Public art comes to Camden on great big cat feet
“Invincible Cat” is one of six large outdoor art installations that make up a six-month exhibition that officially opens Thursday. The work is by Santa Fe-based artists Don Kennell and Lisa Adler.
The big cat was just getting settled into its new home on Tuesday when Ajeenah Riggs stopped by for a look.
“It’s awesome. You know, it’s actually better than the picture,” said Riggs of the 36-foot-long panther, a glossy creature sculpted from recycled car hoods and sporting bright-yellow eyes and teeth that’s taken up temporary residence by the tracks of the PATCO High-Speed Line. It had been delivered a few hours earlier by a flatbed truck to a grassy lot at Whitman Avenue and Pershing Street in Camden’s Whitman Park neighborhood. Not far away, a newly installed “Book Ark,” from the Camden County Pop Up Library, awaited borrowers.
The work of Santa Fe-based artists Don Kennell and Lisa Adler, Invincible Cat is one of six large outdoor art installations that make up “A New View — Camden,” a six-month exhibition that officially opens Thursday in conjunction with Earth Day. Funded by a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge grant, they are designed to call attention to illegal dumping of bulk waste in the city, a problem estimated to cost taxpayers more than $4 million a year for disposal of the dumped material.
The project was originally scheduled to debut in May 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic. Another component of “A New View,” Camden-based photographer Erik James Montgomery’s photo series, “Camden Is Bright Not Blight,” launched last fall, with large-scale images of Camden residents on vacant buildings.
More than 130 artists from across the country submitted proposals for the installations. Winners were chosen by “A New View” curators Judith Tannenbaum and Kimberly Camp. In addition, another New Jersey artist, Tom Marchetty, was selected to design and build “pod parks,” with seating, at each of the sites.
Riggs, a Camden resident since 2014 and owner of the Camden Store in Parkside, said she couldn’t wait to bring her 8-year-old daughter, Allison, to see the panther, which, like all the projects, is billed as family-friendly.
“You can sit on the paws and the tail,” Adler, one of the artists, said of the cat, adding that small children will need supervision. (Even lying down, the cat is 7 feet tall.)
“It’s complete when people are around it,” said Kennell. The artists, who are married, met when Adler was in graduate school at Rutgers, where Kennell also had studied.
Invincible Cat was made up of about 60 car hoods, Adler said. “Camden is making illegal dumping its signature issue. ... What we do is we use this material to kind of signify our carbon addiction and how it affects habitat loss.”
“This was a notorious site for illegal dumping,” said Meishka Mitchell, vice president of the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, a nonprofit focused on urban redevelopment in Camden. “If you were here even a couple of weeks ago, there were piles of tires, an old mattress, a television, throughout this site [on a city-owned lot]. So the 65,000 people that travel on the PATCO [line] every day ... this is what they are riding by.”
Now what they’ll see is an art exhibit and perhaps they will “be enticed to get off the train and investigate, want to come and meet the panther for themselves,” Mitchell said. “The perception that many people have of the city of Camden is built on rhetoric and news of 20 years ago. They actually haven’t visited in years to find out what is happening in this great city.”
Some of the sites also adjoin the Camden GreenWay bike and walking trails, she said.
“I think riders will start to see that Camden is really rising,” said Dana Redd, chair of the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership’s board of directors and a former mayor of Camden.
Residents are “working together to reclaim our space, to reclaim our environment, and to support children, families that live in the city, that call Camden home. They deserve a vibrant environment to live, and to experience, and an improved quality of life,” Redd said.
“And we’re also sending out a message to illegal dumpers to stop dumping on Camden,” Mitchell said. “It’s mostly outsiders that come in and they’ll dump their construction debris. ... Camden deserves better. Camden deserves respect.”
Priscilla Rios is a Camden native who’s been working on another of the installations, the Phoenix Festival in East Camden, as part of a Subaru-funded apprenticeship program that will run until October. She also helped create the art that decorates the Book Arks.
She’d like to see Camden have more of the kind of art she sees across the river in Philadelphia, especially the murals.
Working on the installation, “I was just having so much fun. I was digging, I was tying things together. It was really great. ... I gained some muscles in the end,” Rios said.
A map of all six sites can be found at www.anewviewcamden.com/sites.
Besides Invincible Cat in Whitman Park, they are:
Bio-Informatic Digester. Located at Chestnut and Orchard Streets in the Gateway neighborhood, it’s a machine that uses mealworms to eat discarded Styrofoam packaging and other waste. (The mealworms, however, can’t be added until after the last frost, according to a spokesperson for “New View.”) Artists: Mitchell Joachim and Vivian Kuan of the Brooklyn-based architecture and design nonprofit Terreform One.
Turntable. Located at Cooper’s Poynt Park, 801-811 Delaware Ave. in North Camden, it’s a spinning sculpture made from recycled plastics. Artists: Amanda Schachter and Alexander Levi, of New York-based SLO Architecture.
Touching the Earth. Located at Fifth and Erie Streets in North Camden, this project, which invites community participation in the construction of three totemic sculptures, is getting underway this week. The artists will be leading workshops on building with straw and plastering with clay mix. Artists: Athena Steen and Josh Sarantitis.
Mechan 11: The Collector. Located at the State Street Pedestrian Bridge in Cramer Hill/North Camden, this sculpture of a 15-foot-tall robot collecting trash has a “glowing heart chamber” meant as “a reminder that we have to love and take care of this planet.” Artists: Portland-based Tyler FuQua Creations.
The Phoenix Festival. Located at 1401 Federal St. in East Camden, this installation consists of two 22-foot bamboo sculptures decorated with recycled objects. Artists: Boston-based The Myth Makers, Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein.
It’s not clear what will happen to all the installations when the exhibit is over. Invincible Cat may, like some previous Adler and Kennell projects, go on tour. Or it might possibly find a home not too far from its current site.
“When we pitched this, we did not realize that the local high school mascot was a panther,” Kennell said.
The new Camden High School is scheduled to open this fall, and the proximity and timing are “just incredible,” said Redd.
Could Invincible Cat find a home there?
“Anything’s possible,” she said.