First-hand First Fridays 3
The Ghosts of the Ellen Powell Tiberino Museum
At the end of my last First Friday jaunt, I was given a flyer to a promising looking event on Second Friday.
Granted, the title of this column is First-hand First Fridays, and the event at the Tiberino Museum occurs on second Fridays. But the real point of this column is an account of various art scenes, as they happen, as they are experienced. And the Tiberino’s Museum is quite possibly one of the most happening art-scene locations in Philadelphia, when it comes to a free-form mishmosh of music performance, freakshows, and performance art, all set within the confines of a very small but vital art community right in West Philly with over three decades of history. Avoid that, simply because it doesn’t occur on a First Friday? Fuck no.
You can feel that artistic history in every brick. I can only imagine, wandering through houses that have literally become Chapels and living works of art, that there are more stories here than I could possibly unveil in a single article. Or ten. As is par for the course for this column, I will uncover what I encounter. The rest, you will have to seek out yourself, if you have the inclination.
To introduce me to some of the backstory of this place, I went straight to one of its inhabitants: Slim. As I encountered him, Slim was a slightly gangly musician with a well-worn black fedora and matching, lived in t-shirt and jeans. I don’t know this for a fact, but I get the sense that this is like a uniform for him.
With drink in hand, he took me on a quick tour of the magnificent art that is worked into every corner of every house on the grounds. Some of this tour I managed to catch with my handy Olympus DS-30 mp3 recorder. Some I did not.
One thing that continually baffled me as I was led through this veritable maze was that this place was still here, that it was still thriving, a heritage passing from one generation to the next. They managed to open their doors to the public for specific events, such as the one I’m reporting on, without the scene going sour or getting shady and dangerous. One always has to hope, with any endeavor, that is succeeds… but not too well, since, for the most part, it becomes a case of “pearls before swine.”
Not here. At least, not yet. Having some experience with art communes myself, both on the inside and the outside, I can say this is quite an accomplishment. For my part, I don’t know yet what their secret has been, but
when I find out, you can be sure I’ll pass it along.
The first room he brought me to was in the front house. In anyone else’s home, this may have been the living room. Here, it was a room dedicated first and foremost to the display of a life’s work. More accurately, it was a sliver of that life’s work, which struck me right away as a particular narrative. Maybe I was inventing it, projecting it, but it seemed there was an intentional story there, lurking between one painting and the next.
He explained that much of the art in this room was made by Ellen, who eventually succumbed to cancer. I could see a chronological progression throughout the room, from ornate, dark and yet vibrantly colored paintings,
to a period with pastels, which Slim explained to me was a forced decision, the result of being bed-ridden. In her final years you could see the subject matter itself turning dark, with more meditations on death and that transition. This was not the work of a woman who made a hobby out of her art. This was a woman who lived through her art. In other words, she- whoever she was in life otherwise, was an artist.
After checking out this room, I went back into the crowded courtyard to find that the freakshow had begun. I managed to cram myself into a corner to snap some photos- not an easy proposition, given the sweaty crowd that had collected to watch the spectacle. What I witnessed was somewhat par for the course if you’re familiar with this kind of performance art- lying on beds of nails, dangling giant metal
drums from ear piercings, shorts skits chock-full of ribald humor, and so on.
As this show ended, the Hydrogen Jukebox started playing.
I quickly made my way over, again putting my recorder to good use. Though there was a little clipping here, as it’s a live recording in an open courtyard with a live band, the end result was surprisingly clear. You could probably label their music, call it say “psychedelic hippy folk acid rock,” but I’m sure you’d get a hell of a lot more just listening to it, rather than labeling it as anything. So, rather than describe the music for you – you can check it out yourself… which is something I particularly like about reporting in this “new media age,” whatever the fuck that is.
About halfway through their set, I met up again with Slim and several of my other friends, and he took us into one of the two Chapels that exist on the grounds. The Chapel in the front building seems to be a meditation on life, growth, and hope.
This Chapel, on the other hand, was thematically dark: brimming with lurid paintings of the Christ in agony, inset with a real human skull, a giant triptych that blends elements of a Greek bacchanal, Pagan nature worship, and a final depiction of the Christ, surrounded by the trappings of religious fanaticism.
Such a grand endeavor could easily come out hackneyed or forced, yet in the hands of these artists, I found it breathtaking. (Admittedly, there is a different feeling when you’re actually in the Chapel, and the paintings are ten feet across.)
It’s worth mentioning that with all the artists who have lived, worked, and influenced one another here, though I can pick out distinct styles, and even “periods” within those styles, it was incredibly hard for me to tell who painted what. Since I didn’t have the family tree in front of me and a chance to sit down with everyone involved, I simply took them at face value as “the paintings” and “the artists,” and let it stay with that. (With the exception
of Ellen’s paintings, which I had seen earlier, and recognized as “all of a piece.”)
Slim went on to tell us some ghost stories that he has overheard in the time he’s lived here. We also discussed the skull, and the history of working human bones into religious works of art in Christianity.
In the future, I will likely return here, and try to dig up some more of those lurking stories I spoke of. For the time being, that was a wrap. We finished our conversation, hung out for a little while, and I went on my way.