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Monday, June 6, 2011
There may be nothing quite like it in the nation: student artists with their work on display mingling with potential patrons and buyers in a party circuit atmosphere where the only “bad” vibe is a theatrical frown or two because the generous open bar has just run out of champagne.
For an art lover, events like this don’t get any better.
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ (PAFA) 110th Annual Student Exhibition (May 13-June 5, 2011) preview this year hit a milestone. The word in the crowd is that the works on exhibit from third-and-fourth year students, as well as Bachelor of Fine Arts and graduating Master of Fine Arts students, was better than ever.
After years of unglamorous solitary creation in the “dorms” of studios, classes, and trial by fire experimentations (which inevitably include a fair share of artistic failures), the PAFA student finally has the opportunity to help arrange their first show. For the emerging student-to-adult artist ready to step into the world as a creator, the Annual Student Exhibition is a crucial first step. The exhibition’s preview party, besides being a great opportunity for artists to chat with potential buyers, also doubles as a serious competition and critical venue for these (almost) former students.
Since most of the works on the three floor exhibition space exhibition are for sale, the air of expectation among the artists is high.
Will the public respond favorably? Or will they walk past and nod politely, their eyes set on the next artist’s work?
“I think this years’ show is a good looking show in terms of installation,” Jill Rupinski, PAFA’s Appointed Faculty and ASE Coordinator told me by phone. “The students did a really good job in putting a more professional look on the show in terms of editing their work, and thinking hard about what they wanted to show. This was less concern about throwing everything up on the walls in terms of selling work.”
With the work of 128 student artists on display, Rupinski says there’s more crossover work this year as well, with sculptors doing painting and vice versa. And sales so far have been good, with some works commanding what Rupinski calls “hefty prices,” especially among graduate students who left careers to return to school.
“We always say to the students, if you get a large price for a piece you may not get that large a price after school. We tell them that our venue, the annual student exhibition, is heavily marketed and advertised.”
The Exhibition comes on the cusp of school graduation, when exhibiting students will pack up the paintings that don’t sell and implement plans to head home, wherever that may be.
I got a taste of this when I visited the PAFA studio of Master of Fine Arts Exhibitor Roman Serra.
Serra, who hails from Detroit, grew up on a farm and worked as a landscaper before winning a scholarship to the school. An abstract artist, his small studio is identical to the other students’, about as large as a boxy efficiency apartment. Sectioned off in an old automotive warehouse with an exposed factory-like ceiling, the off-white walls in the cubicle are paint splattered as is the floor.
“People like the floor,” Roman tells me, “but before I leave for Detroit I have to repaint the walls, though you can see the hearts my girlfriend painted there.”
I look up and notice half a drawn heart, the other half hidden behind one of Serra’s works.
In this vast space student voices can be heard coming from other cubicles. Most seem to be packing to leave their studios for good. Along the hallway are bunches of stacked paintings, awaiting U-Haul or SUV transport.
Serra, who plans on studying and working in Italy in September, and who has an upcoming exhibition at The Sporting Club at the Bellevue, tells me that the groundbreaking shovel he designed for the Lenfest Plaza groundbreaking was chosen as the winning shovel over other student-designed shovels.
“I did something different than what other people did. I made it into a staff of power, a sort of Shaman’s staff . I carved it with a diamond blade grinder. I wanted it to have a special quality. The school was impressed with what I did. Then they asked if I would be a presenter at the groundbreaking and if I would carry a 65 pound paint brush and present it to Mrs. Lenfest.”
Serra says he’s disappointed that his Philadelphia experience has been on the mediocre side.
“I think Chicago was a better city for my work. There are a lot of conservative tastes in Philadelphia when it comes to buying work. It’s been hard for me to support myself.”
Sometime during our chat, Serra mentions a friend, Tyler Kline, who has a studio on the other side of his.
I met Kline rather serendipitously while touring the preview party. Kline, a slight of build guy with a small goatee, was pacing in a remote corner of the exhibition space some distance away from his work when we began speaking.
He told me he is primarily a sculptor and describes his work as something that’s “after post modern.”
