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Miss Rockaway Armada dreams on the muddy, mighty Schuylkill


“Oh that the sky is just an ocean. Won’t you float away with me?” sang the satyr to the children, while sweet accordion music gently rocked the crowd of onlookers along the banks of the mighty Schuylkill. It was the Miss Rockaway Armada, presenting a spectacle of performance — and sculptural boats and other objects created entirely of recycled and salvaged materials. A motley crew manned the flotilla: they were three parts gypsy, two parts sexy pirate, two parts circus freak, one part flotsam, half part jetsam, three quarters fish and one quarter goat. The flotilla, produced by The Philadelphia Art Alliance and christened Let Me Tell You About A Dream I Had, successfully stole every child’s imagination and left some in the crowd wishing they would be kidnapped by this band of circus-pirate-gypsies.

Miss Rockaway Armada, at Schuylkill Banks Park. Photo by Todd Seelie

The fleet followed a monstrously large fish, whose tea-service-tray fins and layered-carpet gills elicited many smiles. After waiting in line and signing so many forms it seemed you were signing away your first born, we boarded the flotilla and were pleasantly surprised by the innovative uses for table legs, fruit crates, and all assortment of trash and treasure. Indeed, the contraptions, ornaments, and objects each told the tale of sunken treasure, revived and reworked, to create the whimsical “Amfibitheater,” “Hoodraft,” and other settings for the rotating group of performers including aerialists, accordion players, and shadow puppeteers.

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Inside the raft. Photo courtesy of Nichon Glerum.

The most impressive sculpture allowed visitors to creep inside a wooden wave made of contorting crate slats, which from the inside twinkled with light coming through the slats from lanterns outside — like visual Morse code. The dancing lights, carnival music, and one-seat bicycle Ferris wheel attracted onlookers far above on the Walnut Street Bridge.

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Raft construction at Bartram’s Garden.

Different rafts took on natural shapes like waves, or in some cases geometric arrangements. They all had embedded, cut-out shapes throughout. I could easily imagine each wonderfully seasick vessel scuttling to the depths of the river. Most of the salvaged and distressed surfaces appeared sea-stressed and worn, adding to the armada’s charm.

Instead of sailing much farther, this armada will come apart at The Art Alliance building. You can catch one more Miss Rockaway procession and performance before she reaches her final resting place at The Art Alliance building (September 30-December 30, reception, Sept. 30, 6-8pm):  Kensington, Saturday September 10 beginning at York and Front at 5pm and ending at FLUX Space at 630.

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Aerial view of Armada at Walnut Street. Photo courtesy of Nichon Glerum.

Braving storms, the crew of local artists, whose labors are chronicled on Miss Rockaway’s blog , assembled pieces built at the building site on South Broad St. and at Bartram’s Garden, which provided the perfect backdrops for recycled-material art projects.

Miss Rockaway Armada, near Bartram’s Garden. Photo by Todd Seelie

When I visited the site at Bartram’s, which is adjacent to a Waste Management plant, a train rattled by over the nearby bridge, which stirred the murky waters of the Schuylkill. There could not be a more natural birthplace for Miss Rockaway to emerge, as oily river bubbles belched a ballad to her faded glory—a sea shanty that could easily go something like this:

Here rolls Miss Rockaway looking mighty fine
Here rocks Miss Rockaway, oh if she were mine
Lift your petticoats above the Shoe Kill wudder
Dancing with the lights. I sigh, I shudder
Gales of August refuse to let go
Fire from the sky, fire down below
Here rolls Miss Rockaway looking mighty fine
Here rocks Miss Rockaway, oh if she were mine
Asleep in the deep. Some may still ask
“Does she float?” Oh, I reply, “She can sing.”

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Photo of accordion player courtesy of Nichon Glerum.

The original Miss Rockaway sailed from the head of the Mississippi in Minneapolis to its mouth in New Orleans. Another collective of dreamers and artists, including Swoon, Tod Seelie, and Space 1026, challenged their own craftsmanship and commitment to sustainability by building these salvaged eco-vessels. The Philadelphia version carries this tradition onward while re-imagining the 19th Century Arts and Crafts movement’s ultimate goal of thriving communities of designers and builders—ships of fools, friends, and craftsmen.