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  • Magic Garden, mosaics 006
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  • Moonstone ARts Ctr 017
  • President's House 009

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“The Only Thing Worth Being is Captivated”

During my summer “staycation” a few weeks back, I trekked out to the Abington Art Center in Jenkintown, just northwest of the City, to meet a couple of dear friends. A.M. and Robin were on assignment to review artwork featured in Abington’s Sculpture Park and they let me tag along.  (In all honesty, it was more of a journey for them because they had to hire a car from West Philly, whereas I only had to drive out from Mt. Airy, which is just a stone’s throw away. In any case, I had never been there before, so I’m just gonna claim the whole “trek” thing.)

Housed at the former home of Sears & Roebuck heir, philanthropist, businessman and art collector Lessing J. Rosenwald, the Art Center and its Sculpture Park sit on 27 gorgeous, landscaped and wild acres. The Center is in the midst of a $4.4 million transformation that will make it more accessible and add new sculpture. What’s there now is an eclectic mix of nearly two dozen installations that are intended to return to nature over time. I’m told that over time and depending upon the season, each piece takes on a different character. Among my favorites are (top to bottom below):  Jeanne Jaffe’s bronze and steel Field of Forms, which echoes human biology; Sylvia Benitez’s Hatshepsut, 2008, an ethereal, harp-like bamboo structure; and its near neighbor, Alison Stigora’s Mazzoroth , a burnt wood sculpture that curves invitingly into the woods.

Field of Forms

Hatshepsut, 2008

Mazzoroth

Jaffe and Stigora are among a number of artists based in or near Philadelphia, including Mei-ling Hom, Mara Scrupe, Jay Walker, Lonnie Graham, and Caroline Lathan-Stiefel. By the way, the title quote above is from an anonymous chalk artist – perhaps one of the summer campers who got to spend a week or more in the midst of these inspiring works of art. [Place your cursor over any image to pause the slideshow and scroll through at your own pace.]

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Night-specific Shock Waves

Yesterday, I ventured down to Old City after learning about, Shock Waves (A response to the Japanese nuclear crisis), Daniel Oliva’s elegant, ethereal homage to the Japanese people in the wake of the trio of disasters that hit the island nation in March and riveted the world’s attention. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tohoku was followed by a tsunami and triggered a crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Oliva’s night-specific installation can be seen only after sundown; it is on view at Pentimenti Gallery through August 24. Here’s how the gallery describes the exhibit: 

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The gallery’s large side windows are filled with translucent paintings. On the left, Japan is viewed from a satellite, concentric circles indicate the  earthquake/ tsunami and evacuation zones around the Nuclear Power Plant. On the right, forty of the towns most affected by the crisis are written in Japanese. The central portion (not shown) unifies both sides with red circles that are intentionally scaled to fit the body, creating a focal point from which to view the work. 

This installation is meant not as a comprehensive memorial, but rather as an early response to a disaster of overwhelming proportions on the other side of our
shrinking world.

Magic on South Street

When I moved to Philly in January, 2005 to work at the Kimmel Center, it took me a while to get my bearings. After I’d been here about two weeks, the region got slammed with a snowstorm so bad, the NJ governor declared a state of emergency to keep folks off the highways. It wasn’t until the spring thaw that I really began to explore my surroundings. Venturing south from the Kimmel on Broad Street, I found my way to South Street (still haven’t figured out why no one told me it was so close by). I was actually looking for the Whole Foods when I saw a charming garden shack covered in mosaic tile. Little did I know that that was just the tip of the iceberg and that I would soon come upon Philadelphia’s Magic Garden. Wow! Wow! Wow! What a captivating site. Honestly, I feel like I could spend hours exploring Isaiah Zagar’s spectacular, waaaayyyy over-the-top, brilliant, inventive, labyrinthine installation (except, I have the attention span of a 3-year-old, so I usually just spend 15 minutes or so when I wander down there these days.)

(True story: I once considered breaking up with someone when I took him down to see the Magic Gardens and he was more mystified than captivated. I was so dismayed. I got over it, but it did give me pause…I’m just sayin’.)

Isaiah Zagar is internationally known for his extraordinary mosaic creations and although I’ve never met him, and I hear tell that his younger son’s documentary strongly suggests he’s a tad egocentric, I feel like he must have a huge, huge heart. Since 1968, he has helped to define South Street as a funky, bohemian hang (yes, it has been gentrified, but, this is Philly, y’all: it still has some character left). Zagar’s work adorns many spaces on South Street and beyond. My favorite performing arts venue is the Painted Bride in Old City, which wears his shimmering mosaics oh-so-well. I photographed the Bride’s 2009 summer fundraiser and a wedding there soon after I decided to go pro with my photography (and yes, you can look forward to a blog post about the Bride in the not-too-distant future). There are many stories in the Magic Garden; you have to experience it for yourself to see how it resonates for you.

P.S. You can stop the slideshow at any point by hovering your cursor to show the control buttons.

Peace & luv, always.

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Rhoda Blount, Rennie Harris & R.H.A.W.

Parents, teachers, camp directors and other folks who have to manage/entertain/occupy kids in the summer have a secret weapon over at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. Today’s PhillyLove is a huge shout out to Rhoda Blount, the Mann’s Director of Education and Community Engagement.  Each summer, Rhoda and her team put together the Young People’s Concert Series – five, extraordinary FREE (yes, FREE) performances that enable 30,000 folks each year to “travel the world without leaving Philadelphia.” The shows feature top-notch professional, emerging and young artists, many of whom live and work in greater Philadelphia. This year’s line-up showcased Inca Son, The Rock School for Dance Education, Global Passages (Chinese opera, African dance and Salsa), Rennie Harris Presents R.H.A.W., and Rising Stars of Tomorrow.