“It’s grotesque romanticism for this new 21st century,” he said, “which has been shaped by the September 11 attacks and this ongoing holy war.”
He tells me that there is a political element in his work but that he tries not to make it “upfront.” “There are certain veiled things alluded to, a lot of it is allegory.”
“I’m concerned with not being overly obvious, in not creating things that are quickly read. Ten years ago I was doing overly political paintings and I look back now and realize that I was just perpetuating an aesthetic—perpetuating things that I didn’t want to happen.” A native or Portland, Oregon, Kline’s political paintings then had a lot to do with the World Trade Organization protests in that city.
Kline, who bought a house with his wife some time ago in what he calls a “fringe area between between East Falls and Germantown,” plans to make Philadelphia his home. “Philadelphia is not the art market place that New York is, and most artists here can’t make a living from selling art. I think Philly has Manhattan beat as far as things being produced in the city. It has Brooklyn beat.”
He tells me about his membership in an arts collective, what he calls an “alternative performance/installation laboratory for the Creative Arts,” the Little Berlin Gallery on West Montgomery Avenue.
An avid skateboarder, Kline says he skates around the city in order to “watch the urban space.”
“One corner of urban renewal instead of the gentrification of neighborhoods in the building of condos, is building alternative spaces. Now we have working class artists buying houses and turning around these spaces. Skate parks,” he said, “are popping up in underused playgrounds that were formerly open air drug markets.”
While the PAFA preview party offers its fair share of spotting ‘Who’s Who,’ —I’m thinking especially of watching Gerry Lenfest pour himself coffee and getting to ask if anybody asked him for money today—that was not always the case. Thrity years ago, Rupinski says, the preview parties were “less of a cohesive effort in advertising,” and that during the party things were so quiet “you could hear a pin drop.”
But preview parties for some of the artists can be rough. Rupinski tells me that faculty members then are on the lookout for artists who seem to be having a meltdown because nobody is talking to them about their work. “This also is an education,” she says, “so we go over and talk them up.”
“When there’s a dull moment for a student, I see them standing there all pretty in their finer attire and I come over and say, ‘Tell me about your art, talk to me.”
The Dean of the School of Fine Arts agrees.
“The Annual Student Exhibition is perhaps the single most important event in the school year,” Jeffrey Carr told me. “It draws together all the various elements of the Academy, museum and academic programs, and it is a clear statement of what we are and what PAFA values. We are a strictly fine arts school and also a unique combination of school and museum committed to the evolving diversity and vitality of the fine arts in America.”
THE LAST WORD
When most people think of the Pearl S. Buck house they think of the sprawling 60-acre estate in Bucks County. But long before the women’s rights crusader, philanthropist, humanitarian and author moved to this house (or Green Hills Farm) she lived at 2019 Delancey Street in Center City.
The Delancey Street house, despite its having been occupied by the author of over 70 books and the winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature for “The Good Earth,” is registered with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as the Richard Cadwalader house. Built in 1860 for Cadwalader in the Federal style, the multiple dwelling row house was later recast in the Beaux Arts style in 1918 by the Philadelphia architectural firm of DeArmond, Ashmead & Bickley.
DeArmond, Ashmead & Bickley (1911-1938), all University of Pennsylvania graduates, were famous for their colonial revival residences and English-influenced style buildings. They also designed (the long demolished) Franklin Trust Company Building at 18 South 15th Street in Philadelphia.
It was in this Center City house where Ms. Buck compiled her 1972 short story collection, “Once upon a Christmas.” Other holiday stories like “Christmas Miniature,” (1957), “The Christmas Ghost,” (1960) and “Christmas Day in the Morning,” may also have been written in the Delancey Street townhouse.
The 9,000 square foot, 5-floor townhouse was purchased in 1964 as the home of Pearl Buck and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation. While the basement and first floor was renovated for use as Foundation space, the second floor was designed to house the dining room, a formal drawing room and the solarium or Sun Room where Buck had large numbers of plants.
