NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
Caleb Rochester has the unique and sought after skill of creating work that is totally uninfluenced by others. This might be because, to my knowledge, Caleb doesn’t care about the “art world.” Trends and movements don’t interest him. His pieces are the kinds of mini masterworks that seem to only be achieved by those who have an inherent gift and no formal training. He has also lived in Philadelphia for decades and has seen a lot more than most of us.
-Adam Peditto, curator
As a native of this city, I have seen the evolution of the mural industry in Philadelphia from its humble beginnings thirty years ago into a large, well-funded, and fairly famous machine today.
The original incarnation of the Mural Arts Program was the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN), which still exists today. Mayor Wilson Goode started the program in 1984. It had a low budget and a novel concept. In an effort to eradicate graffiti from the city, kids who were arrested for defacing property were forced to paint murals instead.
These kids were supervised by artists fresh out of school. The typical mural crew might be six “graffiti writers” and one “real” artist with a bunch of brushes and buckets of paint. The crew would set up scaffolding in front of a blank wall, whip up a design on the spot and start painting. Sometimes the neighbors would put in their two cents in the beginning and sometimes not. The kids often could not draw, and frequently knew nothing about art. Some of the murals that they painted were very strange. Some of them were stupid and some of them were hilarious.
Most of the weirdest ones are long gone. They have been painted over by the now organized Mural Arts Program, or built over with new buildings, or destroyed along with the buildings they were painted on.
One day in the 90’s I stumbled on one of the “survivors” in South Philly. I think it was somewhere around 20th and Tasker, but I’m not sure. I’ve actually gone looking for it a few times since, but I could never find it.
The elements in the painting seemed like they could have been chosen at random, yet also seemed to be telling a story of some kind. Let’s see if I can put this the right way: the painting was more than one thing. It was a badly-executed painting telling a poorly articulated story, but it had a mystery to it, like ancient hieroglyphics from a forgotten civilization.
When you take it out of the context of that forgotten civilization, the story does not make sense. The place and time where this mural came from is gone.
I have never forgotten that mural. I only saw it once, and I’ve never seen a photo of it. The stained glass window is a TRIBUTE. I drafted it out of memory.
I met Adam Peditto back in 2014 when we guest curated Collage Festival.You may recognize Adam’s name from the viral video he filmed of David Lynch previewing his exhibit, “The Unified Field,” at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Adam’s work has received national attention, and has been featured on NPR, on Indiewire, and in the Los Angeles Times.
-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder
In South Philadelphia neither born nor raised.
However, it’s the closest thing to feeling “home” I’ve experienced since the age of 11. I often wonder if my love for the blocks south of Washington would have existed if the neighborhood was more like it was 20 years ago. Which makes me feel a bit like a fraud compared to the people who have actually called this neighborhood “home” since way before they were the age of 11.
I see a change happening here; one hundred year old houses demolished within hours. Every other block seems to have new freshly built condos, and even more being constructed; all with the proud stamp of the post-modern-hyper-sterile self-described architectural “visionary,” Carl Dranoff.
I often wonder, who are these condos for? Who is paying $2500 for a one bedroom? There are two new luxury condos being built within a half mile of my apartment, so clearly there are hundreds of these people. My soon to be neighbors.
I am the last person to speak about the affects of gentrification. I might even be assisting in it. I mean, I wasn’t born here and I got really excited about the new coffee shop that also rents dvds. Yet, I dread the idea of generations of diverse cultures being washed away to make things shiny for upper-class soon-to-be residents. I don’t want to live in a neighborhood like that. I want to see the textures of heritage, not chrome buildings where the rich can manufacture their own community.
My video piece features the audio recorded in The Mission District in San Francisco (which has the second highest income equality of any major US city) when new residents clashed with a group of kids who grew up there. It is something I fear will happen here. As much as I love my neighborhood I remind myself that it is and has been someone else’s home.
Thora worked at Mural Arts in a number of capacities for many years, and has had a profound imprint on our evolution over the past decade. In addition to her work for Mural Arts, Thora serves as the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Art Alliance and teaches at Drexel University, and previously worked as the Executive Director of the Fleisher Art Memorial. I’m so pleased to share this week’s space with Thora and to hear her stories of the Philadelphia cultural community.
