This show is an excellent, fascinating combination of art, documentation, and living community. Each photograph is a portrait of the owner(s) of a small business in the old part of Allentown (Liberty, Chew, 9th, 10th, Linden streets). Each is accompanied by a lively little history of the person, when s/he bought the business, interesting biographical background, etc. So they are visual and textual, immediate and vested with psst/present stories and personalities.
I think it's the personalities that jump out. Calderon has captured joyful, expressive facial expression and has depicted these colorful local characters each in the midst of business, wearing the clothing or carrying the accoutrements of their trades. There is exciting diversity here, representative of Allentown's demographic: people from the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Mexico, Greece, and of Thai, Italian, and various other European ancestry. The pictures are colorful in more than ethnic ways, as well: replete with grocery goods, beauty supplies, and the tools and trappings of landscape design, law, cuisine, floral arrangements, motorcycles, and formal wear.
I'll list each of the merchants here, in case you live in the area and can patronize their businesses. It would be great to walk into one of their shops and let them know I saw their portrait in the Calderon show!
Louis Belletieri of Cheesesteak Louie's
Martin Karess of Maress, Reich & Furst
Candida Svirovsky of Candida's Bar
Barry Houser of 12th Street Barbershop
Christian Brown of Brown Design Corp.
Ana Pena of Las Palmas Restaurant
Carlos Rodriquez of Rodriquez Mini Market
Heidi (Roth) Semmel of C. E. Roth Formal Wear
Peter Phrom of Kow Thai Take Out
Fred J. Moery of Fred J. Moyer Plumbing
Jorge Rosales of La Placita Mexico Deli
Iftekhar Ansari of A1 Mini Mart
Chris Farkas of Bossman Studios
Mery Garcia of Las Calenitas Unisex Beauty Salon
Bill Boberski of Dan's Cycle Service
I think my favorite is the one of Christian Brown. It's dynamic, enthusiastic, and it works on a limited palette of simple, clear colors. The delight on Brown's face seems to me to be the passion of a person who loves his work. That's how I felt yesterday, reciting "Kubla Kahn" to my students as they sat in the dark watching a slide show of beautiful images illustrating the poem. That's how I felt expounding upon the eternal nature of art as we read "Ozymandias." That's how I felt discussing "true myth" with a student who is writing a paper comparing Oedipus and Jesus. That's how I imagine Christian Brown must feel in this picture, as the flame of joyful work, the flame of fulfilled human[ism], burns through him. And he gets to share that through this photograph, just as I hope the artist's I've interviewed got to share it in their talks with me.
There's also a "Norman Rockwell" quality about a few of the photos, especially the one of Fred J. Moyer. Again, there's a limited color palette (although the majority of the pictures are vibrant with many hues). It is a close study of his face, lined and kind, in his work environment, where he belongs, with the accumulated stuff of a long life of work around him. It's very American. This whole show is very American.
When I met Marco Calderon at a Lehigh Valley Arts Council event this past summer, we had a great talk about the nature of this area. I expressed the ignorant, self-perpetuating stereotype that is exactly what he hates to hear: "Allentown is such a tough place to live, with only a small arts community, high crime rates, high poverty rates, and not much beautiful to look at." He immediately, but politely, jumped into a passionate denunciation of this misconception. On the contrary, he asserted, Allentown is a beautiful, colorful, rich place. Sure, you need to open your eyes and not just walk through with head down, clutching your purse (that's my interpretation), but there are fascinating people to see all throughout the most "troubled" areas. And he's out to prove that, camera in his hand, enterpreneurial energy in his spirit, photo by photo.
His other big project in this area was Welcome, Neighbor, a series of portraits of immigrant residents of the area. For each of these endeavors, Calderon has employed his considerable charm, talent, and energy to secure commissions or grants. The first series was the result of a commission by the ACLU of the Lehigh Valley. The current show, "Block by Block," was "made possible by a grant from the Rider-Pool Foundation, the Allentown Economic Development Corporation, and the Old Allentown Preservation Association."
Art can have a transformative influence on the community in which it is created, for sure, especially when it has such personal connection with individuals, organizations, and particular spaces in its area. This is, perhaps, yet another aspect of the recent resurgence in public art. Artists are opening their process to public view. Artists are speaking for, about, and into current events, national/international situations, human rights crises, etc. Art is coming out of the garret and into the street, the school, the shop, the home again. I am on the lookout for ways it is coming into the church. But that's another story.