Feb 9, 2018

Seeing Tacony with Rebekah Flake

by: Laura Kochman

As artists Rebekah Flake and Michael Kiley wrap up their residencies at Mural Arts’ Tacony LAB Community Arts Center, we asked them both about their experience of working with the Tacony community. The LAB is a center for learning and activity, and both artists used it as home base for projects in a variety of art forms. Here, photographer Rebekah Flake talks about getting to know the neighborhood, and what it’s like to slow down and take stock.

Read our interview with Michael Kiley here, and check out the opening of Legendary Tacony, Rebekah’s project, this Saturday.

Can you talk a little bit about how you came to Philadelphia and this residency? 

I came to Philadelphia as an undergrad—I did a lot of detours in my studies and experiences. I lived in Berlin for a while and traveled a lot, and when I came back to Philadelphia, I started to see it as a site of slow transformation, really a slice of life in terms of the United States, so it’s very important to me that I’m situated here. To me, it’s the heart of the country, as opposed to New York as a financial capital or DC as a political capital. What I liked about this experience in Tacony was that it’s a neighborhood, not a city. It’s a lot smaller, and within it there are a lot of things happening simultaneously that even the people within it are trying to reconcile. In my practice, I’ve used digital media and painting and mixed media—video, photography, and other lens-based media, large prints—all kinds of stuff. I got into art through drawing and painting. I never want to give a body of work that’s a conclusion.

Composite photo by Rebekah Flake, part of the Legendary Tacony exhibition at the Tacony LAB Community Arts Center.

How has your residency project evolved? 

You can always propose different ideas, but ultimately the way I work is I spend a lot of time listening and watching. I started out walking the neighborhood, leading a photo walk one day, photographing the Fall Fest, just trying to be an observer for a long time. Then what I had expected to do was an animated projection—an outdoor light-based mural—but I had to reorient after a car accident. What I’m doing now is taking the material that I gathered through my own photography and at the Historical Society of Tacony, weaving together some large-scale prints that are montages of these different situations to show the coexistence of different perspectives on a theme.

I never want to give a body of work that's a conclusion.


What has surprised you about Tacony?  

The specificity of the history, and the roots that it has in just a couple of individuals—over a hundred years ago, Henry Disston deciding that he wanted to set up a community in a very intentional way. You see the fruits of that still and you see a pride in that still, and that history is something that makes Tacony an incredibly strong neighborhood but also, in some ways, slow to change. It remains to be seen how population shifts, economic shifts, development, retraction, and all those things are really going to make a long term impact, and no one knows what’s going to happen. You can see it playing out there, just this cross-section of issues and pride at the same time.

It’s smaller than a neighborhood like Germantown, but it’s had so many twists and turns—Tacony was built from the ground up as an extension with a really particular purpose, with this factory and this housing for the residents—so who was working there and what they were doing, just how designed it was—it wasn’t as organic as other parts of the city, and that’s fascinating. For better or worse, we are a product of history. This place has a memory, and even the way the streets are gridded and the ways laws and houses are built still affects our social interactions today.

Composite photo by Rebekah Flake, part of the Legendary Tacony exhibition at the Tacony LAB Community Arts Center.

It's really interesting that Tacony was so driven by a few particular individuals and their ideas. Was Henry Disston the original artist-in-residence in Tacony? 

Yeah, it’s a vision he had. There’s an idealism and a practice. Like what we’re doing now, there’s vision and there’s experimentation, and there’s the work in the follow-through, and hopefully that’s always the goal as an artist. Obviously a lot of projects have false starts, even in what my work has been in Tacony—the output is not what I envisioned, but that’s where you dig in and say, “No, we’re going to make something and we’re going to mark this experience.” You can’t be in a factory neighborhood and not honor work and labor and finishing and producing.

It’s about taking stock and using visual and artistic tools, seeing the artist as a sponge and a mirror at the same time. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future I circle back to Tacony. There are a lot of artists who are working very much in the moment, and what I’m trying to look at is how long is a moment? Are we still in the moment, for example, of the Civil War? I kind of believe that we are. My work in Tacony really slowed down, and while it impeded some of the ideas that I had, it really has grounded me. I’m now looking at the city in a different way.


The Tacony LAB Community Arts Center is a partnership between the Office of Councilman Bobby Henon and Mural Arts Philadelphia, with additional support from the Tacony CDC.

Last updated: Feb 14, 2018

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