Creativity flourishes at 40th Street Artist-in-Residence program

It might seem a bit inartistic, but Mike Harpring’s creativity flourishes most in a structured environment.

“Some people are naturally inclined to make art because they’re feeling inspired,” says the printmaker, sculptor, and carpenter. “I have a lot of creative energy if I have focus and structure. I’m the kind of person who will invest all their time in projects if there’s a deadline.”

Harpring has found a home—and the order he craves—at Penn’s 40th Street Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program. He is one of five artists who were awarded free studio space this year as part of the initiative.

“The artists have to be based in West Philly in order to qualify,” says Gina Renzi, the program’s manager and director of The Rotunda. “They have to commit to community outreach projects. That’s what they do in exchange for the free studio and exhibition space that they get. So it’s definitely one of those examples of Penn giving back to the neighborhood.”

When painter Edward Epstein moved to Philadelphia in the early 2000s, he had trouble finding studio space. He began working with Penn’s Facilities and Real Estate Services to hash out a solution.

“West Philadelphia has lots of artists, but there aren’t lots of places to work,” says Epstein, who now teaches in the Graduate School of Education and is an education specialist at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. “A lot of people work in their homes, or they’re going to other neighborhoods, so we wanted to offer an opportunity that’s nearby. We thought this would be a good way to promote the careers of emerging artists in the neighborhood.”

The program has grown from four artists getting six-month residencies to five artists winning yearlong ones. The space also now includes a gallery, where each artist can host a show for one month. Not surprisingly, demand for the studio space is high. Last year, more than 65 artists applied for the five slots.

“We’re looking for emerging artists,” Renzi says. “It doesn’t mean that you just got out of art school, which is fine, too, but it could also mean that you decided to completely change your career. One of our artists last year was an architect and then decided that she wanted to be a puppeteer.

“If you haven’t had any major exposure, if you haven’t had a solo show before, you haven’t had studio space before, we consider you emerging. We look at the quality of work, we look at how they would use their studio space. We ask them to tell us what kind of community outreach project they would like to work on. We do prefer that they have some sort of experience, whether it’s volunteering or organizing around a cause. We want them to already have a sense of what community means.”

The community service component is key. Through the years, artists have worked with local high schools, nursing homes, women’s shelters, and completed public art projects such as murals.

Harpring is teaming up with Neighborhood Bike Works to help some teens design an entry for the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby on May 18. It’s a design competition that features human-powered vehicles with an artistic theme.

“Every week we meet with a group of five to 10 teenagers to build a four-wheel, four-person bike car that’s going to end up being this really spectacular creation made out of bike parts and has kinetic sculpture and movement to it,” he says.

The AIR program has applied for a grant to help fund a 10-year anniversary exhibition next year. In its first decade, it’s been a win-win-win for the University, its community partners, and artists.

“I think it’s a great program because it has a bunch of different things going on at one time,” Renzi says. “You support emerging artists in a neighborhood where there isn’t a whole lot of studio space. You’re giving artists the ability to sort of breathe and have their own space, not worry about where the money’s coming from to pay for it, to be able to exhibit, and also to meet other artists.”

Harpring has a show scheduled for 40th Street AIR’s Chestnut Street gallery in June. It’s a deadline he’s certain to make.

“I feel like I set the bar pretty high for the kind of work I want to create,” he says. “Having a space has been incredibly helpful. I feel so grateful that they’ve given me the opportunities and all the tools that I need to do the kind of art that I want to make.”

Artist in Residence