Faculty Member’s Film Featured in Exhibition Focused on the History of Segregated Swimming

September 27, 2021

For an avid swimmer like faculty member and alum Lowell Boston BFA '88 (Film and Animation), summer is a time for jumping into the pool to work on his freestyle stroke and remembering the lakeside days of his youth in Massachusetts. This summer, however, Boston spent most of his time alternating between virtual teaching and creating a new film that explores the swimming experiences of people of color. 

"I love swimming. For me, it's like flying. I love swimming underwater," Boston said recently. "I wasn't able to go a lot this summer. That's the ironic thing. I couldn't go swimming because I was making a film about swimming."

The result of Boston's labor-intensive animation work is Water Born, a 16-minute piece that introduces the voices of six of Boston's fellow teachers and former students and their experiences with swimming and water. Boston's subjects range in age from 22 to 58. Throughout the film, each shares their experiences with swimming and problematic stereotypes - some joyful, others quite scary - as voiceovers, while Boston's unique animation supports the power of their narratives. 

Boston's film was commissioned for the immersive multimedia exhibition POOL: A Social History of Segregation, developed for the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center along the banks of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Inspired by Jeff Wiltse's 2007 book Contested Waters, the exhibition examines the history and implications of segregated swimming throughout U.S. history. 

As the exhibition's materials highlight, public pools have played an important role in communities in the U.S. since the early 20th century, but they are often spaces where those on opposing sides of stark racial and economic divides clash, sometimes violently. 

POOL was slated to open Sept. 3 in the Fairmount Water Works' historic Kelly Pool, but the space flooded when the remnants of Hurricane Ida moved through the region just two days before. The exhibition was severely damaged, but the digital content created by Boston and fellow Philadelphia-area artists can be experienced online at poolphl.com.

In making the film, Boston approached each of his interviews with a few simple questions, including, "Do you know how to swim?" and "What was your first experience jumping into the water?" His subjects' varied answers formed the basis of his art direction. 

In one of the film's first segments, David Rosario III discusses his discomfort with deep water despite his height, noting that he prefers to "hang on to the side and pretend I'm Spider-Man." Based on that, Boston implemented a comic book-style overlay that sits atop footage of goggles and feet splashing in the water. In another, a collection of stones is assembled into a human figure as Charles Cooper recounts a memory of jumping into a summer camp pool, despite not knowing how to swim, and sinking straight to the bottom. 

"It was crystal clear. It was like so peaceful and quiet. I had no sense of the danger I was actually in," Cooper says in Water Born. "If no one had saved me, I could easily have drowned." 

Highlighting stories like those told by Rosario and Cooper is the core of the exhibition's mission. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Black children and teenagers are nearly six times more likely than white children to drown in a pool. Additionally, USA Swimming reports that 69% of Black children have little to no swimming ability, compared to 42% for white children. 

Recent events demonstrate that Philadelphians care deeply about their public pools. In 2004, community advocacy was primarily responsible for keeping 20 pools open and operating. More recently, a pool constructed in 1954 in the city's Bridesburg neighborhood, which welcomes hundreds of children for lessons, camps and swim meets, received a $3.7 million renovation. 

The Water Works hopes that the artistic visions and historic voices presented in POOL can bolster similar initiatives and nonprofits working throughout Philadelphia to broaden access to public waters and swimming lessons.