Historic, Haunting Eastern State Penitentiary

For those of you who pining for a very unusual and moving site visit closer to home (OK, I’m making an assumption a lot of my readers are from Boston) you could visit the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia while I am visiting medieval crypts in Germany. This 1800’s prison, is now a Beautiful Ruins and has been open to the public since 1994.  It is for this institution that the term “penitentiary” (meaning prison) was coined. The revolutionary wagon wheel structurephiladelphia 085 of the architecture was designed to house inmates in solitary cells (a Quaker based idea, considered a forward thinking, humane notion at the time!). The theory was that alone with their own thoughts, inmates would  meditate on their misdeeds and become penitent. On the bright side each inmate was encouraged to spend time outdoors for recreation and gardening. Corporal punishment was banned and, amazingly, Eastern State Penitentiary had central heating, running water and flush toilets in the cells before the White House did!

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Besides the incredibly evocative ruins that one can walk through

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this historic site runs a very interesting, dare I say, QUIRKY, artist opportunity. Artists can apply to do an art installation occupying one of cells. There are about four installations up at a time. Here’s a couple:

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In the above installation the entire interior surface of the cell, walls and furniture are covered with knitted fabric)

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This was an absolutely riveting installation: a video projection of a trans inmate describing her heartbreaking experience in prison.

(Sorry, I did not note the names of these artists so cannot give them credit here. I anyone knows, please tell me and I’ll add that in)

I keep mulling over proposal ideas in my head. Perhaps one of you will be tempted to submit a proposal. Let me know if you do. Next deadline for submission of proposals: June 17, 2015.

OK, next blog post (assuming I can figure out how to do by phone) will be from Germany–the much anticipated Ossuary trip.

Ossuary trip Post #1: intro

Ossuary Trip

On March 31, 2015 I fly with fellow artist, Hannah Verlin


to Frankfurt Germany to begin our much anticipated “Ossuary Trip”.

Three years ago, Hannah and another Boston Sculptor colleague, Laura Evans, and I were driving back from Cleveland, Ohio, having set up an exhibition of Boston Sculptors at the Ohio Sculpture Center. In whiling away the 11 hour drive I asked my fellow travelers if there was a fantasy trip they had in mind. Hannah was able to answer this question without a moment’s hesitation. She had obviously already given this a lot of thought. “ Oh ya! I want to go on an ossuary trip.” To which Laura and I both responded, “What’s an ossuary?” Hannah’s reply: “charnel houses”. Us: “Huh?” Once she got us to understand what ossuaries are, crypts where skeletal remains are stored, I replied. “Oh, I’d go with you on that trip in a minute!” “Really?” Yes, really. Turns out I’d already visited several ossuaries in my life, without knowing what they were called.  I visited the Rome catacombs when I was a kid and was enthralled. The bone-filled Rome crypt is amazingly decorative a visual feast. Much later, as an adult, I stumbled upon (and almost got locked in overnight–but that’s another story) a similar domed crypt in Cuzco where the bones were sorted by type and formed into careful, dense floral patterns, from floor to ceiling. I’ve also always been  intrigued with the reliquaries one sees in churches all over Europe: here the index finger of St. Catherine, there the vertebra of St. Michael, in the most exquisite carved and bejeweled boxes. I could stare at those for hours. “So, yes, really, Hannah, if you ever decide to go on your ossuary trip and want a travel partner, I’m in.”

That was three years ago. Since then Hannah and I had the opportunity to travel together for another exhibit of Boston Sculptors Gallery artists, this time to Peru. Our visit in Lima to the San Francisco Cathedral ossuary rekindled our trip fantasy .

IMG_20140202_151638247san Francisco Lima ossuary

Since then Hannah and I have checked with each other every few months, “Do you still want to go on that ossuary trip?’ “Yes!” We started doing research. Found a couple great books by ossuary expert, Paul Koudounaris, and chatted over several coffees about this trip of our dreams. About 6 months ago Hannah called me up. “Guess what! I wrote up a proposal for the ossuary trip and won the Museum School (Boston) Traveling Scholar Grant to do it! You still want to go?” “YES!!”

We’ll be traveling primarily to Germany and the Czech republic, with a one day trip to a village in Poland. These countries have a relatively high concentration of ossuaries. The styles range from highly decorative (we look forward to visiting a bone church in the Czech Republic where the chandeliers are composed of pelvic bones) to the morbidly austere (another Czech crypt where naturally mummified monks are lined up side by side on cots—not sure that will be my favorite). In Bavarian Germany there was a a kind of craze in the 1500’s of nuns sewing bejeweled costumes for skeletons (presumed to be saints). We’re hoping to visit one of the few churches which still has those on display to the public on Easter weekend, appropriately enough.


Hope you enjoy following along!