Eliza Callard (left) draws portraits with colored pencil. Many of these are based on photos people have posted of themselves for others to draw on an app named "SKTCHY" She then uploads her artwork for her subjects to see. Some people post multiple photos of themselves on #SKTCHY, she says, and some people are drawn by many artists. Callard looks for something in the eyes, in the expression. This method yields a very diverse range of subjects whose facial expressions are emotive and often curious. “Every time I paint somebody from there. even if at the beginning I’m like ‘I don’t like this’, I always fall in love with the people. Every time. Just drawing them makes me fall in love with them.” Watch video interview of artist who uses SKTCHY app here.
This is the story of the brick men. Twenty-five years ago a brick side addition of the big old house in West Mount Airy that Adam Shuman, a retired Philadelphia firefighter lives in, had collapsed, One of his tenants, whom he suspects harbored unrealized architectural ambitions, decided to use some of the bricks to construct a simple human form from the bricks to see if he could get it to balance.
When Shuman needed access to his ladders through the basement cellar door, he moved the brick man to the front. That’s when, he says, it got out of hand. He just wanted to build brick men, more and more of them. So he began to actively collect bricks from burnt out brick-strewn lots in North Philadelphia on his drive to classes at Temple University.
For years now, dozens of brick men have lined the front of the property and also along a side property line with a neighbor. They provide kind of a visual frame for Shuman’s numerous rusted iron and wood sculptures that adorn the yard.
The brick men are very popular, he says, especially with twelve year-old boys who can’t resist toppling them. Every couple of years he finds two or three brick men knocked over.He purposely doesn’t cement them lest they get knocked over and seriously hurt someone. And he has a constant stream of people stopping to take photographs, chat and ask questions. Years ago, TV’s Captain Noah and his wife numbered among the regulars.
If Shuman sees bricks, a brick man may be likely to follow. He made one traveling with family in Namibia in 2007. Near land they have in Mexico, he made one out of adobe but rain washed it away.
Shuman demonstrated his technique for making a brick man; to start, 7 bricks are laid side by side and the middle three removed and then the bricks are layered upwards until the final 16th layer.
In his art studio he has fashioned a brick man out of wood cut into brick-size pieces. He entertains a plans to build a giant brick man made of 500 bricks and standing at 6 feet tall. Now that would seal Shuman’s reputation as the brick man.
Your correspondent joined U.S. military veterans, Iraqi refugees and other volunteers from the community to break ground on Memorial Day and start work on a traditional Iraqi structure dating back thousands of years called a “mudhif“ on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, Philadelphia. More photos here. Watch a video about the first day ceremony and building start of an Iraqi mudhif.
“Al-Mudhif” is the brainchild of Seattle-based artist Sarah Kavage and Mount Airy based designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi who, after attending a lecture Kavage delivered a year ago at Moore College of Art during which she displayed a photo of a mudhif, suggested they build one! It is, perhaps, the first in the United States. The project, sponsored by the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River, is one of fifteen site-specific installations, six already completed, extending as far north as the Delaware Water Gap and as far south as Wilmington, west to Reading and east to Trenton, all within the Lenapehoking watershed, the home of the native Lenape people.
Building a mudhif, which your correspondent can attest to firsthand, is overlaying and binding together reeds into long columns. These columns are then placed in 32-inch deep, 2-foot wide holes to provide the vertical supports. They are then bent toward one another to form an arched roof. In upcoming days, mats will be woven and set in place to form a thatched roof. Air and sunlight will come through lattice panels to be constructed and attached. Adjacent to the structure, Kavage’s husband, Rob has been busy installing the structure for a large bench for seating and a view from just outside the mudhif.
On day one, we divided into two large teams- the first tasked with digging 10 large holes, 5 opposite 5 to form the length of the rectangular structure. I opted to work with volunteers assembling the columns. We used phragmites, reed grasses, harvested previously. (A non-native form of phragmites is considered invasive and it is likely a plus-side of the project was some invasive control)
From the sidelines, an older man from Iraq who went by “Kam” vividly recalled his father’s large mudhif in Nasriyah near the Euphrates River. His family would welcome guests and travelers to rest, stay, eat and drink coffee or tea in the mudhif, set apart from the main home. At that time, Kam said, people traveled distances by horse and would go from mudhif to mudhif to rest along the way.
A younger man, Hadi al-Karfawi, who left Iraq at the age of nine spoke of his strong emotional connection with the mudhif his grandfather, a tribal leader, had built . As a boy, he was tasked with preparing and serving the strong coffee to guests. He absorbed that the mudhif was community place where people would come to resolve disputes. Everyone was given a chance to speak without interruption. The disputes might be inter-tribal or among families of one's own tribe.
