Mike Harpring says art is better nurtured in West Philadelphia than in New York City.

He is one of the five 40th Street Artists-in-Residence, a group of artists awarded with exhibition opportunities and free studio space located in a pair of buildings owned by Penn on 40th and Chestnut streets.

In exchange, the artists will give back a minimum of 40 hours to the community by sharing their talents leading workshops, teaching classes and exhibiting in the area.

Last weekend, the 40th Street Artists-in-Residence program opened its doors to the public for a peek into the artists’ studios.

“The program is a really good opportunity to show art in a space that is inexpensive and super casual,” said Emma Podietz, a visitor of the open-doors event. “It’s kind of like walking into a friend’s room.”

Dressed effortlessly in a T-shirt and cut-offs, seated in the middle of his studio, his art pieces casually hung on the walls surrounding him and gentle indie music playing softly in the backdrop, Harpring befits the title of an artist.

“What West Philly has that New York City doesn’t is a small-town vibe — a community that is much more accessible and tight-knit,” he said.

For his community outreach project, Harpring says that nothing is set in stone yet, but he will probably conduct book-binding workshops to teach journal-stitching to high school students.

AIR first started in 2003, according to Gina Renzi, the program’s facilitator. There was a need for affordable art studios in West Philly and the AIR program promoted a creative and alternate use of Penn’s real estate.

The five Artists-in-Residence have been here since August and are in the early stages of their residencies.

Fatima Adamu, one of the artists, is a self-trained painter and said her artwork is often a result of her conversation with the canvas. “When I’m feeling angry, I will draw with short, quick pencil strokes,” Adamu said. “It allows me to share a part of myself I can’t express verbally.”

Art has also been very healing for Adamu. She admitted that without it, she would feel emotionally supressed. “I was born in Nigeria and growing up, some negative things have happened,” she said. “Art is a way for me to release anger and sadness.”

Martina Plag, an AIR alumnus who decided to stay on another year as a liaison for the program, reflected on the program’s value for an artist. “With a free studio, I had the leisure of time and didn’t have to offset my expenses to clients,” she said.

She will work 15 hours a week with the current Artists-in-Residence in exchange for another year of free studio space.

“Once you’ve had a studio of your own for a year, you can’t really go back to creating art at your home,” she said. “Plus, West Philly is such a vibrant space. I found it hard to leave.”

Renzi said the program is about creating an infusion of arts and culture. “It creates opportunities for students and residents in West Philadelphia to work with artists,” she said. “Working and supporting artists is absolutely critical to the health of a neighborhood.”

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