Philadelphia: Craft City

Philadelphia: Craft City

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The exhibition “New Ancient Structures” at the Space 1026 displayed the work of AJ Fosik and Andrew Schoultz.

Adam Wallacavage

The birthplace of the United States remains to this day a center for forward thought.

In 1990 the jeweler Jan Yager had been working in Philadelphia for seven years and needed a fresh start. She decided that from then on all of her work would be inspired by objects or happenings within two blocks of her Philadelphia studio.

"For years I had cast a blind eye on my daily surroundings," Yager explains. "I began to understand that as an artist I should speak about my own place and my own time." That's when she started gathering the thousands of crack vials and syringes that littered the surrounding streets and using them to create disturbing yet striking necklaces, bracelets and even tiaras. After many years of making these pieces, she has found a new interest just outside her door-her more recent work is deeply rooted in botany, which stemmed from studying local weeds.

Of course the crack epidemic of the 90s and overgrown weeds are just two of many (usually more positive) inspirations that artists have found in this World Series-winning city over the past 300 years. When Adam Wallacavage, a designer and photographer (who took the photographs for this article), bought his South Philadelphia Victorian brownstone, he saw the potential to create something really extraordinary. "It was a blank slate where I could make up a new style inspired by Art Nouveau, Victorian, Baroque, the Munsters and the Addams Family." It was when he was designing his dining room eight years ago that he first began creating his octopus chandeliers. "I wanted the room to be a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea theme," Wallacavage explains. "I taught myself ornamental plaster work and decorated the walls and ceilings with elaborate moldings. Then I decided to make functional chandeliers. It was so much fun that I never stopped making them."

For all of the various influences one might find in Philadelphia, perhaps more than anything, the city is known for its history. Visitors come from around the world to visit the birthplace of the United States. But it is not just a place for tourists; people are drawn to it and then remain. Part of the attraction stems from Philadelphia's proximity to New York City and its art scene-less than two hours away-while maintaining a relatively low cost of living. This has brought many New Yorkers into town, especially artists looking for more studio space. The relationship between the two cities is so close that some refer to Philadelphia as the "sixth borough."

Let's not forget, however, that Philadelphia is not dependent on New York to get its culture fix. As home to over 1.4 million people and the sixth most populous city in the United States, Philadelphia has major cultural advantages in itself. "The energy of Philadelphia drew me in when I moved from Michigan six years ago," says Jeff Guido, the artistic director of the Clay Studio, a nonprofit that offers exhibition and studio space to artists-in-residence, as well as ceramics classes. "For a major East Coast city it's incredibly affordable while also being hugely supportive of the arts."

Walking through the Old City section with its cobblestone streets, historic buildings and charming shops, it's easy to see the appeal. "When I first moved here from Boston I liked that the city felt more egalitarian," furniture maker Michael Hurwitz says. "There was basically more opportunity for people at the bottom of the food chain. Philadelphia was as I imagined the u.s. to be 100 years earlier-with different groups of immigrants scrambling to stake out a claim and scratch out a living."

Hurwitz has more than scratched out a living in the four-story building where he lives and works with his wife, Mami Kato, a sculptor, and their nine-year-old daughter. He is a prominent woodworker whose furniture is in numerous private and public collections, including those of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Old City is a congenial neighborhood with a multitude of galleries such as Snyderman-Works, Wexler Gallery and Moderne Gallery. Step into any of these places and witness the work of both well-established and up-and-coming artists-includ-ing much created by local talent, such as the vintage furniture of George Nakashima at Moderne, the magnificent textile work of Mi-Kyoung Lee at Snyderman-Works and Doug Bucci's futuristic jewelry at Wexler. Visit the Wood Turning Center to not just view the works in the gallery but also spend some time learning more through speakers and seminars. Or take one of the many classes offered to the pub-lic at the Clay Studio. If wood or ceramics doesn't spark an interest, head over to Center City and visit the Fabric Workshop and Museum, where tours and educational programming are available.

Teachers like jewelry designer Bucci, who is a professor at Moore, continue to push the city's art education to new levels. Bucci is a leader in a new type of design-jewelry created with cad software that is then sent to Rapid Prototyping systems to create a 3-d object-and has found the city to be the perfect home for someone such as himself who is looking towardsthe future. "Philadelphia is the place of our first capital, first mint, first art school in the United States and many other firsts," Bucci says. "It is the ground where forward thought has always occurred."

Being a "city of firsts" wouldn't mean much though if Philadelphia couldn't maintain a strong hold on what it pioneered. Craft has dug its heels into Philadelphia, and one of the greatest examples of this is the thriving glass community. Christopher Lydon was pursuing a b.f.a. in craft from University of the Arts when he discovered glassblowing. Although the school didn't have a specific glass program, Lydon took every class he could. He decided to make Philadelphia his home base and has found growing success ever since. "Every single day I wake up and ask myself 'How am I managing to get away with this?'" he says, while at the same time crediting the glass community for the large network of support it provides.

The glass scene has exploded in the past decade and Lydon's fellow glassblower Bernard Katz has borne witness to this evolution. "The current glass scene has grown tremendously since I first started my studio in 1996," says Katz, who spent 20 years as a production glassblower before branching out on his own. "Throughout the area public glass studios and classes have helped the glass community thrive."

Those studios include the only public hot shop in Philadelphia, East Falls Glassworks, owned by Jon Goldberg, and Philadelphia Glass Works, which was founded by Ian Kerr and Nathan Purcell in 2003 to offer classes and torch rentals for lampworking. When Philadelphia Glass Works outgrew their space in 2005, they moved into their current location, where they have not only a larger studio but also Silica Galleries, which showcases the work of Purcell and Lydon, among others. "I feel we are at the beginning of a new American glass movement and Philadelphia is leading the way," says creative director Kerr. "The more artists that have moved here, the more creative energy started flowing and a number of artists began to produce some very original works." Goldberg agrees, pointing out that Philadelphia has one of the largest populations of glassmakers outside of the Pacific Northwest.

These positive feelings reflect a mind-set that has been with Philadelphia since its inception. Like the rest of the country, the city is facing major economic challenges. But even with the murmurings about lackluster sales, there seems to be a belief that Philadelphia will not be down for long. "It is a 'Revolutionary' city," says Bucci. "After all, it's the place where our country declared its independence. It is a progressive city that will never settle."