Offering pause: Transforming community spaces through art

paul beth leiland
Artists Beth Clevenstine and Paul Santoleri with their son, Leiland, at the Water Under the Bridge installation along the Manayunk Towpath in Philadelphia.

Clevenstine and Santoleri's art will be featured at the Mid-Atlantic Greenways & Trails Summit in Philadelphia, their native city, April 4-6

Paul Santoleri and Beth Clevenstine know how greenways, like public art, can transform communities and encourage interaction and pride. With a recent project on Philadelphia’s Manayunk Towpath, they’ve seen art and trails help a community reclaim its open space.

Manayunk’s neighborhood development organization was beginning to revitalize the towpath, which runs alongside the 19th-century Schuylkill Canal but had been riddled with trash and vandalism. Santoleri began creating a series of murals along the trail and soon brought in Clevenstine, his longtime artistic partner (the two recently married and are proud parents of Leiland, 2). Now the towpath features vivid painting, sculpture, and mosaic, most of it with a water theme. The area has become a favorite destination of runners, walkers, cyclists, and birders.

Among the striking pieces is a staircase with mosaic on each of the dozens of risers. Santoleri remembers working on his first Manayunk mural and meeting a local man who was trying to take care of a native garden at the bottom of the staircase. “The garden wasn’t being respected,” Santoleri says. “The stairs were very degraded, people partied there and would trash the gardens. I told him, ‘Oh my gosh, I would love to do mosaic on these steps.’ He was so excited. I like to push my boundaries whenever I can.”

“Mosaic is permanent,” he explains, “and especially with stairs you have to think of what will have longevity. And the way light plays off the glass is attractive. Glass and silica, there’s something beautiful about mixing that with concrete -- liquid glass with solid earth.”

Santoleri loves that the Manayunk staircase recently topped Curbed Philadelphia’s list of “The 10 most colorful places to Instagram in Philly.” Curbed writes, “Tucked in at Umbria and Fountain streets are these gorgeous, mural-clad steps. They’re almost hidden from the public eye—you walk down the steps and see nothing, but turn around? There’s a huge mural, reminiscent of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night.’”

“The art gives people more of a pause, it has really upped the ante,” Santoleri says.

bike and water under bridge
Cyclist rides by part of the Water Under the Bridge installation by Beth Clevenstine and Paul Santoleri on the Manayunk Towpath in Philadelphia. Steve Weinik/Mural Arts Philadelphia photo

Santoleri was connected with the Manayunk Towpath project through Mural Arts Philadelphia, a nonprofit he has worked with for two decades. As the nation’s largest public art program, Mural Arts aims to build bridges of connection and understanding through art to transform places, individuals, communities and institutions. The mission resonates with Santoleri, who has helped revitalize buildings and parks in his native city through a wide variety of art projects, working with residents of all ages.

Clevenstine and Santoleri share an interest in nature as a subject and describe their artistic collaboration as “organic.”

“Paul has a way of introducing chaos to my work that creates beauty,” Clevenstine laughs. “I go with the start of an idea and practice being open to that chaos.”

“Trust is really what she’s talking about,” Santoleri says.

The artists have been teachers, as well, and like that public art involves working with community members. “I like working with young people, connecting, teaching, and having them participate on pieces or smaller projects,” Clevenstine says.

Santoleri likes placing art where it becomes part of the architecture, part of the city’s everyday life. “It leaves me,” he says. “It’s a way to engage people and make my work live on beyond me. Placing things in the world has always been important to me.”

The couple loves how diverse Philadelphia has grown in recent years and how the city is embracing all that it offers, including one of the largest park systems in the country.

“It’s a city that’s got so much, and a lot of good things coming together at the same time, including trails,” says Clevenstine. “I think Philadelphia has begun developing its own sense of trails and public art in the last 10 years. In the next 10 years, we’re going to see a lot more.”


Read more of our October 2018 On the Greenway e-newsletter

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