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How to Make It In Philly As a Sculptor

Darla Jackson
Darla Jackson
During a late-night writer's block moment last fall, Darla Jackson may have reinvented the highly nuanced art of grant-writing.
Using a tongue-in-cheek approach, the local sculptor and art instructor closed her preliminary application to the highly competitive Knight Arts Challenge Philadelphia with the following:

"We want to help sculptors of Philadelphia get their work made and out into the world without cutting off their fingers."

A few months, a much lengthier application, and $20,000 later, and Jackson's Knight-funded Sculpture Gym is almost a reality. She recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the remainder of $20,000 in matching funds and is hoping to open the space early next year. The Gym will be a first-of-its-kind facility in Philadelphia, including table and hand saws, a drill press, basic woodshop tools, and welding area, intended to give would-be or long-suffering sculptors a place to safely and affordably make their art.

“It's been a whirlwind," says Jackson. “We've received a lot of wonderful feedback."

Of the 35 other Knight grants announced earlier this year, only one was sculpture-related (the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby). That ratio is not at all indicative of the activity in Philadelphia's sculptor community, nor does it reflect the very visible role sculpture plays throughout the city.

A City Sculpted By, For Inspiration
The Philadelphia Public Art website lists photos of hundreds of sculptures in the city. There are the iconic ones, like Robert Indiana's Love that overlooks Love Park and Claus Oldenburg's towering Clothespin across the street from City Hall. Inspiration for the latter, reportedly, was drawn from Constantin Brancusi's The Kiss in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The sprawling Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial Sculpture Garden on Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River (just south of the Girard Ave. Bridge), features several lime and bronze works from more than 60 years ago. The Rodin Museum, closed through the spring for extensive renovations, gives us one of six original casts of Rodin's The Thinker, among other treasured sculptures.

Paul Hubbard knows many of these as vice-president of the Philadelphia Sculptors group, which supports more than 100 sculptor members and promotes the art form throughout the city through workshops and exhibits. The group's fall exhibition, Opposites Attract, is at the University of Arts through Oct. 13 and pairs sculptors with artists in other disciplines to create a new synergistic art form. Works include an original opera filmed and projected on a sculpture and a floor of rising and falling plastic water bottles.

There's probably no one more likely to criticize Philadelphia's most famous sculpture, the Rocky statue at the foot of the Art Museum steps, than Hubbard, a U.K.-bred academic, Royal Society of British Sculpture Fellow, and board member of the International Sculpture Center outside of Trenton, N.J.

But even Hubbard, the graduate program manager for studio art at Moore College of Art & Design, sees the positive in Rocky's legendary and oft-photographed victorious posture.

“There are a lot of things Rocky is not, but he's a signifier, a connection for people," says Hubbard. “They see the steps of the Art Museum. It gives people a place to pilgrimage."

For Hubbard, coming to Philadelphia was a no-brainer 12 years ago. It had all the “bigs," as Hubbard refers to them – history, open space, artists, world-class museums and art schools. He also saw tons of potential, an easily navigable city and the kind of inspiration that means everything to a creative – a strong sense of time and place.

“I think it's now a truly an arts city, on par with Chicago," says Hubbard. “There's a lot of thrilling stuff happening here."

Beyond the Artist
Although she is an artist through-and-through, from her give-and-receive nature to the nature of her inspirations, it wasn't until she denounced the label of ‘artist' that things started coming together for mixed-media sculptor Candy Depew.

“I'm technically a cultural entrepreneur and designer because designers make $20,000 more a year than artists," she says.

Depew, a native of the suburban Cleveland town of Medina, worked her way up through the Philadelphia art community, which was undergoing a sea change  when she transferred to Temple's Tyler School of Art in 1995. After graduating in '97, she worked as many art-related jobs as possible. A major one was at the Fabric Workshop, which in tandem also had a five-year residency at the Clay Studio. She has lived or taught in most every Philly neighborhood thanks to stringing together four years worth of housesitting gigs.

“My style doing of doing things involved a lot of adrenaline," she says. “Just keep going, work all the time, do you residency, go out, then sleep and do it all over again. But that's also how I know so many people."

Teaching is also networking. Primarily offering instruction from her third-floor, Old City walk-up studio, Depew says about 75 percent of her students continue to create after taking her class, and her students are a total mixed bag -- two years ago she had seven out-of-work architects creating at her studio.

"They're finally getting to do what they want," says Depew, whose studio brims with hundreds of prints, fabrics, and in-progress works, not to mention two very lucky cats.

One recent student from the corporate sector introduced Depew to the guy who oversees the stainless steel concourse at the Comcast Center, and Depew is now putting together the first art show there. "Printed Matters," a decorative intervention featuring poster wallpapers designed by more than 100 of her students in the last three years, opens Wednesday and runs through Saturday.

