Skip to content

Philly Art History: Celebrating 10 Years of Art At Elixr Coffee with New “Heart On Your Sleeve” Poetry Project

February 7, 2023

Words/interview and photos by Conrad Benner

This post originally premiered on Streets Dept Patreon. Subscribe to our Patreon to support the work we do with Streets Dept and to receive early access to certain content as well as a number of other benefits!

Today we’re excited to offer y’all an interview with Ryan Strand Greenberg, Molly Gross, and Jonai Gibson-Selix

2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the public art program at Elixr Coffee. Originally created/curated by then barista, Ryan Strand Greenberg, the program saw some of Philly’s most sought-after artists create incredible murals both inside and outside of the coffee shop’s Center City location at 207 S. Sydenham Street. 

Over those years, Streets Dept was invited to meet with and document many of the participating muralists. And as the effort moves into its second decade, Ryan has teamed up with poet and cultural producer, Molly Gross and visual designer and art director, Jonai Gibson-Selix to bring to life a six-month-long celebration of local poets! 

Titled, Heart On Your Sleeve, this Elixr-led poetry and public art initiative is focused on care and renewal for Philadelphians. From November 2022 to April 2023, a new poetry sleeve will be available with the purchase of a beverage at Elixr Coffee’s four area-locations. The poems at the centerpiece of the six sleeve series are by Philly-based poets Sojourner Ahebee, Dilruba Ahmed, Husnaa Haajarah Hashim, Sham-e-Ali Nayeem, Ursula Rucker, and Eleanor Wilner.

To learn more about this project and the larger scope of Elixr’s 10 years and supporting local art, we talk with Ryan Strand Greenberg, Molly Gross, and Jonai Gibson-Selix: 

(Ryan and artist Miriam Singer painting at Elixr in 2016)

Conrad: How does it feel to hit this monumental 10 year anniversary?

Ryan: I cannot believe Elixr’s Art Program is in its 10th year! It has been a privilege to be able to work with so many talented artists and artisans on over 50 commissioned public art works at Elixr. It’s been incredibly rewarding to work with artists at all stages of their careers who want to shift their work into public space or experiment with new ways of working!

(Ryan with April Nett and Vince Johnson; photo by Brandon Suters)

Conrad: How did this art program at Elixr begin?

Ryan: The program began as an idea among my dear friends April Nett and Vince Johnson, who are both part of the Elixr family. “Wouldn’t it be so amazing to commission murals or artworks by Philly artists on this big wall, I asked”. April and Vince are super inspiring humans, who do not let good ideas go to waste. They both pushed me to pursue this project, and thankfully the owners of Elixr Coffee are incredible and generous people who love supporting the creative community in Philly. Ultimately it started as one mural and evolved over-time with the enthusiasm of the community, we just kept it going!

(Artist NoseGo (Yis Goodwin) painting at Elixr in 2013; Artist Jason Andrew Turner painting at Elixr in 2014; Artist Amze Emmons painting at Elixr in 2015)

Conrad: Who are some of the artists you’ve worked with for art at Elixr over the years? Any moments or artworks stand out?

Ryan: Oh my goodness. Very hard to single out any one project. Well…there is nothing like your first project. Ours was working with NoseGo (Yis Goodwin) on a commission for what is now affectionately referred to as “Elixr’s mural wall.” My younger and less experienced self had aspirations of extending the program to do murals outside the building so that we had artwork both inside and out but didn’t quite now how to make that happen! During one late night of painting, Yis got very excited by the prospect of doing both an indoor and outdoor mural for the opening of the program, and we went to the property owner the next day to ask for permission. At the time, small businesses in Philly weren’t working commissioning artists this way, and the project took flight! Until the pandemic, we’d rotate these walls, commissioning 5-6 new works each year by different artists.

Conrad: How did this idea of Heart On Your Sleeve come about?

Ryan: Exactly a year ago, in January 2022, I was introduced to Molly via a mutual connection at the Print Center. I learned about her history of placing poetry in public spaces in New York City and Miami and shared a poetry project I recently completed called Kensington Healing Verse. We discussed Elixr’s art program celebrating its 10th year and Molly was excited about the prospect of taking over Elixr’s coffee sleeves with poetry by Philadelphian poets. Since the program has continually supported visual artists, I suggested we pair artists and poets to deliver something resonant to the Philadelphia community focused on care and renewal. We decided that Heart on Your Sleeve should run over the winter–a time of dormancy, reflection, and making way for new growth for most people!

(Artwork by Destiny Palmer for Heart On Your Sleeve)

Conrad: Can you talk about how you got involved in Heart On Your Sleeve?

