Friday, March 27, 2020

Artists in the Time of Coronavirus

In March 2020, two weeks into quarantine lockdown of COVID-19, Artblog Philly sent out this announcement:

OPEN CALL for Virtual Exhibition ‘Artists in the Time of Coronavirus’
By Artblog March 19, 2020
ARTBLOG IS CALLING ALL ARTISTS, yes ALL makers and creators with a connection to Philadelphia, to participate in our online community project: "Artists in the Time of Coronavirus."
Assuming we haven’t all died by the time you read this, you can hit their link here.

I submitted a 250-word piece with some photos and I don’t know if they’ll publish it (I’m not pithy or squee, a doomsayer or a highbrow artist), but I figured I’d publish my submission here so at least you can see it. I’m adding a bit to it, so don’t count the words. Of course, if you can’t buy toilet paper in this corona-era, you probably don’t care much about wordcount anyway.

So, “Art in the Time of Coronavirus…." 

I’ve been a practitioner of social distancing since before it was a thing - I photograph abandoned sites and graveyards. Sometimes I even explore abandoned graveyards. Truly isolated locales. Some of these images were made during such an exploration this past week - the six-foot social distancing rule is rather easy to achieve in a graveyard.

For me, creating art is a personal and solitary experience, but I’ve learned that sharing it with others is vital. Years ago when I began exhibiting my photographs of cemetery angel statues, people would tell me why they were purchasing certain pieces. It scared me that others could find meaning in my work. Greater meaning than what I thought was there. So I appreciate the effort Artblog is making to create an audience for artists at this trying time.

We may think ourselves insular, that we create art only for “ourselves,” but I don’t believe that is true. Creative people in this day and age rely on an audience – and increasingly, that is a web-based audience. If COVID-19 continues, that may be our ONLY audience. Pre-Internet writers, composers, and painters may truly have created work mainly to please themselves. If they had received instant feedback (in the form of Internet silence), some of the “great” work may never have seen the light of day (think of Ulysses or The Great Gatsby, neither of which was well-received at the time of publication, by either the critics or the public).

Death and decay are concepts I gravitate toward, whether denoted by abandoned buildings or made more tangible by cemeteries. These latter reminders of our mortality have seen an upswing in popularity - cemetery visits by “normal” people have increased this past week! The government has issued a “no public gatherings” order and most people don’t have to be at work, so why not enjoy a beautiful spring day in a Victorian sculpture garden? Just enjoy nature - you don't even have to contemplate mortality ...

When you think about it, this was the original purpose of nineteenth century “rural” cemeteries – beautiful getaways from the grimy, noisy city. Philadelphia’s luxuriant garden cemeteries, Mount Moriah, the Woodlands, and Laurel Hill were the go-to open-air art galleries and parks of the Victorian era (there WERE no art galleries or parks back then!).

John and Olivia
My daughter Juli told me she saw at least fifty people in Philly's Woodlands Cemetery last week when she was there walking her dog. I saw several people with little kids at Laurel Hill Cemetery when I stopped by. Last weekend, I happened on my neighbors walking through the graveyard of the Old Swedes’ Church – Gloria Dei – near my house in South Philly. Here’s their little girl running among the gravestones. Graveyards - a last vestige of greenspace.

Currently, all the stores and businesses are closed. Some are even boarding up, expecting the worst. What’s the worst that can happen? Amazon closes all its distribution centers and widespread looting begins? As we look to create Art in the Time of Coronavirus, consider the words of John Lennon: “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” Public gatherings have become non-existent with COVID-19, and so the city’s wonderful graveyard greenspaces have taken on greater value. Visit them – imagine them to be your next artistic muse – their residents are six-feet-under, a safe social distance. Now is a good time to contemplate life in general – not one of us is getting out of this alive. 

You can see a new post every day on my Instagram page:

Saturday, February 8, 2020

How Laurel Hill Cemetery Can Teach Us About Beer in Philadelphia

I would like to introduce my friend and guest blogger, Mike Lewandowski. Mike graciously offered the following article about Philadelphia brewers buried in the city's famous Laurel Hill Cemetery. I went on a photo excursion with my friend Frank Rausch, to locate and photograph the gravemarkers of the people Mike writes about. With the help of Frank and David Gurmai from the front office, we found them all! Please enjoy responsibly!

