Bella Vista: The Power of Community at Fleisher Art Memorial

After graduating from the Wharton School of Business in the 1880s, Samuel Fleisher became the vice president of his family’s wool business, Fleisher Yarn Company. As the major manufacturer pumped out yarn and fabric to the region, Fleisher’s colleagues were extremely invested in their work. 

However, Fleisher was concerned with his company’s employees and their families. Were they receiving an education? Were they engaged? Were they inspired?

In 1898, Fleisher began to offer sketching classes—known as the Graphic Sketch Club—to poor boys in the neighborhood, many of who were connected to the company. Enrollment increased so much that in 1906 it moved to the 700 block of Catharine Street—right in the heart of Bella Vista.

Three nearby buildings were acquired, one a former Episcopal church now nicknamed “The Sanctuary.”

Finally, Fleisher’s envisions were complete: There was space for those who never had adequate access to the arts. The school was usually always available for use, as its doors were open at night to encourage workers to stop by after a long day.

This same mission still rings true today. Workers and children (and anyone in between) can access the arts and develop a sense of community at Fleisher Art Memorial. After over 120 years, it continues to offer “countless people the opportunity to create art through low-cost classes and workshops,” according to the Fleisher’s Bring Your Own Project text.

“We’re the oldest community arts program in the country,” said Dominic Mercier, the communications director. “But we’re always evolving and always changing.”

Fleisher serves 16,000 students annually, with 3,820 adults enrolled in workshops and almost 2,000 young people attending free classes, according to its website. Fleisher hosts a series of events throughout the year, including a weeklong Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration with Bella Vista’s Mexican community and a free Valentine’s Day card-printing class.

In its exhibition space, Fleisher holds six annual shows that feature faculty, adult members, and young artists. Three exhibits are education-based and three are entry-based, highlighting three artists per show.

Fleisher even has a mobile art studio, ColorWheels, that travels to various parks and neighborhoods to encourage a unique art experience.

“Fleisher is eclectic and unlike anywhere I’ve ever worked,” Mercier said.

Arguably the most popular aspect of the Memorial is its adult workshops. Dozens of workshops are offered seasonally, at various lengths and times during the week, catering to working adults and college students. Workshops range from $20 to $300, depending on its timeline and studio requirements.

A couple years ago, Elisa Tavella searched for interesting art classes in Philadelphia and discovered Fleisher’s cartoon illustration class. She is currently enrolled in the Thursday fall screen-printing class.

“The classes change up the monotony of a nine-to-five job,” said Tavella, a North Philadelphia resident.

Fleisher has a number of workshops that dabble in an array of media, like artisanal balm and salves making, night photography, and storytelling for podcasting and radio. Staff members understand that students have various perceptions of art, which resulted in the spectrum of workshop offerings.

The makeup of the workshops widely differs in age, artistic experience, ethnicities and familiarity with Fleisher itself.

“I was surprised when I got here—I was the youngest one,” Tavella said in regard to her screen-printing class. She was the youngest by at least 20 years.

Despite the gaps in age and experience, Fleisher helps form bonds—whether it be between students, faculty or community residents.

Carol Stirton-Broad, a tilemaking and mosaics instructor at Fleisher and a Philadelphia resident for 38 years, has been involved with Fleisher for over 15 years after starting as a substitute instructor for a workshop. Not only does she teach, she takes workshops, like screen printing, too.

“I love teaching and taking classes here,” Stirton-Broad said. “I meet interesting people doing interesting things. Some people work their way around the whole school. People start to know each other … and when someone passes away, for example, it’s really traumatic.”

Stirton-Broad described Fleisher’s community as a “cross pollination” of sorts. Students continue to enroll in workshops after a first taste, oftentimes alongside students and teachers they’re already familiar with.

Angela Georgis, an environmental science teacher in Boothwyn, has taken several workshops at Fleisher, like dark room photography, papermaking and screen printing.

“The classes are almost incestuous,” Georgis said. “You start seeing everyone everywhere. There’s definitely a community here.”

Georgis, along with Stirton-Broad, Tavella and several others, are enrolled in the Thursday screen-printing class, which stretches from September to November. The students are taught how to expose their designs to the screen, the transferring technique, and proper ways to dry the print and screen frame.

There is no strict dynamic between teacher and student, encouraging a free and open space to experiment.

“I like people in general and I try to get along with everyone,” said Gerard Silva, the screen-printing instructor. “I try to be like, ‘Hey, this is not that type of class. This is not college, where you’re getting a degree.’ Let’s just have fun.”

Silva, also Fleisher’s exhibitions manager, believes a fun environment allows students to get to know one another and to avoid any artistic intimidations. According to Silva, Fleisher is a “relaxed setting,” as opposed to classes offered at museums, and that the sense of community allows for students to become friends.

Registration for classes and workshops for the Winter 2020 term open on Monday, Oct. 28. Registration applications are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, and several workshops—like dark room photography—fill up pretty quickly, according to Georgis.

“It’s kind of rare to have a major art school like this,” Georgis said. “Other cities have nothing comparable.”

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