Artist channels creativity, turns battle with the city into art

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Artist James Dupree is trying to save his studio. He hopes an exhibit opening tomorrow will help.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Artist James Dupree is trying to save his studio. He hopes an exhibit opening tomorrow will help.
Posted: February 28, 2014

ARTIST James Dupree says that despite the city's "You're gonna love the arts in Philly" slogan, Philadelphia hasn't been showing him any love.

Instead, Dupree said, he has been confronted with pain and despair over a continuing legal struggle with the city to keep his studio space in Mantua.

The city Redevelopment Authority wants to take his massive, 8,600 square-foot studio building, on Haverford Avenue near 36th Street, to make room for a supermarket and parking lot.

His studio is filled with 5,000 works of art - including wildly colorful pieces, mixed-media jewelry boxes with feathers, and a wall installation showing how the city helps developers take property from low-income homeowners.

To cope - even after suffering a stroke that he thinks came about because of the city's pressures - Dupree, 63, created new artwork for an exhibit opening tomorrow at his Dupree Gallery, on 6th Street near Bainbridge.

Literature for the exhibit, called "Stolen Dreams in the Promise Zone: Mask of Despair and Uncertainty," reads: "James Dupree has been living in limbo and uncertainty battling the City of Philadelphia over eminent domain laws that threaten to demolish his studio."

Dupree said last night: "Whether I want to sell or stay is my right. This is called a forced sale where they seize the deed through eminent domain."

Mark McDonald, spokesman for Mayor Nutter, wrote in an email: "The Redevelopment Authority and representatives of Mr. Dupree are working toward an amicable resolution that will accommodate both Mr. Dupree's needs and the desire to bring jobs and healthy, nutritious food to a neighborhood that needs both."

He added that when the case settles, Dupree will be paid for the property and moving costs.

Dupree said he had his property independently appraised at $2.2 million when he saw that Drexel University was expanding and building nearby.

If the Redevelopment Authority wants to buy the property, Dupree said, it should offer more than the $660,000 it first offered.

Dupree said he doesn't know how he will move the 5,000 pieces of art in his studio, which has been renovated to include three apartments, one of them an artsy "AirBNB" available for travel lodging.

One of the first works visitors to the gallery will see tomorrow is a self-portrait Dupree made shortly after suffering his stroke.

He said he learned in December 2012, seven years after buying and fixing up his Mantua property, that the Redevelopment Authority had pushed to condemn the building before a change in the eminent domain laws went into effect.

"I'm a self-made man," Dupree said yesterday.

"This community, 35 years ago, was slated for a freeway. When I bought on this block, there were 17 artists here. Now there are only two left. Why? Because we own the property."

On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN

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