Art installations dress up Powelton building fronts

Posted: October 11, 2011

White tape outlines a street's reflection in an empty storefront window, marking signs, shops, and a road stretching into the distance. A tassel of multicolored plastic bottle caps hangs from the top of a boarded-up brick hall.

And inside a vacant building, abstract watercolor paintings share space with light and sound installations that riff on code and communication.

This fall, 13 vacant windows and buildings along Lancaster Avenue in the Powelton section have been transformed by art. The display, paid for in part by a $30,000 city grant, will remain until Nov. 30.

Supporters of the program hope it will nudge along an already burgeoning revitalization of the Lancaster Avenue corridor in West Philadelphia, an area long favored by artists.

"Artists are pioneers in many neighborhoods," said Miki Farcas, who helped organize the event and whose husband, Viorel, owns a sculpture gallery in Powelton. "I believe that art can make a great contribution to a neighborhood. ... There's a certain energy that will go beyond what's been done."

The project is sponsored by Drexel University in partnership with the University City District, the People's Emergency Center, and University City community arts groups. Last spring, organizers called for submissions to dress the building fronts and windows, and 200 people applied, said Blaise Tobia, a Powelton artist and art professor at Drexel. A panel that included two current fellows from the Pew Fellowship in the Arts picked the winners.

Building fronts and windows from 34th to 41st Streets have been adorned, and several vacant buildings are serving as temporary galleries alongside the neighborhood's four permanent ones.

Inside one shell of a building in the 3800 block, Carolyn Healy and her husband, John Phillips, created a mixed-media statement on code and communication. Healy tacked shapes and call signs from radio operators onto the walls. She suspended reflective material, numbers, and letters from the ceiling. Phillips filled the four front bay windows with light that changes colors and patterns, and piped distorted sound into the room. The garbled track, played continuously, is a man reading Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.

Artists have held together the 3800 block of Lancaster Avenue for some time, Tobia said, and many of the art installations are spread along that block.

Black and teal mesh triangular fabrics stretch and layer over metal gates of an empty store. Horses return to a former stable, but only in photographs put up in the windows. And multicolored plastic bread tags, meticulously arranged, create a design inside another window on that block.

One piece of art popped up spontaneously, without planning by the commission or permission from the building's owner. It hangs over the former clinic of Kermit Gosnell, a doctor now charged with eight counts of murder in the deaths of one mother and seven babies one year after the clinic shut down.

White kitelike objects attached to metal spires spring from the roof. A white banner listing various definitions of the word regard covers nearly all three stories of a brick wall that faces the street. The first definition: "To look." Further down, "To pay attention." And the final definition: "Good wishes, affection: My kindest regards to your family."

"The artists responded to the movement," said Bill Baumann, 69, a longtime Powelton resident and patron of the arts. "It was exorcised, it was softened, by that installation."

The exterior installations are expected to remain until the end of November, and the temporary and permanent galleries will have coordinated hours for their current showings until the end of October, Tobia said.

Asked whether he thought the project could have a lasting effect on the neighborhood, Tobia said it was possible.

"They make things better for a while, they make people happy for a while," he said. "I think they give people a little bit of confidence in their neighborhood."

For more information on the exhibit, go to: http://www.

Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at, 856-779-3237, or @joellefarrell on Twitter.

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