Zachary Mosley: From architecture to art museums

Zachary Mosley: From architecture to art museums

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Several years ago, before his death, PGN profiled business owner Tony Sparacino. Thanks to a scholarship in his name, Sparacino’s memory lives on. PGN spoke to this year’s scholarship recipient, Zachary Mosley.

PGN: Where do you hail from? ZM: I’m originally from Little Rock, Ark., home of former President Bill Clinton. Actually, my dad used to volunteer at his museum. I’ve seen him once or twice ... very tall.

PGN: Marilyn Monroe had a song about leaving Little Rock. When did you leave? ZM: When I was 18, I did an exchange program and went to high school for a year in French-speaking Belgium. Then I went back to go to school for architecture at the University of Arkansas. Then I moved to Italy for six months before returning to Fayetteville to finish school. After that I came to Philadelphia.

PGN: What was it like growing up in Little Rock? ZM: It was a nice upbringing. I have an older sister and we got along pretty well. She was six years older than me so we didn’t hang out much. By the time I was in middle school, she was in college. Life was good. I went to an all-boys Catholic school that was surprisingly progressive. Little Rock is a great little city, a lot of art and small theaters, music, etc. It was a great place to be from.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? ZM: I was always building things out of things. I loved Legos. I was a maniac about them. I liked playing soccer and tennis. I was never a big video-game kid: I preferred being outside or doing things with my hands.

PGN: Do you remember making anything special? ZM: I do. It’s kind of embarrassing. When I was 10 we went to the natural history museum in Chicago. When we came back, I built an entire museum with my Legos, complete with dioramas and everything. I took my other toys, pirate ships and soldiers and such, and used them for exhibits.

PGN: So have you ever spent a “Night at the Museum”? ZM: No, I’ve just opened and closed, but a friend of mine works at the Natural History Museum in New York and she said it’s all true.

PGN: Where do you think you got your creative side? ZM: My maternal grandmother is a painter and into theater and the creative arts. She used to take me to museums when I was young. My paternal grandfather was into building and construction, so I have a nice balance of the creative and the technical sides.

PGN: What brought you to Philly? ZM: I moved here for an internship at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

PGN: What’s a favorite thing about Philly? ZM: It’s a city of neighborhoods. I love the fact that I know my neighbors, that when I walk down the street I always see somebody that I know. The people in Philadelphia are so nice that it was really easy to make friends here. In fact, when I came here for the internship, I’d only planned to stay here for three months. Three years later and I’m still here!

PGN: I read that you like to go old-school when working and draw things by hand. What’s the difference between the way people used to design and the way it’s done with computers now? ZM: What’s funny is that I don’t draw pretty, but I think I draw informatively. In architecture, thinking has to come through the hand; you have to connect with your pen and let the ideas flow. An absent sketch is worth much more than a computer drawing. Computers are wonderful, but they lack feeling. I think a lot of architecture today is beautiful, but lacking in humanity. That’s one of the reasons I switched to museum exhibition and design, because I like connecting with people. I love listening to what the artist is trying to convey or seeing how people interpret it. Architecture affects how people live and art affects how people think.

PGN: What’s your favorite style? ZM: Art Deco, from 1910-25. It’s a time when art and architecture were parallel to each other. My favorite artist is Ludwig Kirchner. He was an early-20th-century German expressionist who painted colorful, energetic, cosmopolitan events.

PGN: What was a memorable moment from your overseas travels? ZM: One time, I got caught skipping class by one of my teachers. He saw me on the train and was very angry until I explained that I skipped class to go to a museum. He made me prove it by showing him the ticket stub and then allowed me to skip class every Wednesday as long as I brought back a stub. I still keep in touch with that teacher. Also memorable was that I got to travel by myself all over and I really got to know myself and learn my own interests. I learned that your home is wherever you are in the world. PGN: How was living with a host family? ZM: It was great. I went abroad not really expecting to make close relationships with people, but they became like a second family. Every Sunday, we’d travel and do things together. I’d never had younger siblings and they had two kids so I became a big brother. It was very special, I still write and call regularly and visit them when I can. They’ve met my mom and dad too!

PGN: I think the only thing I know about Belgium is that they have good waffles and Agatha Christie’s character Hercule Poirot gets mad if you call him French ... ZM: Well, all the Smurfs are from Belgium, the saxophone came from there and they are really serious about their chocolate. There are laws to dictate what qualifies as true Belgian chocolate. And every village has its own beer and every beer has its own glass.

PGN: Fun facts! ZM: I love that kind of thing. Since I speak French and a little Italian, someone introduced me to Mark Byerly who owns TOPS [Tour Operators of Philadelphia] and I did some tour-guide work for him. I enjoy showing off Philadelphia: There’s so much wonderful art and history here.

PGN: Tell me some of your responsibilities at the museum. ZM: I started out interning, working in the education department, so I wrote lesson plans and built a learning area where we taught arts and crafts. It was pretty cool: I built a big Roman arch for the work area. In one summer, we taught over 3,000 children between the ages of 6 and 12. I found I absolutely loved teaching. It was so inspiring, helping kids learn to really look at and understand art. A lot of the kids were a bit intimidated at coming to the museum. Their impression was that a museum was a place that people with money went to and that it wasn’t a welcoming place, but when they found that they were treated just as special as anybody else and made to feel welcome, they left excited about coming back. They were charged up about what they’d learned about art. It was awesome. A wonderful experience. When a 6-year-old says, “Mr. Zach, when can we come back?” it just makes your day.

