Through Phila. Folklore Project, people can buy boxes of art, instead of boxes of veggies

Fifth-grader Jade Leach plays a drum at the charter school.
Fifth-grader Jade Leach plays a drum at the charter school. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 06, 2012

When it quietly started out a quarter-century ago, the Philadelphia Folklore Project did not have a building or a permanent residence or even a real model for what it would be trying to do.

No organization in city history had sought to document and support the roiling family and community life that bubbled up everywhere. That was to be the job of the Folklore Project, founded by Debora Kodish, a folklorist fresh from graduate school at the University of Texas.

She and a few colleagues based themselves in a back room at the Fleisher Art Memorial on Catharine Street in 1987. Their purpose: to document the largely ephemeral life of street and home, the traditions that bind communities and families, and the folk art that inspires and fuses whole groups of people.

Now, 25 years later, the project has its own building, a rowhouse on South 50th Street in West Philadelphia; it has an archive of more than 60,000 tapes and documents, photographs, and artifacts; it has exhibits of city life from the vantage point of family artists, activists, and communities; it is involved in running the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School on Callowhill Street north of Chinatown; it has workshops on art-making and - here's the rub - on funding and the seeking of grants.

Money. That's always the rub.

All nonprofits have faced increasing financial difficulties in the last decade, and the Folklore Project is no different. It operates on a relatively small annual operating budget of about $400,000, but even so, Kodish says, fund-raising prospects are receding.

So about two years ago, when the Knight Foundation proposed an innovative program to fund and sell art, she thought, why not?

What emerged is Community Supported Art, a program modeled on local share-buying operations that support farms. Instead of families agreeing to buy a box of vegetables from the local farm every month, buyers agree to purchase a box of art. The jury is still out on where the idea goes, but this year it's hot. (In addition to the Folklore Project, two local galleries are participating - Tiger Strikes Asteroid and Grizzly Grizzly.)

The Folklore Project has gathered work by nine community-based or traditional artists. A "share" of the art - out of a maximum of 50 - is available for $350, and entitles the buyer to one work by each of the nine artists.

Friday will be Pick-Up Party day, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at 735 S. 50th St., where shareholders will pick up their art and hobnob with the artists. All are welcome, though - Kodish said some shares are still available and payment plans can be arranged.

"Artists responded so enthusiastically" to the plan, she said. "This is really about local culture and sustaining it for the long haul."

Palestinian needle artist Maisaloon Dias, 28, expert in creating the traditional embroidery known as tatreez, has contributed nine elaborate bookmarks. Born in this country and raised in Northeast Philadelphia, she learned the intricate art from her mother, of Beit Hanina near Jerusalem, who learned it from her mother.

"To me, tatreez is always about identity, particularly of the Palestinian community," said Dias. "My mother and Palestinian women kept the art going. They'd be making dresses, kids would be playing. They would share patterns - there are many different towns in Palestine that have their own specific patterns."

Marta Sanchez, a Chicana artist who grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and studied at Temple's Tyler School of Art, has contributed her confetti-filled, hand-painted cascarones to the CSA. Long a feature of spring in Mexico, the confetti eggs are a colorful harbinger of life emerging after winter.

Sanchez, 52, says her childhood springs were filled with cascarones: "You make them and crack them over each other's heads. It's a lot of fun - the element of surprise!"

She has taught her son, friends, students, and others how to make them. But important to her is using the proceeds of her own sales to assist families affected by HIV and AIDS. "I had an uncle who died [from AIDS] and I knew others who suffered from it," she said. "I wanted to find a way to come to terms with it [through] unconditional love. It opened the door to discussion without taboo."

So for Sanchez, who works with artists at Children's Hospital and with health and social service agencies, a traditional art form became a means to overcome family pain and community estrangement.

For the CSA, Eric Jocelyn - an artist-activist who lends his talents to community and political causes - has created Philadelphia Bingo, a "board game" aimed at ruling elites. For him, art is the essence of community, a "participatory matter - I don't want to be a lonely guy sitting in a lonely room."

All sorts of people already have become collectors through the Folklore Project's CSA.

"I became a collector because I believe in what is happening with people and their art and the beauty I've seen in the writing, weaving, painting, photography," said Suzanne Povse, a tool-and-die maker from West Philadelphia.

"We live in our own spheres," she said, but Kodish "and her organization provide us with an opportunity to see what's outside of our own spheres."

Suzanne Seriff, an Austin, Texas, folklorist and a CSA collector, said the idea of community-supported art "really tickled my fancy" as "a great way to support traditional arts and community."

"I hear all the time that the U.S. has become so commodified and globalized it is losing its traditional arts," said Seriff. "I know that's not true."


Philadelphia Folklore Project

735 S. 50th St.

Philadelphia 19143

Information: 215-726-1106 or www.folkloreproject.org


Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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