Off the Clock: Professor’s Plastic Fantastic Makes the Familiar Fresh

Posted: November 10, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Laura S. Jeffrey

Like the famed artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Mason Assistant Professor Elijah Mirochnik introduces unusual elements into familiar places. But while Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrap buildings in fabric or, more recently, hang bright orange panels in New York City’s Central Park, Mirochnik drapes inflated plastic tubing in and around outdoor spaces.

His Plastic Fantastic, a quarter-mile-long sculpture, was recently experienced by thousands of adults and children who attended the We Art the People Folk Festival in Robinson Park, located in downtown Albuquerque, N.M.

Mirochnik's Plastic Fantastic sculpture
Above and below, Mirochnik’s Plastic Fantastic sculpture displayed in Albuquerque.
children playing with the sculpture

Mirochnik has worked at Mason since June 2002 – not in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, as one might expect, but as assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education’s Initiatives in Educational Transformation (IET), in the College of Education and Human Development. IET is a school-based master’s degree program for practicing teachers of kindergarten through twelfth grade. Classes are held on the Arlington and Prince William Campuses.

Mirochnik, who emigrated from Israel to the United States as a young child, has a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in architecture and urban design from Columbia University. So why is a building buff teaching teachers?

“During my student days at Columbia, I worked with children in Harlem,” he says. “That experience was eye-opening. I learned that although school systems sometimes render children’s talents invisible, individual teachers can teach children a vocabulary of hope.”

Elijah Mirochnik
Elijah Mirochnik

Mirochnik went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Harvard University and a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. He now practices what is called the architectural education studio model to engage public school teachers as well as children in new educational practices. His research interests include popular culture in classroom practice, art-making as research and the connection between personal and social transformation.

Plastic Fantastic is made of 3,000 feet of flat tubing. Using a high-velocity industrial fan, Mirochnik inflates the tubing into malleable sculpting material. Plastic Fantastic has also been exhibited in Portland, Ore., and Dayton, Ohio.

“I’m interested in exploring how people react when a very familiar civic landscape is disrupted by a very unfamiliar-looking structure,” Mirochnik says. “And so I developed Plastic Fantastic as a way of getting people to see their own back yards in a new light.”

Mirochnik recalls that as he began setting up Plastic Fantastic in Robinson Park, several people watched and then helped him weave the sculpture through trees, along grassy areas and around fountains.

“I had several people ask me, ‘What’s this for?’ ” Mirochnik says. He replied, “It’s for getting you to wonder what something is for – which seems to be the start of conversations that lead to seeing the old and familiar in fresh and unique ways.”

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