Fleeting Fantasy: The Oval returns, replacing asphalt with art and parking with place

With pluck and paint a parking lot can become a magic carpet, and an underused bit of parkland can become an attraction.

That’s the idea behind The Oval, a now annual temporary placemaking experiment aimed at breathing new life into some of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway’s generous but underused public spaces. The project stems from last year’s More Park, Less Way* plan, which identified Eakins Oval as a site ripe with potential and ready for transformation.

If last year’s point of design departure for The Oval was a trip to the shore, this year The Oval travels to more deeply imaginative places via Magic Carpet.

Artist Candy Coated (formerly Candy Depew) has recast the long parking lot at the center of Eakins Oval by rolling out a painted “magic carpet.” It’s a fanciful explosion of color to help visitors recognize The Oval as a destination, a “Park on the Parkway” instead of a parking lot to ignore or endure.

From July 16 to August 17, the 450 foot long parking lot will ditch the cars (and the revenue they bring) in favor of people. Eakins Oval will become The Oval – a place to hang out, listen to music, do yoga, watch movies, grab a drink, and play games. Pouring programming on thick helps draw folks in, but it’s also fun to see the difference some simple materials can make – from ping pong tables to paper lanterns in the trees, plastic Adirondack chairs to painted asphalt.

“We literally are erasing the parking lot, erasing the asphalt… That material doesn’t rejuvenate anybody,” Candy Coated said, taking a break from supervising spray-painting last Friday. Instead she hopes her massive Magic Carpet painting will help “humanize it.”

To tame all of that asphalt, Candy Coated deployed an army of painters to coat the parking lot in shades of lime green, acid yellow, and fiery hues of magenta, fuchsia, and orange. Huge graphic elements break the space into different zones arranged on a green-yellow gradient: A border of alternating diamond shapes gives way to clouds of blue dots. More diamond shapes are arranged into crystalline clusters, and at the center is a huge “heart burst” of leaves and petals.

It’s a Candy Coated world and we’re invited to inhabit it.

As a magic carpet, the space is designed to both welcome and transport visitors.

“When you walk onto the carpet, you’re having the same experience as other people. It’s like this community defined,” said the Association for Public Art’s Penny Balkin Bach. The Association for Public Art commissioned Candy Coated’s work, executed in partnership with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

In explaining Magic Carpet, Candy Coated talks about the power of place and art to create positive memories, spreading beauty and deploying color to heal and stimulate the city, and seeking ways to make the experience of art accessible. Those big ideas are now embedded in a humble asphalt-parking pad.

“I wanted this to be a painting that people could be in and enjoy. Usually you’re not allowed to touch paintings, you’re not allowed near them… but since it’s outside you can be a part of it and get in it,” Coated explained.

The wildest part of Magic Carpet is a “totally out of this world” 3D painting of a crater that is meant to look as though a meteor crashed into Eakins Oval, revealing a subterranean world of pure light.

The 12-by-15 foot “crater blast” is the creation of Wasabi Design. It is an optical illusion that looks flat on the ground but appears 3D when viewed through a smartphone camera. (That part of the installation will begin starting July 16.)

This luminous illusion, Candy Coated said, will make it seem like “people can burst out of the center of the universe,” at least in photographic form.

That nifty 3D trick is also a way to help the artwork meet people where they are – on their mobile devices. (And so began the summer of a thousand Oval selfies.)

“There aren’t a lot of artists who could handle this, not just because of the scale but because of all the activity. It’s designed for the activities that the park wanted to retain and actually uses them in part of the design,” said Bach. “The program became part of the landscape for Candy to work with, which she managed to turn into many, many little advantages.”

Big blue dots become hopscotch swirls; diamond shaped sand boxes for tykes will boast pink sand. And everything from the banners, lanterns, stage wrap, umbrellas, and flags along the Magic Carpet will have a candy-coated palette.

As pop-up spaces go, The Oval is on the less fancy end of the spectrum. But The Oval is an important test for the creative reuse of an underappreciated public space.

“That’s the whole concept of The Oval and More Park, Less Way. This season we’re expanding that to the space itself” through its design features, said Mark Focht, First Deputy Commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. “Last year was awesome for our first time out but this year I think it’s going to be somewhat more sophisticated.”

Thanks to overwhelmingly positive feedback from last year, more time to plan, and a larger budget (about $250,000), The Oval will feel more complete this time around. Since The Oval is only temporary the city and its partners are willing to experiment a bit.

Beyond Magic Carpet, The Oval has upgraded its beer garden, which last year was a simple penned-off zone. This year landscape architect Brian Dragon designed a garden with large planters, a beer kiosk built from scaffolding, and seats and tables made of repurposed materials salvaged from Parks and Rec maintenance yards, like pieces of granite and metal grates.

“We shopped our closet,” joked Focht. But therein is the best metaphor for The Oval: Do more with what you have.

The Oval is about seeing Parkway vestiges – underused parkland, lost objects from Parks and Rec storage, an uninspiring parking lot – in a new light. In that shift, we’re invited to think about what we want out of the Parkway’s public spaces and imagine what’s possible.

Parks and Rec committed to doing The Oval for three years. After that the city should undertake a formal planning process to turn Eakins Oval into a robust but flexible public space, using lessons learned from The Oval.

Eakins Oval sits at the heart of Philadelphia’s most prized cultural boulevard, but 11 months of the year it’s basically overlooked. The Oval helps us adjust our gaze, and invites us to dream a bit.

It’s the Parkway’s promise that gets the Association for Public Art’s Penny Balkin Bach excited about what Magic Carpet might provoke. Candy Coated’s work is a contemporary take on the Parkway’s grand tradition of public art, though not without precedent. Much like the Association for Public Art’s recent temporary light installation Open Air, the hope is that Magic Carpet will help draw visitors and create new experiences on the Parkway.

As Bach said, “For us, it has to do with helping people pay attention.”

The Oval will open Wednesday, July 16 at 5:30pm.

*More Park, Less Way was produced by PennPraxis and the city. PlanPhilly is a project of PennPraxis.

Lenape's view over The Oval
(Ashley Hahn, EOTS)

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