Ellen Bonett

You were recently selected as an Art in the Open participating artist.  

For the city of Philadelphia, the litter in our streets is a constant problem. Recently, our city was given the appropriate title of second dirtiest city in the U.S. out of 35 cities in a survey published in “Travel and Leisure” magazine. Just last year the city ranked fourth. “Action News” filtered the results to include the ranking of visitors versus residents. According to these results, Philadelphians consider our own city to be the dirtiest city in the U.S. – a harsh, but very realistic judgment of ourselves; whereas, the visitors placed us second to New Orleans. Nothing speaks of day-to-day urban life as the items that we choose to use, discard, and forget.  Most will conveniently end up in landfills out of sight and mind, but others litter and clutter our streets.  People walk by and step over the litter every day, items that were obtained for a moment and then left behind.  This forgotten trash can often outlive the person who disposed of them.  For a cleaner city and attitude, it will take the combined strength of a community voice and a new perspective.

Fortunately, Philadelphia is taking steps to change our negative ranking.  The Philadelphia Streets Department’s “UnLitter Us” public service campaign inspired my proposal to collect various trash items from the streets of 4-5 distinct Philadelphia neighborhoods to create individual, unique neighborhood quilts.  The trash items were collected during the weeks leading up to Art in the Open (AiO).  The collection of these raw materials was well documented with a photographic journal.  Each neighborhood quilt tells the complex story of its people and was constructed during AiO for the communities to witness.  The art process and finished piece is a reflection of how we live and our impact on our neighborhood, ecologically and aesthetically.  As an archaeologist uses found items to understand the everyday life of cultures past, I used found trash to open our eyes to how we live in the present.  Future generations will interpret our lives through what we leave behind.

Art in the Open was the perfect venue for this project as the artistic process and final work is accessible to the public in a way that can encourage self-reflection and influence community involvement.  Forty local and international artists were jury selected to participate in this four day event which took place along the Schuylkill River Banks.  The idea is for artists to create work which exhibits their relationship to the urban environment.  Typically, my work is exhibited in galleries and museums.  I wanted to work on this piece at AiO to allow an open forum to positively affect the community for which the art materials are derived and for which each piece is created.   Once each quilt was completed, I was able to place each representation together to form a map of Philadelphia with the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers shown in blue and white paint.  Even though I named each piece after the neighborhood in which its contents were found, they form a rough map of Philadelphia.  The complete piece is calledSalvaging a City.  I typically recycle objects within my artwork, but this was my first opportunity to collect from site-specific areas and allow the neighborhood to indirectly tell the story.  And, more importantly, I hope that my artwork will alter the story that these communities will want to tell in the future, in the open.

Your work is currently on exhibit at Square Peg?  

Our Legacy is an installation which utilizes the unique, intimate space of Square Peg to create artwork which represents the items I found throughout Rittenhouse Square.  In comparison to other Philadelphia neighborhoods, Rittenhouse gives off the impression of being well-kept, pristine.  An illusion created for a polite, consumer society with a large carbon footprint.  This cleanliness is a mask to a hidden world of discarded materials.  Through the Bare Bulb Gallery at Square Peg, I created this world of reality hidden within a well-landscaped park.  The first layer is an abstract drawing/painting of greenery climbing a brick wall.  There are slits and peek holes through the greenery to the truth beneath the appearance.  These cracks reveal litter, abundantly piled and strung behind the stage setting, all items collected at Rittenhouse, left by its inhabitants and visitors.

Along with Our Legacy, I have numerous other paintings and drawings in this solo show which represent my versatility as an artist.  The figure drawings were all created at the Midwives Collective.  I find it a very important practice to regularly challenge myself to depict a person’s range of character and emotion into a still portrait.  Also included in the show is African Albino Journey, previously shown this year at the International House for the Women and Water exhibition through the Philadelphia WCA and the University of Pennsylvania.  This assembly of paintings on round stretched canvas depicts the tragedies which befall African albinos whose body parts are considered magical by their fellow man.  With a very real fear of being hunted, mutilated, and even murdered by poachers, albino women travel miles alone with buckets to obtain water for themselves and their families.  The sun burns their fair skin and they can easily become susceptible to cancer.  They suffer for such a basic necessity as water and persist in their survival for their families.