"All that from a tiny, one-person studio, because someone was thirsty for art," she says.

Making It Work
It was a third-year project at Moore, inspired by shop tech and PAFA graduate Justin Grant, that solidified her choice of career and life partner – she married Grant soon after. The work now resides in Moore's admissions office.

“Of course you look back at work you made and go ‘Oh my God that's awful,' but I'm happy they have it there and I'm grateful to Justin," says Jackson, a 2003 Moore graduate.

Like DePew, teaching has been a big part of Jackson's mix. She has been an instructor at Fleisher Art Memorial since 2005 and has also recently taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and University of the Arts. Ultimately, though, the goal is for the Sculpture Gym to be a full-time endeavor for her and her husband, who works full-time as an art handler. In a pinch, Jackson also started making molds for people who didn't want to perform the painstaking process themselves.

“That was something really helpful that carried us through the tough times," Jackson says. “There's always someone who needs something done."

Jackson was working full time as an administrative assistant when Moore commissioned her to sculpt six-foot high Victorian boots as part of its 160th anniversary. She soon scaled back her non-art job to part-time so she could direct more of her energy to sculpture.

Jackson soon began selling her creations online – she even got an email from Courtney Love saying she liked Jackson's work but it was too depressing for her. That was enough for Jackson to maintain her page, which generates just enough sales to make it worth her while.

Inside the Work
One constant in Jackson's career has been her ability to show her work. After Moore, she applied to every group show she could find. And to keep pace, she kept creating smaller pieces, an exercise that has helped Jackson improve at her craft and also get to know other important players in the art community. She is probably best known for her bizarre animal sculptures, like the rabbit with a black crow mask. The animal sculptures effectively draw empathetic responses because Jackson works to make them human in some way, through a gesture or added piece.

“It's amazing to me that people relate more to animals than to figures," says Jackson, who is currently showing a life-size work of her 2 year-old daughter Olivia wearing a scary wolf mask.

Depew is currently juggling more than a dozen projects and events, several of which are part of the upcoming DesignPhiladelphia celebration. Her work now involves mostly the decorative arts, including a lot of fabric work and printing. Her “Sugar Walls" wallpaper project, a tableau vivant installation at her studio – the Candy Coated Center. She is also collaborating with Workshop Kitchen chef Tony Aiazzi on table.wear, in which DePew creates imagery on porcelain dinnerware.

Collaboration, and exposure to other environments, are two key elements to Depew's career that are echoed by Jackson and
Hubbard. Traveling to other countries, drawing inspiration from unlikely sources, and working with people with different visions all help to create sculpture that is meaningful and careers that are rich. A trip overseas is an inherent part of the graduate program Hubbard oversees.

“I think more collaborations and hybrid projects will keep the evolution going," Depew says.

Lasting Impressions
For years, Hubbard took special notice of the swath of grass in front of Moore that borders the Ben Franklin Parkway, the recently improved Aviator Park. Tucked away behind some trees but visible from most of the surrounding arts institutions, it was nothing more than a gathering place for students or passersby to grab a bite to eat, a smoke or some respite with a friend. Hubbard thought it fitting if this informal meeting space could be improved, so he inquired with the folks at Fairmount Park about installing some temporary sculpture there.

For the last four years, with support from Moore and blessings from the city and Fairmount Park, Hubbard has silently curated Aviator Park. Most recently, Israeli-born and internationally known artist Boaz Vaadia installed three bronze sculptures on boulders and bluestone. They are “Family with Dog," “Yo'ah with Dog" and “Gilalay and Ginnetoy." They'll be on display for a year, lent courtesy of the Boaz Vaadia Museum Collection

Known to many as Sculpture Park, that small patch of grass is something very different than when Hubbard made his pilgrimage to Philadelphia. Hubbard, who refers to himself as a “maker of objects" who “constructs situations," is clearly among those who have made the city his campus – and canvas. It's the same kind of dynamic at play with PAFA alum the Dufala brothers, who have received national acclaim for their works built literally from the urban landscape.

“Sculpture is about space," says Hubbard. “In terms of opportunity, I'm not saying it's paved with gold, but it's possible to do things in Philadelphia that are not possible to do in other cities."

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.

PHOTOS:

Darla Jackson

Sculpture by Jackson

Sculpture pieces in progress by Jackson

Candy Depew

Printed fabrics at Depew's studio

Family with Dog – by Boaz Vaadia in Aviator Park

Paul Hubbard (courtesy of Moore College)

All photographs (unless noted) by MICHAEL PERSICO

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