Meegan Coll: Using art to explore the fragility of freedom

Meegan Coll: Using art to explore the fragility of freedom

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There’s a hidden gem right in Old City. The National Liberty Museum may sound like a place where you can learn about the trials and tribulations of our founding fathers — especially since it’s located a stone’s throw from Independence Hall — but, in actuality, it’s a beautiful museum dedicated to teaching a different perspective on liberty and equality. Here, visitors can learn about a heroes like Jackie Robinson, Nelson Mandela, Harvey Milk and young (s)hero Malala Yousafzai through interactive exhibits, contemporary works of art and illustrated stories.

One of NLM’s most memorable exhibits is the Jelly Bean Children, a life-sized display of children at play that’s made entirely of multicolored jelly beans. The lesson is that, like people, though the jelly beans are all different colors on the outside, they are made of the same thing inside. It poses the question of what a boring world it would be if they were all the same color. The museum houses eight galleries, featuring more than 179 works of contemporary art and the stories of 2,000 heroes from around the globe. The primary art form at the museum is glass: A 21-foot glass sculpture, “Flame of Liberty” by Dale Chihuly, draws in visitors with its message that freedom can start with just a little spark and spread to a movement.

For the month of June, NLM is presenting “Transparency,” the nation’s first museum exhibit of studio glass works produced exclusively by artists of the LGBT community. Our interview this week is with Meegan Coll, director of glass for the museum.

PGN: Your museum highlights the stories of people around the world. Where are you from?

MC: Right here in Philadelphia, born and raised with the accent to prove it.

PGN: What’s the origin of the name Coll? Tell me a little about the family.

MC: It’s Irish. I’m an only child of hippie parents; they were their own trailblazers. I’m 51 and my parents are, like, 68. My mother still lives in my great-grandmother’s house. She was what I’d call a passive activist; she believed in equal rights and had a feminist viewpoint. She’s very artistic and also a poet. She took me to a lot of plays and art fairs. Back then, there was Shakespeare in the Park and various artsy things to do in the communities around Philly with all different kinds of people.

PGN: What’s a story your mom would tell about you as a kid?

MC: She always said that I was a bit of a troublemaker, always running off to do my own thing. I liked to draw and play outside. I won’t say that I was a tomboy, but I’d hang out with anyone. I always preferred to play without any supervision.

PGN: What did the folks do?

MC: My mother worked for family court in Philadelphia for many years. They divorced when I was about 7 and [my father] moved to New England and opened his own business.

PGN: What kinds of things were you involved with?

MC: I went to 12 years of Catholic school. First the all-girls Merion Mercy Academy, where I was one of the few people interested in the arts, punk music and other counter-culture stuff. [Laughs] The motto of the school was “Girls will be girls, but Merion girls will be ladies.” One of my classmates was filmmaker Cheryl Dunye and she and I were kind of the outsiders there. Then I went to live with my father in New England and transferred to the Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, where I was the only art major.

PGN: Where did you go to college?

MC: Community College of Philadelphia and then Tyler School of Art at Temple.

PGN: How did you end up at the National Liberty Museum?

MC: I’ve always wanted to work in a museum. I’d been working in retail doing merchandising, resetting stores, etc., and I saw there was a part-time position for the front desk at the museum. That was in 2002. I took the job and then started working my way up. I worked as the glass coordinator, the logistical person at the back of the house, and now as director I work curating artists as well as getting pieces for our glass auction and gala, which is our biggest fundraiser of the year. I’m also working on new exhibits that are a little more in line with our mission.

PGN: What is that mission?

MC: Our mission is to promote leadership and good character, diversity and inclusion, peaceful conflict resolution and civic engagement. We are dedicated to freedom and liberty and self-expression. We do a lot of work with the kids that come through here, teaching them not just history but helping them uncover their own stories and teaching them how they can be heroes no matter who they are or where they come from. We also have a great program that goes out to schools, the Young Heroes Outreach Program (YHOP). The program empowers students in the areas of leadership, civic engagement and social justice through critical thinking, inquiry and project-based learning. We talk about diversity and inclusion, how to be a better person in society. The students complete a 10-lesson curriculum and execute a Community Action Project, which fosters long-lasting change in their school or community. The goal of YHOP is to inspire students to become young heroes.

PGN: One of my favorite exhibits is “The Shredder,” an anti-bullying exhibit where kids write down mean things that people have said to them, and maybe even more importantly, mean things they have said to others, and then they shred them to let go of the negativity.

MC: Yes, it’s very powerful. Words can have such a big impact and here’s a place to acknowledge it and then destroy it and let it go.

PGN: Describe glass art and why it’s such an integral part of the museum.

MC: Glass art is somewhat of a new medium. Glass is, of course, utilitarian; we use it to drink out of and eat off of, frame things with. But about 50 years ago, the studio-glass movement began and it became more of a fine-art medium. Glass artists began to blow their glass outside of factories, often in their own studios and using a variety of techniques from kiln-casting, fusing, flame-working, hot-sculpting and cold-working, which includes traditional methods like stained glass. It’s an integral part of the museum because we believe that glass can be strong, much like our liberty, but once it’s broken it’s hard to put back together.

PGN: How nerve-wracking is it handling glass artwork? Ever afraid you’re going to trip?

MC: Yes. Though after being around glass for so long, I’m not as nervous as I used to be. But I’m always conscious that each piece represents hours and hours of an artist’s work. I’ve broken a piece and it feels awful, like losing a friend. Fortunately, that was a rare occurrence. We take great care with each piece.

