Sometime in the early 2000s I wound my way up Philadelphia’s narrow, steep Green Lane through Manayunk and into Roxborough to attend a poetry reading at the then Manayunk Art Center. The reading, hosted by Peter Krok, the center’s Humanities Director for more than 25 years, was varied and stimulating. Krok has been editor/publisher of the Schuylkill Valley Journal (SVJ) for as long as I can remember. The biannual journal makes its home at the art center, which in June 2010 changed its name to the Manayunk-Roxborough Art Center (MRAC), acknowledging its Manayunk roots and Roxborough location.
Not long after that the art center hosted a one-day poetry workshop, led by the late Len Roberts. I’ve mentioned this workshop to poetry friends since and in response have heard many fond memories of Roberts, as a poet, teacher, and friend. His observations about one of my poems inspired a re-write that eventually garnered me my first Pushcart nomination. Some of the other poets at the workshop that afternoon were already friends or acquaintances: Krok, who had organized the event; Kelley White (then Poetry Editor of SVJ); Eileen D’Angelo (a multi-year President and board member of PWC, among her myriad gifts to the literary scene); Daniel Simpson and the late David Simpson, among others.
I became an art center member soon after, serendipitously. My wife, Patti Allis Mengers, served as President of the Philadelphia chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists for four years, during which the organization hired G. Loie Grossman to build them a new website. Grossmann mentioned that she was a charter member of an artists’ co-op that had just formed and was looking for new members, particularly ones with some writing skills. Patti noted that I’d been making visual art all my life and had a thirty-year backlog of artwork that had never been exhibited. Soon, I was a member and began showing my visual art at the Co-Op’s monthly exhibitions, gallery-sitting, and writing article-length press releases, many of which were published verbatim in local newspapers. A year later I had my very first solo exhibit, which was one of the Co-Op’s two most successful of 2006.
Interviewing fellow artists for press releases about their featured shows has been a great way to get to know them. I’ve conducted these interviews by phone and in the artists’ homes, but mostly at MRAC, where we’ve discussed the artists’ work while looking at examples of what they planned to exhibit. One of the artists I interviewed, Pamela Martin, became the Co-Op’s Exhibitions Director in 2011. An imaginative, innovative photographer, she quickly found herself immersed in planning and supervising the various aspects of mounting monthly exhibits. Like most of the art center’s all-volunteer membership, Martin had a “day job,” a career in social work. She has since retired and devotes herself to running Expressive Path, a non-profit that fosters youth participation in the arts, which she founded while still working.
MRAC’s current president, Ronald W. Howard, has involved himself in every aspect of the organization. Now retired, he was COO and then Acting CEO of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers International (OICI) for more than 30 years, a career that took him all over the world, his camera in tow. Mike Muir, a retiree who held a series of executive positions in finance, in the U.S. and Canada, has been MRAC’s Treasurer and Vice President and worn many hats while serving on the board. Muir started painting in 1999 but has been drawing since childhood. His oeuvre includes more than 1500 pen and ink drawings.
Howard and Muir have overseen a number of innovations at MRAC and the accompanying growing pains. With Krok’s cooperation, the board introduced a new type of membership for “writer/poets” and brought more than a dozen new members into the fold. Every year, an ekphrastic poetry program pairs writers with Co-Op artists, the former reading aloud the pieces they’ve written in response to members’ artworks. This is one way that the center brings members with disparate interests together.
Howard has revived MRAC’s art classes for adults and children with a program spearheaded by Curriculum Director Leah McDonald. Recent course offerings have included introductions to drawing and portraiture, painting with watercolors and acrylics, monotypes, Sumerian-inspired cylinder seals, collagraphs and “kitchen lithography.”
A few years back, as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Mengers directed a production of dramatic recitations from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, “staged” among the gravestones at Laurel Hill Cemetery. The cast ranged from three veteran actors to poets and visual artists with zero to little experience “on the boards.” The two performances were well attended and received, raising funds for both the un-endowed cemetery and for MRAC. Muir has since led MRAC’s performing arts series. Last year, with editing help from Krok, he blended historical and biographical material with original poetry by MRAC’s writer-poets to produce a dramatic reading about the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Again, with a cast of actors and non-actors, the show was performed both at MRAC and at the Montgomeryville Community Recreation Center. This year, a similar troupe will perform, Divine Dali, Magnificent Madness, about the great Surrealist, at the same two venues.
The art center has given me a wide range of opportunities. I’ve exhibited my artwork, read my poems, hosted poetry readings, written and edited essays about fellow artists for the SVJ online edition (see www.svjlit.com), attended multiple poetry workshops and led one myself, and performed in the dramatic readings. I’ve also met and befriended multi-talented people from varied socio-economic backgrounds: Philadelphians, suburbanites, and people from around the region, all involved in one or several aspects of the arts. For more about MRAC, see www.mrartcenter.org.