Turning found objects into art

Turning found objects into art
Constance Mensh for the Philadelphia Museum of Art

What you see is not necessarily what you get at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In addition to the countless works on view in the galleries, there’s a hidden treasure buried in the museum’s belly, where additional pieces wait for their turn.

The embroidered tapestry that Shelley Spector happened across had never even been on view. Intricately embroidered with Pennsylvania German folk symbols, the fabric was actually a “show towel,” a decorative handicraft meant for display rather than everyday use. Spector discovered that the towel was designed by Frances Lichten and stitched by her mother around the turn of the century.

This towel became the centerpiece of Spector’s own site-specific installation at the PMA, “Keep the Home Fires Burning.”

“The symbols referenced ideas that all people want, that all people hope for: peace, love, family, fertility,” says Spector of the piece. “These are things that are universal, that are valued in a lot of cultures.”

A lifelong Philadelphian, Spector is known for her innovative, organic use of found objects. For this installation, she gathered materials for a year and a half, picking up pieces everywhere from farmer’s markets to thrift stores, then piecing them together with the help of her mother at her studio on Fabric Row.

The result is an installation of wood and fabric sculptures that feels at once like a tumble through Wonderland and a stroll through Philadelphia. Incorporating symbols of German, Indian and Jewish traditions, there’s a motley cohesiveness and ingrained warmness to the work. While the found nature of the materials subtly hints at a participatory element, some pieces — such as a coin-hungry wishing well — expressly ask for the viewer’s involvement.

“It’s a chance to think about what you hope for,” says Spector of the well. “What we all hope for, what we all wish for.”

Shelley Spector’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning” is at the Art Museum through Sept. 27. Access to theexhibit is included with general admission ($20).