Making room for local artists

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Making room for local artists

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The row house at 4007 Chestnut Street once featured a depressing combination of dark wood paneling, bricked-over windows and low ceilings. Now, since Penn Facilities gave it a facelift and a group of local artists moved their work in, the inside is much brighter—the ceilings have been raised to their original height, the windows have been unblocked to let in natural light and the paneling is history.

While Penn Facilities did the work on the University-owned property, four West Philly institutions, including Penn, the University City Arts League, the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and collaborated to open it up as studio space for four emerging artists.

The four artists chosen for the artist-in-residence program get free workspace and in return must give back to the community through classes or workshops. One artist teaches painting and mural arts to elementary school students and is leading them in a mural project at their school; another teaches classes at the People’s Emergency Center.

Edward Epstein, the program’s coordinator and a local painter, founded a similar program in San Antonio with his wife, Graduate School of Education Assistant Professor Marybeth Gasman. Having moved here about two years ago, he noticed a shortage of studio space in West Philly for neighborhood artists and saw a need for an artist-in-residence program specific to West Philadelphia. When he met with Penn Facilities, they told him they’d love to get artists into the then-vacant Chestnut Street house—and the artist-in-residence program was born.

The four artists currently in residence until April—book artist Persia Graham, painters Grace Jung and Jacqueline Holloway and sculptor Jeremy Vaughn—all have very different mediums and styles. Jung works with paint and cutout paper, while Vaughn’s work incorporates everything from wood to enamel. Epstein says that’s the point. “We try to get artists who do all kinds of different work,” he says. The only stipulation? “We really want to get artists who are from the neighborhood.”

While the artists get no guarantee of permanent exhibition space Epstein says that the artist-in-residence program encourages them to contact local galleries and other show spaces, including the Burrison Gallery, at the Faculty Club, and the Green Line Café, a neighborhood coffee shop at the corner of 43rd and Baltimore.

Recently, an exhibition opportunity popped up serendipitously when Epstein approached the contractor renovating the United Bank Building at 40th and Walnut streets about putting some of the artists’ work in the building’s windows while it’s vacant. The empty building will look better and brighter, says Epstein, and the artists will have a very public venue to show their work.

Epstein is optimistic about the future of the 40th Street area, citing The Rotunda—a venue for music, spoken word and visual art—the Paul Robeson House and University City Arts League as prime examples of a cultural renaissance. “There’s starting to be a kind of synergy when new venues are opening up,” he says.

Originally published on March 17, 2005