New South Philly sculpture to appear at Smith Playground

The work will serve as the first freestanding statue depicting a young African-American girl in Philadelphia’s public art collection.

A rendering of the new Percent for Art commission at Smith Playground by artist Brian McCutcheon. Image courtesy of Brian McCutcheon.

While Philly’s sculptural landscape is filled with cherished figures like William Penn, Benjamin Franklin and even Rocky, a new personage is being memorialized at Smith Playground, 2100 S. 24th St.

Encompassed within the West Passyunk park’s massive multi-year renovation, which was unveiled last spring, the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy’s Percent for Art Program recently announced its approval of a new public art commission by Indianapolis-​based artist Brian McCutcheon.

Selected through a 2017 call-to-artists submission, McCutcheon, a nationally renowned multi-medium con­cep­tual artist, was unanimously voted by the program’s jury among more than 50 other artists for his proposal of a lifesize bronze statue depicting an adolescent African-American female basketball player.

The work will serve as the first freestanding statue depicting a young African-American girl in Philadelphia’s public art collection.

“Everybody really thought that (McCutcheon’s) proposal sort of spoke the most directly and clearly and kind of inspirationally to this particular rec center in this particular neighborhood and the people that actually use this place,” said OACCE’s public art director, Margot Berg. “…There’s really nothing else like it in our public landscape. It’s gonna be the first of its kind.”

Although his extensive educational and professional work spans across the country, McCutcheon, who founded Ignition Arts, LLC, which specializes in large-scale public art commissions, considers Philadelphia a fundamental influence for his work.

After receiving his B.F.A. from Col­orado State Uni­ver­sity in 1991 and M.F.A. at Cran­brook Acad­emy of Art in 1995, McCutcheon lived for a decade in South Philadelphia.

While in Philly, he accumulated a breadth of experience, including numerous exhibitions, collections, grants and collegiate-level teachings throughout the city.

From gigs at the University of the Arts to showcases with the city’s FringeArts festival, McCutcheon made his mark on the Philadelphia art scene through the early 2000s.

“One of the reasons I applied for the call is — I really think that living in Philadelphia after graduate school had a huge impact on my art development,” he said. “…Philadelphia was really my entrance into professional practice and trying to make my entire living through the arts.”

Living in Philly, McCutcheon recalls visiting playgrounds similar to Smith with his young son.

While brainstorming concepts for his proposal, McCutcheon felt responsive and appreciative to these public spaces.

“It seemed like a really nice opportunity for me to take my experience knowing about Philadelphia and having some real experience in the neighborhoods in which Smith Playground exists and do something sort of to give back,” he said.

The art installation aligns with other philanthropies Smith has experienced in recent years.

Starting in 2015, the Make The World Better (MTWB) foundation, a nonprofit founded by former Eagles player Connor Barwin, raised more than $3 million for the playground, including resources from the city and state, as well as funding from local organizations, businesses, foundations and private donations, and institutions such as the National Football League and ESPN.

The first phase, which ended in spring 2016, focused on improvements to the recreation building, including the installation of a kitchenette and the first WHYY and Keyspot Media Lab. The second phase, which ended in spring 2018, included playground upgrades, renovated basketball courts, new turf sport field, outdoor fitness area, a walking trail and Green Stormwater Infrastructure operated by the Philadelphia Water Department.

Although, through MTWB’s work, nearly every inch of the eight-acre playground has been revamped, a vacant plot exists adjacent to the recreation center. The space, which serves as a natural meeting place in the park, needed to be filled.

“(McCutcheon’s) decision to show through sculpture a young African-American girl in a very active decision-making movement as a point guard on a basketball court was really relevant to the site,” said Claire Laver, executive director of MTWB. “…Representation matters, and I think it’s important young girls, particularly young African-American, can really see themselves on a pedestal that way.”

While surveying the immediate community, McCutcheon says it was obvious for his work to reflect aspects of the area, including the demographics, schools and athletics that comprise the park.

Drawing from other public art in the city, the work is also a derivative of statues gracing the South Philadelphia Sports Complex, as those athletes are often perceived as champions.

Working with bronze was another conscious decision, bestowing weight and importance upon the young African-American female figure.

“This work is looking at those as references and playing with the notion and changing the perspective of that sort of heroic monument on a smaller scale and honoring or giving a visual reference for the neighborhoods kids” McCutcheon said. “…I hope the neighborhood kids can kind of see themselves in this figure.”

The sculpture, which McCutcheon will craft in Indianapolis before its unveiling at Smith in the spring, also reveals the young female in a pensive position — both physically and mentally.

As a point guard, she’s contemplating her next move, but this decision-making spills beyond the court.

“There’s that moment that kind of defines the future in a lot of ways,” McCutcheon said.