Ellen Tiberino, of art-family royalty, fighting to keep a legacy alive in gentrifying Powelton Village

The Powelton Village house that Ellen Tiberino grew up in was a revolving door of interesting characters filled with music and art. Her parents were the painters Joseph Tiberino and Ellen Powell Tiberino, dubbed the Frida and Diego of Philadelphia and the Wyeths of West Philadelphia.

Today, that red brick rowhouse at 38th and Hamilton Streets is the Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum, dedicated to her family’s work and that of neighborhood artists, some of whom are struggling to stick around.

“With gentrification coming along, the cultural identity is being erased from the community,” said Tiberino, whose medium is mosaics. “There are so many things that aren’t here anymore — a  lot of businesses have shut down just in the last year. For my brother and me, running the museum, it’s scary. We have a legacy to keep alive here.”

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Tiberino is the local artist-in-residence for the Neighborhood Time Exchange, a collaboration between the People’s Emergency Center and  Mural Arts Philadelphia. The idea behind the project is to give local artists free studio space in exchange for tailoring their creative work to what the community wants.

For six months, Tiberino has held intergenerational mosaic classes for children and seniors living around the 40th Street corridor. A 5- by 3-foot mosaic, unveiled Friday, will be installed at PEC’s Families First building at 3939 Warren St.

When Mural Arts started its work in the 1980s and 1990s, it aimed to reclaim blighted spaces, said Jane Golden, the program’s founder. Now, as neighborhoods such as West Philadelphia develop, the artworks often protest, question, or celebrate those changes.

Camera icon Photo courtesy of Derrick Woodyard
A screenshot of Ellen Powell Tiberino being interviewed.

“As the city has evolved, a lot of our work is still about reclaiming spaces and asking that question, ‘Whose city is it?'” Golden said. “Our desire is to tap into the resilience and grit of a community, and help people wrestle with that in a way that their voices are heard.”

The Neighborhood Time Exchange is one of several projects in recent years that focus on longer-term connections between artists and communities.

As part of the collaborative, Tiberino got access to studio space owned by PEC at 40th and Lancaster Avenue (an upgrade from her kitchen table). In the fall, portrait artist Michele Pierson will take over to paint large-scale oil portraits of community members and record narratives about their relationship with the neighborhood.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Ellen Tiberino in the West Philadelphia studio space she is using as part of the Neighborhood Time Exchange program.

“The general feeling in the community is that things are improving, but not for [longtime] residents,” said James Wright, who heads PEC’s community development arm. “When you bring art to the community like this, it shows improvement can happen with your interests in mind.  It doesn’t always have to be for them.”

Artists often usher in the first wave of gentrification, eventually struggling to stay there as the cost to rent studio spaces rises. Wright said PEC saw that happening to artists in West Philly around 2006 and got involved.

“We were hearing about artists being pushed out by growth of the Penn community, especially along the 40th Street corridor, so the idea was to find out who these artists are, survey them, find out how we can provide housing or programming to keep them here,” Wright said.

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Since then, PEC has built 20 apartments specifically for artists at 40th and Haverford Avenue. Tiberino is one of their tenants. The organization has added 235 affordable apartments to the neighborhood.

In 2015, PEC teamed up with Mural Arts for the first iteration of the Neighborhood Exchange. Artists from around the world came to West Philadelphia to create art in response to the community’s needs. They renovated an autistic support classroom at a nearby school, cleaned and planted in a vacant lot, and painted over the plywood that the Department of Licenses and Inspections uses to board up abandoned homes.

Tiberino said she’s glad that this version of the Time Exchange is focusing on artists living in the neighborhood.

“There are great artists here in Philly that need support and that want to work with their own communities,” Tiberino said. “I get a little enraged when they pay thousands of dollars to ship artists in from other places when there’s artists here that need to eat.”