Walking with Donnell Powell
Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia is building an expanded archive of cultural memory that includes multiple histories, re-place-ing the established with new narratives and understandings. Notes from invited artists and community members consider place via the street, sound, food, trees, and other portals.
Lauren Bakst sat down to talk with Donnell Powell about his ideas for building Communities-in-Residence around the Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia project. Here, Donnell reflects on his walking practice, how this might translate to creating Communities-in-Residence, and finally, through images and storytelling, he takes us on one of his walks through the city.
I’m a transplant to Philadelphia, and I tend to place myself in new worlds purposefully. A lot of my practice is about this sense of inquiry, trying to understand the purpose of things and why they exist. When it comes to me relocating to new cities, I always try to do that investigation just by simply walking. I was hit by a car when I was eight years old and broke one of my legs. I was out of commission for four months, and at the time, I thought I would never be able to walk again. Ever since then, I’ve always opted to walk, instead of taking public transportation or even driving a car to get from point A to point B. On these walks, I start to sense things that are happening in people and that exist within whatever environment I’m passing through.
I took a stroll one morning at about four AM over the Ben Franklin Bridge to Camden—just to see what that world is yonder. It’s Camden, and I hear so many stories about it and how it’s a dilapidated place but I had to see that for myself. I took this stroll, and so many things were percolating in my mind—from things I saw; from being the only person on this long stretch of bridge; the darkness as the sun is rising—just having this moment of solitude to myself, and soaking that in.
Arriving in Camden, I became aware of how a bridge itself divides a city, and how on one side of the bridge, you turn to the right and see projects and dilapidated houses, and you turn to the left and see a university campus. I saw trees on the left and I saw cracked bottles on the right. So, I take that all in and question it, but it’s important for me that I’m questioning it from within and not as an outsider. I can’t form judgements or opinions based on not being there physically.
Those moments of solitude are the glory for me, so it’s interesting to think about how a Community in Residence can come into play and how I’m helping to co-lead this effort. I get a lot of my rich moments from being alone, and now here’s this idea of a Community in Residence which automatically triggers a multitude of people. My starting place for activating a Community in Residence is to think about this idea of the walk, and to frame it under the auspices of “the road we walk.” I encounter a lot of parks on my walks, and I really like how Philadelphia embraces parks. I think for the first event or happening I’m going to gather some folks at Max Paul Park in West Philly off of 46th and Market. It’s a beautiful and accessible park—right off of the L. I want to use this time to create a safe and open space to do some camaraderie building and a lot of questioning. I’m still in the process of figuring out what the day will look like, but I know it’s going to involve music, and definitely food. The two questions I’m posing in the framework of the Community in Residence are:
What does your community taste like?
What does your community sound like?
It’s interesting because yesterday I took a miming workshop that Philadelphia Young Playwrights hosted and the goal of it was, of course, to create scenes without using dialogue—just straight up using hands. In that vein, I’m interested for a person to come to the happening and not bring an instrument or something that we think of as making noise—you know, silence is golden. There is sound in silence. So, I’m trying to dig deep. I like this project because it’s very malleable. I talk about solitude and being alone, but it’s important for me that coming into this process, it’s about community and working with others. I invite all people, not just artists. Whether or not you define yourself as an artist, I believe that everybody can create. So I’m excited to help form that bridge between non-artist and artist within this Community in Residence. The Re-PLACE-ing project was articulated to me as working to unearth these unspoken and invisible stories that are archival to the embodiment and history of Philadelphia, so again I’m just thinking about the aesthetic of that, and playing with the idea of what’s invisible versus visible.
Yesterday I went on a walk from my house to my studio, and I have this polaroid camera—I’m just all about this sense of nostalgia right now—that I use to capture photos on my walks. I try to use the images to encapsulate these stories and intertwine them. I’ve been doing a lot of mapping. A lot my projects have been the study of maps and direction, playing with this idea of walking. My latest piece was a part of the Bike pARTs exhibition at City Hall. My friend Eric Mozes and I created this mixed media sculpture—a map of Philadelphia—out of things we found on our bike rides throughout the city. I’m also working on this project using thumbtacks and rubber bands to create maps of my walks and tacking on these photos from specific regions. Imagine this gigantic wall covered with rubber bands, red lines, and paint connecting these images.
