Weekly Update – Evoking Spirit, Embracing Memory

This week’s Weekly has my review of Evoking Spirit, Embracing Memory in Baobab Park, an exhibit of bottle trees sponsored by Village of Arts and Humanities. Below is the copy with some pictures. More photos at flickr.

Message in a Bottle
Village of Arts and Humanities’ new project shines.

Martina Johnson Allen's Flight of the Songbird, detail, honoring Tammy Terrell.
Martina Johnson Allen’s Flight of the Songbird, detail, honoring Tammy Terrell.

The bottle trees of Baobab Park at 11th and York stand in a circle like a convention of totems. A project of the nearby Village of Arts and Humanities, the 12 sculptural trees by 12 different artists don’t necessarily look like trees. And on many you won’t see any bottles. But the works—which commemorate the lives of performers and activists with Philadelphia connections—are a great artistic outpouring of love and sweetness, and a wonderful (albeit temporary) addition to the big grassy park in North Philadelphia.

Brujo De La Mancha
Brujo De La Mancha’s The Teddy Honey Bear Tree honoring Elner Dawkins.

Organized by curators Joyce Scott, Linda Goss and Homer Jackson, “Evoking Spirit, Embracing Memory” adapts the African and Southern U.S. tradition of hanging shiny objects on trees to ward off evil spirits. Only here the trees are sculptural, and the bottles and shiny objects are intended to capture the good spirits of the honored dead.

Mr. Imagination and assistant, Michael
Mr. Imagination (Gregory Warmack), right, and his assistant, Michael Massari, posing in front of their tree. Mr. Imagination made his briefcase out of scrap tin. Inside was a sketch pad with tin covers and clipped to his belt was a tin cellphone holder!

Among those Philadelphians celebrated are musicians Gene McFadden, John Whitehead, Brenda Payton and Tammi Terrell—all of whom are honored for their up-from-nothing beginnings.

Dancer and community organizer Arthur Hall is honored as father of the black arts movement in Philadelphia. Abolitionists Lucretia Mott and Robert Purvis, civil rights leader Cecil B. Moore, and activists Rev. Leon Sullivan, Elner Dawkins and James “Big Man” Maxton are also celebrated and remembered.

Celestine Wilson-Hughes
Celestine Wilson-Hughes’ I found My Feet, honoring Lucretia Mott

Several of the trees stand out for their soulful interpretations and unexpected materials and shapes. Celestine Wilson-Hughes’ I Found My Feet, a copper-clad piece with an hourglass figure, is dedicated to abolitionist Lucretia Mott. “Many Quakers were abolitionists but Mott stood up for her beliefs,” Wilson-Hughes said at the opening, explaining the symbolic feet in her piece.

Martina Johnson-Allen
’s The Flight of the Song Bird (top) honors singer Tammi Terrell who died of cancer at 24. Made of entwined segments of painted PVC pipe, Song Bird is a riot of color and pattern with a shaman-like fierceness.

Barbara Bullock
Barbara Bullock posing with her Bottle Tree Dedicated to Arthur Hall.

Barbara Bullock
’s Bottle Tree Dedicated to Arthur Hall, rotund and suggestive of a dancing cactus or porcupine, is perhaps the most unusual piece in the circle. With its ornaments and objects individually wrapped in black or white plastic netting and attached to a pole via plastic (handcuff) ratchet ties, the work is primal, prickly and jaunty. It unintentionally evokes another performer much admired for her dancing—Josephine Baker.

Evoking Spirit, Embracing Memory
Crowd at the opening, Sept. 15, in Baobab Park, 11th and York.

Mr. Imagination (aka Gregory Warmack)
has created a tree honoring the Village’s very own James Maxton. Warmack encrusted his piece with a thick skin of concrete in which hundreds of embedded plastic and glass bits catch the light. The concrete—into which the artist carved several angel figures—is a great counterpoint to the decorative chips of color. The whole piece captures the spirit of Maxton and the Village perfectly—strength with beauty.

With this project the Village continues to bring color and positive energy to an otherwise grim neighborhood. On Oct. 22 the trees go into winter storage but will emerge in the spring to brighten public spaces throughout Philadelphia.

“Evoking Spirit, Embracing Memory”
Through Oct. 22. Baobab Park, 11th and York sts. 215 225 7830.