Your work is currently part of the Recess exhibit at Midwives Collective?

“RECESS” was a group show with the Midwives Collective which wrapped up on June 4th.  The concept was to develop work influenced by children.  The Midwives helped raise money specifically for Albert Einstein Teen Health Center’s outreach program through donations, artwork sales and poster sales.  Ideas for the work in this show were very diverse.  One member created paintings with her children, another created animal caricatures about the awkwardness of youth.  For this show, I decided to gather items found in playgrounds throughout South Philly and titled the piece In and Around the Playground.  I had anticipated the items to be mostly oriented around children and play, and in general I was right. However, there were surprising items such as cigarettes and even barbed wire.  I suppose cigarettes should not be too shocking since teenagers use playgrounds for experimental breeding grounds without adult supervision.

When I was collecting artifacts from these playgrounds, I noticed that the adults facilitated the littering behavior.  Children would instinctively come over to help me pick up or after watching my example, would make sure to throw their garbage in the trash cans.  Most adults, by comparison, would look at me as if I was strange for going around picking up trash.  I was not once approached by an adult who offered to help.  Only one or two parents would point me out as a good example or give me an approving nod.  Maybe they don’t feel that it is their responsibility to keep the playground clean for the children.

You’ve been working on a mural? 

In January, I was able to catch up with a friend who works for the Animal Care and Control Division (ACCT) division of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA).  Not only did I fall in love with her foster cat, Nyla, and adopt her on the spot, but I agreed to volunteer for the PSPCA.  Volunteering for the PSPCA has opened up my eyes to the many abused and neglected animals which need our help.  ACCT is actually one of the largest kill shelters in the Northeastern portion of the United States.  Most people would condemn people who associate themselves with such a shelter; however, it is the volunteers and employees of ACCT which help to disperse incoming animals to neighboring institutions for adoption and successfully have hundreds of animals adopted every month.

Since I began volunteering, I helped with several events including the Philly Spring Cleanup and Super Adoption Day at the Piazza.  For Philly Spring Cleanup, ACCT recruited dozens of volunteers to pick up litter around the shelter and clear the brush from areas where the dogs can be walked.  This was my first cleanup prep for the Art in the Open exhibit.  Through helping ACCT, I was able to prepare myself for the other various neighborhoods I would go into in search of the Philadelphia essence.  Super Adoption Day, by comparison, allowed me to utilize my technical skills as an artist.  I offered my services as an artist to raise money by creating Pet Sketches.  As it turns out, it is very difficult to sketch dogs on the spot … especially puppies.  I decided to continue to help raise money after the event by offering a section of my website (still in the making) to Pet Sketch commissions, and will continue to donate funds to Love Four Paws, a non-profit that helps to support Philadelphia’s Homeless Animals.

ACCT has now asked me to design a new mural which will promote the ACCT within the SPCA.  My concept will consist of telling the success stories of a few of the rescued animals.  This is my first mural, but I do not intend it to be my last.  I have always felt comfortable working large, and murals will be a new canvas to explore.

What themes does your work generally revolve around?

A lot of my art focuses on current issues and events in a way that is very accessible and presented on a very real, human level.

What are you currently working on? 

My priority right now is to get my website up and running and promoting my recent exhibitions.  I will also be participating in POST – Philadelphia Open Studio Tours in October 15th – 16th with the Midwives Collective who is a community partner with 1241 Carpenter Street.  In addition, I have been working on making an outdoor installation for the Carpenter Street Community Garden. I am also brainstorming for a few upcoming projects with the WCA Philadelphia Chapter, this year’s Fringe Festival, and some traveling journals.  All upcoming exhibits and opportunities will be available on my website as they arise.

