Traction Company: How 8 PAFA Grads Built the Most Dynamic Art Studio in Philadelphia
The sounds of mitre and table saws are audible through the open front gate. Just behind the wooden slats, Kare Tonapetyan is rebuilding his trailer so that he and his girlfriend, Margaret can leave tomorrow for LA with his work and gear in tow. The remaining six of the eight members of the Philadelphia Traction Company
have just finished their weekly Friday meeting and are about to start their collaborative Friday work hours on building repairs and construction in the ever-evolving 19th century historic trolley manufacturing company.
Tonight is special because they are getting ready to have a barbecue in Kare’s honor, and they have just all closed their first exhibition as a group at the University City Arts League
. Member Jeffrey Dentz will not be joining them because he is working in Mexico on a residency for the summer.
Traction Company is a collaborative workspace and art center, housed within the 40 foot ceilings of an 1880s trolley manufacturing company on 41st and Haverford in West Philadelphia, and it might be one of the city's best-kept secrets. It's comprised of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
grads Billy Dufala, Dentz, Pavel Efremoff, J. R. (“Jon”) Greig. Jr., Miguel Antonio Horn, Zachary Kainz, Joshua Koffman, and Tonapetyan. Dufala and Greig were the first in the space after another group of PAFA alums disbanded, clearing out one third of the facility. Dufala explains the origins, “Jon and I got together and invited people to get in on the project with us as a cooperative work, situating a studio slash workshop and we didn’t much electricity or running water. We built the little house with a wood burning stove to have warmth.” He gestures toward an interior constructed with salvage fitted with stairs and a pulley system, leading to second floor studios that will be granted to two graduating PAFA seniors as a residency.
According to Dufala, there is an unofficial split in the studio structure, between the classical figurative casting work and those who work on the traditional shop tools such as mitre saws. “We’re all PAFA, traditional and classical figurative work…that’s mostly their gig but not entirely: well versed in the traditional modeling clay, making mold, making a wax, casting, putting a shell on it, burning the wax out before it is hit full of bronze, taking it out, chasing it, and making stuff. We don’t actually pour bronze here, but we do everything else involved in the process here on site.”
The 40-foot ceilings allow for the sculptors to work at a large scale. Miguel Antonio Horn introduces a larger than life abstract white face, “It’s a work in progress. It was a smaller piece that I did and I always wanted to make it bigger. I never had a big enough studio. Now that I do, I can work on it here.”
Dentz and Horn have used the exterior boarded up windows on the 41st street section of the building to install public art through wheatpasted prints, most recently in response to the writings of American anthropologist, Loren Eiseley. The current installation features work by Dentz, Efremoff, Greig, brothers Brendan and Pete Gavin, and Matt Colaizzo. On any given day, one can find large-scale sculpture, traditional casting process, metal shop tools, and artisanal HVAC construction.
“It’s a big space that can accommodate large projects and you have a community support. Then if anyone is doing what they are doing, they have the shop and everybody else to use as a resource. It’s worked out really well for as long as it has,” Jon Grieg stated.
BONNIE MACALLISTER is a multi-media artist, grant writer and journalist residing in West Philly. Her work has appeared in Tom Tom Magazine, Toronto Quarterly, Nth Position (U.K.) and Grasp (Czech Republic). Send feedback here.
All photographs by BAILEY ELIZABETH