Raising high the roof beam — in the name of art and community

A West Philadelphia artist collective housed in an old warehouse space large enough to create monumental sculptures now has an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

“Traction Company” is a show of work by 12 artists using the 8,000-square-foot brick building at 41st and Haverford streets. The artists were attracted to the warehouse where trolleys once were made by the trussed roof rising 46 feet, creating about a quarter-million cubic feet of uninterrupted space inside.

That roof allows large-scale sculptures — such as the crashing airplane “Grumman Greenhouse” by Jordan Griska, now installed outside of PAFA -– to be created there.

For the current exhibition, PAFA commissioned the artists to re-create a roof truss from the Traction Company building. The 8,000-pound wood timber sculpture, measuring 64 feet long and 14 feet high, is the massive centerpiece of the show.

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“I don’t think there’s been many other monumental pieces like this placed in this gallery,” said curator Jodi Throckmorton. “So it’s really exciting for us to have something of this scale in here. But that’s the beauty of that building — the size of the building inspires them to go big.”

The show features individual works by the members of the collective, as well as their first collaborative piece made in 2013, a 1/6 scale model of the Traction Building. The re-creation includes all of the tools and detritus inside of the space, made to exacting detail, down to the coffee cups and trash on the workbenches.

It originated as part of a space-swap project called City Wide, wherein Traction Company traded spaces with a 250-square-foot gallery in North Chinatown called Napoleon. Work by artists in the Napoleon collective appears inside this Traction exhibition at PAFA.

The giant roof truss is the second collaborative project in Traction Company’s eight-year history. It serves to convey many meanings — a symbol of a supportive environment, an example of the collective’s craftsmanship.

“We like working with our hands. That’s why this place exists,” said member Miguel Horn, who joined in 2011 shortly after graduating from PAFA.

Mostly, however, the giant truss is about the neighborhood.

The wooden beams used to make the truss came from Traction’s neighborhood, where a 19th century building was recently torn down to make room for student housing. Those changes are fueling growing conflict between longtime residents and developers working to accommodate the nUniversity of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.eeds of

Longtime Traction member Billy Dufala, with his brother Steven Dufala, staged “Funeral for a Home” last year as they ceremonially bid adieu to a common rowhome slated for demolition in the nearby Mantua neighborhood. That community performance piece was in part about the loss of vernacular architecture and community cohesion in the face of gentrification.

Dufala hopes this show at PAFA, focusing on an iconic artist space, will build support for maintaining a neighborhood with a mix of real estate uses.

“All this wood came from a building that was pulled down to make student housing,” said Dufala, patting the 4-ton truss in the gallery. “At this point, we are poised to take advantage of this opportunity to try to create that rally call to lay the foundation, create the network of people we need to make the sustainability of this building a reality.”

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