Executive Director, Vox Populi,
Artist, writer and curator
People often ask what brought me to Philadelphia. Much as I want to say it was a lover or a great job, my motivations were much less exact.
I grew up poor, in Appalachian Tennessee, but was given a chance to attend Harvard for near nothing because of their exceptional financial aid policies. I fled from the mountains, hardly glancing back, and celebrated my new urban freedom by dying my hair and piercing my lip. Really. I’ll show you pictures some time.
At Harvard, I became the art editor of the school’s literature and arts magazine, and the organization became a real family to me. I spent almost every evening at the magazine’s small house in Harvard Square, throwing theories and thoughts around with drunk poets and irreverent young-adult artists.
The house itself was a cathedral, and a wonderful den of iniquity. The furniture was a mix of antique velvet-covered wingback chairs and crusty black leather sofas. Lining the walls were plaques that bore the names of each year’s officers – nearly 150 years’ worth. We liked finding the names of those gone on to fame in the pages of issues past – Theodore Roosevelt, E.E. Cummings, John Ashbery, Norman Mailer – and then doing lines on their lines. My crew was different, and we reveled in this. We were women and men, poor and wealthy, queer and straight, and nearly all self-proclaimed art fuck-ups.
The Advocate, as the magazine is called, spun off from Harvard’s student newspaper, The Crimson, in 1866, after a few years when some men defected demanding coeducation, a radical proposition at the time. They decided that instead of publishing news and sports scores, they would focus on essays, poetry, and, later, art. I like to think that the initial resistance and challenge of the Advocate’s founders made it the incredible mix of professionalism and “underground” activity it was. I certainly count my drug- and alcohol-induced nights there as some of my best, whether we were cursing various systems, talking painting, or ranting about politics.
There was a certain erasure of class difference that occurred within this community, an erasure that evaporated when graduation came around. I found that my friends were moving to New York with little thought or planning. They were in better financial situations than I, and could afford to get an apartment and take some time to find a job. I latched onto a gig as a teaching assistant for a semester to catch my breath and save some cash.
I applied to art jobs in New York but heard nothing, so I began to think that I might move someplace on my own. I investigated Philadelphia’s art scene – and rent prices – and decided I would give it a shot for a year, even if it meant being a waiter.
I didn’t know anyone when I moved to Philadelphia in 2005, so I depended on the advice of a high school friend and Penn alum to fill me in on neighborhoods. “West Philly is the only place to live,” I remember her saying. (She knew I was no hippie, and I still sometimes wonder if this was a cruel joke.) I got a tiny studio apartment and spent my days searching job postings and sending out resumes. I have blocked out most of those few months; I was miserably lonely, hated the trees and otherwise suburban feel of West Philly, and listened to Joan Armatrading records on repeat in a fetal position.
I interviewed at a couple of restaurants but no one would give me a job since I had no experience. They weren’t impressed with my resume. After what seemed like an eternity (although in retrospect only a few months alone with Joan), I got a call back from the Fabric Workshop and Museum and took a position at one of the city’s great art spaces.
Around the same time, Amy Adams called me up to say she wanted to talk to me about becoming an intern at Vox Populi, where she was Executive Director and where I had dropped off my resume a few weeks earlier. I was introduced to an incredible personality; we smoked a cigarette in the gallery, and I thought I might have found a community. After a few months, I applied to become a member of the artist collective and was accepted.
The community that Vox offers is invaluable to me. Nearly four years later, I am the director (and am still an artist-member), and I have come to seriously depend on the advice of my peers there, artistic and otherwise. Vox represents all the things I loved about the Advocate, without the poets. Vox challenges me constantly in terms of my artistic practice, since I am surrounded by a trusted group who offers honest feedback and shows their own amazing work alongside mine. Vox has a commitment to excellence but also maintains an edginess and a commitment to under-shown work that I cherish. So now I spend my nights at a new space I love, in a fairly dilapidated warehouse space in Trestletown, downing whiskey and Pabst, and talking art and life with a group of great artists.