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Five Can’t-Miss Art Events for “Whitman at 200” This May/June

May 2, 2019

Did y’all know that May 31, 2019 is the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman?

Much more than a bridge over the Delaware river, Walt Whitman is of course a colossal figure in American literature and art. Recognized internationally as the first major exponent of free verse, he’s even been called America’s “poet of democracy.” His 200th birthday provides an important opportunity to reassess his contributions to American life at a time when our country is so polarized. And a number of incredible visual and performing artists will be doing just that over the next several months, working with Whitman at 200. As a Whitman at 200 partner, I wanted to share with you today five can’t-miss art events that’ll be taking place over the next serval weeks!

1) Bearded Ladies Cabaret’s “Contradict This! A Birthday Funeral for Heroes”

May 31 – June 2: The Bearded Ladies Cabaret, an experimental group led by John Jarboe, create an outdoor performance that explores both the human and heroic sides of Whitman featuring cake, coffin, gavel, choir, composers, and live musical trolling. On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the much lauded homo poet Walt Whitman’s birth, this group of Philly queers and misfits gathers overlooking the Whitman Bridge to put this ancestor and his legacy on trial. In 2013, the Beards staged Wide Awake, A Civil War Cabaret at the Kimmel Center, in which Whitman’s poetry was featured.
Tickets required (FREE-$40)!

2) Homer Jackson’s “New Songs of the Open Road”

May 18, June 8, June 22, July 6: Interdisciplinary artist Homer Jackson draws on the history of civil rights protests and freedom songs, as well as Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” and select Langston Hughes poems, to organize four walks in diverse neighborhoods around Philadelphia. These neighborhoods range from Strawberry Mansion in North Philadelphia and Germantown in the Northwest to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Whitman Plaza in South Philadelphia, the latter the site of ongoing racial tension and demonstrations related to a housing project proposed in the 1960s and finally built in 1982. The walks are accompanied by original musical compositions and led by a gospel choir.
More info (FREE)!

3) Spencer Finch’s “When You Look on the River and Sky”

May – September: Spencer Finch, a New York-based artist known for sculpture, installations, and drawings that capture fleeting natural phenomena and sensory experience, creates an interactive work on the RiverLink ferry that operates between Philadelphia and Camden. In Whitman’s day, a number of ferries connected the two cities, but today only one ferry runs, from May to September. Finch’s piece directly links Whitman’s journey in the late 19th century to today’s visitors’ experience of the river. Ferry-goers match the color of the sky and water by spinning two color wheels of Pantone swatches Finch selected after observing the ever-changing tones of the Delaware river and the sky above it. The ferry flies two color flags each day, one the color of the sky and one the color of the water. Finch has created a number of works inspired by writers including Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, and Whitman. Finch also created an installation for the High Line in New York titled The River that Flows Both Ways, inspired by the color and movement of the Hudson River.
Tickets required ($9 round-trip)!

4) Carolyn Healy and John JH Phillips’ “RiverRoad”

June 4, 5: Installation artists Carolyn Healy and John JH Phillips collaborate with performer James Osby Gwathney Jr. to create a multimedia work based on Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” The piece takes place on a large industrial barge on the Delaware River and features video, sculpture, lighting, and electronic sound in an environment in which Gwathney performs the entire text of Whitman’s poem. While a tugboat guides the barge from Penn’s Landing, where the audience boards, to a point downriver and back, the audience freely follows Gwathney as he recites the poem, traveling with him along the 130 feet of the barge deck through the structures of the set. The artists hope the experience of being afloat on an unusual vessel in the middle of the wide river under night clouds and stars creates both a sense of unease and exhilaration that resonates with the poem. Whitman frequently made the crossing from Camden to Philadelphia, especially to hear opera, one of his favorite art forms. The artists wish to create a unique tribute to Whitman that can be experienced both from the waterfront and by the audience on board the barge. Healy and Phillips have previously designed settings for sections of James Joyces’s Ulysses (at Symphony Space and LaMaMa in New York and the Cini Foundation, Venice) and Finnegan’s Wake.
More info!

5) “We Contain Multitudes: Celebrating Walt Whitman’s 200th Birthday with Poetry, Song, and Cake”

May 31: This community poetry reading, focusing on diversity, will mark the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman, America’s “poet of democracy.” At this lively celebration, Whitman’s poetry will be interspersed with music and guest appearances,* and conclude with the eating of his 200th birthday cake. Join us at the Philadelphia City Hall Courtyard between 11am and 2pm! Free and open to the public. Cake will be provided by The Fancy Crumb. Special guests include: Patti Smith, Jesse Paris Smith, and Mayor Jim Kenney, among others.
More info (FREE)!

Major support for Whitman at 200 artistic commissions has been provided to Penn Libraries by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Learn more about Whitman at 200 and the many, many more events happening this spring and summer for the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman here.

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