Mt. Airy Art Garage celebrates new home at Hard Hat Ball

Several hundred people turned out Saturday night to celebrate the grand opening of the Mt. Airy Art Garage (MAAG) at its new location at 11 W. Mt. Airy Ave. 

“The dream is becoming a reality,” said Linda Slodki, MAAG president and co-founder. 

Despite the fact that construction is far from complete (portable toilets were brought in for the event since bathrooms are still a work-in-progress), the mood was festive and upbeat, with art on the walls, refreshments on the tables, and plenty of space for dancing to live music by Sharon Katz and the Peace Train.

“We are 86 members and growing,” said Slodki, “and this is just a small taste of what our membership has the capacity to do.” She looked around the 5,000 square-foot space at all the supporters who had come to the Hard Hat Ball to celebrate the completion of the first phase of the build-out.

In fact, even the founders and their fellow board members are astounded at how much community support the Art Garage has garnered. In just under two years, the group went from a handful of artists meeting at Weaver’s Way Co-op to becoming a non-profit organization leasing an enormous space just off of Germantown Avenue.

Answering a call for art

Plans for the Art Garage include space for seven studios, art classes, a gallery, and, of course, the periodic Art Markets for which MAAG is already well-known for. It will also be a venue for Philadelphia Open Studio Tours (POST) on Oct. 1 and Oct. 2.

MAAG co-founder Arleen Olshan, a leatherworker and painter, explained that POST was one of the sources of inspiration for creating MAAG. “I looked through the book at all the hundreds of artists that live in this neighborhood, and realized that I didn’t know them,” she said. There was, in her view, a clear need for a central meeting location for local artists. 

“Maybe I’ll open a store,” she thought initially. But soon she and partner Linda Slodki developed the idea of creating a community art center, and when artists started responding to calls to meet in December of 2009, members of Weaver’s Way Co-op allowed them to use their space on Carpenter Lane.

MAAG became known for their fine art and handcraft markets in that location, which Olshan said “were successful in rain and snow, in a building with no heat, no running water, and no toilets. For every single event we have done, people have come.” They knew then that there was a real commitment to community arts in Mt. Airy.

A “dumpster diva” gets creative 

Ellen Benson was one of the first to get involved. “I saw a sign at the co-op, and went to the first meeting,” she said. “There were about 40 people there, and the next thing I knew I was on the board.”

Though she stepped down as a board member to devote more time to her artwork, Benson is still very involved in MAAG and plans to lease one of the studios when they are built. The hard hat raffle featured a series of festive hats she had decorated entirely with found materials, her signature way of working as a collage artist.

“I’m a dumpster diva,” she said, “so this was my opportunity to divest of some material.” The resulting creations were quite outlandish, featuring such things as feathers, pinwheels, dolls, rubber ducks, glitter, boas, and so much more. 

“I just went wild,” Benson admitted. “I decided since I had to make a ton of them I was going to have fun.”

Benson always works with found materials, though her work is not always whimsical. On Oct. 29, she will teach a “Shrines & Altars” assemblage class at the Nicholas Berg Gallery, in which participants can use found or repurposed materials to make a creative memorial.

First month festivities

October will be a busy first month at MAAG, with the very first art show, “Recapturing Memories,” opening on Oct. 21, featuring the work of Meei-Ling Ng. Known for her bird and nature paintings, Ng will be moving work from two to three dimensions, working “as much as possible with repurposed and recycled material.”

The show is designed to be interactive, enabling visitors to move through the space and engage with Ng’s artistic portrayal of nature. Ng juxtaposes raw natural material such as tree stumps, straw, and leaves with repurposed material such as pizza and shoeboxes transformed into free-range chickens, or old buttons as insects. These elements “contrast with each other in a unique way,” she explained, prompting her audience to consider the relationship of the fabricated to the natural world.

During the show, which runs from Oct. 21 to Nov. 18, gallery hours at MAAG will be noon to 6 p.m. from Thursday to Sunday.

“Look how far we’ve come here,” said Donna Globus, Secretary of MAAG “We’re ready for phase two.” The next steps are putting in real bathrooms, holding classes, expanding to full programming, and building and renting the studios.

“We’re dreamers,” said Slodki. “When a door is closed to us, somebody in the community steps up and helps us open it. As artists, we’re tired of living in isolation. And where else could this possibly happen? Where else but in the Northwest? Why Mt. Airy? Because we live here.”

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