As your correspondent spoke with al-Karfawi, Mohaned Al-Obaidi, the lead builder and Yaroub’s brother, was having some trouble bending the first two columns of reeds to form the arch at the entrance. Traditionally, al-Karfawi said, the reeds, of a different variety in use here, might be more moisture-filled, perhaps more freshly cut, which would make the bending easier. (The arch is not going to be the traditional rounded one; Yaroub has designed it to be more angular so winter snow will more easily slide off and not weigh down the roof.) al-Karfawi spoke of helpers being divided into groups, just like us, with specific tasks and he demonstrated how he and others would stomp on mud mixed with hay to form the “cement” to applied inside the roof. He had brought along two of his young children and, as the project was about to get underway, they stood by with child-sized shovels at the ready.
In his opening remarks, Al-Obaidi spoke of how emotional this undertaking has been- recreating a traditional community structure from his homeland. He suspected many of us have only associated Iraq until now with war and suffering. He hopes this welcoming mudhif will bring about a better understanding of Iraq’s ancient and rich culture.
The grand opening of the mudhif is planned for June 24th and according to a Schuylkill Center blog many activities are planned. “We will activate the installation Al-Mudhif with extended programming around exchange of war experience, healing and intercultural encounters from June to October 2021.”
Your correspondent asks, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the dispute resolution aspect of a mudhif could be "activated”? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if representative native Lenape could settle ongoing claims in this mudhif with representatives of the long dominant immigrant community? Descendants of former slaves with descendants of former slaveholders? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Israeli and Palestinian representatives could forge a just and lasting peace in this mudhif? And isn’t it fitting that this peace and justice-making take place on land taken from the Lenape, now in the safekeeping of environmental non-profit, in a traditional structure of a people who themselves experienced recent devastation to their own culture- the swamp Arabs of Iraq? A structure built for community, hospitality and peace-making. Inshallah.
More videos here
The “orchid mantis” is an erect praying mantis, wearing a raspberry-colored dress with folds that look like orchid petals. For this hand-embroidered piece, Richie Lopez started to hand-stitch a dress from images he saw in an old Vogue magazine and then decided to put a bug in it. Another, showing poet Sylvia Plath knelt next to the oven was inspired by the Lana Del Ray lyrics I've been tearing around in my fucking nightgown / 24/7 Sylvia Plath” from the song “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have.” Explains Lopez, “There’s a subversiveness about embroidery that people don’t really know about. That’s what I was doing here.” Life, death, sexuality and mysticism are subjects that intrigue Lopez and feature prominently in his work. His art also reflect his Latin heritage such as the one of a monstera plant emerging from a man’s torso, part of his “botanical boys” series and another of the “Handsomest drowned man in the world," from a short story by Gabriel García Márquez. “Oftentimes the entire medium is relegated to the domestic but there have been many people that have used embroidery as a way of expressing something that isn’t necessarily what people think embroidery is." That's what Lopez aspires to do. Watch a video interview of Richie Lopez who finds inspiration in dark-themed literature and song for his subversive embroidery mixing fashion and biology
Shawnee Street resident Beth Eames was very sad to see the grand, 100-some year old sugar maple tree in her front yard succumb to disease and have to be cut down last year. So, to honor the tree, she commissioned noted local ice and wood carver Roger Wing to convert the 12 foot high remaining trunk into a work of art, only giving him the high vision prompt of "flowers." After working two straight weeks in the heat, Wing just completed carving what appear to oversize sunflowers, using a special wood-burning tool to set the flowers and stalks off against a dark background. He will return twice a year to apply a natural oil to preserve the work. Eames also had Wing carve an alcove with a seat in the trunk so that people can come by, sit and take selfies. (Why not take a selfie and post it here: https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/chtreetrunkcarving/ ) The current times were added motivation for Eames to do something nice for the neighborhood and give an artist good, paying work. Watch video of tree trunk sculpture and interview here.
At the Germantown Jewish Center, outside the "Little Shop" selling Judaica and gifts, Yona Diamond Dansky and Susan Weiss sat a table with their newly published picture books, inspired by their grandchildren.
While her daughter was going through treatment for cancer, illustrator Yona Dansky got the idea to write a children's book for her grandson, then 3 years old, who was affected by the household distress brought about by his Mom's serious illness. Dansky's daughter has recovered and Dansky, since retired, now tells the story of Mooshu the family beagle who was sad because he was getting less attention and had to speak up to be taken out for a walk. Finally, Mooshu cuddles in bed with her daughter, realizing it seems, that he has done nothing wrong and enters the "circle of compassion, comfort and closeness." Dansky hopes this picture book, "Mooshu Worries" will be helpful to families of young children dealing with a serious illness. Watch video interview of grandmother describing picture book about grandson and the family dog during her daughter's serious illness.