I’ve seen two of the fantastic shows featured this summer: Global Passages, which I took my granddaughter to see on July 25, and the PHENOMENAL youth ensemble, R.H.A.W. on August 3rd, which happened to be Rhoda’s birthday. What a way to celebrate! The slideshow below is all about R.H.A.W. – the brainchild of dance legend Rennie Harris and without a doubt one of the most exciting dance troupes I’ve seen in many moons. Internationally acclaimed, Rennie Harris is a local treasure, who has elevated hip-hop and other street dance styles to the concert stage. A little back-story: In the ‘90’s, I co-presented  Rennie Harris Puremovement at the Lincoln Theatre in DC and was totally blown away. Fast forward to 2006 and I’m working at the Kimmel Center and helped get funding for them to present RHPM’s 10th anniversary concert. R.H.A.W. (Rennie Harris’s Awe-inspiring Works) is a youth organization and training ground for pre-professional dancers and if you ever get the chance to see the company perform live, just do it! You will be blown away by their talent, energy, athleticism, and heart.

P.S. – With the Connecting Arts-N-Schools program, Rhoda touches the lives of thousands of school children, bringing culturally-diverse music, dance and theater performances to schools city-wide throughout the year. Go, Rhoda!

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Lucky Old Souls @ Moonstone Arts Center

Love that there are such a wide range of places to experience art in Philly! On a recent rainy Friday night, I made my way down Lincoln Drive to Center City for Lucky Old Souls @ Moonstone’s once-a-month hit. Lucky Old Souls is independent jazz presenter Matt Feldman, a man on a mission to open a restaurant/jazz club in South Philly. Meanwhile, he’s producing monthly concerts at Moonstone Arts Center, a very funky, cozy BYOB space at Robin’s Bookstore on 13th Street at Sansom. Moonstone features everything from poetry readings and concerts to theater, comedy and film. The art center is the platform for Moonstone Inc.’s creative programming for adults; they also operate a preschool, which uses an arts-based curriculum.  Can definitely get with the philosophy behind what they do: “We believe that the arts, creativity, and imagination are essential aspects of life, learning and community.”  Robin’s Bookstore is a Center City mainstay that has weathered many a storm; their story is worth reading here. Definitely want to get to know them better.

OK. So, back to Lucky Old Souls @ Moonstone. The July show was fantastic. It featured Josh Lawrence and the NEW Quartet and Michael Ray’s X-Ray– two completely different vibes that somehow worked well together. Josh Lawrence and company: very chilled and elegant; X-Ray: super hot! Josh Lawrence is an accomplished trumpeter, with an impressive resume. High-energy trumpeter/keyboardist Michael Ray performs with the Sun Ra Arkestra and was just coming off the road from playing with Kool and the Gang.

As an added bonus, I met two seriously dedicated jazz photographers there: Anthony Dean and L. David Hinton. Fun…!

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Visiting The President’s House

There’s something really special about living in a city that is as culturally and historically rich as Philadelphia. Maybe it comes from growing up in Washington, D.C., but to me there’s a certain kind of energy to be found in a place where events have unfolded that have profoundly affected the course of world history. Philadelphia loves celebrating its history (the historical markers to be found in most every neighborhood deserve a blog post of their own) and Independence Mall is where thousands of people visit significant touch points in the nation’s path to independence: most notably, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the founding fathers declared that “all men are created equal.”

Now, we know we still have a ways to go before that grand declaration of equality is truly realized in these United States, but Independence Mall is also where the City has memorialized the 10 years when Philly was the nation’s capital and George Washington’s household included nine enslaved Africans. Located at 6th & Market Streets, “The President’s House” is an evocative, open air installation built on the original footprint of the house where George Washington and John Adams lived as presidents while the capital city was being carved out of Maryland and Virginia.

As an African-American child in an integrated Catholic elementary school, I was embarrassed to learn about slavery, to find out that people who looked like me were relegated to such a brutal, subservient existence. My cheeks burned as I imagined all eyes on me while we learned about that most undemocratic of institutions. Thank goodness for the empowerment movements of the 1960’s that revealed the strength, beauty, dignity, intelligence and determination of Africans in America that those early lessons had somehow omitted.

The President’s House exhibition is the result of a lot of folks demanding that the National Park Service not sweep the site’s inglorious history under the rug. News articles from 2002 forward document the sometimes contentious journey from discovery to commemoration. After visiting The President’s House, I am deeply grateful to all of those who took up the cause of the nine enslaved people who were part of President Washington’s household.

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The West African Adinkra symbols and quotations in the exhibition pay homage to the enslaved Africans in the President’s household and the millions they represent. Another artistic homage is under development by three remarkable, Philly-based artists: writer/dancer/vocalist (and Pew Fellow) Germaine Ingram, composer/saxophonist Bobby Zankel and visual artist/educator John Dowell. For the past two years, the three have been collaborating to create a performance piece that honors “the enslaved Nine” and explores what The President’s House has to tell us about today, when as Germaine has written: “…some are hopeful or naïve or detached from reality enough to employ the term ‘post-racial,’ and to suggest that the pain and embarrassment of slavery has faded from our national consciousness.” Read Germaine’s essay about lessons learned in the Spring 2011 issue of the  Philadelphia Folklore Project’s Works in Progress.

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