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Clay Studio leaves Old City after nearly half a century and moves into big new digs in Kensington

Three artists will be featured in the inaugural exhibition, each representing a different face of the new community.

Artist Kukuli Velarde poses for a portrait in front of her artwork with her daughter, Vida Velarde-Herren,10, inside the new location for Clay Studio in the Olde Kensington section of Philadelphia on Wednesday, April 6, 2022. The grand opening of the new studio, which was formerly in Old City for 50 years, will be this Saturday.
Artist Kukuli Velarde poses for a portrait in front of her artwork with her daughter, Vida Velarde-Herren,10, inside the new location for Clay Studio in the Olde Kensington section of Philadelphia on Wednesday, April 6, 2022. The grand opening of the new studio, which was formerly in Old City for 50 years, will be this Saturday.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The doors are locked. The building on North Second Street is for sale.

But the old digs of the Clay Studio, over half a century in Old City, are not abandoned or forgotten. They’ve simply been outgrown and await a repurposing.

Meet the new $14.5 million digs, 34,000 square feet of galleries, work spaces, classrooms, and other areas needed for the robust programming that’s become a Clay Studio hallmark — nearly 70% more space than could be squeezed out of North Second Street.

An April 9 open house and ribbon cutting marked the grand opening of the Clay Studio’s new building at 1425 N. American Street, right across the street from the Crane Arts Building, itself home to several galleries, performance spaces, and studios.

Together, Crane and Clay have transformed North American Street into a lower-Kensington Avenue of the Arts.

And the gentrification and development pressures that go with such a transformation are robust.

“When we knew we were going to move to this location, we started immediately to talk about the fact that we have been in Old City for nearly 50 years, and what did it mean to come to a new place?” said Jennifer Zwilling, the Clay Studio’s curator and director of artistic programs. “And not just what it would mean for the Clay Studio, but what it would mean for the neighborhood.”

How to explore the relationship between arts center and neighborhood became a focus of attention, and at the center of that was the nature of what would become the Clay Studio’s debut exhibition, which opens April 23 and runs through Oct. 2.

“We wanted to make sure that we had artists who reflected the neighborhood,” said Zwilling. “We wanted to involve the neighborhood. So we invited neighbors to come and talk to us.”

The questions were basic.

“What do you love about the neighborhood? What do you hope for the future? What are your worries about how things are changing? What would you like the Clay Studio to do to be part of this?”

From those sessions, “we gleaned about 15 people who were willing to come with us and become part of our council,” said Zwilling. “So this project has been planned alongside a neighborhood council.”

The exhibition — “Making Place Matter” — reflects its ambitious origins. It is art, it is about the making of art, and it is about the role of art within society and community.

Elizabeth Essner, who co-curated the show with Zwilling, and has since been named an associate curator of craft at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, said community was very much in the forefront of their thinking about the exhibition.

What could an arts center and community “do together?” she asked.

“How can we enter this community with respect, with understanding, and ... really an enormous amount of investment in time and resources,” Essner said in describing the approach. “That said, I think that this is really very much a beginning, an entry point of getting to know the community, and this exhibition is really the place to start to think about place as this very local context, this broad context, and also this kind of interior context that we all bring with us.”

The inaugural show is composed of three artists, each representing a different element of community.

“We looked around at the neighborhood, and I knew we needed somebody who reflected the Spanish-speaking population, and the mosque across the street, and, you know, reflecting the rest of us, the kind of long term, Fishtown and Kensington neighbors,” said Zwilling.

Kukuli Velarde, a Peruvian-born ceramic artist who lives near Norris Square, just north of the Clay Studio location, is one of the three artists in the inaugural exhibition.

“You cannot have, and you cannot expect to have all the answers on how to work with a neighborhood,” she said. “It is gonna be a continuous process. In a way it’s going to help to solidify gentrification in the area. And I live here. But at the same time, since we know that it’s something that cannot be avoided, it’s good to have a strong institution like the Clay Studio. I’m so grateful with [for] this institution — the existence of it was actually what brought me here to Philadelphia.”

Velarde’s work, part of her A Mi Vida project, will include a sculptural installation of babies, painting, performance, and off-site interventions. The series focuses on the artist’s desire to prolong the sensation of holding her now elementary-age daughter Vida in her arms as a baby. It also embodies her anguish at the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Her performance will involve a group walking from her Norris Square home to the Clay Studio pushing a baby carriages containing her small sculptures.

The two other artists in the inaugural exhibition are Ibrahim Said, a native of Egypt, now based in North Carolina, and Molly Hatch, a Massachusetts ceramist. Said’s sculptural installation, On the Bank of the Nile, consists of carved clay and inlaid wood marquetry. It is based on the Islamic mashrabiya, or traditional pierced screen.

Hatch has created what she calls “plate paintings” for the exhibition, taking historical patterns — often from porcelain plates — as the source. She had her initial Clay Studio exhibition in the early 1990s.

“For me to be given the opportunity to think about the idea of making place matter, … I really wanted to sort of tap into my understanding of Philadelphia as a place and ground the work in that,” she said. “So I went to a museum and looked through collections there and thought about some of the Americana that’s there and American art history, decorative art history in particular. And so I really wanted to use that.”

Typically I work with historic references,” she said. “So going to the museum felt like a really normal place for me to start.”

Which is why George and Martha Washington’s first President’s House China service became a model for an exhibition about place-making on the old North American Street industrial corridor.

“The china was sort of commemorating the union of the first 13 states and the imagery on it and some of the symbolism within it really resonated with me about the idea of life and death and rebirth and particularly the ouroboros symbolism on the rim of the plate and the chain.”

It is, said Hatch, emblematic of the community and the art.

“My interest in a lot of my work is about that symbolism that loses meaning and gains meaning depending on who’s appropriating it at different times throughout history, and so to have Chinese plates made for export for George and Martha Washington’s first service because that’s what you did — that kind of wraps up for me this idea of life, objects, dying, moving, re-creating, rebirthing new space. And so I think we’re rewriting what it is to be in this place in Philadelphia in America.”