West Poplar: Ridge Avenue Galleries Leave Imprint On Local Art Scene

Tina Rocha and Bill Scott admire Cerulean Art's current exhibition: Fluid Lucidity.

Tina Rocha, co-founder of the Cerulean Arts gallery, recently left her job as an architect to focus on the gallery full time, which has been open for 15 years.

Located on Ridge Avenue, a corridor that when passing through West Poplar does not appear to be commercially hospitable, the gallery was forward thinking, said Rocha.

“We wanted a spot that would be close to home, part of the community, and had the potential to be part of something bigger,” said Rocha.

Tina Rocha, co-founder of Cerulean Arts, sets up a piece that is going on sale from a local artist.
Tina Rocha, co-founder of Cerulean Arts, sets up a piece that is going on sale from a local artist.

That “something bigger” is coming to fruition as the Divine Lorraine is finally being renovated, and the 1300 Fairmount Project was approved by the city.

“The name (of the Fairmount Project) is deceptive because (part of) the entrance is on Ridge,” said Rocha, who pointed out that a supermarket, retail stores and a cafe will stand on Ridge, right next to Cerulean’s location. A complex of apartments and townhouses, from the same developer, will be built on Fairmount Avenue.

With the neighborhood now catching up, the biggest hurdle is establishing a stronger presence. After the homeless shelter that was once across the street closed, more foot traffic began coming through the area, resulting in more gallery visitors.

Still, this section of Ridge Avenue does not benefit from an “Avenue of the Arts” advertising campaign. And though it is part of the Fairmount-Francisville’s Greater Art Museum Business Alliance, there is no connectivity, in a marketing sense, with fellow West Poplar joint PhilaMOCA or Callowhill’s hive of galleries.

In the face of the challenge, Cerulean has to present something unique to visitors.

“We’ve come to find our niche is in the decorative arts, which we find to be just as valid a form of art as the fine arts,” said Rocha. “We try to cultivate an appreciation towards people that might not go into a gallery because it might seem a little uncomfortable. They can easily relate to something handmade that they may already have, such as a vase or scarf. That kind of comfort is very low-key.”

The front of Cerulean is an intimate space that showcases current exhibitions, which tend to run for three weeks and include artist talks on the first Friday that they are open. The back is a small horde of art in various styles in a spectrum of mediums, all for sale, almost like a gift shop.

Bill Scott reviews the process of etching into a copper plate to make a print.
Bill Scott reviews the process of etching into a copper plate to make a print.

Through Dec. 24, Cerulean will feature an exhibition titled “A Beautiful Afternooon,” featuring prints from Bill Scott in the Intaglio style.

The style involves slicing into zinc or copper plates to make grooves in the surface, which will hold ink for the printing process. This is not unlike vinyl being etched with a groove meant to hold music.

Scott, who spent his career up until the late 1990s as a painter, discovered a rewarding challenge in the style.

“I found I couldn’t work as improvisationally with the prints as I could with paintings, because with paint I could keep changing things and block out areas,” said Scott. “But if I’m going to make an etching, and commit to something, I need to know where the elements are going to be.”

Scott used his newest print, Late October (pictured below), as an example of how different plates are layered to form a single image on the final print.

Late October by Bill Scott. The four individual plates on the left with the completed piece on the right. Reprinted with permission by Bill Scott.
“Late October” by Bill Scott. The four individual plates on the left with the completed piece on the right. Reprinted with permission by Bill Scott.

Scott takes most of his inspiration from nature and the seasons. He will look at trees out of his window and see how they are bisected by buildings, at the plants he has in his studio, and what he called his “make believe” garden.

“It’s mostly just weeds,” he said, with a smile.

While some have called Scott’s work abstract, Scott said he has one guiding principle in his work: “I want to make something that I think is beautiful and not represented in the real world.”

PhilaMOCA and the Pigeon Poetry Slam

Situated at the intersection of 12th Street and Ridge Avenue is PhilaMOCA, a former mausoleum showroom that has become a live entertainment venue.

Founded in September 2010 by Gavin Hecker, the venue has been a welcomed and celebrated venue for independent music, movies and theater.

One regular show performed at PhilaMOCA is the Pigeon Presents Poetry Slam, co-founded by local artist Jacob Winterstein, who co-hosts the shows every first Friday.

“Pigeons are really interesting animals,” said Winterstein. “They’re very good at finding their way home, and I think that’s what we, as artists, do in our poems or work, is find our way home. And like the pigeon, we find something extraordinary in the every day.”

The slam runs for a season ending in May of every year. The winners of each slam accrue points and the poet with the most points attends a retreat where they can relax and work on their art.

Cerulean Arts and PhilaMOCA, with their location on Ridge, bridge a gap in culture between the Art Museum area of the city and the collective of art galleries in southern Callowhill.

According to the 2012 Prosperity Report by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, such galleries and venues have had an impact of $3.3 billion in direct and indirect expenditures and made the city $169 million in tax revenue.

The report also states that of metropolitan areas of over 1 million residents, Philadelphia ranks first in jobs created because of culture, with 4 out of 5 of those jobs being in other industries, such as food.

In fact, within one-fifth of a mile from Cerulean Arts there are 13 restaurants; PhilaMOCA has 19 restaurants within the same distance.

Due to the citywide and neighborhood benefits such as these, Rocha hopes Cerulean will be part of a greater collaborative process with other neighborhoods.

“We’ve been floating in this undefined area for the last 10 years,” said Rocha. “It would make sense for all the neighborhoods to work on a common corridor.”

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– Story, video and photos by Robert Tierney

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