I am your typical homebody—I prefer a cozy night in to a rowdy night out nine times out of ten. Were there more events like New Drawings by Isis Shiffer, which opened February 3rd at Strange Brew Coffee, I might be tempted to change my ways. Located far off the traditional First Friday beaten track, Strange Brew is a fledgling coffee house and event venue/art gallery in South Philadelphia. On the evening of the opening, the venue was packed with friends, artists, musicians, neighbors and loved ones—the room was warm with mirth and fellowship. In addition to Shiffer’s exhibit, local musicians Christie Lenee and Susi Brown performed primarily acoustic sets blending percussive elements with inventive finger-plucking techniques. This carefree, loose soundscape harmonized with the exhibit to create a passionate atmosphere alive with energy.
The space is small but full of promise. Co-owner/ proprietor and dear friend, Bobby Dombroski, fuses modern design with rustic vintage wood furnishings to create a funky, homey environment. This comfortable nook is, to my mind, the ideal setting for Shiffer’s intimate and personal works. The show comprises 26 drawings, portraits, still life and landscape, done in charcoal on paper. Simply installed throughout the space, the pieces are unframed which lends an approachable, unstuffy feel—the viewer is beckoned to come closer and absorb each one contemplatively. Sensitively rendered, Shiffer utilizes subtle mark-making, soft gesture and a dash of quirk to imbue her works with emotion.
Shiffer’s portraits struck me for their candid and playful representations. The subjects are friends and family members whom Shiffer has captured in honest moments revealing their individual peculiarities. “Nathan the Idealist” glances to the right, hand on chin, eyes bright and musing. “Mary the Bold,” in contrast, locks gaze with the viewer. Her face emerges from the grey paper; rosy-cheeked, strong and quiet at once. “Josh, Recently Returned” gazes to the right with an expression keen yet sobered. The mysterious title leaves me wondering where he has returned from. The rendering gives the impression of a transformation.
A still life titled, “One Carving I Have Not Finished, Two Books I Have Not Read,” speaks of the struggle of the creative process. Shiffer’s unfinished projects fill the foreground; in the background the artist looks upon her own reflection, determined. She seems to be challenging herself onward while also acknowledging her failures for what they are—a necessary step on the way to growth. As an aspiring ceramic sculptor, I truly relate to Shiffer in this piece.
Though some might claim that Shiffer’s traditional style is outmoded in today’s world of irony-laden imagery, I disagree. She documents a seemingly ordinary moment in time and elevates it to the numinous. Her work is fresh, unpretentious and accessible. The crowd at Strange Brew on opening night was not full of stiff upper lips– rather, Shiffer (and Strange Brew) take art out of the formidable gallery and bring it to the neighborhood.
Isis Shiffer, a PAFA graduate, lives and works in Philadelphia. “New Drawings by Isis Shiffer” will be on display until March 31st at Strange Brew Coffee on 2nd and Reed Streets in the Pennsport section of South Philadelphia.
—Maegan Arthurs is a senior fine art’s and English major at St. Joseph’s University. Her senior thesis show is this April.