Interview with Deenah Loeb: Art in the Open

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Editor’s note: Deenah Loeb is a Schuylkill Center trustee who also serves as the Executive Director of the City Parks Association and was on the founding creative team for Art in the Open, a citywide event in which artists create their work outdoors on the Schuylkill Banks for three days in May. This summer, nine artists from Art in the Open 2014 will present their work in the Schuylkill Center gallery and on the trails this summer in the show Open SpacesDirector of Environmental Art Christina Catanese recently sat down with Loeb to get her insights about Art in the Open, and its extension to the Schuylkill Center context. Open Spaces features work by Nancy Agati, Harry Bower, Ellen Brooks, Josh Harris, Aaron Lish, Pazia Mannella, Sandy Sorlien, Susan Wilson, and Wendy Wolf.

Christina Catanese: When and how did Art in the Open (AiO) get its start?  How did the idea come about?
Deenah Loeb: The original idea came from local artist Ed Bronstein, who wanted to create a plein air festival in Philadelphia.  He reached out to Mary Salvante [EN: Schuylkill Center Environmental Art program founder], who brought me into the process.  We began to think beyond only painters’ engagement to a program that created an outdoor studio space for artists working in all mediums.  It was also important that the program be integrally linked with the environment– it was an interesting opportunity for artists to work with the river within the public realm, as a source of inspiration, recognizing the power of the urban river and urban context, and enhancing public access to the river.

AiO was first offered in June 2010. It was originally for 5 days – we saw it as a little bit of a residency.  It’s three days now, partly because working outside is exhausting!  And we moved it into May instead of June for the milder temperatures.  The artist’s call has always been international, and the submissions curated by a prestigious jury.  We were originally thinking that the Schuylkill River Trail would connect to Bartram’s Garden (which may still take place!), and envisioned artists working from one end to the other.

We also envisioned it as a citywide and even region-wide program, which is why we forged partnerships with all kinds of institutions – environmental, art, educational – who could take these insights into their own programming.

CC: Why was the Schuylkill Banks chosen over other iconic public spaces in Philadelphia?
DL: Interesting question.  The river tells a powerful story of Philadelphia’s history and future.  It’s different than just an iconic space – the environmental message is very important and part of what distinguishes AiO from a festival or simply a plein air activity.  We are reframing the whole concept of plein air (which itself happened because of technological advances – paint came in tubes which meant artists could go paint outside and truly capture the moment).  We are also interested in other mediums of expression.  In the 5 years of AiO to date we’ve had artists working in all mediums– sound, hammers and nails, welding on site, dancers.  The river banks as studio gives artists permission to work, be inspired by the environment, and engage with the public. It’s a very urban setting, yet has elements that people associate with nature and what we think of as natural.  This gives the artists incredible permission to work differently, regardless of what their practice is.

CC: The Schuylkill River has had a long and varied history – from serving as the heart of Philadelphia’s industry and being heavily polluted to being now an artery of revitalization, greening, and urban engagement.  How does AiO (and art engagement with the river more broadly) fit in with the Schuylkill’s evolution – past, present, and future?
DL: It attracts people to come to the river – both artists and visitors.  In the process of making art, their activity is actually putting on a lens for the visitor going by – seeing things they might not have looked at.  It helps us expand our own ability to see, particularly the waterway in the relationship to the city.  By increasing connectivity to waterway, we can explore different ways we might see the river and appreciate it.  Leah Stein (choreography) was part of AiO for a few years and she talks about the fact that it wasn’t until she started working on the water itself that she actually looked at the water.  It can be an invisible artery even though it is our water and life source.

CC: AiO makes a distinction between installing work outdoors and creating art out in public view.  What is this difference and why is it important?
DL: AiO is not a festival or a sales show – it’s about process.  The public witnesses the process of change and sees the artist being impacted and influenced by both urban and un-urban elements.  It is not a show of completed work, but an unfolding story that takes place over time.  Some artists might complete a number of pieces, but if they are more conceptually driven, we might not see as much as quickly.  The visitor sees what the artist is wrestling with, is challenged by.  We are exploring the idea that if the Schuylkill Banks is an artist studio, how can the work and the artist be impacted by being outside?

CC: What is one particularly memorable happening, artist, project, etc. from your AiO experience?
DL:  There have been so many!  As I walk up and down the pathway, I see so much.

Each night, artists leave work out all night not knowing if it would be secure.  The first year, I went out early to check on the works, having no idea what to expect.  There was a beautiful delicate piece on the Market Street stairwell that I was especially worried about – but it was in perfectly good condition.  A homeless couple had set up underneath it, and said to me, “we’re taking care of this, it’s art.”

The first year, it rained the first day.  One artist Maria Anasazi, creates delicate sculptural works from old books, and when I got to her site, she had completely surrounded herself in a tent of plastic and was in there working away, cutting pages of paper for her piece.  She used it as an opportunity to create her work with the rain around her.  Aaron Lish [EN: part of this show at the Schuylkill Center] out in his kayak in the pouring rain at the base of the dam was totally frightening and memorable.  There was also an artist who was wrapping trees in fabric in a way that really made you stop and take note.  

CC: Tell me about the community that forms between each year’s cohort of artists.
DL: We never expected that.  There is an amazing comradery and sense of identity that AiO artists seem to have built amongst themselves that has been extraordinary.  They follow each other’s work and exhibits, keep in touch with each other over the years.  It is a benefit that each of them has said is just amazing, to have shared this process and experience of working outdoors.

CC: Why is it important for AiO to extend beyond the three days in May and for the artists to extend their work to other sites?  Why were satellite exhibitions shown throughout this year, and why were CFEVA, UCAL, and the Schuylkill Center chosen?
DL:  We are interested in creating opportunities to share the work through different curatorial eyes in different locations, so more people learn about the work as well as the AiO program.  Since AiO is now every other year, it is also an opportunity to extend the visibility of program.  We seek to give all artists opportunities to show their work after the program.  We are also exploring how we might be able to take the AiO model into different communities – downtown, West Philly, and now the Schuylkill Center – to see where there might be synchronicity with the work and affinity to program.  Particularly with the Schuylkill Center, the opportunity to bring work that was made outside and potentially link to the site at the Schuylkill Center seemed very exciting. 

CC: How do you feel AiO relates to the Schuylkill Center’s mission to inspiring meaningful connections between people and nature?
DL: Do we have an hour?  Understanding the process of engaging with our waterway and the urban fabric and landscape through different mediums is yet another opportunity to extend our ability to see how we live in the environment today, as part of a larger ecology, if you will.  How we can interact, with creative inspiration, in different ways with the environment?  Learning from the visions that artists bring to us and honoring the role of creative process in exploring and learning about the world around us all seems very much consistent with the Schuylkill Center’s environmental art program.

CC: Anything else you want to share about AiO?
DL: Art in the Open is now a biennial event, so we are looking forward to AiO 2016.  The call for artists will be on the AiO website in September 2015.  In conjunction with Open Spaces, don’t miss Nancy Agati’s community wood carve as part of the Schuylkill Center’s 50th anniversary picnic.