Student Hopes To Use Pragmatic Art To Transform A Community

First she got her face on a billboard, now Jessalyn Carpino hopes to create a park that’s a work of art

Jessalyn Carpino plans to create a park at an underutilized piece of property on the Northern Arizona University campus between the library and art school.

Photo by Andy Towle. |

Jessalyn Carpino plans to create a park at an underutilized piece of property on the Northern Arizona University campus between the library and art school.


Imagine the back lot of a town; derelict, full of weeds; scruffy ... its very existence attracts ruffians, drug dealers and crime. Most folks avoid going anywhere near the place.

Then one day, someone with a vision steps in and transforms that wasted piece of land into a paradise with pieces of art, tree bowers with benches tucked away offering a moment of peace, broad expanses of grass, and paths meandering through gardens awash with the color of flowers. In essence, they create an outdoor museum.

The transformation not only beautifies the space, it adds value to the community.

No longer do people shy away from the space. Children play while couples have picnics. Schools conduct field trips. Organizations hold meetings while tai chi and yoga instructors bring their classes out for fresh air in a beautiful surrounding.

Jessalyn Carpino, born and raised in Payson and now a senior in art education attending Northern Arizona University (NAU) believes in creating just such a space.

To support her vision, she recently won a Hooper Research award. The grant funds NAU undergraduate students in the sciences, arts and humanities who wish to pursue a research project under the guidance of a faculty mentor.

Usually, the award funds those on a science track to a master’s or Ph.D., but when they saw Carpino’s application they said, “We don’t see projects like this,” said Carpino.

She and two other seniors “applied with the proposal of community-based art and how it affects community and participatory community art. The first thing you think of is murals, but we’re thinking more to engage the community,” said Carpino.

Her academic adviser, Pam Stephens, won a grant to bring to campus William Cochran, a participatory public artist. Stephens introduced Carpino to Cochran, who had done a participatory art piece in his home community. Cochran transformed a run-down piece of land used by drug dealers and thieves.

Ten years ago he invited the community to help with a bridge project. Now, the land is vibrant and the community takes ownership, said Carpino.

Because of their meeting, Carpino decided to do research on a project Cochran suggested for the campus.

He identified an underutilized piece of university property between the library and art school. Students frequent the place, but Carpino believes it could be so much more.

Carpino, and her two co-researchers, Jade Sun and Natasha Simpson, will be in charge of getting the community involved and documenting the process and results.

For example, the piece of property has water and sewer issues, so Carpino’s group will approach the forestry department for advice. To design and build out the ideas of the artist, they will engage the engineering department.

“We’re documenting the process of not just getting the artist involved, but the community. We are trying to get all of the colleges involved. What we are trying to see is if we can get art in all inter-disciplinary curriculum,” said Carpino.

This project will take a year. Carpino and her fellow researchers hope to integrate what they learn into their future teaching ventures, said Carpino.

Already, Carpino and her group have presented some of their initial findings to an upper level art class and art teachers at conference.

“I was more nervous with the students. Students are my peers. It’s hard to keep them engaged. Teachers are so generous and warm and they wanted to explain to you and they wanted to share their knowledge and wisdom,” said Carpino.

Impressed with what Carpino has accomplished, her adviser nominated her for the Arizona Art Education Association as the state’s Outstanding Higher Education Student of the Year. The organization awarded her the honor in October. Stephens, an associate professor at the College of Arts and Sciences has known Carpino for two and half years. She recognized Carpino’s abilities and dedication as an educator. By nominating Carpino, Stephens wanted her to be recognized beyond the small art community of NAU.

“Jessalyn is open and caring. She helps to make a group into a real community. As an educator it is so rewarding to watch as my students grow into professional teachers,” said Stephens.

As if working of the participatory art project were not enough, Carpino spends her down time acting in student-produced films.

“I’m passionate about acting. One was nominated for an Emmy because of editing, “ said Carpino.

Most of the films are murder mysteries and her death scenes can be pretty graphic. The NAU TV 62 station regularly broadcasts these films, said Carpino.

What she is most famous for on campus, however, is being the “Face of NAU.”

During her freshman year, she was discovered by the NAU marketing department while working in the student affairs office. She started doing ads to explain the new keyless lock system on the dorms and soon found her face on a billboard on Highway 17.

“It’s so funny. Since I visit Payson more than the Valley, I don’t drive on Interstate 17 much. I got calls from people saying, “I saw a picture of you on Interstate 17,” said Carpino.

When she finally was able to see the billboard, she got a picture of herself standing next to her picture.

Mostly, Carpino looks forward to graduating and starting her student teaching career. She hopes to inspire students to reach their potential.

“We as humans all have the capacity to create. We all have the capacity to tell stories, even though a lot of people don’t see the uniqueness. If I could just help one student to be inspired ...” she said.


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