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Sunday, September 22, 2013

ICON Magazine City Beat, September 2013

We took a magical mystery tour with Jane Golden through the streets of North Philly, Germantown, Northern Liberties and Fishtown to see new work by the Mural Arts Project. After presenting us with two MAP books, Philly Painting, and Peace is a Haiku Song, Jane joined us in a van driven by Cari Feiler Bender, President of Relief Communications. Cari, who drove us to the 20-plus murals on the list, maneuvered city traffic, stop lights and traffic jams with PPD patrol car-like confidence. We headed up N. College Ave. to view the Arise and Reclaim mural then zigzagged to the Henry Ossawa Tanner: Letters of Influence mural, circled and redoubled to visit Cancer Support for Life on 22nd Street before averting another traffic jam (and two kids on tricycles) near the Moving Towards Greatness mural on the William B. Kelly School. Stepping up her pace, Cari passed stalled Septa buses and made a wide arc around jaywalkers while breezing down Cecil B. Moore Avenue, then Diamond Street and finally onto Broad and Christian where we were face to face with mural Grover Washington, Jr. With saxophones on our mind, we hit Broad and York and paid homage to the Horrace Pippin mural before heading to the tour’s mother lode, the Philly Painting Project, the multi-block stretch of painted buildings on Germantown Avenue. Regrouping at the Garden of Eden Regained mural near 7th and Dauphin, we headed for The Jewel Box mural (a Babette’s Feast for the eyes) near Howard and Berks Streets. During the tour, Jane asked us what we thought about the latest push to have her run for mayor. “It’s a flattering proposal, Jane,” we offered, “but being mayor is not who Jane Golden is. Politics is ugly, and being mayor would force you to become somebody you’re not: a rat. Art is pure; Art is good, whereas City Hall is a Macevellian hornet’s nest.” Jane gave our comments a high-five, then went on to mention an invitation she received to repaint a mural she personally created years ago in Los Angeles. Though practically a girl when she applied the final LA masterstroke, she was not too shy to knock on Jane Fonda’s door and ask if she’d be willing to speak at the mural’s dedication. An excited Fonda responded: “Of course I will. I’ve always wanted to meet you. I’ve been watching you paint the mural from the very beginning!”

Though we are hardly fans of the American gun culture, this does mean that we would turn down an invitation to a picnic-barbecue-rock music gun raffle just outside of Lancaster. Surrounded by hundreds of redneck revelers, tents and a large trailer dispensing free draft beer, we mingled with the crowds on a large grassy field bordered by tall trees on an over cast Saturday afternoon and listened to a band belt out Eagles tunes as people drank, danced, and bought scores of raffle tickets for expensive prizes. We talked with Betsy, on her tenth beer, who told us about her abusive ex-husband and the seven people who live in her head. We observed women over sixty years of age in mullets or long bleached blond hair; cyclists with long beards and tattoos; farmer types with pints of bourbon sticking out of their back pockets, and suburban observer types. We met Dan, a young Amish farmer, whose blond “bowl” hair cut stuck out like a beacon of light. Dan seemed to have many friends among the locals. He was on sixth beer when we worked up the nerve to ask him about the suds. “Isn’t beer a no-no for the Amish?” Smiling benignly, Dan said, “Beer is okay as long as the Elders don’t find out, but if they do, the punishment isn’t much worse than a slap on the wrist.” Dan’s brother, whose head wasn’t shaped like a bowl, downed his brews and said that he left the church some time ago but that he was not shunned. “All Amish do not shun,” he said. “My family does not shun. We are close. Don’t believe half of what you see on Breaking Amish.” As gun raffles go, trying to spot a gun was difficult. We don’t know what we expected to see--people taking turns playing William Tell?—but it was certainly more than just one (unloaded) raffle gun being carried about as a display item. If you had visited the raffle not knowing what kind of event it was, you would have walked away thinking it was a reunion of locals. While making our exit, we spotted Betsy at the free indoor clubhouse bar, on her twentieth beer, still happy as a clam. “You know,” she confessed, “I don’t even like guns. In fact, I hate guns, but I just looooove coming’ here!”

