Just behind the Germantown train station, Gina Michaels and her husband, John Phillips, have crammed a 10,000-square-foot artists’ wonderland with their work — from Phillips’ hand-sized sculpture of a snobbish art critic to Michaels’ whimsical bronze palm trees weighing several hundred pounds.
And this weekend, art lovers from across the city can visit when Michaels and Phillips add their workplace to the Philadelphia Open Studio Tours (POST).
Working studios up close
POST, a nationally-noted program of the Center for Emerging Visual Artists, offers self-guided tours of working artists’ studios in 20 different Philadelphia neighborhoods every October. The event is divided into two weekends, with studios east of Broad Street (including Kensington, Northern Liberties and Old City) opened on Oct. 5 and 6, and studios west of Broad Street (including Mt. Airy, Manayunk, and Germantown) open Oct. 19 and 20.
The Lena Street studio hosting Michaels and Phillips (a notable sculptor and restorer of Philly landmarks including the Rocky Statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) seems to go on forever. There’s room upon room of sculptures, prints, impromptu galleries, wax works, tables teeming with tools, a crucible and sand pit, and even a parked motorcycle. It’s a former sheet metal shop with decades of rambling additions that leave even the current owners at a loss as to how old the space actually is.
‘A forgotten language’
“To me, these are meditations…an ancient forgotten language,” Michaels told NewsWorks during a recent visit, showing off a table of bronze pieces modeled on her own hands and feet.
But looking at Michaels’ sand pit, covered with plastic while the crucible and buckets of scrap metal wait nearby, isn’t enough to understand how unusual Michaels’ bronze sand-casting process is.
“They tell me where they want to go,” she said of her materials. Contrary to traditional bronze sculpting methods, Michaels’ imaginative work lets the bronze “retain the property of the flowing metal.”
A time-honored process
Sculpting in bronze (which is actually an alloy of copper, tin and other elements) is usually a laborious process that takes weeks. First, the artist makes the desired shape in another medium, like clay. That clay model gets a rubber shell, which makes a hollow negative of the original form. An inside coating of wax turns that rubber negative back into a positive form, and when the wax is removed from its rubber mold, a ceramic coating on the outside of the wax forms the second-to-last step. When hardened by heat, that ceramic coating provides the form that the molten metal takes when it’s finally poured in, and the wax melts away.
Michaels said no metal is better suited than bronze for this type of large-scale work.
“There’s a reason sculptures were made out of bronze for centuries,” she added.
Bronze and sand
Michaels has crafted a whole new art form, with a unique mind-body meld that skips most of the steps of traditional bronze casting. All she needs for a mold are her sand pit and her own body. She makes negative shapes by pressing hands, feet, legs or arms into the sand, and ladles the molten metal to flow throughout these shapes. Later, the hardened metal’s surface receives a variety of colored patinas with the help of a roofing torch and different chemicals, and the pieces are welded together into a finished sculpture.
It’s a rare approach for working in metals. “I’m fabricating open forms in an improvisational way,” Michaels said of combining the art of modeling and patinas with the “open structure of modern sculpture.” The result is a rare combination of both the solid and fluid qualities of metal.
She began with relatively small wall pieces, but now fabricates pieces she calls “hand plants,” with fantastical hands and feet for leaves, that are up to eight feet tall. The studio includes the pulleys, forklifts and gantry systems that allow her to move the massive pieces to their exhibitions.
Beyond POST, many of her recent works can be seen at Germantown’s iMPeRFeCT Gallery, in a show titled “Out of Hand,” running Oct. 12 through Nov. 2.
Talk to the hand
Michaels said the impulse to sculpt using the shapes of her hands and feet is probably rooted in her own experience as a dancer, and as a practitioner of Qigong body work, a hands-on cultivation of positive energy.
“I try not to get in the way. They know what they’re doing,” she said of trusting her hands.
This Saturday and Sunday, POST is offering free, self-guided studio visits throughout Northwest Philadelphia between noon and 6 p.m. Besides Michaels’ and Phillips’ Germantown studio, visitors can take in the Greene Street Artists Cooperative and a wide variety of other artists throughout Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill, Germantown, Manayunk, Roxborough and East Falls. For more information or to create a POST itinerary, visit the POST website.
In addition, Germantown Artists Roundtable leader Paula Paul is offering a special walking tour of participating Germantown studios, including 20 artists at eight locations on Saturday and Sunday. To book your spot, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.