Althea Baird and Jo Brunelli transform Fishtown’s Paradise diner into gallery for underserved, undiscovered artists
Alex Smith visits "Fridays in Paradise" at Paradise Diner and speaks with Althea Baird, who along with Jo Brunelli makes up the Fridays in Paradise collective. Check out this Artblog post to learn about the collective's utilization of a 35 year old diner to showcase underserved and undiscovered artists, Black people, and people of color who are women, queer, trans.

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From Fridays in Paradise organized by Althea Baird and Jo Brunelli.
From Fridays in Paradise organized by Althea Baird and Jo Brunelli.

Collages wrought with dramatic, smeared on pastes in Basquiat-like color spray. Disembodied mosaics and otherworldly dioramas pulsing with dream-like energy telling stories of home and place. Poets and writers christening spaces with Afrofuturistc incantations and spiritual connectedness. If this sounds like snatches of dreamscape ephemera from a major art opening, your consciousness isn’t playing tricks on you– these are moments from Fridays in Paradise, a monthly art showcase featuring vastly underserved and often undiscovered artists from the seams of the fabric of Philadelphia’s art scene, an event taking place at the Paradise Diner under the Girard L stop every first Friday meant to provide a home for artists who otherwise may not get to experience an essential part of being an artist: having their art displayed on a public wall.

According to artist and musician Althea Baird, one half of the Fridays in Paradise collective along with fellow curator and social media dynamo Jo Brunelli, the duo chose the diner to represent their vision because, “Paradise is a 35 year old neighborhood business for people that live around there, it is not trying to gentrify or be gentrified.” This element of locality and inclusion of artists of varying ethnicities and gender expressions informs their curation– each event features expansive art, like the dreamy architecture of Lisa Barkley’s toy-and-found object dioramas and dollhouses, all wrought and intertwined with wisened soul, projected against the backdrop of the diner’s unique, lived-in world of tile floors, seasonal decorations and counter booths that haven’t been renovated for decades. “I think its amazing that they are willing to host artists work every month, and it’s cool seeing the web of people who are supported by and supportive of the diner grow, and having that web stay Philly, folks who are from here, or have roots here, or who are staying here,” Baird says. “I really hope that Paradise Diner can be financially stable and that the art shows could help with that. I also think that because that area of gentrified Fishtown is so dominated by whiteness– and all the violence that is a part of that– it’s really cool when the artists create space for Black folks and other people of color who are queer & trans & women by sharing their art and poetry at Paradise.”

With the slate of artists Baird and company have highlighted since beginning in January of 2019, their mission of inclusion and empowerment seems to be realized. While there isn’t a heavy academic presence in either Baird’s curation or in the works themselves, they are strong dynamic works of staggering, untapped beauty and a shared kinesis in each artist’s display. There was the caustic playfulness of M. Tellez’s archive of grocery bags, the archive itself a comment on consumerism and its place in the chaos of everyday life reaching dadaist levels of irreverence. Then there was the joint show of Eddie Sturges and Josh Mackie, two artists with no previous connections who both used color, distorted faces, and their divergent takes on what seems like Lichtenstein finger-painting a full page spread in ADBUSTERS. And of course, Barkley, perhaps the strongest showing of all, whose work also included glorious bedazzling of found objects and photographs.

From Fridays in Paradise organized by Althea Baird and Jo Brunelli.
From Fridays in Paradise organized by Althea Baird and Jo Brunelli.

For Baird and the collective, the most important piece of their methodology is “the story behind the story.” Continuing, Baird says, “with the artists at Paradise, whether folks are being explicit about their politics, i think no matter what, they are documenting a time and experience in Philly that is about resilience, ancestors, trauma, white supremacy, creativity, futurity, austerity, fucked up air quality etc. That being said, we have had several artists with explicitly political work, and it is really important to me for Paradise to center that.” Often patrons are at risk of having their meals not so much disrupted as affected– there’s nothing openly confrontational about any of the artists so far, yet having the work displayed in a diner in a rapidly gentrifying area where folks who have lived their whole lives often clash with newer residents encroaching into spaces with established cultural affectations that remain unshared, hasn’t gone completely off the radar. “It brings up conflicts within the space, because there are so many different people in there who are on different sides of these experiences,” Baird says. “And it creates affirmation like a random person eating at the diner and seeing their experience reflected in a poem that Jordan wrote about police violence or a collage where they’re like, ‘wow that looks like me and my friends in the 80’s except it’s the future and i need that today.’”

Other artists who have shown or read include Joyce Hatton (comics art and storytelling), Quinha (painting), Erika Mukai Faria (story/writing), Andrienne Palchik (photography), Aschak (wood carvings, paintings, poetry; was a founder of the surrealist poetry scene in the 1960’s), Alex Smith (collage; sci-fi short stories), and Jordan Plain (design; poetry). Currently showing is Sonrisa Rodriguez with a collection of instant photographs, “Landscape Instants”. The work captures the hyper-reality represented by still objects and of places overlooked, discarded or otherwise experienced outside of artistic envisioning. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the Fridays in Paradise ouevre– art that captures ideas and perspectives often marginalized, ideas that belong in the conversation shaping the future not just of art, but of the world.

From Fridays in Paradise organized by Althea Baird and Jo Brunelli.
From Fridays in Paradise organized by Althea Baird and Jo Brunelli.
Tags

Afrofuturistc, althea baird, first friday, Fridays in Paradise, Lisa Barkley, Paradise diner

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