With the famous Rosenbach Museum and Library just a few doors away at 2008-2010 Delancey Street, it’s no wonder that Buck saw this area as a special part of Center City. Although it was the informal, tumultuous Sixties, when Ms. Buck called 2019 Delancey Street home, she was often referred to as “Miss Buck.” When in Center City it is said that she dressed like a society matron, but when she was her Bucks County home she was far more informal.
The octagonal-shaped dining room was lavishly decorated with a Ming screen with inlaid ivory figures. A long Chinese buffet table was also situated under a smoked glass mirror. Since the dining room also doubled as a place for dancing, the octagonal table could be rolled into a closet and the chandelier could be raised or lowered as needed.
“Why did I choose Center City, you ask?” Pearl S. Buck once wrote. “Because there was a street, there was the house, there were the people. There, too, was the tradition of brotherly love…” Buck also wrote that no matter where she lived there were always elements of the Chinese. “Sooner or later into every room in any house I own the Chinese influence creeps.”
At 2019 Delancey, the 3rd floor library contained a baby grand piano, the famous “Good Earth Desk,” an ancient Chinese drum on a pedestal which acted as a coffee table, as well as leather bound editions of her books given her as gifts by her publisher. Much of the furniture was imported from the Buck house in China, namely the rose and tan Peking rugs, the Blackwood chairs, and a daybed.
The 3rd floor Master Bedroom had a small sitting room and a writing table.
One walked through the 1st Floor entryway into a vestibule that exploded with red lacquered doors, stained glass and a large statue of the Chinese goddess of Mercy. Beyond the foyer, near the fireplace with its flanking Mandarin Chinese chairs, was an altar table flanked by two antique candelabra.
During the renovation of the townhouse in 1964-65, the first floor kitchen was moved to the basement and the former kitchen became the Foundation’s conference room. In the center of the conference room was a six foot round table made of walnut and yellow marble.
Many of Buck’s Delancey Street townhouse treasures were moved to the Bucks County home when the townhouse was sold.
Of special note is the wrought iron gate on the front door. Artistically designed to downplay its use as a “guard” against intruders, the design of the mail slot is of special interest.
If you’re attending the Rosenbach’s Bloomsday celebration on June 16 from 12:00 pm to 7:00 pm when 75 Philadelphians will take turns reading sections from James Joyce’s Ulysses (I will be reading at 5:30pm), you might want to observe the proceedings from Miss Buck’s steps.
After Osama Bin Laden was shot dead by Special OPs forces in Pakistan, thousands of people, many of them students, took to the streets in celebration. Many of the revelers, who were in middle school when the 9/11 attacks occurred, responded in a way that more mature adults did not. Much of the celebratory frenzy that occurred in front of the White House, on college campuses, Times Square and Ground Zero, was like a big sports stadium roar. The reaction was definitely middle school behavior. But shouting, “USA, USA!” reduced bin Laden’s death to a gross manifestation of nationalism, as if America was a hockey team en route to a Stanley Cup victory. The hoopla seemed to suggest that the world’s troubles were over, when in fact the opposite is probably true. Cautious optimism and focused meditation, not frat party mayhem, should have been the rule that day. Why? Because when it comes to the psychology of war, one retaliatory strike breeds another.
Will the Talibun target President Obama during the 2012 campaign in the same way that Osama was targeted in May 2011? Only time will tell whether killing Bin Laden was a good thing, or whether having him fade away, his whereabouts unknown, would have been the better alternative.
Bin Laden’s rushed burial at sea (in the water or buried in the ground under the water?) must have seemed anti-climatic to most people, despite the comments of Tariq Ali, the noted Pakistani writer and activist, who noted, “Why wasn’t he captured alive and tried in a court of law to prove him guilty?” But it was the disposal of the body according to the rituals of Islam that struck me as most peculiar. I had a hard time imagining how the soul of a terrorist of Bin Laden’s ilk could possibly have benefited spiritually from prayers and an anointing after death. Perhaps in God’s great universe this makes an illogical sort of sense, but for the loved ones of the thousands killed on 9/11, a “holy” send off like this must somehow seem perversely incongruent. I suppose, ultimately, the (reported) reverence shown Bin Laden’s body stands as a reminder of death’s transcendent realm: We may be judge, jury and executioner here, but when it comes to the great unknown, we don’t necessarily have the last “word.”
