A journey through the mind of a Philly artist

A muralist and a choreographer turn a South Philly studio into a labyrinth of imagination.

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Meg Saligman has made some of the most prominent, public murals in Philadelphia. They include “Common Threads,” whose central figure enigmatically plays with her braids while towering over the intersection of Broad and Spring Garden, and the massive American flag on Delaware Avenue near Spring Garden, seen by many tens of thousands of drivers on I-95.

With work that public, Saligman thought people might want to see the inside of her studio, to see how such large-scale murals are made. Visitors can peruse the preliminary photography — including a black-and-white, paint-stained working shot of Tameka Jones posing with her now-iconic braids — and get an understanding of the nuts and bolts of making art.

But that isn’t enough for Saligman.

“I would be mortified if you came in my studio and got a normal studio tour,” she said. “God forbid you got bored, or it was as expected.”

So she’s offered a deeper dive into an imagination at work. Through a false secret passage behind a rack of costumes, visitors enter a built environment representing the cockles of her mind: a place sometimes messy, sometimes dark, sometimes sublime.

“Wouldn’t we all like to go into something that we think is an artist studio tour, and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Wow! Mayhem!’ ”

Saligman collaborated with choreographer Brian Sanders, whose dance troupe Brian Sanders’ JUNK has been a staple of the annual Fringe Festival for two decades. They built a maze of rooms and hallways inside Saligman’s studio on Bainbridge Street.

The rococo dining room has deep red walls, dim lighting, and knickknacks suggesting a mysterious past, like a bordello in the style of filmmaker David Lynch. The White Room is a white-cube gallery with a floor ankle-deep in sand. Some walls are actually doors; some are scrims with projections and shadow play. Dancers populate the labyrinth.

“The characters are archetypes,” said Sanders. “There is a narrator who helps people along. It’s a journey we take the participants through, discovering innate archetypes within themselves.”

There is a narrative to the experience, although the story is more figurative than literal. It comes to a resolution in a high-ceilinged tableau of lavender and white, the ceiling draped with mural cloth, as acrobatic dancers perform on a suspended teardrop swing.

All the while, the audience is not just watching. They are expected to participate.

“The journey through the mind of an artist is a lot of work,” said Sanders. “You can theorize about making art all day – I can tell you what it’s like to dance – but, until you start dancing, you don’t understand what dance is all about.”

Saligman said she hopes this model of a collaborative, interactive art experience can be made into a more permanent part of Philadelphia’s cultural attractions.

“We want to spin part of this to see what grows legs, to see if it’s something that could sustain artists in the future, and be something Philadelphia would be proud of,” she said.

Saligman and Sanders didn’t invent this kind of immersive, interactive art – it’s been a tool of experimental performance art for years – but they believe the format is ready for the mainstream.

“Maybe the traditional venue — the traditional rows of chairs in the audience — has been challenged by new experiences and game rooms and artist installations you have to explore,” said Sanders. “It’s exciting to be part of this, and to pull the audience outside their comfort zone. They’re ready.”

Figmago” runs until late September; the dance troupe only performs on weekend evenings, as “Figmago ALIVE.”

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