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Studio visit with Althea Baird


[Kelly can’t get her recent visit with Althea Baird off her mind, and finds herself interpreting Baird’s latest project from a different level. — the Artblog editors]

It turns out I was wrong about Althea Baird’s “Roof Residency”. When I walked into her studio during Philadelphia Open Studio Tours a few weekends ago, I found her work interesting in a way she didn’t intend. What stuck in my mind was something she said about looking at the sky. She mentioned that in the city, people tend to direct their gaze to about head height and down, never looking to the sky (I nodded and obviously got so stuck contemplating this that my attention was diverted).

Citizen of the sky

“Roof Residency” Plan. Photo by Althea Baird (2014).

So Baird is currently doing a project where she looks at the sky. A lot. She posted an ad to Craigslist asking for a roof on which she could become a “citizen of the sky.” Eighteen people were willing to let her watch the sunrise from their roofs once a week for a year, but she took the stranger’s roof with the best view of the open sky.

Photo by Althea Baird, 2014.
Photo by Althea Baird (2014).

Baird’s “Roof Dance”

I originally thought she was looking for a sense of place in nature in the city. Looking down at only concrete and asphalt doesn’t allow any connection with nature, although nature is still present in the form of the sky. I liked Baird’s idea–being in the middle of the city, on a tarred roof, communing with nature… finding that connection without having to drive out of town on the Schuylkill.

And although I believe she is finding a connection with nature through the sky, the artist says her focus is more on environment and the layers of history in a given place. Her past work in dance and media also focused on this same thing–even her work with kids through “Art Factory”.

Baird’s art is more about process than product. The experience itself seems to be cathartic for her. She is immersed in this project without a specific goal. She takes photos and has made a site-specific dance.

Photo by Althea Baird, 2014.
Photo by Althea Baird  (2014).

On the roof, Althea is building a labyrinth charting her view of sunrises past (the photo is from the very beginning). Each day, she watches from the same spot. Then she places a token (rock, shell, chunk of construction debris) along that line of sight. As time goes on, the path curves with the season. She walks this path into the past and can see where her future with the sun will go.

A private happening

Something I find intriguing, and reminiscent of Pepón Osorio’s Home Visits project, is her relationship with the people in the house. I wonder why people responded to her post at all. I wonder what these people are getting out of their relationship, especially after I learned that no one is up as early as Althea arrives. Someone lets her in and goes back to sleep.

Usually, art creates a reaction in a viewer. Usually, an artist makes something knowing it will be seen. But with this roof residency, Althea has no gallery or viewer to please. I wonder if it is just a personal experience, or is blog-viewing the art? I can’t help but feel that part of what she is doing is honoring the people who live in this house. No one else has access to this work. Althea intends to give them gifts every three months, beginning with an elaborate meal cooked and served to them on the winter solstice.

Photograph of the sky
Photo by Althea Baird (2014).

In the end, I spent so much time thinking and talking about it, it doesn’t really matter to me that I didn’t interpret her work the way she intended. It is intriguing. And just out of reach. It is a private affair…and I think that exclusive things are always desired by those who can’t access them. Stalk her blog for updates and possible events if you don’t want to be excluded.

Studio visit with Althea Baird, one of 40th Street Air’s 2014-2015 residents.


40th street air, althea baird, arts & culture, philadelphia, roof residency, studio visit