In March, Philadelphia police had to close John F. Kennedy Plaza (or Love Park) because there were threats of flash mob activity. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News, police spent some time chasing bands of young people in an attempt to curtail rowdy behavior. Disturbances on South Street also punctuated the day.
While police reported no violence or destruction of public property during these episodes, several arrests were made. Love Park was also closed for several hours in anticipation of further flash mob activity. The closure prevented visitors, tourists and office workers from enjoying the park on a beautiful spring day.
So what gives with the City of Brotherly Love?
In the days of Mayor Frank Rizzo, this sort of behavior would have been nipped in the bud. School kids, although minors, would have been hauled into jail and then turned over to their parents, or maybe the parents would have been arrested. The candy-coated, velvet glove “Ah, come on, they’re just kids” treatment would not have played out in Rizzo’s Philadelphia. But then was then and now is now as they say, and now is not so good, especially with the warmer weather here.
Mayor Nutter’s promise to crack down on flash mob activity comes after the horses have left the stable. The kids, or the culprits in question, don’t seem to mind his threats.
When gangs of school kids have the police chasing them around Laurel and Hardy style, you know those threats are basically meaningless.
When flash mobs first surfaced over a year or so ago, many nervous progressive types made all sorts of excuses for the behavior. There were Op-Ed editorials calling for more “after school” programs. Voices calling for the arrest of the students or their parents were criticized as being “racist” and “cruel.” But where is it written that any kid, be they Asian, Italian, Irish, African American or Indian, can team up with ethic or racial peers and hold a city hostage?
The Nutter Administration seems to be handling the problem on a case-by-case basis, as the incidents occur. This “damage control” approach to the problem has not prevented the mobs from reinventing themselves. Again, the kids do not feel intimidated or frightened because they keep doing it.
Two weeks ago, while crossing Market Street in Center City on a late Wednesday afternoon, a group of African American female students were crossing in the opposite direction. Walking beside me was a middle aged white woman, probably coming home from work. Suddenly and without warning one of the students jumped in the woman’s face and began screaming at the top of her lungs. The incident took all of five seconds, and may not have been much by urban standards, but it displayed an attitude that’s become all too common these days: callous disregard for other people’s rights and feelings. That small action, despite the fact that nobody was touched or physically harmed, constituted a kind of assault.
It would have been the same thing had a white girl screamed in the face of an older black woman-- same offense; same ignorance.
The woman was understandably shaken, but what could she do? Scenes like this have become normal in the City of Brotherly Love, and that’s the sad part. As a city we are building a tough collective hide that processes but then tunes out incidents like this. We’ve come to accept outrageous rudeness as “part of what it’s like to live in the city,” although if we were to compare Philadelphia to other cities we would discover that this is anything but the case, even though violence-prone flash mobs have occurred in Boston and New Jersey. That’s not true, however, in Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, or even Detroit.
Frank Rizzo in the 1970s often went overboard when it came to maintaining public order, but one thing was certain: Philly was a safe city then.
As I see it, the way to eliminate flash mobs or random (group) teenage hooliganism, such as the March 4, 2011 incident at the Shops of Liberty Place when at least two dozen teens kicked over food and display tables in the Food Court, is to immediately implement the following:
Eliminate the “free ride” Septa transpass system for students, prohibit teens from gathering in groups of ten or more, and hold parents responsible for injuries or damages inflicted on homes or businesses during a flash mob
Since we can’t bring Frank Rizzo back from the dead, we can at least implement some useful, workable Rizzo-like solutions
Why Pope John Paul II is not a saint: As Catholic writer Michael Matt noted, “No man is great until history judges him so, which is why the rush to beatify John Paul strikes many Catholics as an attempt to preemptively overrule history’s inevitable verdict against a problematic pontificate that left the human element of the Catholic Church in chaos.”
Sunday, June 5, 2011
The following email from Matthew Gambino, General Manager of the Philadelphia Catholic Standard and Times, was sent to me the other day. It concerns a letter to the editor of mine that the CS&T approved and edited for publication, and then in fact did publish, giving it a prominent "framed" space in the newspaper.
