2020 Vision

Artists stand in solidarity and look toward the next election


By Brittany Barbato

On Jan. 20President Trump’s inauguration day—commuters and residents all around Philadelphia found signs of resistance dropped from dozens of buildings encouraging them on their way to work: You can’t take away our resilience, our humanity, our strength, our beauty. Aquí me quedo and Sanctuary city for everybody read two of the signs. Though the voices felt personal, they also captured a collective anxiety and hope on that morning. 

The project, “Signs of Solidarity,” started as an effort to speak out and lend support to the community after the divisive 2016 presidential election. Artists and concerned Philadelphia citizens Conrad Benner, Aubrie Costello and Eric Preisendanz hatched a plan to create and hang banners from private homes and buildings that would reinforce messages of love and unity to counteract the hate they felt sweeping the country. Support for the project from fellow artists and building owners was immediate and overwhelming. 

“We received copious amounts of ‘yeses’ from artists and building owners who wanted to be a part of it,” says Costello. “I was overwhelmed by how quickly the scale grew.” If you lined the signs up next to each other, they’d stretch 150 yards, or the length of a football field. Amassing more than 3,600 square feet, they quintupled the size of the Oval Office where the new president would soon find himself in control of decisions impacting the lives of all Americans, including the very people in protest. 

In a matter of weeks, “SOS” evolved into a citywide effort of more than 30 Philly-area artists and dozens of local building and business owners. It also expanded to include 30 creatives in Atlanta, Georgia. The organizing trio, who know each other through the local art scene, quickly combined their strengths to pull off the large exhibit. Benner, streetsdept.com founder and editor, was in charge of external communications; Costello, an artist known for her silk graffiti installations, tackled logistics such as materials, design and artist communications; Preisendanz, a curator, helped develop messaging and handled the physical installations—climbing ladders, mounting hardware and tying lots of knots.

“It was absolutely important and necessary to co-lead and co-organize ‘Signs of Solidarity,’” Costello says. “Logistically, we could not have done it without each other and the 30-plus Philly creatives who helped us realize this project from start to finish.”

Kimberly Connerton, an installation artist who participated in the project, viewed “SOS” as an opportunity to do what art does best: create “a wider, more inclusive space for everyone to live in,” she says. Her sign hung above a window at Paradigm Gallery and Studio in South Philadelphia. She created small, golden lettering to outline her biggest hope: May every living being be safe and free.

Notable Philadelphia mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar also joined the effort. Featuring a sketch of an elongated mouth baring 38 teeth, his sign flapped against the stone arches of Broad Street Ministry’s front door. It included calls to action in every corner: Say it loud and clear. Speak up. Use your voice. You have a voice

Costello also created a banner; her signature torn silk ribbons spelled out a quote inspired by her best friend, whose husband is an undocumented immigrant who has lived and worked in the U.S. for more than 15 years: Kindness does not indicate weakness.

The hurdles were common to any project. Coordinating artwork, funding and time—there was an immovable Inauguration Day drop for the project—but the team also wrestled with wanting to be impactful without pointing fingers or limiting artistic vision. 

“A public project requires great care in its design since you’re really trying to talk to everybody,” says Preisendanz. “Our goals were to awaken and unite, not to offend or polarize.” 

Commitment to the mission and ongoing communication proved to be keys for success. “We worked together and we listened to each other,” Benner says. “We compromised and we kept our goal clear.” 

The approach will become even more critical as the co-organizers push the project into its second phase this fall. They plan to develop a sustainable funding model to integrate resistance messaging beyond urban centers and into suburban and rural areas. When asked why it was important to expand the project and engage more people outside urban centers, Preisendanz called out an uncomfortable statistic, and set his sights on the next election. 

“Creating highly public projects empowers modern resistance to disrupt political enclaves outside of the cities,” he said. “[It’s] a critical way to engage the 42 percent of America so politically disenchanted that they didn’t feel the need to vote to announce their values.”

Art Galleries:
 The Original Instagram

A West Philly high school student reflects on how we curate our lives

Illustration by James Heimer

Illustration by James Heimer

By Cameron Swann

The first time I realized that I could make my world beautiful was during a summer program from The School of the New York Times, where I spent two weeks looking at how the curation of art affects how we perceive the art itself. My teacher, Anthony Titus, taught me a lot during those two weeks, but one thing he said stood out: Everything is curated. 

