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New West Philadelphia Program Connects Artists and Community

March 16, 2015 Category: PeoplePurpose

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Betty Leacraft, a mixed media artist, educator, and lecturer, has lived her entire life as a resident of West Philadelphia. She remembers going to Sunday school and summer camp at New Bethlehem Baptist Church, which is celebrating 100 years later this month.

Now, as part of her work with Neighborhood Time Exchange, a new artist residency program in West Philadelphia, Leacraft will be working with members of the church to put together a quilt using historical photographs from throughout its history.

“I think the main thing this residency has done for me; it has allowed me to be able to do something that I wanted to do but wasn’t sure how, and that was to do projects within the community where I grew up as a child,” Leacraft said.

The residency, which consists of three cohorts from January to September 2015, gives selected artists studio space in return for their work on service projects in the community. Artists will work in neighborhoods within the West Philadelphia Promise Zone, a place-based revitalization initiative launched by the Obama Administration last year. The zone includes the neighborhoods of Belmont, Mantua, Mill Creek, Saunders Park, and West Powelton.

Neighborhood Time Exchange is a program organized by a slew of organizations in the city: the Mural Arts Program, The People’s Emergency Center, and The City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) as well as the Canadian-based Broken City Lab.

“We want to challenge our artists to do something in this community — Mantua, Belmont, Lancaster Avenue, with a social purpose. We believe that art should have a social purpose,” said Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program. “We believe you should stretch art as far as it can go and when you think you’ve stretched it far enough, you know what — you go further.”

Neighborhood Time Exchange had over 200 applicants, with some applying from as far away as China. An artist from Dublin, Ireland will be a resident in the third cohort.

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“The main thing I think I like about this opportunity is the fact I can meet other artists from other disciplines that are totally different from mine and learn something from them and have a really great exchange,” Leacraft said.

The first cohort’s local artists are Leacraft and Ian Sampson, a cartoonist, printmaker and teacher. Visiting artists are Kandis Friesan and Phillipe Leonard.

“We also wanted to make sure we involved a significant component of our local artists because that was very important to us,” said Helen Hayes, chief cultural officer at OACCE. “We needed those local artists to anchor what we’d be doing here in the community.”

Sampson has lived in West Philadelphia since 2008, and his goal for the residency is to use comics to document the neighborhood.

“My goal coming into this was to do some more sort of nonfiction documentary work about the neighborhood,” he said. “Really I just wanted to use this whole thing as an opportunity to get to know the neighborhood better and feel more a part of the place I live.”

Sampson also said that typically his work is fiction, and that this seemed like an opportunity to change that and create work with a practical or social aspect.

“I’ve been concerned about the issues facing West Philly, and particularly the school issue has been huge. When I moved here, I thought it would be temporary, and now I’ve been here for long enough, and it looks like I’ll be here for a long time and it’s time for me to be apart of this community and do something meaningful,” he said.

In addition, Sampson is documenting the process of Neighborhood Time Exchange for the entire six months it is running, in a comic strip to be posted on the OACCE’s website.

Community projects the first cohort will be working on, which have been directly requested by the community members, include beautifying abandoned homes along Belmont Avenue, window treatments and banners at New Bethlehem Baptist Church (in addition to the quilt) and weekly community meetings in the neighborhood to help create a brochure for the New Freedom Historic Walking Tour for the New Africa Center.

“This is an opportunity for the artists to make their work be more social and by that extension, make themselves more social,” Sampson said. “You get to be a part of that community and get to understand those issues in a way you wouldn’t if you weren’t working through it.”

The Neighborhood Time Exchange project will run through September 2015. The studio space, located at 4017 Lancaster Avenue,  is open 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Images via Mo Manklang


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