Artblog Celebrating 20 Years!   Support Us Today!

Kathryn Sclavi — interview with the artist and a new collaborative storytelling show


[Talking with artist Kathryn Sclavi, Veronica explores the significance of art projects that venture beyond gallery walls, engaging with their viewers and promoting community involvement. — the Artblog editors]

I met Kathryn Sclavi at the Dock Street Brewery on the rainy night of Dec 23rd, 2013. The rain and air outside were palpable with holiday anticipation and people running last-minute errands. I sat in the back of the establishment, and as I waited for Sclavi, in walked this small ball of energy. Seeing me in the back, she waved, and hugged me upon greeting me.

Small cart, big impact

We were meeting to talk about HOT TEA. Sclavi, along with Laura Deutch, Lee Tusman, and Katya Gorker (as part of Asian Arts Initiative’s Social Practice Lab) ran HOT TEA starting in the spring of 2013. Throughout the summer, HOT TEA was a mobile service–a bicycle-driven cart that offered the people throughout the neighborhood free tea.

Haley Trikes owner Stephen Horcha helped the HOT TEA team build the cart, and they worked together to build the bike. Then, HOT TEA went to specific locations and served tea and conversation to the citizens there. Sometimes, they went to small festivals, block parties, and mini-happenings, but usually, it was just the cart, the artists, and the tea.

HOT TEA was more than just a cart serving tea. It brought people of these neighborhoods together under the pretense of free tea, but what mattered more was the community feeling that the cart created. HOT TEA showed how artists can engage the community, and create a place for the community to come together. It fostered dialogue between everyone, for the advancement of the neighborhood. Shop owners, residents, travelers, anyone could come to the cart for free tea. It was about making connections, which gave the community a sense of security, helpfulness, and hopefulness.

The Hot Tea Cart (center) at the Pearl Street Block Party. Photo from
HOT TEA (center) at the Pearl Street Block Party. Photo from

Hearing Sclavi speak about HOT TEA and what it did for the community, I realized that she was very interested in social engagement art and educating the community, through pieces that bring people together to make beautiful, situational art that is more about the process than the product. Sclavi has the community “curate” themselves directly into the pieces. The way that Sclavi combines her contemporary art with her social engagement makes for an electric combination.

Sclavi’s background and recent work

Sclavi attended the College of New Jersey and received a dual BFA in fine arts and arts education, with an additional minor in psychology. She went on to Tyler School of Art at Temple University, acquiring her M.Ed. in art education with a focus on community arts practices. Sclavi’s accolades speak volumes.

Last fall, Sclavi premiered her piece “Forever Sleepover” at Practice Gallery. Like HOT TEA, “Forever Sleepover” was a participatory installation where you could come and hang out in a magical tent and even sleep over, creating a community reminiscent of childhood and years past.

This piece harked back to the time of M.A.S.H, secrets, pillow forts, and heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. However, it was more than that; “Forever Sleepover” let women, especially, remember the times when they lived in the present, rather than the future or the past. Running from October 4-26, 2013, “Forever Sleepover” was both an installation and an experience.

Inside the “Forever Sleepover” tent.
Inside the “Forever Sleepover” tent.

Sclavi additionally creates collaborative community art projects with students. She has worked for the  Mural Arts Program, Fleisher, Rutgers University in Camden, Moore College of Art and Design, and many others. She has also frequently worked as an artist-in-residence, in schools and other community settings, where she will work with a group of people and create a project over the course of a few months. “I like to do non-conventional community-based projects, such as art parades, zine publications, pop-up mobile participatory structures, and the like,” Sclavi said.

“I consider my work in education less of a teacher instructing a lesson, but me working as an artist, facilitating creative expression collaboratively with young people,” Sclavi explained. “I came from this point of reference working as both a community art educator and as an artist who creates participatory works of art–in both, there is [a] focus on the process of creation, rather than the final product.”

Upcoming show of sixth-grade storytelling

A group of students at Warren G. Harding Middle School take part in
A group of students at Warren G. Harding Middle School take part in the Imagination Invasion From Outer Space project co-created by Sclavi.

Recently, Sclavi was asked to work on a project with sixth-graders from Warren G. Harding Middle School in Philadelphia, in conjunction with Moore College of Art and Design’s Learning Through Photography community art project. The exhibition was called Imagination Invasion From Outer Space; Sclavi, along with artist and educator Jebney Lewis, worked with the sixth grade class to create movie posters based on character, setting, and plot ideas, which they came up with as a group.

When the children completed three movie plots, professional film industry workers, including a makeup artist, set builder, and costume designer, helped the group bring its scripts to life in a photo shoot. The shoot featured the students as characters, and resulted in the creation of three Hollywood-style movie posters. Afterward, young playwrights and Moore Graphic Design students were invited to view the scripts and posters, and design new screenplays and images based on the students’ creations. Imagination Invasion from Outer Space opens January 30th at 5:30pm at the Galleries at Moore College of Art and Design.

Kathryn Sclavi isn’t your typical artist. She integrates herself and the community into her art. Sclavi wants people to feel good about themselves when they enter her space and experience the art right alongside her. She brings you into the magical world that she has created to take you out of this one. Sclavi takes risks and works together with the community to give you an encompassing encounter with her world.