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Interview with a new generation of gender activists seeking to find a broad, more inclusive way to describe sexual minorities. Credit: Carolyn Lim , Isabella Gong

Last weekend, five local artists turned the spotlight toward their friends and neighbors.

The 40th Street Artist-in-Residence Program, housed in a University-owned building, provides studio space to aspiring artists in the community. On Friday, AIR kicked off its annual “Friends and Neighbors” exhibition weekend, featuring artists selected by the current residents.

Gina Renzi, one of the program’s facilitators, helped stage the event inside the program’s townhouse, located on 40th and Chestnut streets.

A cozy building with clean white walls and bright lights poised to highlight all the works on display, the AIR townhouse was filled Friday with friends, neighbors and relatives of the exhibiting artists.

The residents and their guests all have strong ties to West Philadelphia, though their art backgrounds vary. Some come from prestigious art schools, like Rhode Island School of Design graduate Kylin Mettler, while others are self-taught.

Renzi explained that “a lot of these people … don’t necessarily have an art pedigree.” She said she hopes the program will continue to provide promising artists with the space they need to produce a body of work and to connect them to other artists.

The “Friends and Neighbors” show featured a broad range of work. Mettler’s sculptures, one of which incorporated her own wisdom teeth, proved particularly memorable to some visitors.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Leah Whiteside, a graduate student in the School of Design and friend of one of the featured artists.

The piece was inspired by the German Wunderkammer, which Mettler described as “a tradition of collecting all this random biology and making a display in these old super large wooden beautifully turned cabinets.” On the subject of her teeth, Mettler said with a smile, “They always reminded me of beaks.”

In addition to bringing back former residents, the show introduced other artists to the program.

Shinara Taylor, whose paintings and drawings appeared in the show, said “I’ve considered becoming a resident because … the opportunities to collaborate are definitely attractive.”

Overall, Taylor said she approved of the philosophy behind the exhibit, remarking, “it’s a really great idea to have a show like this to give artists the chance to show their work and an opportunity to meet other artists.”

Whiteside agreed, adding, “It’s really cool to see what local artists are working on and what West Philadelphia means to them.”

While Friday night’s event showed off a polished exhibition space and a broad array of art, Renzi still recalled the AIR townhouse’s humble roots.

She remembered how “before we came in, before we brought in artists and studio space, the buildings weren’t really doing anything.”

She added, “We’ve painted them, we’ve put in lighting. We’ve done a lot of things to animate these spaces, to make this area more interesting, a place that Penn students may want to come to.”

Since the first artists took up residence there in 2003, the space has undergone further renovations. Betty Leacraft, a former resident and a participant in “Friends and Neighbors,” said that during her time in the program, the space that’s now reserved for exhibitions was another artist’s studio.

“Seeing it with the white walls and the painted floor and the track lighting, I can’t say enough about Gina and the other staff,” she said. “They’re really masters at installations.”

Leacraft added, “all I have to do is bring my work and some written instructions, and they do everything else.”

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