On my walk yesterday, I decided I wanted to do some creating so I thought I would work with the notion of contradictions. I played this game kind of like, “I spy”—I spy contradictions on this walk.
I live on 13th and Arch, right beside the convention center. This first image is of a building at Pearl Street. Pearl Street is a stretch along Chinatown North that’s being redeveloped with all these high rises, but it’s definitely also home to this homeless population and it’s been for years. There are about forty men, who you can’t really see because it’s dark, standing outside this building which houses the early Sunday breakfast mission. And next to this building is a high-rise. This frame is a contradiction to me—that you can have this place serving food, with a line of hungry men outside, and going back to this book I’m reading, Between the World and Me—it’s like between this brick wall and these homeless men is an abundance of food, that they have to be in competition to receive. And then, you have this high rise building with people who are working professionals, and who see all of this happening but do they inquire about it?
Then I ran into this street sign with the image of the horse-and-buggy, and here we’re in this urban landscape. Thoughts about preservation and tradition start coming to mind. I’m noticing that this sign is situated right beside Spring Garden, a busy street where cars are coming down all the time, and I’m just imagining a horse-and-buggy going up that street and intersecting with all those cars.
I came upon this house on 13th and Fairmount. If I were to show this image to someone who wasn’t from Philadelphia and ask them where they thought it was, I imagine someone might say, It’s like a suburb. But it’s not, it’s actually public housing. Here’s this contradicting notion that Philadelphia Housing Authority is trying to give hope to people who are using Section 8 housing that they can live the American dream too, switching up the architecture to appear like a suburban home. But, it’s a false reality, really. You can see from the molding that the materials they use are cheap—the house is decaying already.
Then there’s Melrose Bar, which is like the shittiest of dive bars ever. It’s on Girard Avenue, which is again, a busy street and if you look closely, the top floors of the bar are boarded up and totally uninhabitable. The fact that a business is still operating here is a contradiction. You look at that area, and if you know that area and that corner specifically, it’s crackheads and junkies and alcoholics who are living in the shadows, and get the blind eye. This economy on this corner is keeping a business like this in its rundown condition alive. This bar is feeding the people that live outside of it, just feeding the cycle.
This was just hilarious to me. Someone had their flowers gated up. I don’t know if it’s some kind of strategy for how they blossom, but seeing these beautiful flowers entrapped immediately triggered Maya Angelou’s poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” That was taken on 8th and Berks, so kind of in an impoverished neighborhood—so many stories come to mind. That’s the beauty of walking and being able to tune in on an everyday object, or just everyday people. The things you just don’t think about, or that just go over your head cause you’re so caught up in your mission.
This one is interesting. When you see shoes on telephone and cable lines in D.C., it means that someone was killed in that location. When I came to Philly and saw so many of these, I was like, Oh shit, why did I come here? It’s a war zone, I see too many of these. I talked to some native Philadelphians and they told me that actually it could signify a drug area, but it could also just be a ritual that people do when their shoes get old. I love the aesthetic of that, this collection of different shoes that I imagine come from different people and again, I think people are the essence of any work, especially when you’re trying to do community work. So I’m just trying to put together the stories of these different shoes—who were the people who wore them? Why are they up there?
This last one was just hilarious to me, this sign. “We will make a fair offer on your home.” It’s funny because the housing in this area is a Section 8 community so (laughs), first of all, who is buying around here? Who is your market? I don’t get it.
So that was my walk yesterday. With my work, I always think about the culminating thing, or what the button of any process is. Don’t get me wrong—I love process. It’s what I live for as an artist but at the same time, I always think about what the takeaway is, what sticks. I think I want to culminate this Community in Residence project by creating some kind of installation in the aesthetic of a physical map. I imagine these different sets, these immersive worlds in a public space or in the Bride that reflect different places in the community. It’s going to be multidisciplinary—I can hear all these different soundscapes. How can we create this kaleidoscope of place?
Donnell Powell is a collector, curator, and co-founder of Color My Sidewalk.
Join Donnell for Sense of Place: A Day in the Park on September 19th.