The letter mentioned a family wedding I attended in a Catholic parish in Media. I wrote about the general mayhem and loud talking among the congregation before Mass. The point of the letter was to attempt to address a problem that seems to exist in a lot of Catholic parishes today. In the letter I also expressed disappointment in the wedding homily.
This letter, as I said, was approved for publication and then published prominently in the newspaper. I received many comments afterwards thanking me for writing it (from priests and neighbors). Almost everyone I spoke to agreed that the loud talking issue before Mass in many Catholic churches is an issue that should be addressed.
It should also be noted that I did not use the priest's name in my letter to the CS&T, but merely mentioned "the priest." He could have been a visiting priest. Regardless, the letter--my words--were initially approved for publication.
After my letter to the CS&T was published, I wrote the editor and asked if the CS&T would like to reprint an article of mine on sacred architecture previously published in The Philadelphia Bulletin.
I did receive a response from Mr. Gambino, but it was not about sacred architecture.
It shoud be noted that after reading Mr. Gambino's letter, I opted to telephone him as well. Mr. Gambino told me that he would have canceled my subscription had I been a subscriber to the newspaper. Mr. Gambino laughed at me when I pointed out that issues like wild talking and socializing before Mass need to be addressed.
The unprofessional behavior of the CS&T is disturbing.
MY PUBLISHED LETTER IN THE CATHOLIC STANDARD & TIMES:
I attended a wedding Mass at this beautiful church about a month ago. It was my first time in Nativity and the architecture and interior design of the church seemed to promise an equally beautiful ceremony. As a side note, it was good to see that the "remodeling" frenzy that followed Vatican II did not harm Nativity in any way.
While the church was beautiful, I was disappointed in the quality of the Mass at this particular wedding. Before Mass, people stood and talked--in fact, they talked quite loudly--all over the church. Initially there was a tendency to whisper but this soon gave way to reception-like normal voices, and even laughter. Gone was the traditional quiet one used to expect (before Mass) in Catholic churches. It was like sitting in a cafeteria and watching old friends say hello to one another after slapping each other on the back.
The pastor should address this problem in one of his sermons in the future. There was plenty of time to chat and "get down" after the Mass.
Another disappointing thing about the Mass,was the homily. The priest, rather than using the pulpit to speak, stood in front of the couple and talked to them like he was chatting them up in a bar. He kept saying, "Wow, they met in Barnaby's, wow, isn't God great, wow, oh wow!"
I lost count of the "wow's" after a while, but many of the people around me in the pews seemed to be wincing. The off the cuff homily was pure stream of consciousness bar talk. The only thing missing was a high five and a baseball cap.
One expects something more formal at a wedding. A litany of WOW's might be okay at the reception, but we don't need to hear this very dumbed down and condescending talk in the middle of Mass.
Sorry to have to write this.
Date: Fri, 03 Jun 2011 12:25:43 -0400
From: "Matthew Gambino"
Subject: Re: Fwd: church architecture submission
Well, if it isn't Thom Nickels, the man who wrote a letter to the editor
which we published May 26. Publishing that letter was a mistake for
which I am truly sorry.
You could not stop at a good comment about the beautiful church. You
had to complain, as if there are not enough complaints in the world
today. You took a cheap shot at the priest -- you didn't have to name
him, he is the only priest at that parish. It wasn't enough that you had
to criticize his homily, you had to call it and him "dumbed down and
You couldn't bring yourself to keep a mean-spirited insult to a fine
man and fine priest to yourself. You had to express it. And so you
insulted him and every priest trying his best to preach and minister to
Again, I regret bitterly that we published your letter; we never should
have allowed such garbage in this newspaper.
Please, save your strength in the future. Send no further
correspondence or phone calls or any communication to the Catholic
Standard and Times. I wanted to cancel your subscription but I see you
are not a subscriber.
Keep your complaints and your negativity to yourself. The world does
not need them. Make the gripe article you sent the last thing you ever
send this newspaper. Your name will never appear in it again.
Director and General Manager
The Catholic Standard and Times
Archdiocese of Philadelphia
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103