Molly: As a poet, artist, and board member of the historic incubator for poetry, The Poetry Project (NYC), I was already active in arts communities. Happily I met Ryan soon after moving to Philadelphia. As Ryan writes, our project evolved out of my activations bringing poetry to public spaces. He and I have similar values around how people can access art and poetry, so this idea worked well within his curation framework at Elixr.

Heart on Your Sleeve allowed me to jump right into one of my happy places – working in collaboration! As we mapped out the project, we pulled in the wonderful designer Jonai Gibson-Selix to oversee the look of all Heart on Your Sleeve’s materials, along with Hester Stinnett, a Professor of Printmaking at the Tyler School of Art, who generously offered one of her prints for Jonai to repurpose. We also commissioned the incredible artist Destiny Palmer to respond to the poems in a new textile artwork on view at Elixr’s downtown location.

At a Bok Building open house early last year, I learned about the outstanding Philadelphia Printworks (PPW) and their powerful line of t-shirts that often center racial justice. Along with Maryam Pugh, the owner, Ryan, Jonai, and I developed the idea of a long sleeve t-shirt to celebrate the poets. The shirt will be available on PPW’s website, Elixr Center City (S. Sydenham), and The Print Center starting on January 13th.

Conrad: How did y’all curate the poets? What were their responses to this idea?

Ryan and Molly: We wanted to invite poets who have deep history both in the poetry community and in Philadelphia. As each poet came on board, we asked them to invite another poet into the project, so they were all involved in the evolution of this amazing group that includes: Sojourner Ahebee, Dilruba Ahmed, Husnaa Haajarah Hashim, Sham-e-Ali Nayeem, Ursula Rucker, and Eleanor Wilner. This was a small way of supporting networks of writers who honor lineages, histories, and legacies.

The poets were game to bring their work literally into the hands of the public, understanding that poems on coffee sleeves can be an entry point into the world of poetry. There is also a QR code on the sleeves for people to learn more about each poet on Elixr’s website.

Conrad: What role does the Poetry Project (NYC) play the project?

Molly: The Poetry Project helped us both to pay the poets — an essential part of this project! — and to help promote the Heart on Your Sleeve, both to their audiences and to the literary community here in Philadelphia. Their spirit of generosity has been incredible throughout the project.

Conrad: Can you talk about your approach to the branding and visual design you created to bring this project to life?

Jonai: When reimagining poetry for the public space, it was important to maintain some of poetry’s traditional presentation along with it: selected typefaces were a nod to literary manuscripts, the deconstruction and collaging of Hester Stinnett’s print to create graphic elements for the project reflect the hand-crafted process of inscribing a poem, and the movement of these elements echo the rhythm of poetry. Hester’s print was truly the crux of creating both the visual poetry series and Heart on Your Sleeve’s brand identity in a way that they would remain connected whether they are coexisting on coffee sleeves or living independently on windows and t-shirts and social media.

Conrad: Why is it a good thing to bring poetry into our everyday lives?

Ryan and Molly: Poetry often is placed, metaphorically and literally, on a high shelf. As an art form it has many barriers to entry, including that it can feel intimidating to walk into a poetry reading, as if one might need a special literary card to feel welcome. Placing poems into the flow of our everyday lives allows for the poems and poets to meet people where they are at. Hopefully this encounter brings delight and incites curiosity to learn more about the poets, who are in our midsts!

Conrad: I hear there’s a special workshop in the works with one of your poets. Tell us more!

Ryan and Molly: Yes! We are thrilled to work with our February poet Ursula Rucker on a special Valentine’s day Poetry workshop to take place at The Print Center on Saturday, February 11, 3-5pm! More details avaiable here.

Conrad: What do you love about this project?

Molly: I love love love working with the poets, artists, and Ryan. What an amazing collaborative spirit! A project is the energy of the people who are behind it and I feel proud of what we have been able to create together.

Ryan: I agree! I love working together with the amazing artists in Philadelphia to bring beauty and meaning into the daily life of the community at large.

Jonai: I love the multitude of ways Heart on Your Sleeve activates the public space with such subtlety, and I hope that it can be a creative contribution to the ongoing conversation about what public art can be.

(Mural on the exterior of Elixr by artist Lydia Nichols in 2014)

Conrad: What’s next for art at Elixr? How will this project influence the future of the program?

Ryan: This project has been immensely inspiring in so many ways. The program started by initially commissioning murals from painters and illustrators at the Elixr’s Center City cafe. We have since showcased recycled materials, installation, textile, and sculpture. Bringing poetry to the program is an exciting new venture that has inspired me to think more broadly about different creative directions for the program in the future!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: