Printmakers rescue stories long imprisoned for Moore exhibit

“Doing Time/Depth of Surface” uses prints to transport the walls of a Philadelphia prison into a gallery. The exhibit opens Saturday at the Moore College of Art and Design.

Imagine the forbidding walls of an entire old prison cell becoming soft, malleable and transportable.

The prison is Holmesburg, built in 1896, decommissioned in 1995 and left to deteriorate, obliterating the stories of the prisoners and their guards.

Giving an image and voice to those stories is at the core of the work of Spanish artists Patricia Gomez and Maria Jesus Gonzalez who are trying to redefine printmaking.

“What we do is a physical rescue of places that are about to disappear,” says Gonzalez in Spanish. “Not only do we create a print, but we take photos, make videos, and document it.

“We create a sort of archive,” she says. “When it comes down to it, we work with memory.”

Infamous prison full of secrets

Holmesburg in Northeast Philadelphia was one of the first prisons built in the wagon-wheel style with hallways radiating from the guard’s lookout at the center. Today, the corridors are falling apart; they’re dark, humid and unventilated. Stalactites of flaking lead-based paint hang from the cavernous ceilings. Molds and fungi have invaded.

The area is so toxic that to walk the corridors and work in the cell, the artists, assistants and this reporter had to wear haz-mat suits, masks and gloves.

To reclaim the prison’s memories, the artists made a life-size print of an entire cell, an 8-foot by 18-foot space with a 16-foot high-barrel vaulted ceiling. To make the imprint, they borrowed a technique used to restore frescoes and used it to pull layers of old paint in institutional greens and blues from the cell walls.

This past fall, at the start of the project commissioned by Philagrafika, Gomez and Gonzalez covered all the walls with a special adhesive. The applied a thin, sturdy black material, covering every nook and cranny from door jamb to ventilation grates.

Art writer Patricia Robertson described the process.

“They’re going to pull the cloth off and, as you can see, it lifts the paint off right of the wall. A giant print of what’s on the wall,” Robertson says. “It’s very exciting, a giant monoprint.”

When the cloth is laid out on the floor, it displays a full-scale copy of the four cell walls.

“All cells are identical, the architecture is the same, but each tells a different story,” says Gomez.

Stories form from words left behind

Individual stories emerge from the drawings, graffiti, newspaper clippings and words of hope or anger left by the inmates on their cell walls. The artists used a clear mesh to pull off the paint so the original side can be seen.

The inmates’ graffiti doesn’t refer to Holmesburg’s infamous legacy of dermatological, pharmaceutical, and biochemical weapons research-projects that involved testing on inmates.

The artists did not ignore that past, but concentrated on the forgotten stories.

“The combination of a project that is so powerful in terms of forgotten and even ignored history within an urban landscape, to be able to combine that with something that is so visually compelling, that is so dramatic and theatrical, is really something very unusual,” says Jennie Hirsh, a professor of art history at Maryland Institute College of Art and an essayist for the show’s catalogue.

To install their show, Gomez and Gonzalez unroll the print and rip the excess fabric.

In the Moore’s gallery, the enormous print from the cell is partially folded in a heap, suggesting a symbol of discarded lives. The drawings and other graphic elements pulled from the wall are part of the exhibition.

And there’s a haunting recording of a Holmesburg retired guard reading the repetitive entries from prison ledgers.

The exhibit continues at the college, 20th Street and The Parkway, through March 17.

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