A tower grows in South Philly

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Scott Pellnat with his tower
Scott Pellnat with his rooftop tower in South Philly.

Some time ago I paid a visit to Scott Pellnat in his South Philadelphia home and studio. Pellnat, a Brooklyn artist transplant, moved to Philadelphia some 5 years ago when his wife Nadine Heller got a teaching job at Drexel.  The couple have two children.

Scott Pellnat tower

They’ve made a home for themselves here, with Scott rehabbing the house and working construction jobs in the neighborhood.  One spectacular improvement he made to his own house is the tower on the second floor roof. The unique structure — made of scavenged materials and adorned with Persianate-feeling panels of inlaid colored caulk** — looks a little like a widow’s walk, but inside it’s a fantasy room with a vaulted ceiling and highly decorated walls and glass floor that makes you feel like you’ve stepped inside a pasha’s secret hideaway.

[** Correction from Scott: “The pattern work on the furniture is a combination of inlayed wood, colored pencils and pigmented wood filler,” from an email this morning.]

Scott Pellnat
Inside the tower–the ceiling

Inside the tower -- the hideaway
Inside the tower — the hideaway

Raised on a sheep farm in upstate New York the artist learned early how to make and fix things and he supported himself in art school by doing construction work. From the farm days he has a love of animals, and the art-filled house in South Philly has a dog and three cats.

Scott Pellnat
Some of Pellnat’s small figure sculptures sit in a bookcase that hides the door to his upstairs studio.

I asked him if he knew he wanted to be an artist early on. He said he played the cello and thought he’d like to do that but he realized he wasn’t Yo Yo Ma so turned his aspirations elsewhere. His high school art teacher was an influence and Pellnat hung out in the art room and that was that — he was going to be an artist. He went to Parsons for illustration but got into sculpture when he was there.  His parents were not supportive of his art career and he supported himself in college, living in the YMCA and sharing the rent on another small room at the Y that he and a friend used as a studio.

Scott Pellnat
Steps decorated by Pellnat in his house.

His art is figurative and involves fantasy animal-human hybrids constructed out of wax or melted plastic or resin. He puts the creatures in milieus that evoke medieval battlegrounds with lots of carnage. The displays and individual pieces are cinematic as well as comic book-like.

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Photo by Pellnat of some of his sculptural figures.

The tableaus evoke an ongoing narrative without really stating one. Pellnat has seen viewers move the figures around to create their own story and he likes that.

All in all the work is very dark but engaging. “The role of self-generated illusion is very important to me to get myself going,” he said.  But if his own imaginings are the starting point the work is open enough to transport a viewer to their own stories and places.  I couldn’t stop thinking about Orwell’s Animal Farm when I saw the work.
Pellnat is a CFEVA artist and had his first outing with that organization a few months back in a group show at Moore College. He’s very excited about that connection and is looking forward to applying for a travel grant. He’d like to go to Cambodia to see the killing fields.  It’s not a place many would put on their list of must-sees, but then not everyone makes art like Pellnat’s dark figurative works.

Scott Pellnat's house
First floor of his house has samples of his hand-made furniture.

Another part of his art-making involves work that’s the polar opposite of the figures — ornate objects that are furniture or furniture-like.  The pieces range from tables, dressers and armoires to housing for stereo systems (all of which he makes from scrap material and decorated and patterned with the colored caulk**).  The pieces function as usable objects (he had them in the Philly Furniture Show last year) but to my mind their delicious Rococo ambiance — lush and a little delirious — would make me want to own one just to look at it. Because they are so fanciful — and a little bit fragile — they read as art objects and not furniture and they could hold their own in the company of many an assemblage sculpture.

[** Correction from Scott: “The pattern work on the furniture is a combination of inlayed wood, colored pencils and pigmented wood filler,” from an email this morning.]

Scott Pellnat
On the roof with his dog.

It’s not easy moving with a family to a new city and trying to make a go of it. It’s even harder when you’re an artist and jobs in your “business” are few and far between. Pellnat and his family are here now and they like their South Philly neighborhood. I hope they stay for a long time. More photos at flickr.

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