PGN: You’re certainly not afraid to take on controversial subjects. I was reading about a recent exhibit …

MC: The bongs! [Laughs] Yeah, that was a great show. We did a whole exhibit on the artistry of glass bongs and pipes. They’ve been a point of contention for years within the glassblowing community and their makers have been excluded from shows — and even from being called artists — by their fellow craftsmen. Yet a lot of them are so beautiful and intricate that you might look at them and admire the artistry without even knowing they had a functional purpose. We felt that they were worthy of being in a museum and that we were the perfect place for it because that’s what we’re all about: freedom of expression and creativity.

PGN: And now you have a new exhibit coming in.

MC: Yup. Surprisingly, this is the first museum exhibit ever of exclusively LGBT glass artists. They’re all very excited to be a part of it, especially during Pride month. We have everything from emerging to very-established artists, some of whom have shown in some of the biggest museums in the country. They love the idea that they can be open and “Transparent” about who they are as openly LGBTQ artists — which is not to say that all the subject matter is necessarily about that, but it’s wonderful to have all these artists in one place. It’s very moving.

PGN: What other programming are you doing during Pride month?

MC: Opening night is June 9 and the reception is free, though there’s a $10 suggested donation. You can meet some of the artists, view the gallery, enjoy free refreshments and enter a glass-art raffle. The Human Rights Campaign is partnering with us for the night and the exhibit will be open through Aug. 6. Throughout the month, we’re doing a blog and encouraging people to share their stories. Once we get a good pool of stories, whether they be coming out or just life stories in general, we’ll have copies available at the opening and throughout the month so people can take them if they want. There’s also a Pride at Work exhibit with over 20 LGBT heroes throughout history that’s now part of our permanent exhibit. It’s nice because when we have a broader audience and when they see the “Heroes” exhibit, they’ll be exposed to LGBT heroes as well. We’re also having a free screening of the film “Real Boy” on June 8. It’s about a young musician and his struggles to transition, female-to-male, as he seeks the help of the transgender folk singer Joe Stevens. It’s a documentary and we’re having a reception and panel discussion with the screening.

PGN: I’ve seen it, good film. That’s great that the LGBT heroes are part of the larger program.

MC: Yes, we’re all about exposure. We have people from every spectrum and all over the world come here. Kind of like the “Pipe” exhibit, people might see a beautiful bong in a head-shop window and be uncomfortable going in, but here, exhibited as a piece of art, it opens a new window and they have a chance to check out work they might not have seen before. Same thing with the LGBT glass show; people might not ever go to the Gayborhood to see something like this, but here in a “safe” place when they come here for the rest of the exhibits, they have a chance to be exposed to things they might not normally be aware of. We celebrate people of all kinds, people with disabilities, of different cultures and backgrounds — everyone.

PGN: With the name of the place, do you get many tourists here expecting something different?

MC: I think the name might cause some to think this is a typical history museum, so we encourage people to spread the word. Most people who wander in expecting something different are usually pleasantly surprised.

PGN: So more about you … I read that you’re a bit of an early riser.

MC: You could say that. I’m a competitive dragon-boat racer so I’m usually on the water every morning around 5:30 a.m. practicing with my team or on my own boat. I belong to the Philadelphia Flying Phoenix team. We’ve done dragon-boat races all around the world and I’ve competed on the national team. We’re going to be competing in Ottawa at the end of June.

PGN: Cool. Or should I say cold at that hour of the morning? You must love it.

MC: Yes. It’s where I met my wife, Emilia. She’s a P.E. teacher with the school district and she developed a program called “Healthy Dragons” where she works with kids from inner-city schools. They form teams and compete in a June race. It’s a great way for the kids to learn teamwork. The families get involved and they love it.

PGN: How did you get involved in the sport?

MC: In October there’s a community dragon-boat race that’s open to just about anyone who puts a team together. My Aunt Marguerite really wanted to participate but you need 20 people to enter. So she asked me and other family members. I was not an athlete so I balked at first but did it and once I did it, I was hooked. There are a great group of women involved in the sport.

PGN: Best moment on the water?

MC: There was one competition when I was the captain and we weren’t doing well. We lost several heats and I had to do a rally to try to get the team together and we somehow pulled through and won the gold medal! It was one of those magical “Bad News Bears” moments. Getting on the national team was pretty special too!

PGN: Random-question time. What’s an art piece you’d love to own?

MC: Actually it’s in the upcoming exhibit. One of the artists, Joseph Cavalieri, has a piece called “Cloud of Agnes” and it’s a stained-glass piece with several pictures of Agnes Moorehead from “Bewitched.” It’s really cool and reminds me of my childhood. It just brings up a lot of happy memories. And my mother’s maiden name is Moorehead!

PGN: First R-rated movie?

MC: I don’t know but I was just talking to my mother because we want to see the new “Alien” movie. I remember my mother taking me to see it when the first one came out and feeling some sort of way about Sigourney Weaver. A powerful woman running big machines.

PGN: I read that you once worked at Macy’s. I think it’s almost required in Pennsylvania. I worked at the Macy’s in King of Prussia and so did my mother and my brother.

MC: I worked in K of P too! In the bridal registry, how funny is that? Especially back then.

PGN: Before we could marry.

MC: Yes, and now I’m happily married. Who knew?

PGN: I saw your registry page and it was really beautiful.

MC: Thanks, it was a great event. We had it at the Oak Cloister in Philadelphia and it was beautiful. We set three goals for ourselves as a couple and we accomplished them all.

PGN: What were they?

MC: Get married, don’t tip over and finish the race. n

“Transparency: An LGBTQ+ Glass Art Exhibition” runs June 2-Aug. 6 at National Liberty Museum, 321 Chestnut St. An opening reception will be held 5:30-9 p.m. June 9. For more information, visit www.libertymuseum.org/event/transparency-lgbtq-glass-art-exhibition/.

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