Hidden in plain sight among the eroding concrete, unattended potholes and semi-abandoned brick homes on North Philip Street is a whimsical garden.
It’s the work of Colombian-American sculpturist Pedro Nel Ospina, who, when we meet him, is swatting away dragonflies and airing out his linen long-sleeve while tweaking a homemade drip irrigation system he’s engineered out of locally-sourced scrap.
Maintaining the seven lots that comprise his Open Kitchen Sculpture Garden is a full-time endeavor, a key part of which is making sure the the bushels of herbs and vegetables poking out of tire wheels continue to flourish. In Ospina’s mind, it’s part of being neighborly.
“They’re outside of the sculpture garden’s abundant interior parameters,” he explained, “so that people from the community can pluck and go as they please.”
Harvesting fresh produce from a sidewalk in West Kensington is a sort of magic on its own, but the really enchanting part of Ospina’s half-decade-long project lies inside — past the salvaged barn door entrance and the enormous “indigenous faces” contoured from two tons of cement that sporadically appear between the garden’s hedges.
“The garden is all about…creating something remarkable from available materials and manual labor,” Ospina said as he entered the transformed junkyard, “that can be used in a meaningful way.”
The land, he said, was “gifted” to him by the Norris Square Neighborhood Project six years ago with the hope that he would, once again, create something out of nothing for the neighborhood. He was already known for his prowess turning trash into treasure, thanks to the fact that he physically lives inside of a sculpture made out of reclaimed and recycled materials.
Yes, Ospina’s home is a sculpture he built from trash.
Though not open to the public, the creation of the two-story residence, which has been underway since 2010, is a public effort in-progress, made possible with the help of friends and other Kensington residents.
“I then thought, what other project can I do that focuses on basic necessities, that incorporates the community more directly and initiates exchange and sharing?” The answer, Ospina decided, was a garden that would serve as a social and physical scaffolding where the communal production, preparation and consumption of food was encouraged.
After spending nearly two years clearing out the lots, Ospina built the first component of many: a hearth oven that resembles a honeycomb, with bees made out of car parts dangling above.
Today, the space is filled-in with multipurpose stages built by Boy Scouts and Pig Iron Theater Co. actors, a mini greenhouse, an orphaned carousel pony, a boombox E.T., patio furniture and a statue of the Virgin Mary. Adding character and cramp to the space are outlines of colorful three-dimensional collages of odds and ends and vibrant willful flowers.
Like the sculpture house, the garden has been brought to life by members of local organizations and folks that stumble upon its path. People sometimes donate sculptures of their own, or offer knickknacks that would have otherwise been discarded. Neighbors also donate their time to its development and maintenance.
Ospina divides his time between South America, New York and Philadelphia, and makes most of his income from collecting and transforming ornate birdcages.
But he always finds himself always coming back to Kensington, which he said he’s frequented since back in 1989. He feels a strong connection with the local Puerto Rican community, where he’s become a familiar face thanks to his work with Taller Puertorriqueño as an art educator and outreach coordinator.
“The nice thing about the North Philly area is that it is full of possibilities,” Ospina said, “and it is easy to find people here who are excited to actualize those possibilities.”
That actualizing also requires funding. Ospina is currently working hard to make the Open Kitchen Sculpture Garden self-sustainable. It’s not there yet — he needs more people to participate in the workshops, dance parties, potlucks offered in the space, as well as people to pitch in the gardening and maintenance a bit more.
Only days ago, Ospina finally opened an Instagram account to promote the venue better.
He doesn’t partake in or care for social media, he admitted, or the Internet — or electricity, for that matter — but does comprehend that the existence of the garden and his original vision for it depend on getting the word out.
The Open Kitchen Sculpture Garden, located at 2251 N. Philip St., is open seven days a week doesn’t technically have hours of operation. Ospina recommends coming to special events like pop-up barbecues and live DJ sets, and the weekly Thursday night potlucks from 6 to 9 p.m. For more information on how to get involved, contact Ospina at firstname.lastname@example.org.