Exclusive: Spotlighting Five Activist Creatives From the Fitler Club ‘Artists in Residence’ Program

Above image: Shawn Theodore

Just months before the pandemic lockdowns went into effect, we made one of our best new Philadelphia (or maybe anywhere) discoveries in the form of the Fitler Club, the new members club hidden away down a side street at the northern end of Center City – directly across from 30th Street Station. With fourteen strikingly designed rooms, a stylish/happening restaurant and bar, abundant co-working space, a gaming room / event space, and an extensive fitness center, it arguably shows up more established predecessors like New York’s Soho House.

Perhaps most impressive, however, is its commitment to supporting the local arts community, which in and around Philadelphia tends to operative from a position characterized by a fierce sense of regional pride. Philly happened to have been hit particularly hard by the COVID crisis and, like so many other places, is just now struggling back. And so something like the Fitler’s ongoing Artists in Residence program becomes all the more essential to encouraging the belief that creativity can help us to spiritually and psychologically overcome crisis.

With that in mind, BlackBook selected five artists from the Fitler Club’s collection whose work has consistently come from a point of view of activism, whether addressing racial inequalities, local preservation or our worsening / urgent environmental dilemma. Generously, they each took the time to explicate their processes and their ideological objectives, in hopes of fostering a better understanding of just how art can effectively confront common tragedy and injustice.

More of the artists and their work can be viewed at FitlerClub.com.

Shawn Theodore (see image, top)

Award winning photographer who has exhibited at Philadelphia’s African American Museum, The Barnes Foundation and the Scope Art Fair, with commercial clients including Apple, Showtime, Roc Nation, PAPER Magazine, The Atlantic and the New York Times.

“Over the past decade I have created my art-making process which I have coined ‘Afromythology.’ It is my method of creating visual content untethered to traditional ideas of time and its goal is the dethroning of monolithic Black identities, broadening the discussion of Black figurative representation beyond futuristic ideation, and the decolonizing of postmodern and contemporary African American photography, collage and mixed media. My visual narratives manifest and develop representations of physical and spiritual Black bodies and objects to resonate with their own self-assured authority, which negates the pressures that dim the vibrance of African-American life.”

Michelle Angela Ortiz

Visual artist / muralist / educator / filmmaker and Kennedy Center Citizen Artist National Fellow who has created more than 50 large-scale public works, led art for social change public art projects in Ecuador and Costa Rica, and has acted as a US Embassy cultural envoy in Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Spain and Venezuela.

“Like a stone thrown in the water, my work begins with conversations that then ripple into my studio, transient public spaces, neighborhoods, galleries, and museums. I balance the aesthetic, social, and political through the visual narrative to claim and transform spaces in ways that affirm the realities of the communities navigating through these spaces. Through my work, I strive to counteract mainstream narratives that criminalize (im)migrants and devalue the contributions of communities of color in the fabric of our society. The common themes of immigration, socio-economic inequalities, and erased histories are present in my work as a way to record, reclaim, honor, and elevate these stories that connect us to our humanity.  

My creative process is activated through facilitating dialogues, identifying themes, translating themes into visual representations, and doing this with integrity and respect within the community. I create community engagement methods that take into account the issues of responsibility, accountability, and ethics – a larger dialogue that is most needed in the field of social practice and community arts. I collect stories, gather photographs, document dreams and symbols, draw maps that connect different points of view, and explore spaces to see who is interacting or is not represented within the public space. These combined elements develop in ways that result in portraits, prints, light boxes, video animated installations, outdoor market shelters, murals, or large-scale temporary public art installations. My intention is to move the image beyond the expected to create a platform that amplifies the voices and energizes the existing power of the community.”

Leroy Johnson

Mixed media artist working within the mediums of painting, collage and assemblage sculpture, has exhibited from Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens to Tel Aviv’s Tirza Yalon Kolton Ceramic Gallery, and was a 2014 Pew Fellow at the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

“As an American artist of color, who was born in the last century, I’m like a time traveler, influenced by African American vernacular art I saw around me. I come from a culture, custom, and history that many are not familiar with. My work explores similarities, repurposing, regeneration, thus life and death. My work is a tapestry of the past, present and future. African American culture has been shaped by a traumatic history. It contains the elements and memories of separation, fracture, loss and oppression: histories shared by all humankind. My art bears memories of separation, fracture, loss and oppression; histories shared by all humankind. My art bears witness. 

In my art, I attempt to express not only aesthetic issues, but social, moral and spiritual ones as well. My work is concerned with life and existence in the inner city. I find the urban environment as a form of abstraction. In the city, I am constantly aware of the amount and variety of urban debris, which influences my palette, texture, and harmony. A major impact on the process that produces/inspires my work is the use of found objects and mixed media as abstract collage elements. The inner-city landscape I depict is both map and metaphor for the actual landscape and the contents of the collective unconscious. From my perspective, the ‘unbeautiful’ can be as powerful/ attractive as the professed beautiful. As an artist I am trying to give meaning to what is beautiful and extend its parameters.”

Drew Leshko

Philly artist who creates documentary studies of local neighborhoods, and whose work is included in the permanent collections of the Urban Nation Museum in Berlin, the Dean Collection in New York, West Collection in Philadelphia, and Iron State Development’s corporate collection in Hoboken.

“My practice revolves around creating sculptures of buildings and objects typically overlooked, under-appreciated. The objects I work with are often here today and gone tomorrow and there is something about old buildings and seeing the age of materials that is very romantic to me. Using mainly painted paper, I attempt to create works that act as commentary to gentrification, urban planning, and also our history and future. I find that in this current age, developers are constantly reshaping and changing the city; it sometimes seems that wrecking balls are overtaking preservation. While I find beauty in the change, I hope people find appreciation in our history through my works that capture a glimpse into our recent histories.”

Diane Burko

American painter and photographer whose work addresses climate crises and takes environmental activism as its central point of view, she has exhibited at the Locks Gallery, the Bernstein Gallery at Princeton University, the Zimmerli Art Museum and the National Academy of Sciences in DC.

“My practice, at the intersection of art and science, focuses on climate change. Over fifteen years ago I began investigating glacial melt, first by studying and reviewing images provided by Agencies such as NOAA and USGS as well as individual glaciologists which led to my ‘bearing witness’ to the three largest ice fields in the world: Greenland, Antarctica and the Patagonian ice fields of Argentina. I also interacted with many scientists in the field.

After many years of concentrating on ice melt and sea level rise, which of course contributes to flooding, I turned my attention to how global warming was affecting our oceans – which occupy 71% of the earth’s surface. That led me to further explorations in the Pacific, particularly in American Samoa and the islands of Hawaii as well as the Great Barrier Reef. I wanted to understand more about how coral reefs were affected by the increase in acid rain and the increased warming of the oceans. Both factors have decimated large populations of coral reef ecosystems which are crucial to the survival of over 25% of all sea life, as well as the economic survival of island populations. As in my previous investigations, I visited a number of marine biology labs, from the HIMB in Honolulu to Scripps in California. A series of paintings and time-based media was produced from all this investigation.

Most recently I’ve turned my attention to South America and the Amazon Rainforest which is being destroyed through fire and extraction. My interest there of course relates to all the devastating wild forest fires we’ve been witnessing from Siberia to Lytton to Bootleg. For more decades than we can imagine, the Amazon, (at one time the richest biodiversity ecosystem on earth) has been threatened not merely by climate change, but also by the willful destruction of the forests though clear cutting and fires – all for profit in terms of palm oil, cattle and mining. This natural resource is rapidly disappearing. As more ecosystems are destroyed, climate change’s affect increase.”

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