You’ve brought tourist friends to PAFA’s giant paintbrush, giggled when Kid Hazo decorated it as a poop emoji, and dodged tourists taking photos in front of the Love sculpture. That’s enough, right?
In the second part of Billy Penn’s effort to get up close and personal with public art (read part one here), I did the Association for Public Art’s Museum Without Walls tour, which is pretty much what it sounds like. I stopped at several sculptures throughout my run and let the audio app tell me more about them.
I think I’ve heard of Museum Without Walls, but how’s it work?
The Association for Public art (formerly the Fairmount Park Art Association) has been in Philly since 1872, but MWW has only been around since 2010. More expansive than the Mural Mile Tour I wrote about last week, the Museum Without Walls program has its own app from the Association of Public Art with audio of more than 65 sculptures. There’s also a cell phone tour, plus options to download audio and audio slideshows from the site. MWW adds sculptures to the app continuously; Roxy Paine’s “Symbiosis” was just made permanent this week. The map highlights four main locations — City Hall, Ben Franklin Parkway, Kelly Drive and East Fairmount Park, and the West Fairmount Park Horticultural Center — and there’s a bike map if that’s your jam.
I recommend just keeping the app on your phone to use when you pass a statue and inspiration strikes, or you want to impress someone. Just be mindful of data usage.
I created my own route by running from Spring Garden Street down 17th, swinging left on the Ben Franklin Parkway to hit sculptures around City Hall, then looping back around and following the Parkway toward Logan Square and Kelly Drive.
Looking Through the Lacking Disc
Running down 17th Street toward the Parkway, I was immediately surrounded by sculptures. They’re always there of course, but it’s overwhelming when you pay attention to them, and realize that all of those metal figures have a distinct history and are the work of talented artists. It’s quite the difference when you’re not sprinting by the art and trying to dodge pedestrians.
I arrived at “Three Discs, One Lacking” first. It’s an abstract sculpture of three steel discs created in 1964 by Philadelphia artist Alexander Calder. My audio narrator directed me to look up at our famous 1894 Billy Penn sculpture atop City Hall— the 37-foot-tall statue was made by Calder’s grandfather— then to look the other way down the Parkway at the Swann Memorial Fountain in the distance, created by Calder’s father.
This talented Philadelphia family has been an integral part of the city’s history.The narrator directed me to get down on all fours (I squatted— and you can bet people were tossing a few glances in my direction) and look up through the “empty space” of the disc that was lacking.
I looked up, and the view through Calder’s disc perfectly framed the William Penn statue in a circle that tuned out the rest of the city. The juxtaposition of that legendary, historical figure with this modern, abstract sculpture was surprising and powerful.
As I got up from my viewpoint and walked to the next sculpture, I noticed a woman staring at the sculpture as she walked by. This happened a lot; People would look at something if they saw me looking at it. It’s as if we only need the smallest reminder that something beautiful is there.
The Art of the Abstract
Nearby, I circled Henry Moore’s “Three-Way Piece Number 1: Points” (listed on the app as 339-1699 Ben Franklin Parkway), which reminded me of a giant buffalo, even though it looks more like a tooth. I hadn’t realized before how large it is, or how it’s balanced on such small points on the ground.
“The average Philadelphian is probably unaware of the immense beauty of the city,” Khalif White said. White’s a 30-year-old videographer and Germantown resident I met on the Parkway. “I think more people just walk by and see a random sculpture and keep walking. I think for those that pay attention, it’s beautiful. It’s real, and they have real messages of the past and the future.”
Across the street, I visited the powerful “Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs” by Nathan Rapoport, and observed “Government of the People” by Jacques Lipchitz. I was surprised to learn that Lipchitz’ work, which seemed epic and beautiful to me, was disliked by then-mayor Frank Rizzo in 1972, who called it a “pile of plaster.”
I chatted with Jocy Kakalecik, a Temple student and New Jersey native, who said she’s appreciative of the city’s art because of a class project.“I didn’t pay attention before, but then we had to find five pieces of art outside in the city and relate it back to a book,” she said, “It opened my eyes to the culture here. The art shows that the people in this city care to make it a nice place, and welcoming.”
“Love” According to Philly Jesus
In Love Park, the artist himself, Robert Indiana, explained through the MMW app that the sculpture was part of a massive project to spread love to cities all over the world. I liked listening to him talk about his dream of sharing love through art as people gathered around the fountain, holding hands and taking pictures.
As for design of the sculpture: the red, blue and green color scheme was a tribute to Indiana’s dad’s company, Phillips 66. He always saw their red and green signs and gas pumps against a blue sky. Interestingly, Indian focused most on the tilting of the O.
“It gives the sculpture a little bit of dynamism,” Indiana said on the track in my ear, “There’s nothing as dumb as an O at attention.” I also met up with local prophet and entertainer, Philly Jesus. PJ (a.k.a. Michael Grant), a North Philly resident, did try to save me, but he also shared his thoughts on the Love sculpture.
“People from all different walks of life and all different places come together here,” he said as a family posed for a photo beneath the letters. “This art is about universal love. When I look at this, I think about God and the source of existence and that’s the whole reason we’re breathing. We were made out of love, and we survive on love, and that’s what it’s all about in the end.”
The City as A Symphony
The sculptures continue around Center City and from the Parkway into Kelly Drive, from Rocky to Ulysses S. Grant, to Joan of Arc. The last stop on my run was Mark di Suviro’s large welded metal “Iroquois” sculpture, installed in 2007 on 24th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue near Eakins Oval. I passed this one frequently, and had often absentmindedly wondered if there was a story behind it.
I walked on the grass under and through the massive red metal beams. Ambient music played softly in my headphones and the artist spoke about spontaneity, and the construction and destruction of steel.
“People will say, ‘What is it?’” The artist’s friend and construction manager Lowell McKegney explained on the audio, unknowingly addressing my unspoken question. “It’s a little like music. You feel it, you don’t describe it.”
I laughed and stood under those welded arches a little longer. Listening.