-Jane Golden, Curator
South Philadelphians are, by and large, not shy about expressing themselves. A few virtuoso hucksters still hawk fruits and vegetables with intriguing but often unintelligible chants on Ninth Street. Glittering passages of mirror glass and broken ceramics by artist Isaiah Zagar insinuate themselves into walls and facades deep into the heart of Pennsport. Monumental portraits of Italian Americans—crooners, tenors, rockers, and one particularly massive former mayor—look down on local residents and visitors from upper stories on Ninth Street and along Broad Street (though several of them have disappeared into the party walls created by new residential construction). Chants of Buddhist monks float over Mifflin Square from the windows of the neighboring Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple and Khmer Buddhist Association, a repurposed synagogue. New Mexican immigrants from Puebla celebrate the traditions of their home in an annual April procession that honors their patron, San Mateo Ozolco, on the anniversary of the defeat of the French Army by a greatly outnumbered Mexican Army. And once a year legions of musicians and dancers in feathers and sequins migrate from their headquarters throughout the community to take over South Broad for New Year’s Day, returning to raucous celebrations on Second Street at the end of the parade. Newer additions to the landscape of South Philadelphia include community gardens and, thanks to the Mural Arts Program, suites of new murals, multi-lingual and multi-colored, have appeared in resettlement communities of Nepali, Bhutanese, and Karen immigrants. All in all, on a daily basis, South Philadelphians participate in changing and expanding notions of what counts as culture.
This is the South Philadelphia I know, the one where I have worked since 1972 and lived since 1977. I do not need to be convinced that a significant aspect of South Philadelphia’s vibrancy, and one of the reasons that I am still here is that its neighborhoods are woven together into a community that has embraced artists of all disciplines. Home to the likes of Mario Lanza, Eddie Fisher, Eddie Lang, and Chubbie Checker; South Philadelphia has also trained visual artists like Frank Gasparro, the late Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, and dozens of filmmakers, fashion designers and choreographers. It has provided affordable housing and workspace to hundreds of artists and embraced a wide range of art forms—high and popular, culinary and contemporary, traditional and cutting edge. Culture in South Philadelphia, it has always seemed to me, is a deep well of renewable resources.
In addition to the live cultural traditions that animate the streets of present-day South Philadelphia, the evidence of earlier residents—their institutions, values and skills—can be discerned in the adaptive re-use of religious buildings, schools, shops, stables, small factories and streetscapes. Along Washington Avenue, newer immigrant populations have taken over supermarkets, opened taquerias and dim sum restaurants, and shouldered their way into the Ninth Street shops and stalls.
While I have done formal and informal research on local immigrant history over the years, it was only when I was part of Mural Arts’ project, Journeys South, in 2010-11, that I saw the place I had lived for almost forty years through the eyes and hearts of the participating artists and their engaged informants: photographer RA Friedman, muralist Michelle Angela Ortiz and photographer Tony Rocco, poet Frank Sherlock and printmaker Erik Ruin, and Miro Dance Theatre (Amanda Miller and Tobin Rothlein).
Each of these artists who contributed to Journeys South focused on an element of immigrant history, retold through ephemeral, and often performative, works of art. The cross-cultural, intergenerational sharing of space and time through footprints on sidewalks marking journeys short, long and circuitous; honor boxes filled with broadside tales of “Neighbor Ballads” along hipster Passyunk Avenue; a mechanical zoetrope recording the history of Jewish immigrants at 7th and Wolf Streets; and large photo-collage banners that share visually the history of Ninth Street vendors in the (formerly Italian) market reinforced for me the regenerative character of South Philadelphia (east of Broad).
But it is annually that the Mummers Parade serves as a reminder of how this gathering, diminished as it is, connects so many aspects of living culture downtown, drawing together comedians, choreographers, serious amateur musicians and dancers, highly skilled artists and technicians, folk artists and, most of all, South Philadelphians who are both audience and participants in an ever changing communal celebration of the new year.
Illustration by Mike Jackson, alrightmike.com