How Laurel Hill Cemetery Can Teach Us About Beer in Philadelphia

Fairmount Water Works designer Frederick Graff

Cemeteries are more than places where we mourn our loved ones upon their passing.  They are also places where an area’s history is remembered.  Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia is no exception.  Many aspects of Philadelphia’s history can be found at Laurel Hill.  Even the history of beer in Philadelphia flows through the cemetery.

Water is needed to make beer.  Laurel Hill resident Frederick Graff played a key role in developing Philadelphia’s water system, thereby allowing Philadelphia to emerge as a leading source of beer in the 18th century.

On April 1, 1805 Frederick Graff was appointed superintendent and engineer of the Philadelphia Water Works.  The works were located at the modern site of City Hall and run by steam engines which frequently broke down.  Additionally, all of the city’s pipes were wooden, which limited the pressures they could carry.  To overcome these limitations, Graff advocated the construction of a new water system of his own design.

Frederick Graff designed the Fairmount Water Works and a system of cast iron pipes (and the associated fittings like fire hydrants) that were revolutionary. In 1815, the new water works was constructed at the site of the current Fairmount Water Works. A steam engine pumped water up to a large reservoir located at the site of the current art museum. Subsequently feeding water to the city by gravity overcame the mechanical limitations of early steam engines and provided the city (and Philadelphia brewers) with a truly reliable source of water.

In addition to water, malted barley is the second largest ingredient in beer.  Laurel Hill resident William Massey was a brewer and malt producer in the 19th century.  At one time, his malt house produced 100,000 bushels of malt per season. 

Massey was born in England, where his father was a successful brewer in a small town near Stoke, England. William emigrated to Philadelphia at a young age and found work at Gray’s brewery on Sixth Street.  He had great success in several aspects of the brewing industry and was offered a partnership in what was renamed Poultney, Collins & Massey.  By 1870, William Massey was the sole owner of the brewery, and sales took off.  By 1877, Massey’s brewery was the 11th largest in the United States.

Massey was also a philanthropist who donated large sums of money to the Philadelphia House of Refuge (a home for Philadelphia orphans).  Without William’s leadership after his death, the brewery fell on hard times and closed by 1894.

For most of human history, the role of yeast in beermaking was not well understood.  However, advances in microbiology have revealed the importance of how yeast turns malt sugars into alcohol.  Modern lager brewing didn’t start in Bavaria until the late 1820’s and early 1830’s.  Philadelphia brewers were the first in the United States to adopt their brewing to include the new yeast.

John Wagner brought the first new-world cultures of lager yeast from Bavaria to Philadelphia in 1840.  A historical marker at 455 St. John Street in Philadelphia commemorates this revolution in brewing.  Wagner attempted to run a brewery out of his house, but the endeavor did not succeed.  It is speculated that the lack of brewing capacity limited his commercial viability.

An associate of Wagner obtained a sample of the yeast and convinced Charles Wolf and Charles Engel to begin lager brewing in their sugar refinery.  Engel and Wolf were successful and established the United State’s first large scale lager brewery (the Engel & Wolf Brewery).  Eventually, the brewery moved to the Fountain Green section of Philadelphia in 1849.  The Fountain Green location allowed the brewery to excavate the large deep caverns needed to allow lager beer to age at a low temperature without refrigeration.

In 1870, the City of Philadelphia expanded Fairmount Park and bought the site of the Engel & Wolf Brewery.  The brewery was then demolished.  At this time, Charles Engel dissolved his partnership Charles Wolf and merged with Gustavus Bergner to form the Bergner & Engel Brewing Company.  Bergner & Engel constructed a new brewery at Thirty-Second and Thompson Streets in Philadelphia. At one time, this brewery employed 180 men.  Bergner & Engel ceased production as a result of Prohibition.   

Bergner and Engel family plots in Laurel Hill Cemetery

Bergner and Engel are now more than business partners; they are partners in death.  Their grave plots are located adjacent to each other at Laurel Hill Cemetery.  

(And check out this fascinating piece of brewing history: