Ben Volta and the church studios crowd

Volta in his studio

A visit to artist Ben Volta promises lots of extras, because his studio is in Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church with eight studios, some shared. It’s a sweet deal for me, and a sweet deal for the artists, all of whom come to this lucky state of affairs thanks to artist Dayton Castleman, who suggested to the church that studios would be a good use for some empty spaces in the building.

That was part of what drew me over. The other part, believe it or not, was that this group of artists holds meetings and talks on a regular basis in which they puzzle over the issue of how to merge contemporary art issues with Christian issues (if you want more info, you can go here). (I myself am not so sure that Christian issues have that much of a place in contemporary art, but I do think spiritual issues always have a place in any art practice, so I thought I’d try to find out more–how is it that my talks with people always turn out to be more about me than them?)

Turns out they also have monthly critiques of each others’ work. I asked how that went. “We certainly don’t blow sunshine up each others’ …” (6:35 p.m. oops. I just got an email from Volta saying the quote must have come from Dayton Castleman. My notes, alas, are unclear).

My tour with Volta started with a visit to some communal space they have for hanging out, which also doubles as a space to work on large projects (the studios are not all that big, but the light is wonderful). For shop work, they use Castleman’s sculpture studio.


In Volta’s studio, which he shares with Gabriel Sim-Laramie, he showed me some design work that he did for the album of the band Saxon Shore. I listened to the cd on my way home–sort of a merger of New Age soundscapes and the Philadelphia Wall of Sound, and pretty good (I didn’t get my instant New Age music gag response).

The design work was feeding into his art and vice versa. So right now, everything is about the logs. Saxon Shore’s album is covered with little logs. Volta said that since he’s just starting out, he’s trying to create several bodies of work, the logs being one of them.

Some related work, which he calls Flesh*Lumber (it’s Home Depot lumber covered with flesh-colored sculpey), was part of Basekamp’s “Participate” show, in which the gallery goers got an opportunity to interact with the work and make it their own. That exhibit is about to have its third showing at the Krafstationen i Drags in Sweden.


The logs remind me of those candy logs with the white nougat in the center. But they also are creepy–limbs, bones. If you want to call it Christian, it’s okay with me, but I think that limits it too much.


My favorite log was just an experiment, a stick that reminded me of a leg, its surface coated to resemble the peeling bark of a sycamore tree (my street is lined with these trees, and I love the bark). But there’s a sweet dumbness in the monochrome approach that’s more humorous, and art with humor invariably pleases me.

The walls were covered with a bunch of log drawings and paintings, all of them pristine. Volta said he was trying to find a way to undercut his graphic design instincts in the art work. But I liked the graphic quality. It was only when the graphic quality overwhelmed the content that the issue was worth raising.

Here’s a picture of a Christmas present his parents made for him, a tic-tac-toe log slice inspired by the art work:


No wonder Volta became an artist!

The interview

Libby: So how did you get involved with a group of Christian artists?

Ben: It was unexpected, but I’m 100 percent a part of it and I’m not mediating what that means.

Libby: How old is the group?

Ben: The group has been meeting for four years. Rubens [Ghenov] knew my sister. It was just this group I knew was meeting once a month, talking about their artwork, faith and art, and what it means making that kind of art in this time.


Libby: And how did the group of you end up with studios in the church?

Ben: Dayton [Castleman, who was working in the church and saw the empty space] headed up, was the liason between the church and the artists. The church lets us come and go as we want. …The church is very conservative. It’s an older congregation needing to connect with younger people [Volta is 26, and all his studio mates are of similar ages]. That’s also why they are opening their doors to playgroups [there’s one downstairs while we are talking].

Libby: How many of you from the discussion group have studios in the church?

Ben: Thirteen [he later revises the number several times; I’m a little fuzzy on the exact number, but 13 is close]. Everyone has studios.

Libby: And who’s involved?

Ben: Gabriel Sim-Laramee, Justin Kay, Jas Knight, Courtenay Long, Tim Gierschick, Mark Dixon, Aaron Osborn, Nathaniel Lee, Keith Crowley, Duy Loufik, Rubens Ghenov, Brendan Kinslow, Dayton. Most are from Philadelphia, or close.

Libby: So tell me more about what you get out of the group.

Ben: I like being not scared of it. …I wasn’t necessarily looking for it. My mind goes in crazy directions.

…It [Christian content in painting] is part of art history, part of our world. Don’t say I shouldn’t do it. It’s part of culture, part of my life.

[Volta, who teaches art at Conwell-Egan High School and is inspired by Tim Rollins and KOS, has been looking at Van Eyck’s St. Francis receiving the stigmata with his students. To see their artwork, which is inspired–ahem–by the way, go here.]

Libby: What about the Christian content in the logs?

Ben: I was fascinated with Sculpy, with flesh-colored Sculpy, just putting it on things. The logs seemed to make sense. [He refers then to the Bible and flesh on bones and to Christian resurrection]. Nature as flesh is other worldly and our worldly at the same time.

I’m interested in the whole trend to make fake stuff really real and make real stuff really fake. I would say that it’s sythetic and it’s subjective–but not false. You can still be subjective and true. How you navigate that is important to me.

The studio tour

At this point we head out to look at the other studios. I was excited to see that here was where the ever elusive Jas Knight works. Knight shows his old-masters technique paintings of African-Americans at Seraphin, and previously at Artists House. He doesn’t provide biographical info.


Justin Kay’s studio has lots of notes and a drum set. Everything in the studio is lined up at right angles. The note hanging on the thermostat is written on half a paper towel. It reads, please don’t turn off the heat. thanks!


Timothy Gierschick, about whom we have written in the past, also has a studio here, filled with his paintings on reused materials.

Castleman in his studio

Dayton Castleman was in when we got to his studio, which smelled of fumes of some kind. For some reason, Castleman thought it would calm me when I learned the smell was from spray paint. Natch, I told him he needed to be wearing a respirator when working with that stuff. He didn’t leap on my suggestion.


Castleman seemed pleased when I suggested to him his work seemed to be about infrastructure. My favorite bit in Castleman’s studio was a shower head with a drawing of imaginary pipes wiggling their way toward the shower, the elbows stenciled onto the wall.

I also liked the story he told about deciding to find out what an art shipper would charge to ship a toilet plunger (said plunger was propped on a shelf in his studio). The shipper, Artex, quoted him $90 for crating and shipping it to Mississippi. “They never said a word about the plunger,” Castleman said.


Here’s a picture of a box he said he originally designed for shipping the plunger, but now has a nice red pipe nestled in there, instead.

Castleman currently has an installation of windmills up at Chambers Wylie
Presbyterian Church building (on Broad across from the Kimmell/UArts) right now. You can see a windmill model in the shower picture.

Long in his studio

Also in their studios were Courtenay (that’s three syllables) Long, pictured above, and Gabriel Sim-Laramee. I don’t have a shot of Sim-Laramie who shares a studio with Volta and also does design work on the computer. Next day, there was Sim-Laramie on the 34 trolley. Turns out he lives just west of me.