As longtime members of the Philadelphia Cartoonist Society, a grassroots art collective founded by three local artists in a Fishtown basement 14 years ago, both Patchell and Dix feel like they have an entire support system behind them. “There’s no dues or anything like that, just people who like to make comics, cartoons and artwork,” Patchell says. “We help each other move house and home, get each other work and help teach classes together and guest lecture.” He adds that “many of my former students are now members of the Society and we exhibit side by side. If that’s not a symbol of an improving art scene in Philly I don’t know what is.”
The fact that Philly artists are coming together and making it happen is nothing new— hence the city’s many longtime artist collectives like the Sketch Club and alternative spaces like Vox Populi. The difference is the renewed surge. “The energy here is really amazing,” says Andrew Suggs, executive director of Vox.
Now that many of the city’s original art collectives and co-ops like Vox and Nexus have become more established—becoming nonprofits and opening their programming to include artists outside of Philly—it’s the start-ups in North Philly like Part Time Studios, Little Berlin and extra extra that are offering spaces for young artists to make the kind of artwork they want and actually have it seen. “It’s a community situation for them, but not necessarily an exhibition opportunity,” Suggs says.
Gary Steuer, the city’s chief cultural officer, says the alternative art scene has “really picked up steam within the last two to three years.” And he expects that trend to continue. “As Philly becomes more and more recognized for these alternative ventures, more artists want to come here.” Steuer says the reality is that “no one is coming to Philly to buy an original Robert Rauschenberg, But if you’re looking for the next Robert Rauschenberg, that you will find.”
For Suggs, the idea that in many ways, “you’re not in competition with the commercial scene,” is one of the most exciting things to happen to the art scene in Philly.
Despite having been shooed away (on behalf of complaining gallery owners) by officials from the Department of Licenses & Inspections earlier this past summer, the decades-long tradition of hawking art on the street appears unfazed. During last month’s First Friday, local artisans braved dropping temperatures to sell their array of works—jewelry, knits, ceramics, prints, you name it—along Second Street in Old City just as they have since spring. “Caricatures, one dollar! One dollar! Caricatures, one dollar!” yells one young woman aggressively pursuing the attention of pedestrians quickly bustling in and out of many of the fine-art galleries on the strip.
Dix points out that “all those people on the street are people who could never even imagine trying to get into those galleries.”
And really, they don’t need to.
Alex Styer, program director for Philly Art Alliance, agrees that things have changed over the last three to five years, and that while galleries are still relevant, they’re just not as vital to an artist’s success as they once were. “You don’t need gallery representation,” Styer says. “Marketing doesn’t have as much weight as it used to … you don’t need to have your show mentioned in the Inquirer’s Sunday Arts Preview. That’s not the end all, be all in the art scene anymore.”
As one of the few local artists making a living solely on their art, Yis Goodwin aka “Nose Go,” is a prime example of this liberating movement—he got his first big break while in college when he entered and won Converse’s nationwide sneaker design and his shoe was distributed worldwide. In addition to having covered the city with his vibrant street art—two murals with Mural Arts Program and installations in too many places for him to count—the South Philly native has exhibited work in galleries across the country. An original Nose Go currently sells for an affordable $300-$400 while commissioned pieces garner $1,000 to $2,000. “I’m often told I under price it,” Goodwin says. “But I don’t need to sell it for like a ridiculous price.” Goodwin’s production company, Broken Compass Studios, also just launched its first iPhone app—a hand-painted game called “Cat Ball Eats It All.” “It’s meant to feel like you’re playing a piece of art,” he says.
Still, as successful as the 26-year-old has been traveling the nontraditional route, there’s a sense of acclaim that comes along with gallery acceptance that, deep down, every young artist can’t help but want. Two summers ago, Goodwin co-curated “Made in American,” a group show at TRUST Gallery. It was a dream come true. “I was so stoked that I got to be doing a show inside of it and have all the artists that I wanted,” he says. But his excitement was quickly squashed. “I guess some of the work wasn’t the owners’ cup of tea so they made us take down the entire show after the opening night,” says Goodwin.
Fortunately, he always has the streets. Goodwin recently participated in “WheatPaste Your Heart Out,” a citywide project curated by friends Dietrich Meyer and Linnea Vegh—two artists with no interest in trying to get into the Old City commercial galleries.
Back in September, the two 24-year-olds nailed 30 large wood panels to walls of abandoned buildings and other public areas across the city where, for about six weeks, they served as a blank canvas for Philly street artists. “We put up the panels in various parts of the city to see what would happen, to essentially let them grow organically over time and leave them up to the elements,” says Vegh, a New Jersey native who recently graduated from the University of the Arts.
The duo originally intended to go the legit route and ask local businesses to agree to display the panels, but that didn’t pan out. “A lot of businesses didn’t like the thought of inviting people to come and essentially put graffiti up on their walls,” says Meyer, an Art Institute dropout who’s living off his savings. “They were afraid it would invite people to go and actually deface the buildings themselves.”
So they took matters into their own hands.
“Wheatpasting is fun because it’s anonymous,” says Vegh, a barista by day. “You can just put stuff up, you can make a statement, you don’t have to answer for it and you don’t have to worry about finding gallery space.”
After spending the past few years immersed in the alternative art scene sprouting up in Fishtown, Kensington and Port Richmond, Vegh and Meyer finally got to see their artistic experiment come to life last month, as every inch of wall space inside Vox’s AUX Space was temporarily wheatpasted—the array of artwork including everything from photo collages and poster art to hand-drawn illustrations and paintings. Underneath, the wooden boards the two young artists had spent months agonizing over were almost undetectable. Capping off the installation, a graffiti-covered honor box and construction divider were placed in the center of the room.
On a large map of the city, Vegh meticulously denoted the original locations of all 30 panels with pushpins. By the time she and Meyer went back to retrieve the panels, a total of nine had been jacked. Those that remained had been covered from top to bottom.
While a DJ blasted club beats in the corner, Vegh’s boyfriend manned a makeshift bar selling craft beers and raffle tickets for a chance to win one of the plywood panels. With the exception of only one panel, the entire instillation had been the work of their friends, many of whom had been there alongside them till 3 a.m that morning helping to install the show and had now returned to join them in celebrating.
“Seeing the panels finally up was one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever felt,” Meyer says. “I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.”
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