New ‘gym’ carves out a place for sculptors in Philly

A new gymnasium is opening in Fishtown without a treadmill or dumbbell in sight. Instead, artists will be working out arc welders, table saws, and an iron foundry.

The Philadelphia Sculpture Gym is gearing up to be a membership workshop with the equipment sculptors need, but seldom have.

Many artists quickly realize after leaving school that they no longer have access to the tools they need to shape wood, cast metal, or weld, nor the space in which to do it safely. Outside of informal artist collectives, there is no place in Philadelphia that facilitates this kind of fabrication.

“Since we started, there have been so many people who have said, ‘I haven’t welded in so many years — that’s what I used to do. I want to do it again,'” said owner Darla Jackson, who has been working on opening this space for almost a year. “That’s been really exciting. Everybody’s so excited about it, and it’s contagious.”

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The 7,500-square-foot space is raw. The former auto repair garage on Frankford Avenue has concrete floors, exposed brick walls, and a wooden trussed roof. It is separated from its neighbor — a tire shop –by a series of canvas tarps.

Until a permanent wall can be built, kittens wander under the tarp and roam the scrap metal.

“The baby kittens live in the tire shop, but they like us so much, they come over,” said Jackson. “That’s the one benefit of not having a full wall yet.”

Jackson is a practicing artist. Her cast-mold kittens, squirrels, and other critters can be seen in the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s new pop-up garden in Rittenhouse Square, at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, and at a group show at Thinkspace Gallery in Culver City, Calif.

She has never started a business, nor administered an arts organization. Last year, the Sculpture Gym was little more than a whimsical thought, until a friend urged her to apply for the Knight Arts Challenge, a grant opportunity available to anyone with an arts idea. The $20,000 grant came with a matching requirement.

Jackson and her husband, sculptor Justin Grant, threw themselves into the turbulent waters of fundraising, then building and renovation, then volunteer coordination. On top of all that, they have a 2-year-old child.

“It’s been overwhelming. If I think too hard about it, I get teary,” said Jackson. “Totally scary. I’m petrified. I’m starting a business and everything is happening quickly.”

Artists can become members of the Sculpture Gym at various levels of access, depending on experience and dues. Part of the space will be a classroom for instruction, and a gallery to showcase members’ work.

On July 6, the gallery will open an exhibition of sculpture made with the casting technique. The workshop should be ready in late July.

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