Hidden in a newly renovated warehouse at 2024 East Arizona St. is what artist Jesse J. Gardner likes to call the “best kept secret of Kensington.”
On Sept. 11, 2011, in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and Gardner’s 20th anniversary of the series of paintings, Gardner opened the Unsung Heroes Gallery, featuring portraits of firefighters from around New York and Philadelphia. The gallery is located at 2024 E. Arizona St.
Gardner’s motivation came far before the Sept. 11 attacks, although those who risked their lives on that day have inspired some of Gardner’s paintings.
After an extended visit to Paris in the 1980s, Gardner saw the differences between France and the United States. It was then that he had the desire to return to America to create artwork that was uniquely American and show patriotism for his country.
“It’s about showing to the rest of the world certain human values of sacrifice, honor and integrity, things that people talk about not being in the American character, “ he said. Although he had considered painting other members of civic service groups, firefighters particularly resonated with him.
Gardner said that there are many connections between the artwork and its location.
“I think it’s made people who live right around here feel that they’re valued, because they’re in a space that is about honor and honoring people,” Gardner said.
Particularly after the Kensington fire killing two firefighters last April, Unsung Heroes has found more relevance in the community. However, Gardner said he finds the new attention bittersweet.
“I would never want this gallery to be on the map because those men died,” he said. “But, it gives [families] a place to come and feel comforted. As an artist I can give back to my community [in this way].”
Gardner’s next project is a nearby Kensington mural with the Mural Arts Program, featuring the firefighters who died in the April fire. Gardner said he hopes to expand the gallery and become better known in the community and elsewhere.
“Kensington has an outsider appeal to me, that no one would think that there would be a museum in Kensington,” he said.
“I think a lot of people use Kensington to speak down about it and put down themselves and the neighborhood and I wanted to do the opposite,” he said.
“It’s really part of the philosophy that goes into the work, looking for the best in people and showing that rather than the negativity.”
Unsung Heroes it open by appointment during the winter. Call 267-702-6820 to set up an appointment.