Recently I’ve been traveling back and forth to Philadelphia working with five artists who are installing temporary public art projects along the Manayunk Canal in Philadelphia. These projects opened on September 25th and 26th in conjunction with Destination Schuylkill River and the Manayunk Eco Arts Festival. Destination Schuylkill River is a NPO whose mission is to celebrate life along the river and to connect communities to the river through planning, programming and projects. The weekend event brings together artists, crafters, green businesses, and ecologically-concerned community groups to share resources and education about green and healthy living and will be a celebration of artistic, sustainable, and local green initiatives. Manayunk is located a few miles west of Center City, Philadelphia.
The Manayunk Canal is part of the Schuylkill River Trail and is designated as a National Historic District. Once a navigable waterway for industrial cargo, the Canal was completed in 1818 and runs for several miles adjacent to banks of the Schuylkill. The river ends its 128-mile journey in Philadelphia, passing through East Falls and Manayunk before emptying into the Delaware. A recently restored towpath on the banks of the canal is the site for five artist’s projects that address issues of sustainability.
For some background history of the site - in papers dated 1686 between William Penn and the Lenni-Lenape, the Lenape referred to the Schuylkill River as "Manaiung", their word for river, which literally translates as "place to drink". As fate would have it, this once industrial mill town has become a trendy bar and restaurant destination.Early settlers farmed the land above the hills of Manayunk, and the abundance of natural resources and the Industrial Revolution spurred development of the community. Along the Schuylkill mills sprung up with products as varied as cloth, paper, gunpowder, lumber, milled wheat and corn, and pressed oil from flax. The Schuylkill Navigation Company Canal provided power to the mills along the river and allowed coal to be transported to the steam engines of Philadelphia from a hundred miles upstream. The original towpath was the path used by mules as they pulled canal boats carrying coal and passengers through the water. As a part of Pennsylvania’s earliest slackwater canal system, the original navigation system was a 108-mile series of dams, locks, slackwater and canal segments created to bring coal from Schuylkill County to Philadelphia. Today, the Canal is no longer in use for industry, most of the mills have closed and the city has eventual plans to open the locks and revitalize the water system.The original mule path has been restored for pedestrians and bicyclers to become part of a river greenway system that stretches for miles. Destination Schuylkill with funding from the William Penn foundation asked ecoartspace to invite several artists to create temporary site-specific works along the canal for the festival.
Wisconsin based artist Roy Staab spent over two weeks working at the site. First he carefully selected the best location along the Canal where his ephemeral sculpture would be most visible, while at the same time protected from strong winds. He chose to work between two trees whose branches overhang the water, and in between two bridges so that visitors would have different perspectives for viewing the work. He then set out to find wild plants nearby that he harvests in order to create the lines to make his sculpture. He used invasives such as Japanese Knotweed and Purple Loosestrife which were both flowering and actually quite beautiful, (though no one wants these invasive and fast spreading plants - so it was great that he could make use of them.) Roy also used Goldenrod and other native plants. He then created 4 long lines using a weaving and knotting procedure with biodegradable sisal rope. The lines measure approximately 180 ft long in length and suspend 20 ft from the trees. He titled the work, "Suspended Between the Living and the Dead" referring to the two trees being used as his support. Roy mostly worked alone but he had a few college interns and great support from Destination Schuylkill and the Manayunk Development Corporation staff, in particular, board member Garrett Elwood spent a lot of time on the water. Roy entertained neighbors in the community and got a lot of attention, both positive and negative (local fisherman were not happy). However, mostly the town appreciated having a world traveler like Roy working in their midst. He has created ephemeral installations such as this one around the world for the past 30 years in the U.S., Europe, South America and Asia. His works may last days or a couple of weeks, or months depending on weather and the forces of nature.
Chrysanne Stathacos traveled to Philadelphia from Toronto to create an 8ft wooden flower poem which she floated on the Manayunk Canal. For the past several weeks she has been researching water plants such as Lilies and Lotus Flowers to determine which plants will be best to tag a ride in her floating sculpture, which spells the word PURIFY. She chose this word as a reminder of the importance of wetlands and clean water, and that we can all do our part to help heal the environment. Chrysanne is a multi-media artist whose artistic concerns intersect with spirituality and a communion with the natural world. Her art is influenced by Eastern and Western traditions and she works to connect indigenous ritual to contemporary art.
Habitat for Artists is a Hudson Valley-based collaborative group initiated by artist
Simon Draper in 2008. ecoartspace has worked with HFA on several previous projects including last summer in the exhibition Down to Earth at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. One of HFA’s studio/shed structures was located in a small park in between the Canal and Main St. Parts of this shed were previously used at SCEE, so they have a small travel footprint. The sheds are comprised of recycled material, old lumber, windows and doors and are used by artists as studio spaces (each only six by six feet) both inside and out to examine how they might redefine their creative space, needs and process. The Manayunk HFA shed was open during the two day Festival, artists Simon Draper, Todd Sargood and others were on site for visitors to engage with and participate in the making of art.
Women’s Work by NYC performance artist Chere Krakovsky was an extension of her recent Clothesline performance held at Solar One, overlooking NYC’s East River. This is her third performance piece in Philadelphia, following her 2008 work, The Neighbors Next Door at International House at UPenn. All of Chere’s works are situated where the everyday and the creative co-exist. She hung a clothesline along the Manayunk Canal to address issues of energy conservation, domesticity and traditional women’s work. Looking back to her own grandmother, Chere reminds of a not too distant past where wind and sun power were harnessed to dry the laundry. The work asks us to reflect on our over-consumption of energy in a time of economic decline. Chere has invited the community to participate by bringing an item of clothing that will be hung on the clothesline.
RAIR (Recycled Artist-In-Residency) is an exciting, new non-profit in Philadelphia located within a construction and industrial materials recycling facility. Initiated by Fern Gookin, a recent graduate from Philadelphia University’s Sustainable Design Program, RAIR’s mission is to create awareness about environmental issues by encouraging creative ways to divert wastefrom landfills. RAIR works to bring art and sustainability together through an artist-in-residency program. RAIR currently has two artists piloting the program, Billy Blaise Dufala and Machele Nettles, and they were located on Main Street in Manayunk exhibiting their works and hosting a kids art making project.
Historical Canal photograph, 1918
Roy Staab, Suspended Between the Living and the Dead
Chrysanne Stathacos, Purify
Habitat for Artists at the Manayunk Canal
Chere Krakovsky, Women's Work
RAIR, Billy Blaise Dufala, Tricycle