It was November of 2020 when Spiral Q pulled up stakes on Haverford Avenue in West Philadelphia and started moving its puppets, signs, and other artifacts of their quarter century of history into storage.
The move made all the sense in the world. The West Philadelphia art-as-protest group was in the midst of looking for a new headquarters, and while a new home was being sought, the troupe’s landlord was offering the space in Mont Clare, across the Schuylkill from Phoenixville, at a significantly reduced rent.
A few months later, one September morning, their landlord texted a message and photo: the remnants of Hurricane Ida had swept through the area and the storage space was under seven feet of water. The majority of Spiral Q’s holdings, almost its entire history, was engulfed by the water and mud.
Gone was the puppet of Berta Cáceres used in protests to demand justice on behalf of the Honduran environmental activist assassinated in 2016 — along with “Esther,” an enormous figure conjured by organizers of the first Philly Dyke March in the late 1990s.
A “Greed Monster” created by ACT UP, puppets made in workshops with students, 15 wearable papier-mâché houses — all destroyed.
Spiral Q codirectors Jennifer Turnbull and Liza Goodell estimate that 65-70% of the company’s more than 2,000 artifacts were destroyed or damaged beyond repair, along with art materials, computers, and other equipment.
When Turnbull saw the first image from the flood, “I was like, ‘That’s the puppets.’ There was a lot of shock and a lot of tears.”
Now, as Spiral Q continues to recover from the deluge and considers where it might eventually find a new home, the group has mounted a $100,000 campaign to put it all back together. So far, almost half of that amount has been raised to replace and repair equipment and supplies, and to cover programming losses and the costs of cleanup and moving.
The star mailbox of 2020 is a loss, but at least there are two others: one on loan at Central High School, and another now residing at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, where a curator told Spiral Q it had become an “instant artifact” of the 2020 election and a part of American history.
As for artifacts of Spiral Q’s own history, most pieces are gone forever, at least in their original form. Others have been and will continue to be re-created.
“It’s still a blur, and we were making decisions as best we could in the moment,” says Goodell of the days after the flood. Spiral Q posted photographs of the damaged artifacts on Facebook as they worked with volunteers on the cleanup. “People were like, ‘Stop, don’t throw anything away — my friend works in a museum and preserves ancient scrolls and she can help you and you just need a giant freezer,’” says Goodell.
“You’d need a freezer the size of a room,” says Turnbull.
“But you’d pick the puppet up and it would fall in half,” says Goodell, “and I know papier-mâché and I know that you could fix it, but you really just have to be realistic as an organization. Are you moving forward? Are you making new puppets and working with what you have? For us a big part of it is the making process and bringing people together to make those puppets, and so the puppets of the past tell these stories and are reused over and over for sure. But I feel we did the best we could.”
“We have every kind of insurance except for flood insurance,” said Turnbull. The company has been able to clean and salvage nearly all of its archival photographs.
In a way, the flood highlights an upstart that grew venerable — with materials perhaps once considered ephemera that became the important stuff of institutional memory. Spiral Q (the “Q” stands for queer) was founded in the 1990s out of political activism and in response to the AIDS crisis. Activism is still core to the group’s work, and more so lately, but over the years it has added youth education programming and community-led arts projects rooted in First Amendment rights.
It’s a deeply held tenet of the company that much of the magic is in the creation, that it’s about the process as much as the product.
“When our different activist partners are together making art together, that’s where it’s at,” Turnbull says.
But there is also a practical benefit from having all of those puppets, props, and signs salted away, at the ready for other organizations to use.
“That’s one of the things that is sad to be lost,” she says. “People ask us, ‘Can I borrow this puppet? Do you have an XYZ puppet?’ And if we don’t have space to hold those puppets and that collection, then we can’t just pull them out. It’s a huge resource. It’s like a bank account that people aren’t understanding is there in terms of being able to leverage messaging and to amplify and galvanize people around issues for the marginalized communities that we focus on and prioritize.”
The flood crisis coincides with one other. Real estate in West Philadelphia is in demand, and so far Spiral Q hasn’t come across space it can afford. It now operates out of a former garage near West Girard and Belmont Avenues. It previously occupied a one-time trolley barn at 41st Street and Haverford Avenue, but the building has been sold and is slated for redevelopment, says Turnbull.
Spiral Q’s leaders aren’t sure whether a new home would be theirs alone or occupied in concert with other groups. Before the pandemic, the company was working with about 100 other organizations each year.
A spacious and flexible building is needed — the puppets are large. The company’s current base isn’t theirs, and it isn’t big enough. A ballpark estimate puts the price tag of a new facility at about $10 million.
But Spiral Q is intent on remaining in West Philadelphia, so it can continue to be woven into its neighborhood.
“That’s who we serve,” says Turnbull. “Our initiatives are with the neighborhood and that area and the schools. That’s been our focus for a while and we’ve built that. And if you look around, a lot of our success is that we know that that social capital is our greatest resource.”
Donations to Spiral Q’s flood recovery effort — matched up to a point with gifts from the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation and Independence Public Media Foundation — and may be made at spiralq.org.