Aboveground, Independence Mall is a showcase of monuments to American history: sculptures of Founding Fathers, buildings inside of which the U.S. Constitution was written and signed, and symbols like the Liberty Bell that Americans have imbued with patriotic meaning.
Underground, that American history gets jumbled, complicated, and challenged. Along the 200-foot platform of the 5th Street SEPTA subway station, artist Tom Judd created a 3,000 square foot patchwork of images from Philadelphia’s early history.
It reads more like a fever dream than a textbook.
“I’m not a historian,” said Judd. “I read up, and I went to a lot of museums, and I put things together. But as an artist, I really did it visually.”
“Portal to Discovery,” commissioned through SEPTA’s Art in Transit program, is made of dozens of images assembled like a collage. Some pairings make strange bedfellows: a woman in a formal, Victorian gown is placed next to an image of a mastodon skeleton. Some pairings are strikingly poignant: a portrait of William Still, the 19th-century Black businessman known as the father of the Underground Railroad, is placed next to one of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, and a slave owner.
The portraits of Still and Jefferson are the same size, presented at the same height, about two feet apart. There is no wall text to explain the relationship between these two figures, whose lives were separated by about 80 years.
“I don’t have a story about Jefferson and William Still,” said Judd. “Imagewise, I wanted to play around with that … so that when people think of history they think of something other than Jefferson and Washington.”
There are other, similar pairings. A portrait of Elizabeth Peel, whose chief contribution to history was being painted by a very young Benjamin West in 1787, is next to Frances Watkins Harper, a poet and suffragist who was one of the first Black women in the United States to publish a book.
Judd started working on “Portal to Discovery” by collecting mountains of images from Philadelphia’s past and putting them together to see what resonates. He was not thinking about the lives of the people or what they represent. His initial concern was purely compositional: The images had to work together visually.
“As a visual artist, I don’t come up with a verbal idea and then try to figure out how to make it visual,” said Judd. “I literally work in a visual language. I put images together that I find interesting. That’s how it starts.”
Judd’s guiding concept came from Charles Willson Peale, Philadelphia’s gentleman polymath who created the first museum in the early 19th century – a hodge-podge collection of natural science and art. One of his most famous paintings is of himself lifting a curtain to reveal his collected treasures.
There are many curtains in “Portal.” Judd painted the edges of many images with thick, red drapery, just like Peale’s painting.
“I want to have that vibe: It’s this new world that’s happening, with new ideas. And here’s this guy making this museum with all the stuff in it,” said Judd. “I want that kind of excitement and kind of exuberance of discovery.”
Judd was also inspired by the Union Pacific Railroad Station in Salt Lake City, Utah, which he visited as a child. The vast spaces and murals incorporated in its architecture lent awe to his arrival. He wanted to lend a similar air to the tourists and commuters taking the train into Old City.
“Portal” does not intend to teach those tourists and commuters anything. During an interview, specific historic dates and names eluded Judd. He made more than one spelling error in “Portal.” Judd has no overarching narrative to tell, but he’s working with historical imagery that is so rich with stories when he juxtaposes the images together, their histories do the narrative work on their own.
“I work very fast. I paint very fast. I don’t sit around and refine things. I kind of just put things together and then back off and leave them, “ he said. “I also like things to be really fresh and have an edge to them, not be all figured out with all the loose ends tied up. I don’t like that. I like things that are a little rough around the edges.”
“Portal to Discovery” is a permanent part of the 5th Street SEPTA station. It was completed in November but was not opened ceremoniously due to the coronavirus pandemic. Judd hopes to have a formal ribbon-cutting his summer.