Highlighting a Few of the Many Local Creatives
By Janine Gasarowski
Having been in Manayunk for the past couple of years, there is no denying the creative spirit that takes over the neighborhood. The Philadelphia neighborhood once filled with numerous textile mills still exists as a community of creatives of all different mediums. Though the historic mills have been renovated, their artistic energy is still prominent. Whether I’m walking across town or driving down Main Street, there is a multitude of art that catches my eye. As a creative myself, I’m fascinated by others’ processes and the individualism of each creator. So, I wanted to gain an understanding of what it takes to be a creator and what it is like being an artist in Manayunk. Below are a few examples of artists who live and/or work in the 19127 and 19128 areas.
“I love how you are able to push a traditional craft into a contemporary narrative.”
Season Evans, Contemporary Quilter
Just around the corner from the Manayunk Bridge entrance, you’ll find the studios of 30 local artists. Since 1990, the Mill Studios on Leverington Avenue has existed as a place for artists and crafters to indulge in their passions. The Mill Studios, once home to a textile factory, now holds many artists including textile and contemporary quilt artist, Season Evans. While most people picture quilts as antique patterned blankets, Season’s definition of a quilt is much broader than this. Though she taught herself the craft using traditional patterns, she used her creativity to eventually find her own voice. “I use quilts as objects and storytellers as a means to connect the stories of our everyday lives to contemporary craft,” Season said. Season makes heirloom quilts that can be used on a couch or a bed. However, she said her work often ends up being displayed on the wall as a canvas would.
Season’s contemporary style comes from her many different inspirations, including her fascination with the relationship between concrete and fabric. “They are so different, yet similar,” Season said. The two rather opposite materials can have similar sensibilities. To Season, a pattern can be seen anywhere. Season published her own photography book displaying all of the concrete quilts she noticed in her surroundings. Patterns and compositions exist everywhere, some just do not notice what a creative like Season may be drawn to.
Season’s inspiration often comes from her surroundings. The architecture of buildings and homes often fuels her creativity. “My work really centers around telling everyday stories,” Season said. “I often find that I walk around Manayunk and take pictures. I am inspired by the architecture and the community. “
Deb K. Simon
Impressionism meets collagism
The Mill Studios is also where oil painter and collagist Deb Simon has created her work for the past 12 years.
Deb’s style of art is impressionistic. She often paints with oils but will incorporate collage work into her paintings by adding items like sheet music and maps to further explain the story behind each piece. There is no limit to Deb’s use of various mediums. Deb’s art allows the viewer to imagine the scene visually and audibly as well. She has a series of musician portraits that she creates while listening to the music genre that fits each piece. Whether it be rock, swing music, or jazz, one can see the passion and intent behind each painting. Deb said she loves watching people and painting their stories. In addition to her musician-inspired pieces, she has a series of portraits displaying active elderly adults. Her art shines light and beauty onto topics some may overlook.
Deb shares her studio space with artist Nancy Freeman Tabas. The two creatives use their Manayunk community to their advantage. “Sometimes when we are stuck, we will take a walk down the canal, and that just feeds our creativity,” Deb said. “Having a studio space in such a lively and scenic small town illuminates artist block and fuels creation.” The nuances, visuals, and sounds of Manayunk influence their creative atmosphere and what they create.
The atmosphere in the mill creates a community of artists of varying mediums. Deb curates the work for the collaborative gallery they have alongside Nancy and Marjie Lewis Quint. She is also a member and curator for ARTsisters, an organization of visual artists.
Louie Colella – Luce Candles
Scented wax meets modern sculpture
Manayunk resident and local artist Louie Colella takes candle-making to a whole new level. Luce hand-poured candles amp up the atmosphere of any room they are placed in. “The Inspiration behind the candle shapes is interior design trends,” Louie said: “The reason I started making them is that when I moved here, I wanted to fill my house with cool, abstract candles.” What makes Luce candles unique is not only the shapes of the wax sculptures but their scents. “The scents I choose are very translatable,” Louie said. “Two people that don’t typically like the same thing usually end up liking them because they are pretty dynamic.” One of his signature scents is “Luna’’, which is a blend of vanilla and olivewood. “Luna smells like cashmere,” Louie said.
What had started as a fun hobby to give him creative fulfillment outside of his full-time career quickly transformed into an ever-growing business. Louie had transformed the guest bedroom of his home into a studio space to make this passion possible. “The first day I made them I called my mom to tell her I made five candles,’’ Louie said, “now I can make 100 in one day.” Luce Candles launched just one year ago and is now being sold online and in six stores – including two local shops. You can find Luce at LILA Philadelphia on Main Street and Poppy and Bean in Roxborough.
Living in Manayunk had a big contribution to the launch of Luce. The Colella family immigrated from Italy to the 19127 neighborhood. Louie grew up right across the bridge in Bala Cynwyd, he now lives right in the heart of Manayunk. “Manayunk inspired me to start something because everything around here is so colorful and vibrant and the people here are so energizing,” Louie said. “It gave me confidence and opportunity.”
