Seeds of success for artist in North Philly

PHOTO: BETSY CASANAS In Casanas' Promise Studios, in the space used by artist Antonio Puri (center), are artist Charles Burwell (left) and master printer Vijay Kumar.
PHOTO: BETSY CASANAS In Casanas' Promise Studios, in the space used by artist Antonio Puri (center), are artist Charles Burwell (left) and master printer Vijay Kumar.
Posted: April 16, 2013

WITH A broom in one hand and a makeshift dustpan in the other, Betsy Casanas scooped up unsightly piles of dried leaves and trash on a dreary block of Diamond Street near Front.

As she swept, workers from Kensington Hospital, which runs a methadone clinic a few doors down, stood outside basking in the gorgeous spring day. Across Diamond, on Norris Square, a couple of senior citizens lazed in the sunshine.

Watching her work, it occurred to me that Casanas has built a career beautifying unsightly places. She's painted nearly 50 public murals in and around Philadelphia and in far-flung places such as Ireland, Cuba, Mexico and Ecuador.

"Cruzando el Charco," a mural about the history of Puerto Rican migration to Philadelphia, which she designed at 5th and Dauphin, went a long way toward improving the look of that neighborhood. She also spearheaded the cleanup of a nearby abandoned playground that has since come to be known as "Rainbow de Colores."

Casanas likens her art-infused community activism to the sprinkling of seeds, which is why she called the grass-roots organization that she co-founded in 2007 the Semilla Arts Initiative. Semilla is Spanish for "seeds."

"You place ideas here, you place ideas there," Casanas explained. "You see what sprouts in each community."

One of her sprouts is the 2-year-old art gallery A Seed on Diamond. Located inside her home, the exhibit space is on the first floor in what typically would be the living room. On the second floor, where she lives (her two kids are on the third floor), she operates an inn for visiting artists and others in need of low-cost, short-term accommodations.

On Thursday, Casanas hosted a party for Hungarian painter EdE Sinkovics to introduce his work to neighborhood residents. The pieces looked kind of free-form to me, but I know nothing about art.

"When I moved into the gallery, my idea was to really focus on artists from different cultural backgrounds, artists from different parts of the world, artists that were doing very diverse things so that the community could be exposed to that," said Casanas, a 2000 graduate of Moore College of Art & Design. "If you're not exposed to it, you don't know it exists."

An idea takes root

The youngest of six children, Casanas grew up at the rough intersection of 4th and Cambria streets.

She was a pregnant, unmarried, 19-year-old college student in need of a job when Taller Puertorriqueño, a nonprofit founded in 1974 by Latino artists and activists in North Kensington, hired her to teach art. That quickly led to similar gigs at Village of the Arts and Humanities and at NetworkArts.

"She is one of the people that we claim as a success for Taller Puertorriqueño because she participated in our programs," said Carmen Febo-San Miguel, Taller's executive director. "The work that she's done in organizing the community to develop and maintain local community gardens is another way that she has brought her art to impact the community that she continues to be a part of.

"In the meantime, she's flying off to Dubai to do a mural project there. I heard she's flying to Peru [next]. She's doing art at all sorts of different levels and not losing the community connection."

About three years ago, Casanas purchased the Diamond Street property from the Norris Square Civic Association. She had a vision, but, at first, Pat DeCarlo, the association's longtime executive director, was skeptical.

"I'm very careful about artists and their power to gentrify without intending to," DeCarlo explained. "She said, 'No, no. I want to work with the community.' We made a special deal with her with the house. We sold the house way below the value so there would be an exchange with the artwork."

One of first things Casanas did was paint the exterior blue with green trim. The gallery space is white, but go farther inside and there's a plum-hued lounge decorated with Casanas' self-portraits.

Getting artists to show their work there was easy, she recalled. Soon she was holding open-mic nights and potlucks, and the space became an arts-community hangout.

"I went from barely making my mortgage . . . to having this kind of pay for itself," Casanas said.

A new arts hothouse

Casanas sprinkled more seeds in November when she opened Promise Studios, an artist-incubator space in a rented warehouse on Norris Street near Front, a short walk from A Seed on Diamond.

"There were pigeons flying around inside of it," she recalled. "It was a completely raw spot."

When I visited, I didn't see any birds but I did see artist Charles Burwell, whose bold, geometric abstracts have been featured in the Bridgette Mayer Gallery. Sculptor Jenny Lee Maas was prepping canvases for a gigantic mural that Casanas is creating for Front and Westmoreland streets.

As Casanas walked me around, she talked about all the art projects that she's doing, not just in Philly but in Peru and elsewhere. I struggled to keep track of them all. I asked her how she manages to keep track.

"I don't know. I don't think about it. I just do it."

Casanas just keeps sprinkling those seeds.

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong



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