Pop-up art exhibit in Germantown tries to bring light to painful issue

It was a cold Saturday morning at the corner of Wayne Avenue and West Queen Lane, outside the abandoned New Covenant Baptist Church. Some among a small crowd clutched coffee mugs to keep warm. They all awaited reactions from the passersby.

A “field” of plastic flowers swayed in the cold wind, tangible signs of more than a year’s work. At first glance, the exhibit is lighthearted and colorful. At a closer glance, “Little Girls seven and eight they lose their flowers everyday” hints at a darker meaning.

Local artist Renny Molenaar said the art work was inspired, in part, by conversations with friends who were dealing with the aftermath of child molestation in their family. The flowers were actually foraged hair clips he’d found discarded as litter or trash.

“Once we started talking about it, more and more people that we knew had been molested,” he said noting that the work is meant to bring awareness to the issue.

A history of impromptu artistry

Molenaar, who has used trash to create art since the late 70s, grew up in New York City; his mother emigrated from Aruba while he was a child.

In 1996, he spraypainted garbage bags gold in Brooklyn and watched tourists and New Yorkers alike take the newly found treasurers home after their lacquered facelift. During another exhibit, he used crack vials to create a rainbow. Most gallery goers had no idea what the little glass containers were, but on the street, it’s different.

“Someone from the ghetto knows the crack vials are a hideous infection that is taking over communities,” he said.

This weekend’s was not Molenaar’s first open-air pop-up installation in Germantown. In 2004, he took over vacant spaces with found objects like trash-picked lighters in day-long exhibits on Pulaski and Wayne avenues. It’s unlikely that most people noticed, since Molenaar rarely advertises the installations. This, to reward those who happen upon them unexpectedly.

“Sometimes he does it and nobody even knows,” his wife Rocio Cabello said.

Molenaar, who is currently looking for inexpensive gallery space in Germantown, offered that street art is sometimes more meaningful for those who live nearby or spend more time on the street rather than admirers who travel from afar. In the case of this piece, he said that the objects have come full circle.

“Here the same little girls that lose them are now seeing them,” he said, noting that one young girl walked by with her mother and asked him if the display was a memorial. “I love that a little kid can be so intuitive, that’s why I work in the streets. When art can create a dialogue with an eight-year-old, that’s important to me.”

Tom Loder, a Mt. Airy resident and friend of the artist, plucked two “flowers” from the exhibit that he said reminded him of a “swiss meadow” as a keepsake for his daughters.

“It’s not fancy and it’s not glitzy, but it’s beautiful and has a simplicity,” he said. “It’s one of the things that people who appreciate Germantown love about Germantown.”

Tina Matthews, who lives on Wayne Avenue, said the colorful clips caught her eye as she got out of her car. She remembered wearing the same type of thing when was young, and said the trinkets were a sign that a sometimes painful braiding process was finished. The tradition of hair braiding is something that is passed down from mothers to daughters, so the double meaning resonated.

“I have four nieces that look up to me so it makes me think about them and I’m grateful that nothing has happened to them,” she said.

The exhibit only lasted from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, but Molenaar said he has many other collections that could debut in the neighborhood.

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