Lunching and Quilting with Lee

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I’ve been meaning to tell you about Lee Tusman, one of the artists in the 40th St. Artist in Residence program. I spent an hour with Tusman in his studio a few weeks back when his lunch truck project photos and quilt were on exhibit at the 40th St. Residency’s gallery, Airspace.
(image is Tusman, wearing an altered shirt he made standing in front of a quilt representing the lunch truck project.)

Tusman is an activist artist who graduated from Brandeis in 2004 (sociology major). He is outside the credentialed art establishment. He doesn’t paint or draw; he didn’t get a degree in art.

But he’s a passionate maker of things like quilts and clothes and a believer in using art as a vehicle for social change. And it should come as no surprise that his heroes include ACT-UP, Mierle Ukeles and Michael Moore.

(image left is Tusman in his studio, and right is a photo of one of the lunch truck vendors in West Philadelphia)

I’ve organized our free-associative conversation here to give you a flavor of the voluble artist whose voice I found refreshing and lively and whose art (quilts, clothes and the Lunch Truck project) I admire for their straight-forwardness and their sense of art as fun and essential.

Q. So how did you start making art if you’re a sociology major?
A. I studied art and social change at Brandeis. I started the Art and Activism club. I love street art — Bob 316 and El Toro. I check the Wooster Collective website every day. I consider myself a remix artist. At Brandeis I did an after school program for kids — middle school kids. [It was at this program that he began cutting up shirts and piecing them back together and creating new shirts from old.] This summer I taught art at the Red Cross School. I like it alot but I want to do something in public. I probably will do a musical performance at the Fringe.

(image is a quilt “Frankie says Relax.”)

Q. You are a musician?
A. We have a trio, “Sputtering Kettle.” I have a Digeree Doo. I play a little — percussion. We’ll do something like a call and response on the street.

Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I was born in Manayunk then lived in Overbrook and Penn Wynne. I went to Lower Merion. High School. I was the “Voice of the Aces.”

Q. Where did you learn to sew?
A. In middle school. My mom did embroidery. My mom went to Uarts, Jaci Tusman. I started doing quilts last summer. But I collect t-shirts. I’ve collected them for a while. People know about it and give them to me. I have so many I started making quilts. There’s a curator, Renee Riccardo who showed one at Arena Gallery.

(image right is Tusman demonstrating the serger sewing machine.)

Q. [There was a large quilt of the Lunch Truck project hanging in his show. It’s made from t-shirts and pillow cases. There’s no backing to it so I asked if he ever put a backing on them?
A. I don’t back them. I want people to see the back. I’m not a fine crafter. (another altered shirt)

Q. Tell me more about the Lunch Truck project.
A. I don’t know if it’s activism but this was very collaborative — with people. The first thing I did, I went to the University City District and got a map. I researched on Chowhound and Craig’s List went and talked with the truck owners. People were very friendly. Then I posted online “Does anybody want to eat with me at the food trucks?”

(image right is Tusman’s sewing machine, a serger, and below left is the UCD map with pins showing locations of food trucks)


[He apparently ate at all the trucks in West Philadelphia. Consider him an expert. He doesn’t eat beef so he can’t tell you about the cheesesteaks but he knows about everything else they serve. I asked him if he’d been to the Temple trucks, which I remember passing one time and thinking they were this amazing presence on the street.]
A. I’ve been to Temple. Gigi’s Belly Fillers. That’s like Renes and Denises near 30th St. Station. Soul food. They’re open til midnight. Probably for the Post Office workers.


Q. What did you learn about the truck phenom?
A. There’s a community that goes to the trucks. You see that in the lines. and people give you tips on what to order. I got a tip. For Buis at 38th and Locust. Get the breakfast sandwich and when they ask if you want salt pepper ketchup say yes. It was great! I’ll continue to eat at the food trucks. I got into the whole food thing through a class “Possibilities for change in American communities.” We studied 20th Century social movements. At the end of the class we went on a bus to the South and talked to civil rights leaders (Bob Moser, Helen Prejean, Samuel Rockby. That was amazing. We studied everything. And we ate in a lot of restaurants. I decided to study the small restaurants as community building places. I hate chain restaurants. But unfortunately people like them. They say, “Oh, we’ve made it,” [when a Wendy’s or McDonalds comes to town.]

[Ed. note: Here’s a NY Times story I found chronicling the Brandeis students’ trip. (username: sokref1@comcast.net, password: lrrfartblog)

(image above is a friend who ate lunch with Tusman at Taco Pal truck)

Q. So did anybody respond to your invitation to eat with you at the food trucks?
A. Lots of people. Aaron Levy (of Slought Foundation) and I had lunch a few times…at Ramis at 40th and Locust …or Maleeks at 40th and Market. I’m working as a proofreader for Aaron on his book “The Revolt of the Bees.”

[One of his favorite stories about the lunch trucks is of a woman who responded to the chowhound invitation. She had never eaten at a food truck and had some issues with them in general — like sanitation. Tusman and the woman went to have lunch at a truck and she ordered something that was a-typical of what the truck offered and hated it…and later emailed him that she would never eat at a food truck again!]

(image right is quilt from Gees Bend)

Q. What did you do after graduation?
A. I had to find a job that was creative and not a desk job. I was a curatorial assistant at the Fabric Workshop. I worked at the Opera in New Orleans. But that ended and I moved here.

Q. Tell me about the t-shirt business.
A. I call them “Frankenshirts.” It grew out of teaching kids to cut up clothes and sew them.

Q. Do you know about the Gees Bend quilters?
A. I didn’t know about them before.

Q. What kind of art do you like?
A. I love street art. I love cartoons and graphic novels like American Splendor. I’ve been reading a lot of that lately. I’m a member of the Visionary Art Museum. It’s the only museum I’m a member of. I was reading American Splendor and I ran into Harvey Pekar at the museum. I took my mom there on mothers day. I saw Harvey Pekar and I tried to give him one of my shirts. He didn’t want to take it at first.

He said “I don’t have any pockets…(meaning he didn’t have a way to carry it).” So I said to Joyce (Pekar’s wife) who was there with him, “How about you, Joyce, will you take one for him?” She said: “He has to carry his own stuff…(meaning she wouldn’t carry it either)” Ultimately Pekar took the shirt.

Q. Tell me about this sewing machine. It looks industrial strength.
A. It’s a serger. [He demonstrates how the machine can sew those heavy-duty stiches to finish seams on t-shirts.)

Q. What’s coming up next?
A. I’m working on a commission now for someone.

Q. [He’s got a tablecloth on a table and it’s made from disparate cloths stitched together. It kind of looks like his stuff.] Did you make this tablecloth?
A. No I got it in Boston. It was made by an old lady who was learning to quilt and she didn’t want it. Her finished stuff after she learned to quilt was boring as hell but I loved this.

Tusman is in the group show at Airspace with the other 40th st. artists right now and he showed his clothing designs in the Post-Apocalyptic Fashion Show last weekend at Highwire. Here’s the website with his designs from that show. And look for him around Old City during the Fringe. He’ll be out with his band doing improv music. And here’s the artist’s website, Voodoo Artist.

I’m looking forward to eating at a food truck with Tusman sometime soon.

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