Sculptor transforms a bomber into a greenhouse

A depiction of a Cold War bomber that will be at Lenfest Plaza, turned by an artist into a sculpture that will also be a greenhouse to provide food for City Harvest. (Jordan Griska LLC)
A depiction of a Cold War bomber that will be at Lenfest Plaza, turned by an artist into a sculpture that will also be a greenhouse to provide food for City Harvest. (Jordan Griska LLC)
Posted: September 27, 2011

Sculptor Jordan Griska couldn't talk for long Monday.

"I'm in the middle of lifting an airplane," he said over the phone from his West Philadelphia studio, an old trolley shed on Haverford Avenue.

The airplane in question, a decommissioned Cold War submarine bomber, has taken on a new life in Griska's hands. It has become a work of art, a sculptural installation for the pristine Lenfest Plaza.

There, in the shadow of Claes Oldenburg's newly installed giant paintbrush at Broad and Cherry Streets, Griska's plane will rest, nose driven into the ground next to the historic Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Installation is set for Tuesday through Thursday, weather permitting. The plaza's formal opening will be marked Saturday with activities, a paintbrush lighting, and other festivities.

While Oldenburg, 82, is known worldwide and has redefined public art in Philadelphia, beginning with his 1976 Clothespin across from City Hall, Griska, 27, is at the very start of his career, an "emerging artist."

That's the point, said David Brigham, academy president and chief executive officer.

The academy always intended to commission a major site-specific sculpture for the east end of the plaza, directly opposite the entrance to the expanded Convention Center. That became Oldenburg's Paint Torch. At the west end, however, the intention is to provide space for temporary installations highlighting younger and mid-career artists. Each piece will remain on view for about a year.

With Griska's work, Brigham said, the academy had "an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishment of our grads" and demonstrate "the strength of the academy's programs."

Griska, a 2008 graduate who works with "found objects," was suggested by a panel of academy faculty. Brigham and dean Jeffrey Carr met with the artist and described the project's parameters, and Griska came back with "a very ambitious proposal," Brigham said.

The academy paid what Brigham termed "a honorarium," and the artist beat the drums for help and funding.

He also did the obvious. He went out and bought a Grumman S-2 Tracker, about 45 feet long and 75 feet from wingtip to wingtip, on eBay.

He was the only bidder.

"It was already such a low starting bid, I thought it was a scam," Griska said. And while he would not disclose the price, the plane was certainly the real deal.

That was about six months ago. Since then, Griska has crumpled and folded and modified the Grumman, which will now be known as Grumman Greenhouse. When it is in place, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society will help turn it into a gigantic planter: What once was a bomber sowing torpedoes will house edible plants whose produce will be donated to City Harvest for low-income families.

A crew of local firefighters will assist with the installation, in honor of firefighters from the California Department of Forestry who deployed the retired Navy plane to monitor and fight fires after it was decommissioned from its Cold War bombing life.

"We're changing the future of the airplane," Griska said. Enter the era of Lenfest Plaza plowshares - "from military" object, he said, to "creative greenhouse."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594,, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.


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