Roving Eye: Pennsylvania Workstyles


I love Philadelphia. I moved to this gritty, bike-friendly city last September to be with my wife, Theresa Rose, who works in the city’s Percent For Art program, which commissions public projects. That makes me an Amtrak commuter to New York—an expensive trip, but one that’s great for reflecting or even that ancient pastime, reading.

Last Sunday, I attended an event coordinated by my wife and her collaborators who go by the name Philly Stake at Bartram’s Gardens, referring in part to America’s oldest botanical garden. Philly Stake hosted one of something like 46 micro-granting dinners that happen annually in this city, where community artists and activists pitch ideas to attendees, each of whom pays $10 to $20 and votes for their favorite concept. The three artists or activists who get the most votes are awarded the proceeds from the door. Some 300 people dined on blankets on the rolling lawn with folksy musical accompaniment by Long Gone Gabe of performance collective the Miss Rockaway Armada. A few nights earlier, Theresa, the artist Theador Harris and I went over to see the Miss Rockaway Armada building their massive carnivalesque boats in a vacant lot across from the University of the Arts. At some point this summer, these will launch into the Delaware River and sail up the Schuylkill River.

Philly’s art community reflects conditions I think permeate many of this country’s affordable cities (read: not New York). Affordability facilitates experimentation, and there isn’t the vertiginous navel-gazing of the market. In Philadelphia, art spaces spread out across the city, and last Friday, humidity like weights on our backs, Theresa and I drove the streets, dodging under opened fire hydrants. We went by the Crane Arts Building and saw a pretty good juried exhibition at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. They have a steady program over there. Running ahead of schedule, we popped into a show by local photographer and nature enthusiast Zachary Davis at Extra Extra along Frankford Avenue. Over at Flux Space—a big ol’ exhibition space in Kensington—we saw the work of Carl Marin, who waited in a hunting blind to photograph woodland creatures. I’m a sucker for hunting projects.

This weekend, with Theresa and the phenomenal painter Leroy Johnson, I drove up to the woodland retreat Mildred’s Lane, run by artists J. Morgan Puett and Mark Dion. The growing art experiment in Beach Lake in northeast Pennsylvania is situated so far up a winding dirt road you wonder how anyone gets there in winter. The property sits magically in a glade between the mountains and the curve of the Delaware, where artists produce their own strange worlds.

The homes where artists rest and relax are immaculate, reflecting Puett’s belief in “work styles” (meaning, roughly, a productive lifestyle) and what she calls “hooshing” (the work it takes to put together such a fastidious environment). Another key term is “comportment,” and a “minister of comportment” makes sure that everyone’s rooms are up to snuff. A group of about eight fellows learn from presentations and work hard at the manual labor that goes into running such a hooshed-up wonder world-a combination education, residency, and workshop program that runs June through July.

At this particular gathering, strangely enough, theorist Brian Holmes delivered a lecture that he had just given as part of my “Living as Form” lecture series. In attendance that weekend were artists Allison Smith, Claire Pentecost, Matthew Friday, Mike Wolfe, Abigail Satinsky, Gregg Bordowitz and Silvia Kolbowski, among many others. It was a great group. We gathered around a long table for dinner (which they had decided to make that morning) and the “choreographer of digestion,” Athena Kokoronis, detailed making the meal. The repast featured a long emptied-out log filled with extremely healthy salad and a plentiful dish of head cheese since Brian’s lecture was intended to produce a heady atmosphere. While headiness certainly ensued, it did not prevent the hoedown to come later than evening.

Above: Mildred’s Lane. Courtesy J Morgan Puett