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions/ shows? 

Remnants from West Philadelphia from AiO will be exhibited at The Painted Bride until July 5th.  The opening reception will be during First Friday, July 1st from 5pm – 7pm.  The solo exhibition at Square Peg will be available to view until June 30th.

Any past exhibitions/ shows you’d like to mention? 

With the Midwives Collective, we curate a show each year called Many Entendres, originally called Acting 101 and Acting 201 in previous years.  Many Entendres is an open call show which challenges artists to play the main character in a story.  The narrative is chosen by the Midwives, but is not revealed to the artist.  The artist receives a passage from the story to act out in a photograph that is 8×10 inches.  At the opening reception, the full text is revealed to the artists and to the public, written on the wall under each photograph that depicts a part of the whole story.  This coming year, we intend to recruit a writer to create a narrative; therefore, eliminating the urge to figure out the complete story before the opening reception.  Of all of the Midwives Collective exhibitions, this is the one I enjoy the most as it involves an idea that develops through the minds of several artists.  This year it was moved to February 2012, so keep your eyes peeled for calls for submissions.

What materials do you generally work with? 

I do not limit myself in respect to materials.  Experimentation is the only way for me to be able to choose the correct medium to convey a message to a broader audience.

Have you held any jobs/ careers that you’d like to discuss? 

I have been working in cultural institutions since 2000, such organizations include: The Franklin Institute, The Philadelphia Art Museum, The National Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Zoo and The Carpenters’ Company.  Working for these locations helps me to learn the skills necessary for me to treat my art career as a business, plus they certainly do help with paying the bills.

Any amusing anecdotes regarding your art work? 

Well if literally making garbage to hang in the home isn’t funny … I don’t know what is, and I won’t be offended if someone accuses my work of being trash.

You recently took a trip to Boston to see the Museum of Bad Art…what was that like? 

It actually inspired me to evolve an idea similar to this in Philadelphia.  Essentially if you haven’t been to the Museum of Bad Art, there are four locations.  The largest location is in the basement of an old movie theater, and to get in a person has to buy a movie ticket.  Most of the art included was reclaimed from the trash or donated.  Often each piece comes with a brief description laced with sarcasm about what the artist could have been thinking.  It was amusing, but also brings up the age old question, the one I have been taught to analyze since attending Moore College of Art.  “What is Art and who decides whether it is good or bad?”  It is a very legitimate question as one of my friends who came with me to the museum loved a portrait of Adam Sandler.  You may scoff at the thought, but the actual painting had technical merit minus the ridiculous subject matter, or at least that was my opinion.  I feel this idea needs to be explored in Philadelphia as well, speaking from an artist who makes trash into quilts.

You’re a member of the Midwives Collective. Tell us more about this.

The Midwives Collective was founded in 2005 by a group of women artists who studied together at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. The Collective was born from the want to promote its members’ unique visions, expose their work to broader audiences, and develop our members’ careers as professional artists.  I became a member in January 2010 after participating in Acting 201 the previous October.  Several of the members I already knew as classmates from Moore College, but I decided to join because I wanted to move forward as an artist and the Midwives are a very supportive and creative community which could help me achieve that dream.  Not only could the gallery act as a stage for all of my larger installations, but I would learn how to curate, title, market, recruit, prep and install shows as if I were running my own gallery with my fellow artists.

You’re involved with the Women’s Caucus for Art?

The WCA, Womens Caucus for Art, is a national organization of women artists which has a Philadelphia Chapter.  In 2005, I joined the national WCA, but did not find out about the Philadelphia Chapter until 2009 and participated in my first show, “Plastic at the Plastic.” The Philadelphia Chapter is an amazing group of women who have helped me to elevate my career and my self esteem.  Just like most artists, I tend to be my own worst critic.  It helps to have a stable support structure of women artists who motivate and inspire projects and creativity.

Your websites:

ekb-art.org launching 7/1/11






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