Work Of Renewal Throwaways Are The Building Blocks Of Obele Uno - Or "Small House" - Created By Artists In North Philadelphia. It's Intended To Give New Meaning To Lives As Well As Materials.

Posted: August 29, 1995

Nine-year-old Jamile Wilson has been hanging around with three artists and learning a lot from them as they work in an empty lot in North Philadelphia.

For about a month they've been carving wood, cutting glass, painting boards and doing all kinds of stuff to create something they call Obele Uno on Warnock Street near Huntingdon Street for the Village of Arts and Humanities.

Obele Uno means "small house" in Ibo, one of the main languages in Nigeria, and that's what it is, a small house, 12 feet high and 8 feet square, made out of junk.

Robert Craddock, 48-year-old curator of the Jamaica Arts Center in Queens, N.Y., smiles at the word "junk."

He'd rather call it "found materials" or "reclaimed materials," he said last week during a work break.

Craddock and fellow artists Austino Okafor and John Horace Stone, with the help of several young people who live near the Village, scoured the neighborhood for materials to use in their creation. Thrown-away materials aren't hard to find in that neighborhood. Plenty of houses are empty, and, in fact, the city has just torn down one abandoned house right across Warnock Street from where the men have been working.

"All of this wood here has a history, of the people who lived with it, who changed it, who loved it," Craddock said, pointing at the wall and floor boards taken from the abandoned house. The idea behind what he and his colleagues have been doing, he said, is "to give renewed meaning to these things that seem to have lost value and to give renewed validation to the lives of the people in the neighborhood."

For Jamile Wilson, there's inspiration in watching the artists at work, and learning from them. After Craddock showed him how to use mallet and chisel, young Wilson on his own made some small model houses out of blocks of wood. Then he went on to create an assemblage on wood, which he brings out to show proudly. It depicts Robin Hood in combat with a foe, he explains. Craddock thinks the lad has talent. He's let him help carve the posts that hold up the ceiling of Obele Uno.

Another neighborhood boy who helped on the project is Maurice Jones, 8. ''I'm going to be here all day, doing everything they tell me to do," he said the other day, looking very, very serious.

Obele Uno is another installation of the Village of Arts and Humanities, the community arts center and neighborhood project that artist Lily Yeh started nine years ago when she designed and built, with the help of people in the community, a small park on Germantown Avenue.

A few steps away from that park, across Alder Street, is another, Meditation Park, built between 1991 and 1994. Yeh designed it, modeling it on Moroccan courtyards and Chinese gardens. It's surrounded by walls made of rubble and cinder blocks covered with tan stucco and colored tiles, inspired by Mali architecture.

From there, to the left on Warnock Street, is yet another small park. There, three 8-foot-tall figures made of cement and tile overlook the new kiln that Samuel Wallace, a Baltimore-based potter, has built to fire works for Village pottery classes.

Up Warnock Street, on the side of another abandoned house, is Obele Uno, which, though not yet finished, the Village of Arts and Humanities officially dedicated Saturday at its annual arts and harvest festival.

"We're creating a living urban village through art," says Yeh, her voice tinged by the accent of her native China, about the projects she's been

directing over the last nine years.

Yeh, a professor of art and art history at the University of the Arts, met Craddock two years ago when they both went to Kenya. She was there, on a fellowship from the Lila Wallace Arts International Project, to create a garden of murals and sculptures on the edge of a dump site in Korogocho, a vast slum outside Nairobi. Craddock was there to curate the exhibition of a local artist, a Lila Wallace fellow.

So later, when Yeh decided on the then-unnamed Obele Uno project, she called on Craddock, whose own work she had seen and admired. He in turn summoned Okafor, Nigerian painter and sculptor now living in New York; Stone, a visual artist and architect; and Simone Leigh, a ceramist, to collaborate.

Yeh estimates the total cost of the project at $10,000, but that includes in-kind contributions, such as the lodging that's been provided through the Village for the artists while they are in Philadelphia. All four artists donated their services. Most but not all of their expenses have been paid for, Craddock said.

The Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, a nonprofit regional arts organization headquartered in Baltimore, provided a $2,550 grant. The rest of the cost came

from the Village of Arts and Humanities, which receives support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Stone, 28, designed the small house. It has an asphalt-shingled roof, sheathed inside in copper, and a central altarpiece made of marble from the front steps of abandoned houses. Leigh, 28, working in New York, has been making the ceramic vessel that will serve as a centerpiece of the small house.

Okafor gave Obele Uno its name. Okafor is cofounder in Nigeria of what he calls the "Di-fusion" movement, which he defines as the fusion of all kinds of artistic media into one whole.

"It has to have strength," he said. "If it doesn't show strength it is not my work."

When he first saw the empty site upon which the installation was to be built, he wrote in his pocket-sized sketchbook: "Spiritual poverty. Poverty. Poverty. Poverty." But then he wrote: "Humanity exists," and, he said as he

thumbed through the sketchbook, "I saw hope."

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