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A river of talent

See dozens of artists working along the Schuylkill in the second Art in the Open program.

Dancer and choreographer Leah Stein, performing last year at Art in the Open. She and her troupe will be back. (Photo / MICHAEL BARTMANN)
Dancer and choreographer Leah Stein, performing last year at Art in the Open. She and her troupe will be back. (Photo / MICHAEL BARTMANN)Read more

You've probably driven along the banks of the Schuylkill hundreds or even thousands of times. Your view is often from a car window.

This weekend, however, Art in the Open, affectionately known as AiO, can change your perspective. Scattered along the Schuylkill's banks will be more than 40 artists creating their works - and welcoming onlookers.

Paris and the Seine River, with its tradition of en plein air, will have nothing on Philadelphia through Sunday. That French tradition is rooted in the mid-19th century, when working in natural light became important to French impressionists such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Today, a continent away, the Pennsylvania river and its banks are both the setting and the subject. Participating artists are encouraged to use the site as inspiration for their works.

The concept as envisioned at last year's inaugural for AiO was to bring the creators, their process, and the public together, minus walls or barriers.

The event is the brainchild of three local artists and art activists:

Mary Salvante, an independent artist and art curator, is gallery and exhibitions program director for Rowan University Art Gallery in Glassboro.

An award-winning Philadelphia architect, Ed Bronstein shifted gears after three decades and became a widely exhibited working artist.

And Deenah Loeb, who leads the City Parks Association, is known internationally for her innovative environmental and cultural programs.

"We all want visitors to discover Philadelphia's urban richness, to let them engage with artists, and even to participate in their projects in some instances," says Salvante, who spoke for the three founders. "We're encouraging artists to look at the outdoors as a kind of canvas."

That encouragement definitely ignited Brian Dennis' artistic spirit. The Philadelphia artist is usually quite private, working in his studio without audience. "So this concept was a big leap for me," says Dennis, who is turning his long fascination with the engineering aspects of the Philadelphia Water Works into an installation that will replicate it in miniature.

Dennis hopes to share a network of miniature scaffolding, catwalks, ladders, and platforms with the public, using 20,000 coffee stirrers that he has been gluing together for weeks in his home studio. The final piece will be made on site with those stirrers, along with gold leaf, wood, and black glue.

"The amazing thing for me will be to see people's reactions right then and there, and to have some interaction with them," says Dennis, whose body of work includes paintings, installations, collages, and sculpture. He often finds pleasure in the commonplace.

Sculptor Leslie Kaufman's studio is in Northern Liberties, and leaving it for the great outdoors, says the artist, will be exhilarating. Kaufman, who is the founder of Philadelphia Sculptors, a nonprofit organization of professional sculptors in the region, will be creating temporary structures out of building blocks that will connect to a stone foundation, all of it based on a broken wall she saw at the Schuylkill site.

"I hope my work suggests an archaeological dig, with the suggestion that even deteriorating things offer hope for the future," says Kaufman.

While she has been preparing blocks of both Styrofoam and plywood, hers will be a work in progress that will ultimately unfold at her site. It will suggest different "rooms," with nature invited in. "I expect people walking by to stop and hopefully to help me, so that they can truly share in the experience."

For Kaufman, "bystander curiosity" will be the best part of the event. "At home in my studio, I get no feedback. Outside, I look forward to some dialogue."

Movement - human, and of the river - will be the theme of dancer/choreographer Leah Stein's AiO experience. Creative movement has been center stage in Stein's life since she discovered it at age 8, and since 1986 she has been in Philadelphia creating it.

"I love the landscape here, especially along the river, and I'm so inspired by it," says Stein, who will be returning this year after doing a long interpretive dance with some members of her company last year on the Schuylkill banks.

"This year, I'm planning something a bit more developed that I hope will suggest the endurance of the river, and its place in our urban landscape."

After rehearsing publicly on Friday, Stein and her dancers will perform their work at 6 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday around the JFK Boulevard Bridge and SEPTA train bridge.

"It's a glorious experience to have people watch us, and to know that together, we're sharing our mutual environment. Art and nature belong together."

The projects are as varied as the artists creating them, most of whom hail from Philadelphia and New Jersey.

Philadelphia artist Ellen K. Bonett has a most unusual mission: She will be collecting trash items from Philadelphia streets and then creating unique neighborhood quilts from what she's found.

Zoë Cohen, also of Philadelphia, will be drawing water out of the Schuylkill and storing it in barrels. Her goal: to dramatically and visually demonstrate how many gallons per day the average American uses indoors, which is estimated to be 69.3 gallons. The visual lesson, she hopes, will have a strong impact.

Artist Christopher Pierro of White Plains, N.Y., a proud graffiti artist, plans to create graffiti art at various underpasses in a removable form, hoping to separate it from its negative connotations.

With the artists working dawn to dusk throughout the weekend along the Schuylkill, from the Water Works to Bartram's Garden, pedestrians can take in the varied forms and styles, from two-dimensional art (paint, photography, collage, and paper) to three-dimensional pieces and digital media.

It's far from the French en plein air atmosphere but promises to liven up spring at the river.

Art in the Open partners include Art in City Hall, Bartram's Garden, Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, the University of the Arts, and many others. The mayor has designated June as Art in the Open Month.

Special Family Day activities are scheduled all day Saturday.

"Last year, people loved watching the artists, talking to them, and eliminating the barriers," Salvante says. "We're excited about doing it again. Making art public is making art accessible."

If You Go

Art in the Open will be from dawn until dusk Friday through Sunday on the banks of the Schuylkill from the Water Works to Bartram's Garden, rain or shine. Special exhibits from this event will be displayed June 18 until July 5 at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St. Information: