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Met Museum pays tribute to Philly-born brothers who make art with social justice in mind

W. Paul Galiczynski, 62, a lifelong Kensington cement contractor by trade, began painting in earnest only four years ago, He's been dubbed "the River Wards' Norman Rockwell."

Artists W.  Paul Galiczynski (left) and Stephen Galiczynski are brothers who grew up in Olde Kensington. They both entered a design contest for the Metropolitan Museum's 150th anniversary this year.
Artists W. Paul Galiczynski (left) and Stephen Galiczynski are brothers who grew up in Olde Kensington. They both entered a design contest for the Metropolitan Museum's 150th anniversary this year.Read moreCourtesy of Stephen Galiczynski

Artist W. Paul Galiczynski might have had a prophetic vision last November when he set to work on an ominous painting.

In it, a fierce, dark cloud has morphed into a snarling, fanged monster, looming over the city.

“It seemed the world was getting so full of hatred,” Galiczynski said last week. “It was a cloud coming in, with terror and trouble coming to Philadelphia.”

He painted it before the coronavirus overtook the world. Before George Floyd was murdered, and America’s streets filled with tear gas and cries against racism and police brutality. Before Walter Wallace Jr. was gunned down by two officers in West Philadelphia, reviving pain and protest across the city.

He titled it End of Days.

Art from a bucket of concrete

Galiczynski, 62, a lifelong Kensington cement contractor by trade who began painting in earnest only four years ago, was prescient about something else. In a 2017 Inquirer profile, he told reporter Jason Nark that he intended to one day have his work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

“I want to wind up in the Met," he said, "or the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”

End of Days still sits in his home studio, a prisoner of the pandemic. But other works have drawn the Met’s attention to Galiczynski and his younger brother, Stephen, also a painter as well as an actor and owner of a wall-design business in New York.

Both have made it onto the museum’s website as part of a contest celebrating the institution’s 150th anniversary this year.

To mark the occasion, artists were invited to create designs, based on The Met collection, that would then be turned into products for sale in the Met Store. The six winners were spread across three age categories (children, teens, adults).

Stephen Galiczynski’s entry, a painting titled Modern Madonnas: A Statement on Racial Tolerance & Female Empowerment, landed among the 10 adult finalists. The abstract piece is comprised of six boxes that each contain triangles and circles in the form of a mother holding a child, all in different skin tones.

“They are black, brown, white, and beige, and I mixed them all up for that reason," Stephen said of his exploration of racial equality. “In today’s world, it would be crazy to think that [the Biblical] Mary is a white woman with a white child.”

Earlier in the summer, his variation on that piece, More Modern Madonnas, was made into an 8-by-5-foot flag that flew at Rockefeller Center.

» READ MORE: Flag design by Philadelphia-born artist chosen to line iconic Rockefeller Center ice rink

For the Met 150 Design Contest, Paul created a sculpture, Life + Art = Civilization, by filling a bucket with concrete, sticking a paint brush into it, and letting it dry. When he pulled the concrete out, it chipped, forming a triangular tip on one part of the circular block. He turned that into a pyramid, foregrounded with representations of art and scientific exploration since prehistoric times: seeds bringing life to plants, ancient cave drawings, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, musical notes from Beethoven’s Für Elise. The message being, art and science have been the progenitors of civilization.

Paul’s sculpture was neither a winner nor a finalist, but it is on display on the museum website.

“I’m overwhelmed,” he said.

‘Who’s eating with us today?’

The two brothers were among seven Galiczynski siblings who grew up around Fourth and Master Streets in Olde Kensington, a working-class neighborhood that was a comfortable fit for the family. Their father, William, drove a truck for Acme Supermarkets. Their mother, Connie, helped found a community development agency that built affordable housing. On the side, she was an artist.

When the holidays came, neighbors removed their storm windows, and dropped them off at the Galiczynski house to have Christmas scenes painted on them, free of charge. “They picked up the windows, put them back up, and when they turned on their lights, they looked like stained-glass windows,” Paul recalled.

Connie Galiczynski kept her kids busy drawing, coloring, and painting. She was his first art teacher, Stephen said. She was his only art teacher, Paul said.

She also influenced the subject matter, from urban grit to racial equality, that they would choose as full-grown artists.

She took people from the street who were hungry and invited them to sit at the family’s dinner table, no matter what color they were, “Black, white, or Spanish,” Paul said. “Dad would come home from work and ask, ‘So who’s eating with us today?’”

After graduating from the now-closed Northeast Catholic High on Torresdale Avenue, Paul went to Penn State to major in forestry, and Stephen earned a bachelor’s degree in Russian at La Salle.

Paul had intended to fight forest fires, but convinced by his wife that the dangers were too great, he instead went to work for his uncle’s concrete firm on Stella Street in Kensington, eventually taking it over. Only in 2016 did he return to the art that occupied him as a kid. Although he now lives in Bucks County, he arrives at Paul’s Cement Work by 5 in the morning. As he goes from job to job in the city, he finds ideas for paintings and takes pictures.

» READ MORE: Big dreams for blue-collar Bucks painter

Once, he went up 15 stories for a photograph looking down the side of a building. That led to Urban Alps, featuring a mountain climber in full gear scaling the side of a high-rise.

Closer to earth, set against a colorful block of rowhouses, Urban Getaway shows two beach chairs set out on a sidewalk, a tease to the Corona beer commercials. On a table between them are two cans of Colt 45. The water at this beach sprays from a fire hydrant.

Most of his work exudes both his sense of humor about the city and his love for it. People from the suburbs might see Philadelphia as “kind of crappy,” he said. But life here, he says, “can have a twist to it that can be funny.” And that’s how he has painted it, earning himself the sobriquet of “the River Wards’ Own Norman Rockwell” — his favorite artist — and the title role in a short film, “Urban Artist/Working-Class Hero,” by John Thornton.

End of Days is a stark departure for him.

“The world is getting uglier," he said. “There’s more racism. There’s hatred. There’s a lot of bad vibes.” Even his mother, who now lives in South Jersey, commented, “You never painted stuff that’s bad like that."

“I told her that I had to put it out and put in on canvas so people can see it,” he said, "and understand.”