "if you use my car you have to fix it." I spent a fortune; one day the muffler fell off, another day i got stuck in a field, but it was fun. You have to have a real sense of humor.

Scheflen was amazed at the response the pictures received back home. First they were displayed at the Port Authority Bus Terminal from November '97 through January '98. Then someone from the Staten Island Children's Museum spotted them, and they were on display there from February to June. Next Stop in June was the U.N. General Assembly public lobby of the United Nations for UNICEF's celebration of "The Day of the African Child," June 15 through July 8.

Some of the pictures are of such expected themes as wildlife and tourism. Others, however, are disturbing, such as the picture showing a knife and blood during a female circumcision. The child editorializes at the top of the picture: "Abandon some of the deadly traditions."

Scheflen returned to school after being 'bothered" for a long while about his lack of a formal degree. "My family is a highly educated, and I had a lot of self-education; I am a self taught photographer, for example. He had been to college before, but had been inducted into the military, and therefore, never managed to finish. He wanted a degree but "I had a family to support." Then he heard about Empire State College," that there is an alternative way." The clincher was, I wanted to change my life. I didn't plan anything, but I did want to make a change in my life; that was the commitment I made.

For me, as a visual artist, it's important to integrate my experiences and ideas and then develop them conceptually and contextually. Most of my work is through this process. Empire State College helped to build an integrative process which led to a career in the visual arts. My education gave me confidence; because knowledge is confidence."