That really resonated with me, because in our society today we are so connected to social media—we see things, whether they are Facebook feeds or the walls of a gallery, in the way others want us to perceive the images. We are all trying to make our lives seem beautiful and interesting, even when they are not. I’d take pictures at events that would never happen again, places I wasn’t sure I would be able to visit again, things that I wanted to remember and brag about to the people I’d meet. 

Instagram in particular, with its emphasis on pictures and not text, is curated, and people usually only take pictures of the aspects of life they think others will deem beautiful and opulent. When I was reflecting on that fact, I thought of ways to turn my daily life into something beautiful, worth showing. I kept thinking I had to memorialize a moment I’d only do once in my life. I thought the ordinary and routine in my life couldn’t be considered beautiful—until I experienced the Whitney Museum of American Art, also in New York City. 

At the Whitney, the architecture and exhibits create a light-hearted and bright atmosphere that makes both the art and surrounding neighborhood look picturesque. The exhibit where I found the most beauty in the ordinary was “Where We Are,” which took pieces from the Whitney’s collection to show American lives from 1900 to 1960. It was broken up into sections by stanzas from the W. H. Auden poem “September 1, 1939.”

The poem and artwork showed everyday life and how things change dramatically whether you view an experience closely or at a distance. I found myself looking at a historical vantage point at the exhibit’s pieces about daily life from the Great Depression and World War II—when life wasn’t at its finest and happiest. And yet, there were beautiful creations from people documenting everyday lives, lives that were neither beautiful nor opulent in the way we measure on Instagram. One painting that stands out was “Gettin’ Religion” by Archibald J. Motley Jr.: It’s a colorful image of people in Harlem going home after a night on the town, dancing and playing music as others look on under the beautiful blue light of the moon. 

It made me realize that in the turmoil and dismay of our lives today, we can still find the artistic in everyday moments, even in the dirty work of society. I plan to create beauty and happiness by taking photographs of the mundane—I hope others will create their own beauty as well.

Cameron Swann is a student at West Philadelphia’s Workshop School.

A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings

Can recycled art at the Philadelphia Zoo help protect habitat and change habits?

by Heather Shayne BlakesleeNine-foot-tall recycled-cardboard gorilla sculpture created by Canadian artist Laurence Vallieres for the Philadelphia Zoo’s Second Nature: Junk Rethunk exhibit.

The newest animals at the Philadelphia Zoo aren’t in cages, although some of them—including a life-sized alligator sculpted from bubblegum—will remain safely behind glass. Second Nature: Junk Rethunk, an exhibit of whimsical sculptures made from recycled and salvaged materials, features the work of a dozen artists and artist collaboratives from around the world. Among the menagerie is a 900-pound gorilla made from recycled car steel, delicate miniature mechanical birds forged from used machine parts and cast-off electronics, and a majestic silver rhinoceros crafted from old serving ware and dinner plates, created by Philadelphia’s own Leo Sewell. 

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Craft Fairs Round-up

Philadelphia has a long history of creative artists and crafters (don’t think that whole key-tied-to-a-kite thing was all for science). Craft fairs, which are extensions of that creativity, function on two levels—as a supportive forum for artists, and as a community event that brings people together.

Here's a round-up of highlights from two prominent Philadelphia craft fairs going on this weekend: Go West! Craft Fest in West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia’s Crafty Balboa.


Go West! Craft Fest


Old Blood Jewelry & Wears

Since Morgan Jamison was a child, she's been taking treasures from the ground and turning them into jewelry. She carried that fascination  with found art with her through studies at the University of the Arts Jewelrey/Metals program, and the launch of Old Blood Jewelry & Wears in 2012. 

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The Art of the Meal

Chef Eli Collins of Pub & Kitchen describes the ingredients in his still life and how they are used in his signature dish. Image by Mike Persico.

Students learn the relationship between food and art
from Philadelphia’s top chefs

As a new art teacher, it felt natural for Deva Watson, also a food runner at Zahav and a server at Pub & Kitchen, to bring the restaurant model of focus and discipline—what she calls a “quiet intensity”—to her classroom at the Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School. Watson’s connection with the tight-knit community of Philadelphia’s food industry is also part of what has made her crusade to expand the cultural, educational and culinary horizons of her students so successful. 

