Go Deeper

New Arts Outpost in Kensington: The Papermill Community for the Arts

Posted July 22nd, 2010

Building a new arts space anywhere is a gamble, but building one on a residential elbow street in Kensington is, in the words of the new Papermill Community for the Arts’ resident artist John Rosenberg, “sink or swim.” For the 2010 Philly Fringe John is putting up Cheap Guy HOF, Class of 2010, a collection of six short plays about cheap guys at the Papermill Theater. The play will be both the native Californian’s Philly debut and Papermill’s inaugural theater performance.

The historic but newly re-imagined space was once a paper mill (hence the name) at 2825 Ormes Street, three blocks from the Somerset El stop. The gigantic brick façade rises from a block of classic dilapidated Philly row houses and sidewalks with large weeds growing out of the cracks.

“I want an energy here, a variety of mediums,” say Karyn Vetter, one of the building’s owners who works in real estate. Her and partner Yoel Wulfhart’s plan for the building is to create a “Studioville” where all kinds of artists can have a space to work in for whatever they can afford. At this stage the top three floors of the five-story building, which in the interim between paper mill and arts space was used as a gigantic illegal nightclub, are mostly empty and the bottom floor is divided between gallery and theater space. ‘s Papier-mâché sculptures filled the gallery when we visited, and ‘s photography exhibition is next. Over the new wall that divides the bottom floor, John is working with contractors to build risers for the swanky dark wood and leather chairs left over from the building’s nightclub days, install air conditioning, and light the space for his show.

“We could spend thousand of dollars on lighting, but we’ve decided to light it to celebrate the fact that it’s a warehouse,” he says. The high ceilings, exposed brick walls, and heavy sliding wooden doors are flexible enough to be made intimate with dividers for Cheap Guy HOF, or left open so that “if people want to put on a fucking opera, they can,” says John. He’s dipping into his retirement fund to help renovate the warehouse for his own work and for the future work of other writers and directors. “Space is a huge cost of putting up a work . . . it’s exciting and terrifying to have my own space.”

Click more to explore the Papermill Community for the Arts’ other four floors.

Upstairs on the second story, walls are being built to divide studio spaces, and Karyn says that artists also have the option of simply chalking off the area they want. The sheer size of the open room—each floor is about 6400 square feet—begs to be filled with the bustle of projects and rehearsals. What walls already have been built don’t reach the top of the 18-foot ceilings, and as a breeze blows in through the cracked and missing panes of the floor-to-ceiling windows (they’re being replaced with new ones), it’s easy to imagine the empty space filled with the cacophony of sound of many artists at work. A brick sculptor and glass blower are already lined up, but are waiting for the freight elevator to be installed before they move in.

Karyn’s “office”— arguably the coolest office I’ve ever seen— is really two desks sitting smack in the middle of a vast expanse—the otherwise empty third floor&mdashnext to a stained-glass window suspended from the ceiling.

“I love my office. When the wind blows this window spins around like the Wizard of Oz,” she says. “Every once in a while I get a pigeon.” She plans for the Papermill to have free wi-fi for artists, vending machines, and a tool barn, where users can store and swap gear. From this high, the views of the Ben Franklin Bridge, city skyline, church spires, and the El train rumbling by are spectacular. “If you need to contemplate anything you can just stare out the window,” Karyn says. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel much farther from everything than you really are.

There’s no doubt, however, that getting people to the Papermill will be a challenge.

Walking Fish is sort of the last outpost and we’re further along.” says John, but he seems hopeful that the adjoining parking lot and proximity to the El will help. “It’s hard to get people to go to the theater anyway. It’ll be a combination of begging people and cheap tickets and the fact that the stuff we produce is really good.”

Karyn hopes to not only bring artists to the area, but to involve the local community as well. “As part of working here inexpensively, we want artists to volunteer a couple hours one day a week to teach their trade to local people in the area, mostly children,” she says, and also plans to work with the area schools.

She’s already found success with their other space, Indoor Rooftop Studios at North Second and Cecil B. Moore Streets, which has public screen printing and darkroom facilities.

“The owners support the arts, they’re not slum lords. If this thing doesn’t take off right away, they’re not gonna turn it into condos,” says John. “But I think with time and dedication it can definitely take off.”

If you’re interested in renting a space or looking for a venue visit Papermill’s facebook group or call Karyn Vetter at 215.687.8391

Cheap Guy HOF, Class of 2010 runs from September 4th – 18th at The Papermill Community for the Arts, 2825 Ormes Street.

–Ellen Freeman

Photos by Josh McIlvain.