A space for sculptors to hone their crafts

Philadelphia Sculpture Gym members (from left) Bevan Weissman, Darla Jackson, and Gustavo Actis.
Philadelphia Sculpture Gym members (from left) Bevan Weissman, Darla Jackson, and Gustavo Actis. (RON TARVER / Staff)
Posted: February 06, 2013

When sculptor Darla Jackson found herself creating castings of her life-size rabbit sculptures in her upstairs bathroom - mixing plaster in the tiny sink, dripping soapy residue on her toothbrush, and spilling the mess on the floor - she knew things had to change.

Jackson thought there must be other artists out there trying to create in rowhouse bathrooms and basements, praying they didn't ruin yet another rug, or worse, set the house on fire. She dreamed of creating a space where fellow sculptors could use specialized machinery, share inspiration, and work in a safe environment.

After winning a $20,000 Knight Arts Challenge Grant in 2011, Jackson and a group of volunteers raised a matching amount of money, enough to start an artists' collaborative late last year in a former radiator-repair warehouse in Fishtown. They named it the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym (PSG).

For an artist, particularly a sculptor, the costs of putting together a studio can be expensive. How many people can afford a fireproof room for an oxyacetylene welding torch? At PSG, these specialized and costly heavy-duty industrial tools - band saws, drill presses, a metal foundry - are available to members, which is what makes it unusual. Its 23 charter members pay $100 a month ($75 for students), and when all the work areas are completed, PSG plans to offer regular memberships and $25 day-rates for nonmembers.

"It's all here," says sculptor Gustavo Actis, one of a core group of volunteers who help with programming, scheduling, mentoring, and teaching. Just like a regular gym, this is a place where people can make use of heavy equipment, hang out with others who share their interests, and, if they work hard, get results.

The 7,500-square-foot warehouse is divided into a small classroom space, a mold-making and casting area, a wood shop, a metal shop and foundry for pouring metals, and a planned ceramics area.

A gallery space in the front of the warehouse facing Frankford Avenue is important because it connects the artists with people who might purchase their art - instead of "artists just making art for themselves," as Jackson put it. "The gallery allows us to be a space where an artist can take their project from idea to final sale." To date, the gallery has exhibited the works of 46 artists.

PSG also has the space to create large-scale pieces. "If we had someone who wanted to work on a 10-foot-tall block of marble, they could do that," says Actis, whose own sculptures incorporate natural elements such as logs or rocks with pieces of cast and welded metal. "Our floor can support it; we have the tools and the space."

One of the most popular workshops is the metal-casting class, where participants make a greensand mold of their object and pour molten metal to create a cast. "At the end of the seven hours, everyone has learned a new process," Actis said, "and can walk away with something they created."

Pleased with the results of a recent workshop, attendees told their online friends about it, Jackson said, and a future class sold out in four days.

Joshua Johnson walked away with a smooth, aluminum dog sculpture, cast from a piece of foam he had carved with his daughter. "The dog came out better than I expected," he said.

Johnson had signed up for the workshop with the hope of gaining enough skills to add to the services (3D printing, injection molding, and other techniques) that his small prototyping and design company provides.

"Gus is passionate about working with metal," he said of Actis, "and he made it easy to overcome any inhibitions I had."

Pouring red-hot molten aluminum was unlike anything local techie Kyle Yankanich had ever done before. "The excitement of pouring made up for how tedious it was for me to make a good sand mold. It's harder than it looks."

Yankanich cast a small model of the Dr. Who telephone box, which looked a little rougher than he had anticipated. Still, it was satisfying; he plans to take a welding class, too.

The artists say that before PSG, the closest place to cast iron was in Trenton. In addition to metal casting, future workshops will include animal sculpture, woodworking, and marketing for artists.

Actis is also advocating PSG as a resource for artists looking for a particular skill or process. "I've had people ask me, Where can I get a sand mold made?" he said. "Well, we can do that sort of thing here, and I can point them to the person here who can do it for them or teach them how."

Artist Bevan Weissman joined PSG after he moved to the city from Boston. Weissman's specialty is interactive public art, large-scale installations that, in his words, "the public can play around with by changing the colors, directing the movement, things like that." He recently worked on an installation that featured large, lighted panels of glass that changed colors in response to text messages. He plans to create similar installations in the Philadelphia area, with the support of PSG.

The collaborative participates in Fishtown First Friday open houses and hosts monthly gallery shows of its own, which include first-time solo shows by members who have not exhibited their works before.

Jackson is gratified that lower Frankford Avenue is becoming known for its artists.

"This area is turning into an arts district, and that in itself is amazing," says Jackson. "Being a space for artists, close to where they live, and to connect them with other artists and potential clients and give them a place to show their work, is thrilling to me."

A visit by members of the Public Art Forum - that's the group that handles the type of big commissions that PSG artists are looking for - was a recent coup:

"If there's a developer in the city that's looking to commission a piece of sculpture or spend their required 1 percent of construction costs on art," Jackson said, "hopefully, they'll think of us."

For more information about PSG, visit PhiladelphiaSculptureGym.com

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