by Katherine Mato
I had only been living in Chestnut Hill for one week when I met a local artist.
I was driving home when I spotted a large pastel portrait of a woman gazing directly at me. I parked my car beside the display window and called the phone number written on a small card beneath the portrait.
Judy McCabe Jarvis, the artist behind the work, answered my call, and 10 minutes later we were both staring at the woman in the window, talking about her defiant stance and the image’s uncanny resemblance to Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.”
McCabe Jarvis painted the work in 1986 and hung it in Center City’s Gross McCleaf Gallery for several months, but it never sold. I wondered whether the work had received sufficient visibility or if maybe the woman in the portrait was too rebellious for a collector in the 1980s. Whatever the reason, that spontaneous encounter made me want to know more about the local art scene and the ways in which art and artists were being integrated into the community at large.
When wandering through Chestnut Hill, it is evident that the arts play a central role in the lives of its locals. Galleries, antique shops and fair-trade craft stores dot the quaint tree-lined roads, with independent cafés, markets and restaurants drawing in visitors from the surrounding neighborhoods.
One Chestnut Hill-based gallery, Gallery on the Avenue, is making strides in redefining what it means to be local. While it was originally founded as a pop-up gallery in November of 2017, its three founding members, McCabe Jarvis, Julia Ward, and Christopher Ward, realized that their temporary project had a much more permanent place in the community than they had anticipated.
They started off by showcasing works by three local artists, including two of the gallery’s founding members, focusing on paintings by McCabe Jarvis and Noelle Wister, as well as bronze sculptures by Christopher Ward.
Word spread organically, primarily via word of mouth and social media outlets, allowing news of the gallery’s success to reach a wide audience. As people increasingly began to show interest, the founders knew they had to respond accordingly. They began hosting wine and cheese nights every first Friday of the month in order to showcase new works to the public, and soon expanded their calendar to include communal ‘paintouts,’ evenings when local artists can paint together within the gallery space.
Their most recent effort to engage the community comes from the gallery’s first Juried Art Show, which had its opening reception and awards ceremony on March 6. The show received nearly 60 entries from a diverse group of local artists, many of whom heard about it through word of mouth. The show’s juror, Dr. Mark Sullivan, is an Associate Professor of Art History at Villanova University.
He selected winners for six categories, and visitors will have the opportunity to view all of the accepted submissions. As I walked into the space just after the final works had been hung, I immediately noticed the range of media, themes, and styles present in the works covering the gallery walls.
Locally focused galleries are oftentimes overlooked for being too singular, too traditional or, dare I say it, too local. However, Gallery on the Avenue’s current show strongly contradicts these assumptions, as the works displayed are anything but ordinary.
For instance, upon entering the gallery I was immediately drawn to a mixed media artwork that incorporates a black-and-white image of a young woman with broad strokes of blue and red paint along the periphery, and a small hand-written note ornamented with multi-colored beads.
The artist, Richard Sweeney, is also a talented writer, as evidenced by the depth of the poem written across the note in his submitted work. Other images were equally striking, including two black-and-white photographs by Dove Nasir, a local artist whose oeuvre examines notions of personal and collective identity formation. These conceptual works are cleverly juxtaposed with paintings that take a much more regional approach to artmaking, such as Nancy Granda’s paintings of the Wissahickon, as well as works that represent the local community, including the iconic storefronts of Chestnut Hill, as seen in McCabe Jarvis’s rendering of Robertson’s Flowers
The increasingly local model being established by Gallery on the Avenue speaks to the rather universal interest in belonging somewhere. After all, the ‘pull of place’, that ‘lure of the local’, as art critic, activist, and curator Lucy Lippard so eloquently expressed, seems to be a longing that is deeply engrained within so many of us. Not only has the gallery begun to host community-wide events and to invite local artists to exhibit their works, but it is also inviting participation from other local businesses in its efforts to engage the community. For instance, independent shops and cafés provided the awards that will be given to winners of the juried competition, an initiative that was meant to ‘keep things local,’ as described by McCabe Jarvis and Julia Ward.
Thus, while we might feel pressured to visit blue chip galleries, renowned museums, and art institutes in Center City, it is important to remember that fascinating things are happening along Philadelphia’s periphery, things that speak much more closely to who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going as a community.