Elizabeth Essner on Curating "Graffiti & Ornament"

Artists help us to understand our changing world, so to bring their contemporary dialogues into a space steeped in history allows for new present-tense conversations to emerge. 
Curator Elizabeth Essner with the artists of  Graffiti & Ornament , Roberto Lugo (left) and Leo Tecosky (right).

Curator Elizabeth Essner with the artists of Graffiti & Ornament, Roberto Lugo (left) and Leo Tecosky (right).

Did the 19th century inscription carved into the south porch of the mansion influence the curation of this show?

Absolutely. This was actually the starting point for Graffiti & Ornament. Although it’s only perhaps 5 inches tall, this little carved inscription on the south portico is essentially 19th century graffiti.
 
The carved letters are hard to eek out but we believe it says J. Haslet, Nov 1876. It was discovered during a restoration of the structure in 2016. There was a time when this would have been cleaned up, painted over and erased. But instead it was preserved. This piece of ‘graffiti’ has so much to say about the life of this house, the life of this person, for whom no other information has yet been found. It also speaks to the perpetual impulse for mark making and leaving one’s mark.
 
This historical graffiti is especially resonant in the context of the Woodland's cemetery grounds where the house is surrounded by carved names and dates of people whose lives are remembered. It is a tangible reminder that history is made up of individual lives. Some are made visible, carved into stone, so to speak, and then there are others whose names and whose histories deserve more light shined on them. For me, this little piece of historical graffiti bridged questions around whose history we tell, and whose history we preserve. 

It also just so happens that graffiti is central to Philadelphia history. In the mid-1960s, a Philadelphian, Darryl McCray, who went by the name "Cornbread,” was the originator of what we have come to think of as modern graffiti today.

19th century inscription carved into the woodwork of the Woodlands mansion’s south porch.

19th century inscription carved into the woodwork of the Woodlands mansion’s south porch.

Why does showing contemporary art in a historic house matter?

The past, while fixed, isn’t static. It’s constantly being re-interpreted in the context of the present -- our understanding of the past shifts as culture shifts. Artists help us to understand our changing world, so to bring their contemporary dialogues into a space steeped in history allows for new present-tense conversations to emerge. 

Elizabeth Essner speaking at the opening reception for  Graffiti & Ornament .

Elizabeth Essner speaking at the opening reception for Graffiti & Ornament.

What was your selection process in choosing these artists?

When I saw the 19th century historical graffiti on the south portico of the Hamilton Mansion, I knew I wanted to work with Roberto Lugo and Leo Tecosky. Lugo works in ceramics and Tecosky works in glass, and both of them, in very different ways, reposition history. They each combine traditional decorative arts with graffiti and hip hop culture, thinking through how they intersect and how they diverge.  Thanks to the generosity of the Knight Foundation, we were able to commission new work from each of these artists that responds directly to the history of The Woodlands.  

Curator Elizabeth Essner with the artists of  Graffiti & Ornament , Roberto Lugo (left) and Leo Tecosky (right).

Curator Elizabeth Essner with the artists of Graffiti & Ornament, Roberto Lugo (left) and Leo Tecosky (right).

Was there a reason you wanted to exhibit three-dimensional art in this particular space?

I’ve often said that Graffiti & Ornament is a three-way conversation between these artists and The Woodlands. Because Lugo and Tecosky have both made work in response to the layered history of The Woodlands as an 18th century mansion and a 19th century rural cemetery, there is a remarkable visual conversation at work. 

Interview by Zoë Browne. Photographs by Ryan Collerd.