Watson was finding a disconnect between the study of many traditional art subjects and what her students could relate to, which was only compounded by the lack of funding for resources and materials. And so, drawing again on her own experiences outside of the classroom, she introduced them to food-inspired still life masterpieces.

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Invisible River Celebrates the Schuylkill

Photo © JJ Tiziou / www.jjtiziou.net

An elaborate multi-part performance artwork will be singing, dancing and flying along, above, and in the Schuylkill River for two evenings this June.

Raising much of the funding of the event through small donations on Kickstarter, performance group Alie & The Brigade, has put together a colorful and exciting project with sculpture, song, aerial acrobatics, choral singing, dance party, and food, provided by Cosmic Catering.

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Art Goes to Market: The Edible Garden combines food, art and sustainability

story by Jon McGoranLocal artist Meei-Ling Ng is no stranger to farmers markets, both as a participating farmer and as a frequent customer. But for the first time, on June 15 at the Headhouse Square Craft & Fine Arts Fair, her artful interpretation of the farmers market will be part of the market itself. “The Edible Garden” is a series of acrylic paintings of vegetable and fruit cross sections on recycled concrete. A sampling of the work is pictured above as part of an installation at the Elkins Estate garden in Elkin’s Park, where it was displayed next to the vegetable beds.

“The whole idea is to set up an installation like a farmer vendor display, with my new works on baskets, boxes, etc., looking like a real farmer vendor selling vegetables,” Ng explains. “Customers can pick and buy what they like, and they can put them in their outdoor garden or display indoors. I also see this idea as an opportunity for an interactive installation work with visitors in a farmers market environment.”

Environmental issues are a recurring theme in Ng’s work. “I am an artist, an organic farmer and a nature lover, and I care about these factors and how it is all connected to sustainability,” she explains. “My main goal is to use my art installations as a tool to learn about preserving nature, sustainable living and organic urban farming. To draw people’s attention and look closely at these issues. These are the factors that inspire and motivate me to continue creating art. I want to create art to get the sustainability message out.”

This will be the 45th year for Headhouse Square Craft & Fine Arts Fair, held by the Creative Collective at the Historic Headhouse Square at 2nd & Pine St., in Society Hill, Philadelphia. The show will take place under shelter of the Headhouse Shambles pavilion, rain or shine. The exhibit will be one day only, Sat., June 15 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. It is free and open to the public. For more on Ng’s work, visit meeiling.com.

Beyond the Surface: Conference Focuses on Environmental Art in Action

How can environmental art engage the environment and the individual, activate awareness, and integrate perspectives that result in unexpected and innovative approaches to environmental literacy? Join the Schuylkill Center  for Environmental Education in a daylong conference of ideas and innovative thinking, investigating relationships between art and nature. 

While the natural world has captured the imagination of artists for centuries, today more and more artists are thinking beyond the studio, blending art, science and social practice with a fresh sense of immediacy, connecting art to nature and environmental issues. No longer content with scratching the surface of environmental problems, these artists want to move beyond the surface to engage audiences in becoming part of the solution.

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"Collection" introduces Philadelphians to the idea of a locally grown art community

Erica Prince - Ryan Foley from Vox Populi's "Collection" exhibit.Collecting art may seem like an expensive process, reserved only for those with the time and funds to seek out and purchase pieces. "Collection", a new exhibit from the 25-year-old artist collective Vox Populi, is working to change that misconception. Organized by Vox Populi member Beth Heinly and executive director Andrew Suggs, "Collection" brings together more than 60 works that have been collected and hung in the homes of Vox Populi members and board members. The hope is to open a discussion on collecting and introduce the public to artists from the Philadelphia-area and beyond.

When walking through "Collection," it’s clear that in planning the show it was important to the curators that the space feels familiar and homey. Planters, records, books, chairs and couches are throughout the four galleries, inviting visitors to relax and enjoy the same atmosphere in which these pieces are often appreciated. A cell phone tour invites visitors to get comfortable, stay awhile and listen to the stories behind the pieces.

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