Building a Community around Art

Aaron Lewis ventures inside the University City Arts League, a nonprofit dedicated to education and cultural enrichment in the arts, where local children and adults can practice both art and community-building.

University City Arts League.

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Walking by the inconspicuous, creatively colored house at 4226 Spruce Street in West Philadelphia, you would have no idea of all the things that happen within. The building houses University City Arts League, a nonprofit dedicated to education and cultural enrichment in the arts. I had always been fascinated by the building and decided I had to know more.

Founded in 1967 by a collective group of artists – Sylvia Barkan, Jim Cox, Nancy Cox, Sylvia Egnal, George Shinn, Phebe Shinn, and Mike Kuncevich, who all lived in the community – UCAL has been thriving ever since. About 200 kids come through the space in a given week, some every day, and others simply to check and see if their newly constructed clay masterpiece has been put in the kiln. UCAL offers a wide array of classes that meet every background and skill level, ranging from language classes, such as Mandarin Chinese, to pottery and jewelry making. UCAL also offers classes for adults, such as yoga and an open studio. This multipurpose, adaptive space also serves as an art gallery and dance studio, allowing local talent to commune and showcase their skills.

Most importantly, UCAL’s creative space brings the community together to thrive through the exploration of art. As Stefan Kietzman, a community member, former student and current teacher at UCAL says, “Art is a chance to be creative, to create whatever you want.” UCAL creates a space within a neighborhood to establish a healthy community that understands and values the importance of working together, and it functions as a neighborhood hub.

Partnering with the Sadie Alexander School as well as the University of Pennsylvania, UCAL uses its local resources as assets in the development and envisioning of the community. The Sadie Alexander School outsources to them for art classes, and UCAL offers after-school programs for children of all income levels from the broader West Philadelphia community. This symbiotic relationship lays the foundation for students to develop a passion for both art and their community.

Noreen Shantfelter, the director of UCAL, hit it on the nose when she said, “Art is a building block for other intellectual pursuits, making it absolutely necessary.” As you walk up and down the four-story building, you can see that “intellectual pursuits” abound around every corner. The level of craftsmanship and dedication can be seen and felt at all levels. Whether in the first floor gallery, the fourth floor painting room or the basement pottery studio, the people of UCAL have inspired in their students a level of curiosity and exploration that transcends a finite space. Watching the expressions and captivation of two young boys as Dave Fowler, the intermediate pottery teacher, demonstrated to them the craft of clay sculpting, solidified in my mind the power of art and UCAL. Art not only captivates the mind, but enriches the soul, constantly challenging us. UCAL hones those passions and dedications and houses and connects talent that expands across those four walls. Putting the two together is a recipe for success, a recipe that distinguishes the West Philadelphia neighborhood as a model of success. Ultimately, UCAL testifies to the strength of art and the power of collaborative, community initiatives. So get out there and put a little piece of your art into your community.

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