Stephen & Rebecca Ebner – Manayunk Timber
“Woodworking is lifelong. It is a lifelong learning craft”
– Rebecca Ebner, Woodworker & Manayunk Timber Manager
Manayunk Timber exists as the only sawmill in Philadelphia. The lumber yard sits atop the Manayunk hills and offers sustainable, local lumber for custom work and restoration. Running the mill, you’ll find woodworker Stephen Ebner and his daughter Rebecca. “Wood is just a beautiful thing,” Steve said, “You just get hooked into something and that’s it.” Steve Ebner’s fascination with wood and creation turned into a family business that has been around for over three decades. From tables to cabinetry, sculpture, custom work, and more, the father-daughter & business partner duo pour their passion and expertise into each hand-crafted item.
The Ebner family works strictly with local wood. The history of lumber is just as important as the craftsmanship of the art they create with it. Nearly every piece of wood is from Philadelphia; “the old wood all comes from Philadelphia mills who did different things – steel, cotton, and wood,” Steve said. “You name the building and we probably have the wood from it.” The beauty of the lumber is the story of it. Their specialty is working with old reclaimed wood, many pieces date back to the 1800s. The locally-sourced lumber and trees allow the city’s history to be a part of the modern day. Shopping for a piece of custom furniture is unlike the regular home decor shopping experience, especially with Manayunk Timber.
“People often make a whole day out of coming here,” Stephen said. “They spend hours looking for the exact piece of lumber they want to use and spend their lunch break picnicking on the property.” Buying custom work from local artists is an intimate experience that allows each step of the process to be personal to you.
Rebecca Ebner’s love for the craft led her to get involved with her father’s company. The family’s passion for their work exists outside of the workday. Rebecca is using her knowledge and skills in wood to renovate and create pieces for her new home in MNYK. She is inspired by her dad’s enthusiasm for wood. The two have plans for Rebecca to eventually take over the company and carry out her dad’s legacy.
Manayunk Timber sits at 5100 Umbria St.
Diane E. Vaughn – Soft Illusions Gallery
The beautiful work of abstract expressionist artist Diane Vaughn and her art gallery, Soft Illusions Fine Art Gallery, has been a part of the Manayunk community for over a decade. “I come here every day,” Diane said. “I feel as if I don’t paint, something is missing.” When walking by Diane’s Main Street studio, the paintings on display in her window may stop you in your tracks.
Soft Illusions is managed by Diane’s daughter and business partner, Malika. Malika grew up watching her mom paint every single day. She wanted to put her entrepreneurship skills to use and market her mother’s work to art lovers near and far. “I like to call it feel-good art,” Malika said. “It tends to give off a calming effect that people are drawn to.” Malika has witnessed people’s emotional reactions to seeing her mother’s work. People have walked into the gallery and experienced chills, and even shed tears. “How colors affect your mood is a science,” Diane said. Both Malika and Diane said that watching people’s responses to her paintings is very gratifying.
Customers often see flowers in Diane’s paintings, though she says that is never her intent. Diane paints with feeling. She does not think in terms of floral, but how colors and composition work on the surface that she is working on. To her, art is music and painting is a dance. “I tell my mom she dreams in color,” Malika said, “it is amazing to see a blank canvas transform into her work.”
Soft Illusions’ pieces can be found on display in homes, offices, and large-scale hotels, though the upscale environment of the gallery can be brought to any location. Sharing Diane’s art is important to Malika, so the two sell products that are more accessible to a larger audience as well as Diane’s original paintings. The Soft Illusions Collection consists of small accessories such as pillows, mugs, calendars, hand-painted cards, hand-embellished prints as well as original works of art on both paper and canvas.
Art lovers are always welcome to visit Soft Illusions Fine Art Gallery at 4226 Main Street or online at softillusions.net.
Ruth Easterbrook – RE Ceramics
Ruth Easterbrook turns everyday, functional items into decorative artwork. She used pottery to enhance everyday life. “I like to think my work can make your day better,” Ruth said. “It is a way to add art to your daily life.”
Ruth moved all the way from California to Roxborough to fulfill a Philadelphia artist residency. Though her work is at The Clay Studio in Center City, she preferred the community of the city neighborhoods to make her home. “I was searching for a neighborhood that would fit the feel of who I am,” Ruth said. “So I moved to Roxborough.” To her, the benefits of the community here outweighed the benefits of living close to the studio. Ruth’s daily routine includes walks down to Main Street Manayunk and on the Wissahickon park trails. The combination of urban and botanical life is prominent in her work. Being in the city she finds her work has more geometric structure, but the botanical surroundings influence the designs on her pieces. As her designs change with the seasons, one can see just how the local greenery influences the floral elements she paints onto her pottery with glaze.
While Ruth’s pottery focuses on everyday items, like pots and mugs, she recognizes the emotional connection one can have with a piece. Ruth understands that a physical item can hold much more meaning beyond the original intention of the product. “Cups are such intimate objects, they have more of a personal connection,” Ruth said. “People often have cups that they don’t want anyone else to use.”
Despite the level of practicalness among her pieces, Ruth highlights the need for decorative functionality in everyday life: “I want my work to have a level of beauty and feel inviting. I want it to be welcoming”. It’s one thing to have just a coffee mug, and another to have flowers budding at your fingertips while you take a sip. For Ruth, it’s the latter.