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The scary beauty of Under I-95

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Zoe Strauss’s Under I-95 installation at Front and Mifflin Sts. in South Philadelphia. Click image to see it bigger.

I couldn’t make it to Zoe Strauss‘s Under I-95 event this year due to a schedule conflict. I’ve never been to Zoe’s affair in her grand gallery without walls. One thing and another has kept me away. Usually it’s the Murphy’s law of scheduling conflicts. Last year, though, it was my lack of understanding of South Philadelphia and my inability to have a map in the car that led me to wander aimlessly and then give up as I couldn’t find Front and Mifflin. I know. How stupid is that.

So this year I decided to get organized. I wrote Zoe and asked when she’d be there and she said “6 am.” I didn’t believe it but when my driver, Steve, dropped me off at 9:45 am (and thank you for those DIRECTIONS, Zoe’s mom!), the girl had been there working for hours. She said she’d been up all night. And I believed her. Something about the extreme focus she had and the ability to multi-task was way beyond conscious. The girl was on some high that was combination auto-pilot and fear factor (the clock ticking, so much to do…so little time). How she was albe to talk to me and put her pictures up at the same time, matching numbers and works without even having to consult the key, I’ll never know..

When I landed at Front and Mifflin at around 9:45 am, around half the 260-plus images were up already on the pillars that hold up the Interstate. Chalk numbers on the ground (already there) would help people tell the sales staff which print(s) they wanted. What a massive amount of organization went into this, I thought, as I looked at the enormous almost plein air gallery.

Pigeons lolled about on the ground and on the pigeon niches in the highway supports. Trash lay about here and there. The thud-thud-thud of the cars above made an almost pleasant ambient noise if you didn’t think about it too closely.

Zoe was putting up her adhesive-backed images. They seemed to be on three sides of the support pillars and she knew almost without looking at her chart which image was number 86 and which was 111. How she knew I can only imagine.

Bob, a homeless person who’s lived under I-95 for three years was busy tidying up his space at the far end. Zoe told me that when she came in that morning and started to set up Bob said “You’re going to have another art show?” And it made her remember how many years he’d been there for the event.

“I can’t believe someone can live here for that long,” she said. When we came over to Bob’s area to reposition a photo that got moved elsewhere (perhaps Bob had re-located it?) Zoe told him his place was looking better. He was lying on his bed at that point, resting from all the work, and she asked him if he needed some more iced tea. He was holding an almost-empty bottle. The smell of urine was very strong. And Bob, lean, of perhaps middle age, and missing a number of teeth, said he was ok. Bob’s possessions, what looked like mostly blankets and clothes, were folded and stacked neatly next to his ad hoc bed.

Zoe was worried about getting the trash out of the big space. There were diapers, miscellaneous bags and tin cans, and other debris everywhere. Her crew would come soon, but there was much to do. Still two more rows of pillars to cover with images — and the ones up already were having some problems curling up around the edges. A gallery-owner’s job is never done.

There were plenty of pictures on the beams already and it seemed sufficient to me but when you’ve got a vision you must fulfill it and Zoe’s vision was to cover each pillar in the space. It had to be.

I left at around 10:30 after Zoe’s crew arrived and she gave them jobs and it was clear that cleaning was the order of business.

I was sorry to leave and sorry to miss the event yet again. But I am so proud of this artist who marches to her own drumb beat and shows the world her pictures, her way, and has the world following her.

I have a few more photos at flickr.