By Lilly Ward
The first thing that the viewer is confronted with are the faces. The first ones encountered are softly rendered, set on white fabric backgrounds adorned with pink stamped flowers. A large sign consisting of multiple banners reads: “Give Us Our Roses.” A unicorn with a paper mâche head presides as a centerpiece dominating the space — its large tunnel-like arms extending across the gallery. Behind the unicorn stands a large green figure, its hands outstretched as if to reach for the viewer. A monarch butterfly floats behind it. At Grounds For Sculpture’s new exhibit, “Spiral Q: The Parade,” the art has no trouble speaking for itself.
All of this artwork is made from recycled and found materials. Brightly painted in bold colors, it stands out in an animated crowd. The art in the exhibit is meant to exist not within the space of a gallery, but in the hands of people marching down a street. Many of the pieces, such as the unicorn, are even meant to be worn. Some of the pieces may not even be there for the entire duration of the exhibit, if they are needed by protestors on the streets.
Founded in 1996, Spiral Q is an organization based in Philadelphia that’s committed to “unleashing the power of art to connect people, actions, values, neighborhoods, organizations, and movements to each other and to their collective creative force for change.” Spiral Q works with around 3,500 individuals a year with an estimated audience of 30,000 people. Their work seeks to raise awareness for the issues within marginalized communities such as trans rights, immigration, affordable housing, worker’s rights and health care.
Oftentimes, Spiral Q’s processions or parades take place within small communities in Philadelphia. In 2021, Spiral Q lost a large portion of their work to a flood caused by Hurricane Ida. They look forward to the opportunity to create more work in an expansive residency at Artworks Trenton this summer.
“This was a very unique opportunity for GFS to partner with this organization and this exhibit.
‘The Parade’ was intentionally designed and curated to feel immersive. To feel as if you are walking through some of the communities that Spiral Q advocates for,” said Quentin Williams, a co-curator of the exhibit, as well as the founder of DragonTree Media Group, a multi-service experiential marketing consultancy based in Philadelphia.
GFS’s collaboration with Spiral Q comes at a time of reckoning within the United States, as transgender rights are coming under attack from conservative lawmakers while debates emerge within public schools and universities over teaching critical race theory. For 26 years, the work within Spiral Q has been aimed at advocating for social justice issues in the form of brightly painted paper machê puppets and declarative messages emblazoned on painted cardboard signs. One of these signs comes in the form of a precarious stacking of Amazon boxes, accompanying a large portrait of Jeff Bezos with the message “UNION BUSTER-IN CHIEF” appearing to nearly topple over. At the top of the boxes is a large sign on top that reads, “AMAZON WORKERS NEED A UNION.”
“All of the language that you see is community derived and driven,” said Alexis Durante, the studio manager and teaching artist at Spiral Q.
Each year, the work created by members of the community who come together to create these objects culminates in their annual Peoplehood Parade through Clark Park, an exuberant celebration of diversity within the community of Philadelphia. As part of their collaboration with Artworks Trenton, Spiral Q plans to hold a parade at Grounds for Sculpture this summer.
Kathleen Greene, the curator at GFS who recently took on the position of chief audience officer a year and a half ago, had the idea for a collaboration with Spiral Q as a result of her continued involvement within the Philadelphia art scene. Greene and Williams collaborated to curate “Spiral Q: The Parade” as part of GFS’ new series, “Perspectives,” in the hopes of reaching a more diverse audience. “The Parade” is set in conversation with the exhibit “Local Voices,” also curated by Williams and Greene. Both are set in the same gallery space in the Domestic Arts Building. These two exhibits focus on storytelling and giving communities that have been historically marginalized the space in order to tell their stories themselves.
“Grounds for Sculpture is embedded within a predominantly Black and Brown Community, [as well as] the lower to middle economic class, and we want to make sure that we are creating entry paths for multiple communities. It’s on us to create that information,” Greene said. She admires Spiral Q for its “joyful celebration and community building around really traumatic and uncomfortable realities in the world.”
Part of processing this trauma is finding ways to heal through art, as demonstrated by the section of the exhibit that is dedicated to memorializing victims of transphobia. Transgender individuals of color are often particularly vulnerable to violence and police brutality. One of the displays within the gallery is dedicated to the individuals who have lost their lives to violence as part of a collaboration between Spiral Q and Philly Trans March in the 2018 PeopleHood Parade. This parade honored trans community members through individual portraits on signs that bear their names. Visitors can find a list of the honored individuals by scanning a QR code at the exhibit that’s meant to provide more information about the memorial. The objects featured in this section of the exhibit include a paper mâche unicorn, as well as the sign that reads, “Give Us Our Roses.”
The sign, as well as the unicorn, hold special significance, as explained by Jennifer Turnbull, a co-director of Spiral Q.
“Give us our roses while we are still alive, do not wait for us to be killed for us to be memorialized. Lift us up now so we can live long and healthy lives and continue to contribute in the many, many ways that are invisible to mainstream lives,” Turnbull said.
The unicorn, which was not used in the parade of 2019, was created by Co-director Liza Goodell alongside other artists from Philly Trans March, such as Christian Lovehall, the founder of the organization. He described the unicorn as “a symbol of hope and healing.”
“This has been a great historical moment to get our history together and hopefully set a precedent for our future as well,” Goodell said.
The objects within the exhibit can all be understood as symbols of hope, as well as visual storytelling. Efforts to engage with audiences are found throughout the gallery. Through the use of QR codes that allow visitors to learn more about the artwork, visitors can build a more intimate connection with the work they see in front of them. A small display in the center of the room features a paper mâche U.S. Capitol building, offering visitors an opportunity to create their own protest signs and display them in front of the building. Some of the signs created by visitors read, “ban guns not books, save trans kids, and my body my choice.”
Both the curators and co-directors of Spiral Q hope that people walk away from the exhibit with a newfound appreciation and awareness for the issues that face marginalized communities.
“Community engagement isn’t about touching somebody and being gone, right? It's about continuing that relationship, and it is about letting them into your hearts as you are asking to be let into their hearts,” Turnbull said. “We have ongoing personal direct relationships with the communities we engage with, and it’s so important for that to be understood and to be felt. Because it is love that we need.”
“Spiral Q: The Parade” will be open at Grounds for Sculpture from April 23, 2023 through January 7, 2024. You can learn more about this on GFS’ website as well as on Spiral Q’s website.