The latest gallery at the Art in the Storefront in Ambler, features the photographs of local artist Liz Coppola.
The subjects of Coppola’s art are not people, but rather places. She focuses her lens on the ins-and-outs of abandoned and dilapidating structures, most notably former asylums, and the social injustice that reportedly took place within many of those walls. Through her artist’s statement, she describes her work, in part, as documenting the “failed tenants of the American Dream,” and the lasting impact these places have on the rest of society.
“It’s a eulogy of all the people that used to live there,” Liz Coppola said. “It’s a remembrance.”
Coppola, 25, who also goes by her artist’s name “Kallikak,” is a 2006 graduate of Hatboro-Horsham High School.
Living in Eastern Montgomery County, Coppola recalls being fascinated with the once looming and abandoned Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry.
“Growing up there had a huge impact on me,” Coppola said. “It drove me to study psychology and my art.”
Coppola tells the story of how the hospital, also referred to as Byberry State Hospital, once housed 7,000 psychiatric patients and hundreds of staff by the mid-1900s. She notes that by the late 1980s, the hospital was shut down and reports of horrifying unethical treatment of patients were released.
Prior to its demolish in 2006, the Byberry State Hospital became notorious for receiving trespassers in the form of thieves, vandals and squatters. However, for the high-school-aged Coppola, the state of ruin of which she found the hospital drove her to exhaustive research of the hospital’s history and the reformation of mental health treatment.
It was for these reasons she had brought a single-use film camera along, so she may help document and tell the hospital’s story.
“When you go to a facility, such as Byberry, you imagine how this place used to be,” Coppola said.
By her senior year of high school, Coppola had upgraded her equipment to a film SLR camera, and learned the fundamentals of photography. The following year, while attending Villanova University, she acquired a digital SLR camera, but did not pursue further photography studies.
“Everything I learned was trial and error after Hatboro-Horsham [High School],” Coppola said.
Coppola, who now lives in Ambler, received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Villanova, as well as a master’s in Criminology Law in Society from the same university. She currently works at a research firm in Princeton, N.J.
However, Coppola did not abandon photography, which she called her “passionate hobby.”
She has volunteered to photograph local theater groups, such as the Hatboro Village Players, and has done work for the Penhurst Memorial Preservation Alliance.
She has also travelled to Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, seeking social institutions of historic or aesthetic worth, as she did with Byberry State Hospital. Her expeditions led her to capture Kirk-bride designed mental asylums, spiraling churches and abandoned industrial plants.
“It was something haunting and eerie,” Coppola said of one trip to an abandoned asylum. “But, it was beautiful.”
While she took hundreds of photos, stored on hard drives, she said she only developed the courage to exhibit her artwork publically in the last few years. She first exhibited her work at a Bucks County juried art show, and said she was somewhat discouraged having her work placed next to others being sold for hundreds of dollars. She tried again the following year at the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center’s juried art show, where she won a special distinction. She again won the same award at that art show in the summer of 2012.
Through a friend, she then came into contact with Mark Elliot, proprietor of No Bare Walls Framing Studio in Ambler and president of the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center.
He is also a co-curator of The Art in the Storefront gallery, where Coppola is currently exhibiting her first solo show, titled “Myopia.”
She explained that “Myopia” was for those shortsighted enough to demolish certain structures that could have adaptive reuses.
Speaking at her artist’s reception on Jan. 18, Coppola happily noted the coincidence that her show is taking place in a building that was also once abandoned and dilapidated.
“It feels wonderful, I like the idea of showing more than just pretty pictures,” Coppola said. “It could plant the seed that we could save these buildings.”
The Art in the Storefront
The Art in the Storefront, located at 41 E. Butler Ave. in Ambler, exhibits artwork six times a month in two-month intervals. It is a community-based arts initiative, utilizing the former storefront of Denney Electric, and turning it into a sidewalk art gallery.
While exhibited art ranges in medium throughout the year, from photographs to sculptures, all artwork have the same common theme: the artists are local to the Montgomery County area.
“I feel absolutely grateful. This would not happen without the generosity of Mark and Karen,” Coppola said of her solo show. “They encourage local artists.”
The Art in the Storefront’s co-curators are Elliot and Karen Kieser, a sculptor and owner of Immersion Studio in Ambler.
Kieser, who was an Ambler Borough Council member from the late 1990s to 2000, said that The Art in the Storefront was part of the borough’s revitalization efforts.
As a former art professor at Buffalo State College, Kiser said she saw the positive effect of encouraging citizens that walk along commercial districts and suddenly come face-to-face with art; making a once abandoned storefront a community destination.
She said she wanted to bring that concept to Ambler, and hopes to see more of it throughout the county.
“Galleries can be intimidating,” Kieser said. “The idea is to make this storefront much more interesting,”
According to Kieser, Denney Electric allowed the adaptive reuse of its then dilapidated retail space. The lighting company several thousands of dollars to the effort, which resulted in the restoration of the 1920s Art Deco storefront.
The first Art in the Storefront Show took place during the week of Hurricane Floyd, on Sept. 10, 1999.
And, despite having a low-to-no-operating budget for outreach efforts, such as an official website, Kieser said that The Art in the Storefront never has to solicit artists to appear in the gallery.
“We’re scheduled for the next three years,” Kieser said.
She said that the artists are responsible for their own publicity, and opening receptions typically attract a good showing, from the artist’s family and friends to regular local fans of art, as well as the scores of vehicle passengers driving along Butler Ave.
“It’s a community project,” Kieser said. “And, it’s fun to see how many artists are close by.”
For more information about the artist: Contact Liz Coppola at 215-900-1520 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about Art in the Storefront, contact Karen Kieser at 215-654-0106.