JEN BROWN | SCULPTURE | Roots


When I first moved to Philadelphia in 2009, Fishtown was very different from how we know it today. It was also very different from how it was four years before that. It is incredible how much has changed since I moved here, and I continue to watch exciting new things happen, but I watch them through narrowed eyes. With every promising new business I brace myself for an inevitable move to a further, less yuppified neighborhood. So that we can do the same thing there, and again I will put my heart into a new place and help it to become better in whatever ways I can, and then I will be pushed out and away once more.

From my first tiny apartment at Frankford and Dauphin I watched as Circle Thrift flourished, the Groove Hound expanded, Wwofka rolled onto the block, and rolled back out. The florist disappeared and Pizza Brain and Little Baby's Ice Cream arrived on the scene. New bus stop lounges and bike racks and sidewalks and banks all sprouted out of the earth like flowers. And as I walked along Trenton Avenue toward the Berks stop (because although York-Dauphin was the same distance, Berks was significantly safer) I would walk on the broken sidewalk separating the street from the block-long lot that served as the backyards for the folks on Martha Street. I watched in the springtime as they played that horse-shoes like game, and I smelled the barbeque when they would have parties. There was almost definitely an above-ground pool, and a truck parked just in between two jenky fences, and overgrown with vines and neglect. The end of the block was really just overgrown with weeds and flowers, and morning glory crept up the fence and into the lot and up the tree that grew there and had been doing so for decades. There were kittens who played in that field and caught the mice that are probably now plaguing the houses along Martha Street, because that lot is no longer there. Thanks to U.S. Construction, many of the recently vacant lots are now bloated with cookie-cutter slightly edgy looking hipster housing. The entire lot was ripped up in a matter of weeks, and houses were plopped down into the rectangular holes and now the backyards of the tiny houses on Martha Street are bigger newer fancier people looking down on them.

In the process of building this particular block of houses, U.S.C. had to cut down the tree, and of course several weeks later had to rip out the roots, which I then found just inches away from my feet as I walked to the Berks stop with my head down, avoiding eye contact with the construction workers and with the mess they were making. I appropriated those roots and have been turning them into art for the past three years.

I have been spinning yarn and wrapping it slowly, meditatively around these roots. I have been bandaging them, or have I been mummifying them? Have I been hoping to help it to heal, or have I been preparing it for it's eternal rest? There are no knots in this piece, only places where the yarn is overlapped from one skein to the other in an attempt to delicately hold it in place, while it holds the roots in place, tightly. There are places where I bound roots together for whatever instantaneous reason I had at that moment: was I strengthening this thing by adding to it's beauty, and to it's physical body? Or was I simply altering it for selfish aesthetic purposes? I installed it with the base of the tree closest to the ground, so that the roots reach up to the sky. Have I given it a new life, even for a little while? Have I altered it, in some desperate attempt to change the way someone thinks about something as miniscule and grandiose as roots and branches? And then I will remove it, as though it were never there. We discard trees and houses and garbage and people and we make or buy new things to put in their place. Is this what gentrification is? We own things; we take ownership of things. We alter them to our liking, and then we discard them for something newer or better whenever the mood strikes us. Sometimes the mood never strikes us and we reuse something and pat ourselves on the back for being so thoughtful of our environment.

What are we preserving? Destroying? Improving? And how long will any of it last? All organic things will die. Even a neighborhood will thrive and die back and flourish again. There will be floods and earthquakes and recessions and we will rebuild. We will reuse old buildings and we will rip up vacant lots. We will create things and we will make people look at and declare it art. We will build houses and people will live in them. We will do our best to do our best, and we will justify our actions and our thoughts and our intentions, and we will hope to be admired and appreciated for them. And sometimes, in that confusing, diluted process, we will make create something beautiful, no matter how small or how temporary.

The lot where this sculpture was installed has been built into four houses exactly like the ones which took the home of the tree all those years before.