Painting is a live action experience with ROMPUS

Watch paint dry for two hours? Last weekend, art collective ROMPUS proved it can be fun ― when accompanied by music, narration and free beer, that is.

When audience members entered Sunday night’s Fringe Festival show at the Sculpture Courtyard, a garden tucked off of North Mascher Street near Palmer where Tuscan greenery overlays Kensington’s industrial steel and brick, they were greeted by a giant, spotless, backlit canvas.

When the sun had almost set, a trio of percussionists broke the silence, and narrator Marlon MacAllister began reciting a poem about the beginning of the universe. At the same time, the canvas behind them came alive. Artists behind the screen began to move, dipping brushes in acrylic and applying it in deliberate strokes. Each was as irrevocable as a step in a dance routine ― it was obvious the act of painting was as much about performance as it was about the finished image.

As the poem’s universe advanced and MacAllister read lines describing the appearance of water and plants, the shadow artists painted mushrooms and acorns in blue and green. By the end of the reading, the canvas was filled with pictures of life.

ROMPUS is a group of local artists that formed in 2013. Its performances, which basically involve painting on a massive sheet in front of an audience, have up to now been mostly accompaniment ― performing alongside bands at concerts. This show, called Lore, was the first the collective actually built from the ground up.

That the mixed media work results in engaging visual art is impressive enough, considering there’s not even a rough sketch to follow and that there are no do-overs when producing in front of a live audience. But what’s even more remarkable is that for this show, the group had never even done a run-through of the entire set, according to ROMPUS member Julianne Noone.

After the outdoor reading, the show moved into the adjacent warehouse-style space, where an even bigger three-part canvas was waiting. There, performers recounted the Lenape legend about the Rainbow Crow (the one that explains why crows are black), while its likeness was painted in the center panel. The show turned interactive, and spectators were invited to color in the crow’s wings, and encouraged to laugh at the antics of the dancers and artists as they spun tales of less serious myths.

The raven
ROMPUS’ Rainbow Crow at Fringe 2016

At one point, during the reenactment of opening Pandora’s box, the audience basically cowered in fear as terrifyingly-dressed actors screamed all kinds of evil at them. (Between that, the profanity and the complimentary beer offered up from a cooler, yeah, this couldn’t really be considered a kid-friendly show.) The evening ended with every audience member holding a hot cup of chamomile, standing in the light of the original canvas.

As ROMPUS members’ commitment to their collective continues to grow, they’re slowly turning what was originally a side project into a business. Per Noone, the group doesn’t have a date nailed down for another show because of how much work went into Lore, but similarly comprehensive performances are planned for the future.

“We were just getting through this,” Noone said, “and then we’re going to see how much energy and time everyone has.”