PGN: That sounds cool. ZM: Yeah, after my internship I was hired and able to stay at the museum and work in several departments. As an admin assistant, a big perk was that I sat with an actual Matisse hanging over my desk. One of my last jobs there was as a manager for the “Cezanne and Beyond” exhibition. We had over 250,000 visitors and I got to open and close the museum and interact with visitors. One of the guests I met was the director of the National Endowment of the Arts. That was cool: In our circles, he’s like a rock star. I also met Will Smith’s mom, who was really nice.

PGN: Name three things other than staring at pictures that you can do at the museum. ZM: Well, there’s Art After 5, where there’s a live performance on the Great Stair Hall each Friday and you can eat and drink cocktails cabaret-style. One of my favorite insider tricks is that if you go to the Calder mobile on the second floor and stand underneath it with a group of friends, you can blow on it and make it move. The kids really got a kick out of that, but it’s fun for grownups too. I also try to encourage people to visit the sculpture gardens outside the museum. It received an official commendation from the EPA for its environmentally friendly design and it’s free! Also, the first Sunday of every month is “pay as you wish,” which is a pretty good deal. PGN: What are you doing now? ZM: After leaving the museum in 2009, I was still in graduate school at the University of the Arts — still am — and this [past] summer I started working at Quatrefoil Associates, a museum exhibit and design firm in Maryland. It’s been interesting going from working in nonprofit to working for-profit — there’s more variety. I’ve been able to work with graphic designers and developers, etc. This [past] summer, I designed a sculpture for the Birch Aquarium in San Diego.

PGN: I saw the designs for that in your portfolio — very cool. ZM: Yeah, the exhibit developers wanted a solar kinetic sculpture that would be simple, fun and inspiring for an outdoor children’s exhibit. It’s a giant fish sculpture that incorporates three solar-powered motors and rotating cogs. When visitors let light hit the solar panels, the cogs begin to rotate, evoking a swimming fish.

PGN: It’s crazy how much an education costs these days; I’m sure the Sparacino grant was a help. ZM: I’m very fortunate to not have accrued any debt from my undergrad education, but I really wanted to pursue my master’s despite the financial burden. This time it’s all on me and I’m very aware of it. Between school and living expenses, it’s about $45,000 a year, so every bit of assistance helps. PGN: What did the scholarship mean to you outside of the financial prize? ZM: Growing up, I didn’t have any gay role models, other than “Will & Grace.” To me, the award shows kids that it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, questioning, bi, trans — if you have the drive to do something, you can achieve your goals.

PGN: I was told that one of the reasons you were chosen was that in your interview, the first thing you asked was what you could do for others and to give back to the Sapphire Fund that oversees the scholarship. ZM: Absolutely, you have to. It’s so important to be grateful for what you have and give back to your community. One of my most rewarding moments was getting young people from The Attic more connected to the William Way LGBT Center. I really feel that there has to be a way to bring gay kids and gay adults together. As I said, growing up I had no gay business mentors. I’m 26 and I didn’t know until I was 17 that you could be openly gay and be anything other than a hairdresser. Kids at The Attic have dreams, they have ideas and potential: We need to find a way to match them with adults who have realized some of those things. Let a kid shadow someone for a day who does their dream job. How inspiring might that be!

PGN: I love it! ZM: I know I’d never met an openly gay architect until I moved to Philadelphia, and when I found out I was like, “Really? You’re gay and you tell people? How does that work in the professional world?” For him, it was no big deal, but to a kid growing up in the Midwest, it was huge. In a great part of the country, that wouldn’t be an option.

PGN: When did you come out? ZM: To my friends when I was about 16, and to my family between 18-21.

PGN: School? ZM: There was one incident when I was in my all-boys Catholic school that I’ll never forget. It was the first day of class and we were being taught sex ed by an 80-year-old priest — very awkward — but right off the bat he said, “If I ever hear anyone here using the term fag, I will slam your head against a locker!” And he would have! So that was cool, I felt like I had my own little Catholic Mafia protection squad. I was very lucky. My friends in school and my entire family were always very supportive. In fact, I came out to my grandmother when we were going to a Willie Nelson concert together! But I always make it a point to let people know me first for who I am and not what I am. It’s been my motto.

PGN: Any hobbies? ZM: I’m training for a half-marathon and I’m into sailing. I sail with friends about three times a week.

PGN: Random question time. Since you’re a museum guy, which diorama would you become part of? ZM: In the Museum of Natural History in New York, there’s a diorama with a life-sized blue whale. I would love to become a marine biologist and SCUBA dive with the whale.

PGN: A conversation piece in your home? ZM: I have a cobblestone from Belgium that dates back to the seventh century. I got it when they were remodeling an old church. It’s made from the hardest volcanic rock in all of Europe and it’s the same cobblestone that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. I collect cobblestones from all over: I have some from Rome and an old wooden cobblestone from Philadelphia that I got when they were repaving Camac Street.

PGN: Your favorite real-life heroine/hero? ZM: My grandfather. He didn’t graduate high school, but he worked more diligently than anyone I’ve ever known. By the end of his life, he achieved nearly all of his dreams and inspired mine.

PGN: If you could do something dangerous just once with no risk, what would you do? ZM: In true James Bond style, I would chase a bad guy while speeding through the city in a vintage Porsche.

PGN: Down a cobblestone street ... ZM: No doubt!

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