Atlantic City celebrates '48 Blocks' of joyful arts

Belinda Manning leads her fellow ‘Poets on a Jitney’ on a rolling tour of Atlantic City’s 48 Blocks arts festival, where the bards stopped at street corners for spontaneous poetry slams. (TOM BRIGLIA)

When poet Belinda Manning heard about Atlantic City’s 48 Blocks — a citywide celebration of mural arts to martial arts, yarn bombing to jazz riffing — she organized Poets On A Jitney, a rolling ensemble of bards on the minibus that has been the Shore town’s iconic transportation for 100 years.

Sprawled over the city’s 48 blocks, Saturday’s daylong festival, a joint project by the Atlantic City Arts Foundation and Stockton University, was a joyful revelation of the town’s unpublicized but vital cultural DNA, Manning said.

“There’s an old Cherokee parable that a grandfather tells his grandson about the two wolves that live inside us, and the struggle that exists between them in every man,” Manning said. “One wolf is the part of us that promotes greed and destruction. The other wolf promotes peace, harmony, love, communal living.

“The grandson asks, ‘If it’s a war, which wolf wins?’ The grandfather answers, ‘The one we feed.’ ”

Manning said the festival’s 90 artists on 48 blocks show which wolf Atlantic City is feeding. “We are feeding the things that promote the best of who we are,” she said. “And those are the things that keep us alive.”

In the parking lot next to Dante Hall Theater, the relationship between art and staying alive was dramatically demonstrated by the formerly impoverished and homeless women of MudGirls Studio, where director Dorrie Papademetriou teaches them to make graceful, useful clay plates and bowls.

Working with Adelaide’s Place, a drop-in day center for homeless women in Atlantic City, Papademetriou said she sees art literally transforming lives.

“These women have never worked with clay before,” she said, “so there are revelations of, ‘Wow! I can do this!’ Their awakening along the way is kind of neat to see.”

Because MudGirls Studio is a collective, a bowl can be worked on by four people, she said. “We make the forms together … and the hand-painted work is mine,” she said.

“The great thing is that people can earn some money, buy food, buy shoes,” Papademetriou said. “This is not just an activity but a social enterprise which puts people to work. That’s needed so desperately in Atlantic City.”

Donna, who did not want to use her last name, has been a MudGirl for a year. She said, “I was a hobo for years in Atlantic City and Philadelphia. The streets are dangerous. You walk all night. You don’t sleep at all.”

She said MudGirls gave her a purpose and a home. Working with clay, she said, “takes me away from a lot of stuff. It’s peaceful for my mind. It shows I can do things other than worry.”

For the 48 Blocks celebration, the women spent the afternoon making 150 ceramic flowers and a totem pole with passersby who wanted to be honorary MudGirls for the day.

On Tennessee Avenue, one drugs-decimated block from the Boardwalk, Heather Deegan Hires painted a dazzling mural in pastel pinks, yellows, greens, and blues on a formerly forlorn wall of Wandy’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, then painted the bodies of friends in matching colors.

The mural features a bearded sea god and an otherworldly woman whose flowing blue hair frames the entire wall. William Hancock, who lives up the street, stopped by, as he often does, to tell Hires he can see the mural from his apartment window and it fills him with wonder.

“You got your beautiful woman,” Hancock said. “You got your waves coming in and blending with her hair. She amazes me sometimes. I like spiritual stuff and this is definitely spiritual. All you have to do is use your imagination and it will take you there.”

Hires said she loves it when people like Hancock connect with her work. She was also excited when Evan Sanchez, a partner in the Tennessee Avenue Transformation Project that will make over the entire block, assured her that although the vacant lot where she was painting would one day be a beer garden, her wall and her mural will be preserved.

At Little Water Distillery, which makes small-batch whiskey and rum, Gianni Nistico, a solar pyrography artist, sat in the sun wearing welder’s goggles and a “Respect Atlantic City” cap, bent over a 25-gallon white oak barrel, signing his name to the solar-etched distillery logo by filtering sunlight through a magnifying glass. The barrel is destined to hold the distillery’s first bourbon.

“When I first started solar-etching five years ago,” he said, “I had shaky hands and I kept dropping the lens.” Now, his hands are surgically steady.

Co-owner Mark Ganter said that by sheer coincidence, his distillery introduced its “48 Blocks” vodka, sold only in Atlantic City, just in time for the 48 Blocks arts festival.

“Vodka was something we never intended to do,” he said, smiling. “But we found ourselves making whiskey and rum smack dab in the middle of a vodka town. So we switched gears and launched 48 Blocks Vodka, and for every bottle sold, we donate 50 cents to the Atlantic City Arts Foundation.”