Art and the Unexpected

Art — Produced by Michael O’Reilly

From the outside, Eastern State Penitentiary looks like the last place you would expect to find contemporary art. For over 15 years, however, this decommissioned prison in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, in addition to its historical and yearly Halloween haunted house duties, has hosted all manner of art and artists. And the art has often been about prisons, the justice system or incarceration itself. Amenities like electricity and heat within the abandoned structure itself are scarce, so the art needs to take into account the harsh rigors of what is essentially a stabilized ruin. The best art hosted there uses these elements in the artwork itself. Take Nick Cassway’s piece about juveniles in the United States sentenced for execution. He made portraits of these juveniles by treating pieces of steel in a special way so that the portraits themselves only became apparent as the metal, exposed to the elements, started to decay. In the ART segment this month, we talk with Sean Kelley, Senior Vice-President of ESP and head of the committee that adjudicates proposals for artwork sent in every year to the prison. We talk to Nick about making art using industrial materials typically meant for highway signage and we visit with him in his studio as he quickly and deftly fashions art from unexpected things, for unexpected places.

Web Extra: Interview with Sean Kelley

Edited by Tyler Horst — Senior VP of Eastern State Penitentiary Sean Kelley discusses the restoration of the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Synagogue in the historic prison. The inclusion of a synagogue was unique to the Penitentiary in the early years of its operation, so in 2009 Eastern State restored the ruined space in order to preserve this important moment in Jewish American history.

Web Extra: Terror Behind the Walls

Edited by Annaliese Morris — Eastern State Penitentiary is known for being the model for a new type of prison system copied all around the world. Opening in 1829 and closing in 1971this famous prison now stands as a preserved ruin and a U.S National Historical Landmark. Around Halloween, the site becomes TERROR BEHIND THE WALLS, a haunted house “consistently ranked among the top 10 haunted attractions in the country.” This annual production, mounted just for the month of October, earns ESP Historic Site over half of their operating budget for the rest of the year.

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