Art as a way of backing small businesses

South Philly Resident Gail Kotel’s portrait of Honey’s Sit N Eat owner Ellen Mogell. Contributed photo.

Gail Kotel is putting a face on small restaurants during the pandemic.

The Graduate Hospital physical therapist and pilates instructor moonlights as a charitable artist who is repurposing common items to bring awareness to the struggles of small business owners.

Kotel is painting portraits of business owners on their own takeout containers and displaying them in the windows of their mostly-empty businesses as part of a “Take Out” series. It’s an effort to spark conversations about environmental waste while supporting restaurants that are closed to inside dining due to the pandemic.

It combines a few of Kotel’s passions.

“It’s an idea of being mindful of all the waste that we make in the world,” said Kotel, who owns and operates Therapeutic Pilates at 1536 Catharine St. “Then COVID hit and all these restaurants got into the predicament of closing or only doing takeout, and all these wonderful places were being hurt so much. I thought, what if I made the customers aware of the owner and the people behind the scenes who are being affected?”

Graduate Hospital resident Gail Kotel poses in front of her artwork at Ants Pants Cafe on South Street. Her Take Out series artwork is portraits of small business owners on repurposed takeout containers. Photo/Mark Zimmaro.

Kotel got to work and found a few of her favorite businesses to begin experimenting.

“I decided to paint the portrait of the owner in their own takeout container,” she said. “Maybe people will think about the owner more as a person and come back to support local businesses in that way, and also think about how these takeout containers generate a lot of waste.”

The first takeout portrait popped up in the window of Honey’s Sit N’ Eat on South Street at 21st.

“It’s been meaningful to see faces in the restaurant,” said Honey’s owner Ellen Mogell. “I know everyone says that their customers are like family, and that is so true for so many of us at Honey’s. We have watched so many kids grow up over the years. In our business we are very connected with people’s eyes and noses and of course mouths, and Gail’s work in particular reminds me of what it means when all of those elements are brought together,”

The Ants Pants Cafe at 2212 South St. was next,

“They were so excited,” Kotel said. “They were clapping and yelling. They loved it. They said it had been so long since they were happy. It was really wonderful.”

Owners of Ants Pants Cafe on South Street pose with their portraits. Contributed photo.

The Bake Shop on Twentieth followed and, suddenly, faces were lighting up empty windows. Each selected restaurant is not open to indoor dining due to the pandemic and is trying to make ends meet through serving customers safely via takeout.

“As a healthcare provider, I want to support restaurants that are choosing to not dine-in while still not safe,” Kotel said. “I think we need to wait until it’s safe. It’s not how everyone feels and everyone can have their opinions but it’s been a real burden on healthcare providers. I want to help people who are caring about that.”

Kotel, a Manhattan native, has been a professional artist for more than 30 years, while also working as a physical therapist. Her pieces of art, which all have mindful repurposing of thrown-away items, have been parts of group exhibitions and galleries in New York, Connecticut, Oregon and Philadelphia. She normally paints on glass windows, frames, bubble wrap, and other found materials. Using discarded food containers was a new and meaningful venture.

A portrait on repurposed picture frames by Gail Kotel hangs in the window of Honey’s Sit N Eat on South Street. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

“I’ve been doing portraits since I was a little girl,” Kotel said. “And I’ve always used repurposed materials. I try to find my materials out on the street, things that were put out for trash, and I repurpose them into art. It’s always been really important to me to reuse things. I’m a huge environmentalist. I like talking about the environment through my art but not actually painting about the environment.”

She’s looking to expand her Take Out series further by finding more takeout-only restaurants that are interested in having her paint a portrait of the owner.

“I would really love to do more restaurants,” Kotel said. “It’s been a little difficult to get in contact with owners so I’m hoping this will generate more people to participate. I’d love to do a whole bunch more. It feels really wonderful to have that community interaction. It’s a nice way to be able to give back.”

To learn more or to contact Gail Kotel, visit