The animals have died, but artwork honors them
They are in the wind and in the faces of the rivers. On the rooftops and in tree nooks, in the green of the squares, on the lips of the fountains, on the library steps, on the rim of William Penn's hat. They were here before the city was, before the Lenni Lenapes, even, and they (the peregrines and hawks, the finches, pigeons, chickadees) are, today, our urban warriors - on guard, in transit, adaptive, dialing up the volume on their songs. They fly according to no grid. They sing when they want to.
In her early 20s, Beth Beverly - a young jewelry-maker - found herself obsessed with the beauty and plight of Philadelphia's birds. She was dressing windows for Daffy's at the time. She would hear the tragic thump of a bird against a window, and it would, she says, "crush" her. "There was this beautiful creature," she explains, "suddenly still on the sidewalk, beneath the feet of crowds, being pushed toward a gutter." They were birds in need of some kind of rescue, and she made herself responsible.
Their feathers intrigued her - plumes and down and bristles. The shape of their claws. Their bony beaks. This jewelry-maker who had, even as a little girl, glued yarn to barrettes and pierced shells to make earrings began to use the parts of the birds she'd found as "adornments." Flight feathers in a hat. Claws in a necklace. Bones in dream catchers. The tip of a tail feather in a necklace. She discovered an old text on taxidermy in a used-book store and taught herself the rudiments of the trade. She learned about life by studying death, and when she could not teach herself more, she headed off to the hills and spent three months gaining knowledge, and a certificate, from the Pocono Institute of Taxidermy.
Reality-TV producers and documentary filmmakers - AMC's Immortalized and American Hipster - noticed this impossibly gorgeous woman with the perfect profile who made things out of fur and feathers (and, increasingly, preserved pets); they featured her prominently. Clients arrived, and multiplied. A private passion became a life's endeavor. Beverly's hats and fascinators, hair sticks, brooches, and earrings acquired a following.
Today Beverly is one of the two dozen or so artists at work in the Martha Street Hatchatory - a late-19th-century brick building once famous for the manufacture of soap. Located in East Kensington, the Hatchatory is integral to the artist revolution that has swept through this corridor over the last several years - a proud building with wood-planked floors, a funky working elevator, and surprising views.
Beverly herself looks out toward the Delaware and backyard gardens, toward the trees that rustle every time the El whooshes, toward a faraway building with intricate spires that she has claimed as her personal castle. She works surrounded by the things she's made, the birds she's known, the animals that have come to her through (she again emphasizes) ethical means - natural and accidental deaths, creatures grown by farmers as food.
Down the hall is a recording studio. Nearby, a professional makeup artist. And, outside, Frankford Avenue runs at its renegade angle, breaking the stalwart Philadelphia grid to make room for those working on the fringe. Unnecessary rules don't break the artist spirit on the Frankford Avenue Arts Corridor, says Beverly. The New Kensington Community Development Corp., the early promoters of the corridor, remains committed to the artists - making room for First Friday arts gatherings and local galleries and workshops. People who need space and time and affordable rent are, in other words, welcome here, as are the many lovers of art who will set out this weekend for the East Kensington leg of the Philadelphia Open Studio Tours, one of the largest celebrations of artists and art studios in the region (www.philaopenstudios.org).
Beverly's work, she'd be the first to agree, is hardly ordinary, especially in an era in which Americans are often uncomfortable contemplating death, witnessing it, wondering about the aftermath. We eat our food, but do we always consider its origins? We hear a bird thump against window glass and we hope, sometimes against hope, that it will simply fly away.
But Beverly sees, within the stilled furred and feathered things, a "radiating positivity." She sees a place for sparkle. She sees, most of all, the miracle that life is and the majesty of nature. She points to a pheasant that sits stuffed in a box by my elbow and begins to name its countless colors. She tells me the goat that wears the pinkish crown is her friend Harriet, who died in childbirth. She says the bear whose glittering paw holds her business cards was a gift from another taxidermist. She says that some don't understand her twinned fascination with beauty and morbidity, but she can't imagine doing any other thing. In a beautifully restored brick building, in a part of town that welcomes artists, she is among the things she loves.
A perfect artist's life is a just-enough life, Beverly says - a Goldilocks life. Enough recognition to be respected by those she meets. Enough money to live comfortably with her artist/musician husband. Enough clients to keep doing the work that she loves. Maybe, someday, she'll have a handful of high-end clients - a Lady Gaga - whose investment in her work will allow her to create some of the fantasies she has in mind. Maybe there will be more who turn to her for the 40 or so pieces she builds each year.
For now, Beverly has a possum tail to weave into a silver chain. She has the breeze. She has her views. She has feathers on her desk, fractions of wings.
Beth Kephart is the author of "Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir." She blogs at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com.