Philadelphia's Tiberino Museum offers art, circus, and spirit

Since its opening in 1999, the Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum in Powelton has featured the work of the late, great African American painter hanging next to that of her thriving, adoring survivors: husband Joseph, daughter Ellen, sons Gabriele, Latif, and Raphael.

It would be enough to say that "the Ellen" is filled to the brim with the family's efforts. Three-dimensional murals, sculptures, and large-scale paintings ripe with elongated limbs, exaggerated glances, and sociopolitical and religious references are on display throughout the complex's five buildings. Outside, nine lush city plots make up the grounds of the sculpture garden.

But the museum is also the family's home, where their art and the works of friends and followers pop from every nook, hallway, gazebo, kitchen, bathroom, living room, library, grotto, cranny, and knoll in a constant display of Tiberino-ism.

"Forget about the scores of works that we have done," patriarch Joseph Tiberino says of the living memorial in which his family dwells. "We've been here approximately 44 years and in that time, people other than the family have created various works - some genuine masterpieces, some that no one knows about, some I don't even recall completely. This space is about constant discovery."

The elder Tiberino will display some of the Ellen's secrets Oct. 15 with a scavenger hunt/exhibition of hidden gems. One new item is Mother of The Word, a nine-foot statue installed by friend and sculptor Paul Matthew Whittle. Erected in August, it depicts Mary in her third trimester. This is rare, as most depictions of the Madonna show her in the first trimester.

Add to this familial mélange several stages where bands play and carnival artisans frolic with visiting artists (who tend to leave gifts of spiritual significance), and you get where the Ellen is 11 years after it opened.

Regular events at the museum include the monthly "Carnivolution," which features thrilling performances by fire-eaters and sword-swallowers, as well as "Discordinalia," a collaborative sound and art celebration hosted by the band and art collective Radio Eris. This month, the Sept. 16 Discordinalia event is titled "Goddess Night" and features local poet Ursula Rucker. Like-minded wordsmiths such as Maleka Fruean and Natalie Felix also will perform, along with cabaret chanteuses and bands.

"The Tiberinos put together a space that's an adventure to be in. Not like an ordinary museum where the art is encased in glass along white walls, but one where the art is literally the entire world and atmosphere around you," says Radio Eris' Lora Bloom, the cocreator of Goddess Night. "You are part of the experience. So much emotion, so many stories on those walls." Bloom has an interesting tale of family and discovery at the Tiberino Museum. When she walked into the museum as an adult, she realized that some of the sculptures hidden throughout the compound had been created by the artist Joe Brenman - Bloom's uncle, whom she hadn't seen since childhood. "Seeing these helped me to get back in touch with a man whom I've admired my whole life," says Bloom, who also married her longtime companion at the Tiberino Museum.

Few and far between are the public art spaces dedicated to a single artist's work, let alone a family's. Combine that rarity with the fact that the Tiberinos exist there as a living, breathing, organic part of the compound and you get the personal side of the museum.

"It's funny - I'm out here, thinking how lucky I am and how all this is such a great thing to be around," event director Ellen Tiberino says while sculpting in the garden. "Like art, the space changes and grows in different ways. The legacy of my mother and my father's energy - all my brothers' energy, too - is great." It can be overwhelming, too, since so many artists are part of the compound. Sometimes she'd like privacy. But then Ellen considers how the university students and visiting artists keep a communal spirit alive and fresh ideas coming in, and connect the dots between the past and the future.

Take Whittle, a sculptor friend of muralist/illustrator Raph Tiberino since their student days at the University of the Arts. Known for his ironwork, Whittle has created sculpture - much of it sacred, much of it Catholic-oriented - that graces churches and public spaces throughout America. Another of his Mother of the Word statues resides at the St. Aloysius Church in Jackson, N.J., where it drew criticism from parishioners for looking, as the sculptor reports, "nontraditional" and "too literal." Mention that controversy to the Rev. John Newns, a Phoenixville priest who has been celebrating an annual memorial Mass for Ellen Powell Tiberino, and he smiles. "Oh yes, I think I heard of that," says Newns. "There's been no trouble like that here." At the Tiberino, Whittle'sMother of the Word fits in perfectly.

Joseph Tiberino says that Newns' visits to the museum are part of the spiritual energy left behind by his late wife: "Toward the end of my wife's life (she died in 1992), people would come here and talk with her, be near her. She became mystical to some; a spiritual character holding court. So many people wanted to share in her aura. Her spirit is here now and always will be."

Beyond the spirit realm, it is that level of communality that has attracted a diverse collection of artists to create and perform at the Ellen, including longtime associates the Squidling Brothers Circus Sideshow. The Squidling Brothers' edgy show features burlesque dancers, clowns, fire-breathers, and practitioners of dazzling physical feats. "They are like family" says Ellen Tiberino.

"We've grown far beyond the backyard of the Tiberino compound," Matterz Squidling, the goateed leader of the Squidling Brothers, says of their recent travels in Europe and Scandinavia. "But there are few underground spaces in Philadelphia, none which have the magic of the Tiberino compound. The Tiberino family allows us to express ourselves however we want, and there is a connection between the spirits in Tiberino's work and the ones that follow us around."

That Carnivolution brings the yard to life with fire play, half-naked tutu-wearing clowns, funny and brutal sideshow stunts, and aerial acrobatics means there are some strange spirits living in that museum compound.

That's just fine with Joe Tiberino. All he asks is that you keep your eyes open at the Ellen, whether it's for a reading, a performer, or a work of art.

"You have to look. I tell that to everybody who comes here," says the elder Tiberino. "Spend at least 15 minutes on a painting or a mural. People are used to images spinning quickly by them. Sometimes they walk by just as fast. But when you here, take the opportunity to really look at what you're presented with. Soak it all in. There's a lot to see."

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