We ran into architect Al Holm and his wife Nancy at the 2013 Retirement Exhibit at Old City’s Artists’ House Gallery. Owner Lorraine Riesenbach, who oversaw more than 200 AHG exhibits, was calling it quits after twenty years of showing the work of emerging Philly artists. Riesenbach, of course, made headlines years ago when she started classes at the More College of Art at age 52. After that she became a full time student at PAFA, a brave move considering that most of the student body probably thought of her as Grandma Moses. Among the hundreds of guests was PAFA grand dame (and teacher since 1966) Elizabeth Osborne, whose work has been called “monumental, hallucinatory landscapes,” and “one of the most innovative and daring Philadelphia-based artists of the last 40 years.” In a backroom, where the hors d’oeuvres were as plentiful as they were in the front room, we bumped into Leah Stein, who started to tell us about her dance company when the crowd swelled to Wildwood boardwalk proportions, and separated us for good.

We were invited to artist Diane Burko and [husband] Richard Ryan’s home and studio on South Juniper Street for a dinner of glacial proportions. The couple’s house is pure Architectural Digest, perhaps one of the grandest spaces in Center City. The ascendant structure of it very much suits Burko’s work: landscapes depicting glaciers, waterfalls and canyons that often illustrate the effects of climate change. “I love the earth and watching it change,” Burko told a reporter during her Locks Gallery 2010 show, Politics of Snow, where she documented climate change effects on the Grinnell Glacier from 1938 onwards. Burko travels the world—the high Arctic and Antarctica—and prefers photographing glaciers from the air, which usually means she’s hanging out of airplanes or dangling precariously over cliffs. The result: time-lapse glacier portraits in which weather change deteriorations can be clearly seen. (Ironically, the closer these glaciers get to climate change death, the more beautiful and colorful they become). As for husband Richard’s multi course dinner, it was the polar opposite of a glacial melt down. We liked it when Diane explained how she had once given a dinner party for writer Edmund White after the publication of his biography, Genet. Of course, we are very glad that that dinner party was for White and not a 1980s fete for Genet, because had it been for Genet it would have meant a lot of stolen silverware.

Our summer vacation had us flying out to western Colorado for a stay at Mesa Winds Farms & Winery, near Hotchkus, where we were greeted by Wink, originally from New England. Tall and perpetually sunburned, Wink is part of the Valley Organic Growers Association of sustainable agriculture in western Colorado. These farms are numerous, with names like Peace & Plenty Farm, Redlands Mesa Grange, West Elk Hop Farm, and Aloha Organic Fruit. Many of them attract people like Wink and his wife Max, educated émigrés from the east coast attracted by the state’s vibrant community of farms.
Max, who could easily play Isak Dinesen in a new film version of Out of Africa, gathered us on the patio as Wink prepared a wine tasting. Colorado is relatively new to the winery racket but the western slopes have more than their fair share of pop up wineries. Going to a wine tasting has become a local sport. During the drive to Mesa Farms, for instance, we passed signs inviting travelers to come in for sips. Many of these small wineries have names like Delicious Orchards, Liliputian or Terror Creek Winery and were located along the most perilous roads that skirt along the edges of steep cliffs without the benefit of guardrails. In Colorado, if you’re stupid enough to drive drunk on a winding mountain road, the inevitable crash off a cliff is your own dumb luck.
No sooner did Wink explain the attributes of a special MW Pinot Noir than we were hit by a violent squall blowing in like an Old Testament judgment. The sunny, desert mountain scenery became Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz, forcing Wink to jump up and remove the patio canopy, which almost blew away like a hot air balloon. In a few seconds, however, it’s all over. Generally, squall winds are so intense they can blow open the doors of the nearby MW cabins.
The dead of night silence at MW Farms can be disconcerting, especially to noise-conditioned easterners. At 2 a.m. we heard a dirge-like wail that seemed to be a mix of coyote, hyena and human baby sounds. The auditory oddity forced us to turn on the bedroom light (and keep it on, then head to the bathroom window where we attempted to find the source. The pitch blackness, however, revealed nothing. Instead, our eyes were drawn to the sky, a dead ringer for Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

When it comes to tall buildings, some things in Philadelphia never change. At a Center City Residents Association (CCRA) meeting recently, many Fitler Square residents lined up to oppose Carl Draoff’s proposed 21-story One Riverside Project along Schuylkill River. “Out of place," "out of scale," "Too tall," many said, reminding us of the canned reactions and empty cliché responses we heard in 1986 when developer Willard Rouse attempted to break the city’s building height limit. The fact is, stodgy Philadelphians of a certain ilk have always opposed tall buildings. Philadelphia's buildings are still too short and squat, and its skyline fades in comparison to many other cities. What annoys us the most is the fact that Draoff’s project is nowhere near Fitler Square but actually sits on the waterfront, meaning it very much in place and totally in scale.