Artist explores the ‘watery American,’ Ben Franklin, in new exhibit

PERFORMANCE/A Penn painting alum brings a multi-media performance about University founder Ben Franklin to University City’s Rotunda.

Now that Ben Franklin’s tercentenary year is winding down, you might think you’ve seen, heard and read all there is on the subject of this famous statesman and polymath. You’d be wrong, though, unless you’ve seen Sebastienne Mundheim’s multi-media performance “Currently Franklin: The Story of a Paper Boy.” The piece, which was shown as part of last summer’s Philadelphia Live Arts Festival will be onstage again at the Rotunda this month.

Even the Franklin-jaded should get a kick out of this idea packed show, which features a set made entirely of corrugated cardboard and tissue and lively puppets and dancers enacting key episodes in Franklin’s life.
Mundheim (at right) admits it was a challenge to come up with a fresh angle on such a thoroughly examined historical figure. But after reading nine books on Franklin and holding a series of spirited conversations with Penn history professor Michael Zuckerman, Mundheim became intrigued by the theme of currents and water.

“There’s a lot of discussion of Franklin and water,” she says. “He was called the ‘watery American.’ He went across the Atlantic eight times and a lot of his inventions had to do with water.” Using water as a metaphor around which to spin her tale, Mundheim says she “ended up hitting the usual milestones in his life,” but through a new perspective.

Mundheim, who developed the piece when she was an artist-in-residence last year at Lancaster’s Franklin and Marshall College, was also fascinated by the idea of Franklin’s print shop. “I was thinking about him as a printer and envisioning the print shop with all the paper hanging around … the power of the printing press Hence the quirky and beautiful all-paper set.

An art educator who has taught children’s programs at Penn’s Arthur Ross Gallery, Mundheim strives to translate “high-level, sophisticated thinking” into performances that are accessible to young minds. In the Franklin piece she does this by stressing the simplicity of many of his inventions. The mechanics of the set are all out in the open and while it looks complex, it’s also tangible and simple, says Mundheim. “We use overhead projectors and we discover a gazillion things you can do with those materials. And that’s very Franklin. Taking basic materials and pushing them as far as you can.”

Mundheim adapted the show from its original format for the Live Arts Festival, taking advantage of Philadelphia’s rich dance tradition to develop the movement aspect and give the performance more polish. Her efforts clearly paid off. The last three shows were sold out and dozens of people were turned away at the door.

Bringing her piece to the Rotunda feels like a homecoming to Mundheim, who earned both her B.A. and B.F.A. from Penn and, in addition to her work with the Arthur Ross Gallery has also given talks at Kelly Writers House. Her Penn roots go even deeper than that, though: her father, Robert Mundheim, was dean of the Law School in the 1980s and her mother, Guna Mundheim, is an assistant dean for academic advising in the College, who has also taught painting at the University. “My family and I have a long history at Penn. I grew up at 47th and Pine and on the campus. Finally I’m crossing back over the bridge.”

For more on “Currently Franklin,” visit To order tickets for the Rotunda performances on Nov. 15, 20 and 22, call the Annenberg Center at 215-898-3900.

Originally published on November 2, 2006