Under the Clothespin: Fantasy cityscape at Centre Square

If you enter the subway at Centre Square, going down the steps around Claes Oldenburg’s Clothespin, you find a grim expanse of white subway tile that glows a little green thanks to the fluorescent lights. It’s a place to move through, as quickly as possible. It is an environment to be ignored because of its terrible blandness.

The blank canvas in Centre Square's concourse entrance: Mosaic coming soon.
(The blank canvas in Centre Square's concourse entrance: Mosaic coming soon.)

Mercifully that’s about to change.

Coming soon, two artists will install a bright fantasy Philadelphia cityscape in mosaic along about 500 square feet of one of the bleak white tiled walls. The new artwork is a Mural Arts Program project to beautify the grim subway entrance, sponsored by Centre Square’s owner, REIT Management and Research/CommonWealth REIT.

Back in 2005, REIT Management made an effort to improve the subway entrance below their building, fixing its leaks, lights, and the stairs. But the space remained cavernous and uninviting, said Dave Campoli, REIT Management’s Vice President of the Northeast Central Region. “There’s not a lot we thought we could do,” he said. Still, REIT recognized that the entrance at the Clothespin was really heavily used, but public investments were being focused at other entrances to the concourse. About two years ago, the idea for an artwork was born.

Under the Clothespin is a collaborative effort of artists Emilie Ledieu and Miriam Singer. Their mosaic design is a re-imagined version of Philadelphia’s urban landscape, interpreting what draws people to and through Centre Square.

The artwork started with the idea of mapping people’s experience of Centre Square. Singer and Ledieu developed a participatory process to capture the personal geographies of individual Philadelphians in order to understand how regular folks use Centre Square. This summer the artists invited Centre Square workers, SEPTA commuters, and the public at large to fill out postcards asking people for their stories and routes.

They asked two simple questions: Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Some people answered the question literally, describing their precise route. Others took liberties with the question. These are some examples:

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When I met Miriam Singer in late August, she was standing beneath the Clothespin, behind tables with large-scale maps of the Centre Square area. People were invited to mark their route using Post-it notes, pictures, arrows and markers on the big maps.

Miriam Singer (right) talking to people passing through Centre Square's subway concourse entrance, asking them to add their routes and stories to the big map.
(Miriam Singer (right) talking to people passing through Centre Square's subway concourse entrance, asking them to add their routes and stories to the big map.)

The combination of the big maps and the postcards gave the artists a sampling of the personal geographies hundreds of Philadelphians. To create Under the Clothespin, the artists incorporated these personal geographies and routes, through pieces of buildings, infrastructure, transit, architectural elements, and art from locations in, around, and on the way to Centre Square. People’s cognitive maps will also be reflected in the mosaic through the incorporation of map sections silkscreened onto glass and collaged into the design.

“Instead of it being a literal landscape, we wanted to kind of fracture it based on the fact that people are coming from all different routes,” Singer said. Under the Clothespin is a richly layered version of our cityscape, built from the perspectives of Philly residents, workers, commuters, and artists.

To me the design reads like an imaginary Philadelphia made of a mashup of memory snapshots. The design is largely focused in and around Centre Square, but smaller snippets of neighborhood details add texture. Casual viewers will quickly pick out the LOVE sculpture, William Penn on top of City Hall, and of course the Clothespin. But the rest of our city is there: rowhouses, SEPTA, the concourse, street lamps, and parking meters. The result is a playful interpretation of Philadelphia, at once intimate and personal, recognizable and common.

Eyes on the Street will be checking in with the artists as they create the Under the Clothespin. Next up, a studio visit at Viking Mills.

You can follow the progress of Under the Clothespin too on tumblr.

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