Semilla Arts Initiative works to create something from nothing

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The "Children's Garden" built by Pedro Ospina and Betsy Casanas on a lot once littered by glass and soiled mattresses. (Tom Stoelker / Staff Photographer)

At the corner of Fourth and Somerset Streets, a small tree shades Pedro Ospina from the harsh summer sun. Sitting on a milk crate, he tells how he and his partner, Betsy Casañas, formed the Semilla Arts Initiative three years ago and built the "Children's Garden" in this Fairhill lot in May 2009.

For years, soiled mattresses and broken glass had littered the corner, and neighborhood kids used the mattresses as trampolines - making something from nothing, a theme that appeals to the two artists. Now the lot is filled with raised beds of vegetables and flowers, each plot tended by a different family.

Gesturing, Ospina said: "We just took it, we just basically took it. When this was abandoned, there was all this glass, and these kids were just playing on it."

Casañas, 35, a graduate of Moore College of Art & Design and mother of two, said of her work with Ospina in the Semilla Arts Initiative: "We pick up trash on the street and turn it into beautiful things. We use whatever we have. It's not about what we need to buy; it's about what we already have.

"And that's the point," she continued, "because in this neighborhood it can become an excuse - there's no money, there's no this, no that. Why do we have to wait for somebody else to save us?"

Ospina and Casañas have spent years working on community gardens and art projects just a few blocks away on Dauphin Street. With the Somerset lot in full view of the Julia de Burgos Elementary School, they decided to engage students there by making larger versions of the children's classroom artwork, in vibrantly painted recycled plywood, and displaying it outdoors.

Erin Kelly teaches English at the school and has seen firsthand the positive effects of her students' regular involvement with the garden.

"Any insects, any plants, anything alive, the kids just love learning about it," she said. "With all the concrete and the lack of opportunity to really be outside and enjoy the natural world, this is something really precious."

Casañas and Ospina's Dauphin Street experience showed them that once community members saw what the two were up to, they'd pitch in. Sure enough, the owners of the corner bodega, Chuchu Mini Market, contributed water that Ospina, 46, then lugged across the street to the plants. And, as he trudged back and forth, kids soon began arriving with pitchers and plastic jugs of their own.

After seeing Ospina's photos of the arduous watering process, city officials granted the group a permit to tap a nearby hydrant, and a connection between Semilla and the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society was established.

Semilla - seed in Spanish - is a metaphor for the couple's neighborhood work and their new show at Taller Puertorriqueño, the arts organization that serves Kensington and North Philadelphia's Latino community.

In the show, called "Dignity Transforms," the metaphor plays out in two and three dimensions: Casañas paints portraits of her neighbors in thickly brushed earth tones, and Ospina - a sculptor with a master of fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art - riffs atop and beside the paintings with found objects and plants.

In front of Casañas' portrait of one longtime community gardener, Ospina places a garden fence over the canvas and frames it with plantings typical of those in his garden. The installation smells of soil, and viewers are transported to the Dauphin or Somerset Street gardens.

The work takes on an emotional aspect when one considers the challenges that tending a garden in a rough neighborhood can involve. Casañas said that a recent community-garden day ended abruptly when, less than a block away, a man was pistol whipped, then shot.

In the weeks that followed, the families returned and tended to their gardens. The tomatoes and peppers are just beginning to show.

 


 

The artists and neighbors talk about the Semilla garden at http://go.philly.com/semilla


Art at Taller Puertorriqueño

Taller's 2010-2011 season series, "Urbanization: Subculture, Inner City Mentalities and Hidden Treasures," focuses on Latino artists - all but one local - whose works relate to the urban setting.

"Dignity Transforms": Multimedia show by Pedro Ospina and Betsy Casañas, through July 24.

The annual student exhibition: Aug. 13 to Sept. 18.

"Faces/Facades: Mirror of a Community": Photographs by Luz Selenia Salas, Oct. 1 to Nov. 20.

"A Bold Mark of Existence": Chicago painter Christopher Tavares Silva, Dec. 1 to Feb. 26, 2011.

"What It Means to be Afro-Latino in Philadelphia: Stories from El Barrio": Education director Sandra Andino explores the experience with photos, Feb. 4 to April 30, 2011.

"Without Sanctuary: Images of the Forgotten": Painters Marilyn Rodriguez and Carlos Nunez wrap up the series, March 18 to May 7, 2011.

Taller's Lorenzo Homar Gallery is at 2721 N. Fifth St. Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Information: 215-426-3311 or www.tallerpr.org.


Contact staff writer Tom Stoelker at 215-854-2931 or tstoelker@phillynews.com.