Artist uses N. Philly's detritus to conjure troubled past
A HALF-EATEN order of takeout sits on the corner of Broad and Lehigh, abandoned and anchored on the sidewalk by the rice and beans spilling out from the crushed Styrofoam container.
Lighter pieces of trash - honeybun wrappers, a purple tube that held a flavored blunt and some torn newspaper pages - are blowing through the intersection, past a dozen men sitting in the shade at the end of a long car wash. They talk in thick African accents with cigarettes between their fingers and towels draped over their shoulders.
But one man in paint-splattered jeans is off to the side, staring into abstract images glistening on a large canvas taped to a cinderblock wall, and imagining a use for the detritus around him.
The man taps ash from his little cigar, and since no wet, sparkling cars are emerging from the car wash, he dips a brush into a can of glossy black furniture paint and leans toward his art.
"It's slow, man. First day of football," the painter, Adam Alli, says of the car wash on this Sunday afternoon. "But that means I can work, you know. I've done most of my work here. The car wash is like my studio."
Born in Uganda but proudly Sudanese, Alli, 58, says he lives in West Philly, although lately he's been spending nights beside the car wash, sleeping on leather seats inside a white Cadillac Brougham with a flat front tire.
His nights used to be worse, thousands of them filled with uncertainty for Alli, who bounced to just about every country above the equator in Africa. He's fallen asleep as a soldier in the fields, listening to insects and the far-off sounds of gunfire and stretched out in the dirt and squalor in the Buduburam refugee camp in Accra, Ghana.
Alli came to the United States in 1994, his siblings and children staying behind, and he found work in construction and landscaping in Dallas, Charlotte, N.C., and Louisville, Ky., where he spent years in prison for an "illegal transaction" with a 16-year-old girl he insists did not happen.
Often, Alli was drunk and his nights would end up wherever the last swig left him.
"I have a long story. I guess I don't like to talk to you about it because it takes my mind back," he says, sitting on an overturned trash can beside the car wash. "You have to accept the mistakes and go forward. Life is beautiful if you care for it to be, but life can be ugly, too, if you play it that way."
There is a tear in Alli's eye after he says this, but he dabs at it with his finger before it can run down his face. He collects himself, then reaches for a thick roll of canvas and unfurls his paintings across the Caddy's trunk. Alli's chosen to make his life beautiful through art, he says, and he soaks up all the scenery in Philadelphia, the conversations at the car wash, and the litter along the curbs, mixing it all together into something unexpected.
Sometimes his canvas is a tennis racket or a cooking pan or a large, rubber roofing shingle - whatever catches his eyes along the sidewalk or a thrift store - and he crafts frames from rope and plywood. He textures his work with sawdust, toilet paper and empty bags of potato chips, things he picked up as a boy and a prisoner.
"I have my sponge, my plastic spoon, this piece of knife, whatever is necessary, whatever's around. I've always had to improvise," he says. "The garbage was my art store as a boy."
On this Sunday, his brushes sit in a soda cup from the nearby gas station, and he's dabbing black lines of paint on the canvas with a promotional postcard for a Philly church event. The canvas, he says, was a gift from the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, who've taken notice of Alli and included pieces of his work in a large project just a block away from the car wash.
"He's a really special guy and he has a really wonderful outlook on things," says James Burns, a staff artist for Mural Arts. "All he wants to do is create."
An art curator from Kentucky, Craig Bunting, discovered Alli's work in prisons and included it in an exhibit called "Behind the Walls: Art in Confinement" in 2003. The exhibit was criticized by victims' rights groups and Bunting said he never asked Alli why he was in prison. Later, when Alli was released from prison, Bunting helped secure an art exhibit at Spalding University in Kentucky, called "Adam Alli: Road to Exile," where Bunting said Alli made a few thousand dollars.
"He's dealt with some heavy stuff, a heavy life, and he deserves success. He deserves attention," Bunting said. "I'm so proud of him I could sing."
Alli came to Philadelphia in 2009 as an alcoholic and a registered sex offender. He stumbled into a sober- recovery meeting by accident about three years ago, lured by a free Thanksgiving meal, and spent 74 days at rehabilitation center. He's sober today, far from well-off by most standards, but he's proud of what he can do with some wax and a terrycloth towel, polishing away the dust and grime for tips at Broad and Lehigh.
Sometimes people just hop in their car and drive way, not even thanking him, but he doesn't mind.
"I treat everyone the same," he says.
And when it's slow there, when football games trump dirty cars, Alli takes the scraps people have tossed and left behind, the images he's collected in his mind, and dips his paintbrush into whatever color someone's given him.
"Being in a war zone, refugee camp, prison, man, it can give you motivation. You have to revise it and put in the beauty. You can find the beauty anywhere, it's your mind. It's how you focus and how you work," he says. "If you love what you're doing, and you can function, it can be a beautiful thing."
On Twitter: @JasonNark