Philly Loves Bowie week begins Friday, and it’s the fourth annual celebration of the late David Bowie and his connection to Philadelphia.
The National Liberty Museum in Old City — known for glass art and patriotic exhibitions about American heroism — houses the centerpiece exhibition of Bowie fan and fine art.
How is that a fitting place for a tribute to a British pop star?
“He was a risk-taker,” said co-curator Meegan Coll, the museum’s director of glass. “That’s what a lot of heroes did in this museum. They take risks. He fits right in with our mission.”
Coll is both curator and fan: She sports an Aladdin Sane lightning bolt tattoo on her right forearm. She also contributed her own piece of fan art to the show, an acrylic Bowie portrait.
“We Can Be Heroes” features 62 original pieces of art. Some are in more traditional media — like glass, painting and collage — while others range in materials from neon lights to sugar cookies to spray-paint and even a piece of two-by-four lumber.
Many of the 47 artists in the show are clearly fans. There are graphite drawings and portrait paintings paying tribute to Bowie’s many personas: Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Goblin King (from the movie “Labyrinth”) and Lazarus from his final album “Blackstar.”
Several pieces are faithful to Bowie’s countenance down to his strangely dramatic eye color: he had one blue and one brown.
“David Bowie’s lyrics about alienation and androgyny always brought me comfort and helped me feel normal,” said artist Jennifer Kindt in the statement accompanying her 3D paper collage. “’We Can Be Heroes’ encapsulates this feeling of hope and reminds me [that] we’re not alone.”
Not all the works are fan tributes. One of America’s prominent neon artists, James Akers, submitted two works, both chaotic jumbles of twisted, glowing tubing and wires.
Akers’ “Tumbleweed” is a massive knot of neon. It dominates its corner of gallery with its pale blue light.
“I find myself sitting at home in my small, live-in bedroom in Brooklyn. In the corner, on the table, sits a mass of neon tangles filling the room with blue light,” wrote Akers in his statement. “Tumbleweed is influenced by the desire to see new things and travel, while the color is inspired by David Bowie’s song, Sound and Vision, where he sings, ‘Blue, blue, electric blue. That’s the color of my room.’“
Painter Heather Diacont Rinehart re-created the album cover of Bowie’s 1977 “Low,” rearranging the letters to read “Owl” and replacing Bowie’s profile with that of a barn owl.
Her work leverages Bowie’s imagery toward her own environmental concerns about how owls are often unintentionally killed by rat poison.
“Most of this is a reflection of David Bowie, or what people saw him to be,” said co-curator Jocelyn Boucher. “Hers had its own grounding, and is different from most of the other art.”
Boucher and Coll took this opportunity to curate for Philly Bowie Week in part to stretch the capacity of the gallery, which normally focuses exclusively on glass. While there are many different kinds of art on display – including children’s art – the highlights are the glass pieces. The first thing a visitor encounters is a three-foot etched glass egg with Bowie’s Aladdin Sane image.
Jacqueline Botquelen’s “The Soul” is a life-size bust of Bowie as the blindfolded Lazarus, as seen in the epic music video for “Blackstar,” made during his final bout with cancer.
Appearing almost like a death mask, his pained mouth and straining neck are made with the pâte de verre glass technique, giving it a rough, sandy texture that glistened like glitter.
“I love this piece because it shows him sort of vulnerable,” said Coll. “Not the Ziggy Stardust that we saw in the beginning, but this real man. In the end, he’s like one of us.”
After Philly Bowie Week ends, “We Can Be Heroes” will remain on view until February. All the pieces are for sale, proceeds to be donated to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.