Art exhibit highlights talent of the Tiberino family

Clark DeLeon

Updated: Sunday, March 9, 2014, 1:09 AM

"The Man Behind It All," shows Joe Tiberino (left) and the artist's - his son Gabriel's - reflection.

No man is an island (spoiler alert: that was a metaphor), but Joe Tiberino may be an exception. For one thing, he's named for an island - Tiberina, in the middle of the Tiber River in Rome. For another, he is the patriarch of an island of art and creativity in West Philadelphia on the crusty edge of Lancaster Avenue off 38th Streets.

At age 75, the distinguished, bearded Philadelphia artist carries himself with quiet confidence and dignity. He looks like the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis beer commercials, and you can almost hear the commercial voice-over as Tiberino walks into a room: "He has a personality so magnetic he can't carry credit cards. . . . His beard has experienced more than a lesser man's entire body. . . . Cuba imports cigars from him."

In Tiberino's case, the narrator would say, "His father once shot his own horse in the head while chasing Pancho Villa with Gen. "Black Jack" Pershing. . . . He just returned from a month in Mexico, painting murals in a beachside bar in Puerto Vallarta. . . . The most famous and beautiful African American artist in New York moved to Philadelphia to ask him to marry her."

Ellen Powell-Tiberino died in 1992 after an agonizing 14-year battle with cancer. When first diagnosed in 1978, doctors gave her one year to live.

Powell-Tiberino's legacy lives on in the working-artists compound and museum at 3819 Hamilton St., where Joe and their children still reside. "The Ellen," as the museum and backyard Magic Garden performing area are called, is where you can find Joe Tiberino holding court with awestruck visitors.

Cue the narration: "His house is made of artwork - floor to rooftop - on the outside. . . . His dog is named Padre Pio. . . . His long gray ponytail was braided by a Mayan princess and is said to hold supernatural powers. . . . He does not always drink beer, but when he does, he prefers Dos Equis. Seriously."

Joe and Ellen didn't push their children to become artists, but they did. "There was no pressure," said the oldest son, Raphael. "No pressure at all," said the second-born, Leonardo. "None. Not once," said the youngest son, Gabriel. "Don't talk to me," said the only daughter, Ellen.

This family of artists has been dubbed "the West Philly Wyeths" by local arts publications and public television. Joe shakes his head at that odd coupling of Chester County horse-country gentry with hard-core urban street warrior artists like the Tiberino clan. "But I did have two heartfelt conversations with Andrew Wyeth years ago about raising our children," Tiberino said. "He hired tutors to teach them how to paint."

You can see the remarkable talents and individual styles of all the Tiberinos in an electrifying exhibit called "The Unflinching Eye" at the African American Museum, at Seventh and Arch, through March 22. (Ellen Powell-Tiberino was featured in the museum's first art exhibition in 1977.)

The current exhibit fills two full floors and consists of 100 works in various media representing the visions of the Tiberinos and 14 other artists in their extended circle of friends and mentors. Joe and Raphael will be conducting guided tours on the next two Saturdays.

"His commanding presence is so much larger than life that it is difficult to tell the difference between a photo of Joe Tiberino taken during the opening night of 'The Unflinching Eye' in September or the acrylic painting of Joe by his son Gabe called The Man Behind It All. . . . Stay thirsty my friends."

Clark Deleon's column appears regularly in Currents. deleonc88@aol.com

Clark DeLeon

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