Susan Weiss' twin grandchildren have very messy hair and don't like it touched. With their grand-mom the girls like to bake challah, a Jewish bread characterized by large braids. So Weiss convinces them to let her make challahs on their heads. Becky's Braids, illustrated by Deborah Gross-Zuchman, tells the story. Watch video interview of grandmother's challah story about braiding granddaughter's messy hair.
Book artist Judith Robison held a "Marie Kondo” sale of books she has created at the December holiday "Book, Paper, Scissors" book arts fair at the Free Library of Philadelphia on the Parkway, co-sponsored by the Philadelphia Center for the Book. In keeping with the advice of the famous de-cluttering author Kondo, Robison was parting with excess copies of her books. A sign read “Marie Kondo sale everything is five dollars unless you think it is worth more in which case you can pay up to $10” The bargain basement pricing drew your correspondent and a friend over to her table and we were soon taken in by the artistry, cleverness and quirkiness of Robison's work. We each scooped up several, among them an exquisite foldout book, "The Cellist of Sarajevo." In the accompanying interview, Robison describes another, as she turns its pages. "This is one of my favorites -Book Marks, which is just a play on all the ways we make marks in the books. For example, when we are little children we write in books, scribble in books and get scolded for that. Then when we're in college we take notes in books. This is the history of marginalia (and goes way back) - writing commentaries in books. This is authored books, just taking a book and playing with it from the point of view of art. And finally, this is actually my father’s bird book. He checked off whenever he saw a bird, in the index, and that’s a photograph of him with his binoculars." Watch video interview of book artist here.
Julia Alekseyeva emigrated to the United States from Russia when she was four years old. Her relationship with most members of her family was fraught. But her great-grandmother, Lola, reflected her own personality and they developed an especially close bond despite nearly 80 years difference in age. Lola, like many other Jews who had been marginalized and persecuted in the pre-Soviet era, had become a member of the Communist party. She later became secretary, devoted but exploited, to the NKVD, predecessor of the KGB. The years leading up to and through the war years were a time of struggle and deprivation. Lola's husband, sent off to fight, and many other family members fell victim to the Nazis. In "Soviet Daughter," a graphic biography, Alekseyeva recounts Lulu's sweeping 100 year story based on memoirs her great grandmother had secretly kept. Alekseyeva places "Interludes" between some chapters of the book which weave in her own personal history- growing up an immigrant, overcoming thyroid cancer (precipitated by Chernobyl radiation exposure) navigating her college years and discovering her sexual, Jewish and political identities. Near the end, lost in grief after the death of her beloved Lola, Alekseyeva receives a phone call. She has been accepted into the Comparative Literature Department at Harvard. Alekseyeva has also authored illustrated works on Rosa Luxembourg and Walter Benjamin. At "Book Paper Scissors! an artists' book fair at the Free Library on the Parkway, cosponsored by the Philadelphia Center for the Book, these were on display along with Soviet Daughter. Rounding out her display were Yuri Gagarin t-shirts and other t-shirts embellished with a pineapple and written across the pineapple Alekseyeva's DJ name - “Comrade Pineapple.” Watch here the author artist describe her graphic memoir about her one hundred year old Russian great-grandmother.
Renny Molenaar and Rocio Cabello, owners of the iMPeRFeCT Gallery in the Germantown section of Philadelphia were approached by Simone Spicer and Virginia Maksymowicz,two artists whose work was not accepted at this year’s Woodmere Museum’s annual juried art show. (Out of 638 submissions, Eileen Neff, Woodmere's juror this year, chose the work of ninety-four artists)Spicer and Maksymowicz had the idea to mount an exhibition of rejected works, fashioned after the famous “Salon Des Refusés” exhibit in Paris in 1862 of works rejected by the conservative French Academy of Fine Arts, some by now very notable artists of the time - Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and Camille Pissarro. iMPeRFeCT Gallery was game and just happened not to have a show scheduled for July. Unable to obtain the list of applicants to the Woodmere Annual, Cabello says the pair mounted an online campaign through Spicer's connections with the “Dumpster Divers” and other groups to find other artists whose submissions had been rejected by the Woodmere this year. Twenty five artists answered the call and your correspondent was able to briefly see the exhibit the Saturday afternoon it closed. In addition to the exhibit, the Gallery hosted a round table discussion at which artists, actors, writers and other creatives talked about the effect of rejection. Rejection of a career choice to be an artist begins with one's family, Molenaar lamented. "You want to be a what?" Cabello added that rejection is harder for younger artists because they take it personally, thinking they're not good enough. There are many reasons behind rejection, she elaborated. "There are space limitations, there are a theme to a show that maybe your art work didn't fit a certain theme or vision..." Your correspondent, impressed with both the works of art in the show and the dynamism of the gallery owners made his exit as Cabello began to prepare a vegetable salad for the gallery's traditional monthly"Last supper." Supporters cater a dinner on an exhibit's closing night as fundraiser or "rent party."