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What happens when a surrealist decorates a South Philly rowhome | We the People

"Welcome to Wonderland," artist Alden Cole said, as he opened his door.

Artist Alden Cole's South Philly home is covered in his art work, from surreal oil paintings to found-object lamps.
Artist Alden Cole's South Philly home is covered in his art work, from surreal oil paintings to found-object lamps.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Meet Alden Cole, an artist and retired fashion illustrator who's turned his South Philly home into an imaginarium of found objects, surreal paintings, and kaleidoscopic lights.

Home is where the art is: "Some artists are shocked by how I surround myself with my artwork… but I enjoy it. My walls provide better storage than stacking somewhere."

On painting nudes: "Having been a fashion illustrator for years, I decided to take my figures out of their clothes."

Painted on successive steps inside artist Alden Cole’s house is a simple but salient request for new visitors:


remove shoes inhibitions

beyond this


That is, if you have any inhibitions left after getting through the first floor.

For nearly three decades in the heart of South Philly, Cole, 74, has quietly been turning his three-story rowhouse into a museum of his own eclectic art, which ranges from transcendental and erotic paintings to luminous polychromatic lamps.

What he's created is an immersive environmental experience that transports visitors — Inception style — into the most surreal corners of Cole's mind.

"It isn't for everybody, but for those for whom it is, I think it's one of those unique experiences to walk in here and realize, yeah, people can do this," said Cole. "It's not Architectural Digest. I'm not sure what it is — it's in its own category."

About a hundred of Cole's found-object lamps, which sell for between $250 and $500 each, illuminate every room of his home in warm hues of purple, green, and blue. More than 120 of his surreal landscape and figure paintings cover the walls.

Some of his paintings are of figures in transcendental states, as if floating in ether. Cole said the images were inspired by his upbringing in rural Maine, where his family of Advent Christians believed the rapture was imminent.

"I grew up with that whole expectation of I wasn't going to make 10 because Jesus was going to come back," he said.

Cole — a whimsical Pan in plaid pajama pants, a sprightly Salvador Dalí in South Philly — is also a prolific painter of nudes, often in erotic embraces.

"I suppose, simply put, there's that great old saying: 'Those who are getting it don't need to talk about it, and those who aren't can think of little else,' " said Cole, who is gay but celibate.

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Aside from his paintings and lamps, a panoply of other quirky items adorn Cole's walls and await visitors with keen eyes.

A bluebird sky with white clouds covers his kitchen ceiling and painted footprints dance upon his bathroom floor.

The Philadelphia skyline is painted on the inside of his basement door; figurines hide in unexpected corners; and a toilet seat with a wooden cover hangs in the hallway. Lift the seat cover and a puckered-lip plaster face, just as surprised to see you as you are to see it, greets you.

Cole wasn't always this quirky. He studied fashion at the Rhode Island School of Design and served two years in the U.S. Air Force before moving to New York City, where he worked as a fashion designer and illustrator for trade publications.

It wasn't until he was 29 that Cole began painting for himself.

"I needed to make something for myself that I could look at and say, 'That is cool. In fact, I think it's so cool I want to hang it on my wall,' " he said.

Eventually, Cole took a job at a Broadway bookstore with a publishing branch where he helped design covers for books about religion, mysticism, and the occult.

In 1986, Cole came to Philadelphia to study with a spiritual guide. He planned to stay two years, but the city grew on him and in 1991 he purchased the South Philly home where he's been ever since.

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Much of Cole's artwork is created with found objects, like the door of a cabinet he used as a canvas, the glass bowls he repurposes as lamp shades, and the coat he made from the original upholstery of his sofa. His work can be found on his website, Conscious World Art, and he's a member of the Philadelphia Dumpster Divers, the Da Vinci Art Alliance, and The Plastic Club.

While his home is not open to the public — nor is it available on Airbnb — Cole sometimes welcomes guests during the Philadelphia Open Studio Tour, as he did last month.

Cole said his ultimate goal is to wake up laughing one day. He believes his house of art will play a big role in that and he hopes it brings happiness to others who visit.

"You're really walking into a premade environment that is designed to try and bring out some level of joyous understanding of life, of your own life and of other lives," he said.

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