Art & Culture Fans: Celebrate Make It Montco Masterworks in Cheltenham

The building that now holds the Cheltenham Center for the Arts has a long history as a center of learning. Back in 1883 it held the first Cheltenham High School, and its place on the National Register of Historic Places stems from its distinction as the oldest school in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in continuous use on the same site.

It is still a place dedicated to education; however, classwork now encompasses painting, pottery and performance in place of the former reading, writing and ‘rithmatic.

The center's location is far from the bustle of northeast Philadelphia and the zooming traffic of Roosevelt Boulevard. The greenery surrounding it make for cool breezes and dappled sunshine that kindle a creative spark.

Inside, the former classrooms and office space are now exhibit galleries and performance venues. But vestiges of a 19th century schoolroom still peek through the various refurbishments: a break room shows the rectangular outline of a chalkboard; on a wall in the basement, a row of hooks awaits the wraps and shawls hung by youngsters from the past; and it's not hard to imagine the sound of high-buttoned shoes clattering down the front steps at the end of an academic day.

Kathy Magiera, director of development and marketing, takes me on a quick tour. The main floor is being prepared for an upcoming exhibit, Extraordinary Gifts: Remarkable Women of the Delaware Valley, which opens with a gala on September 20. The show can be viewed by the public until October 19, with gallery hours of Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Christine Weiser, executive director of Philadelphia Stories, the publication that launched Extraordinary Gifts, is on hand, overseeing the placement of each piece (see the video below).

A flurry of scurrying volunteers transports the artwork from its storage in the center's black box theater to the gallery. Temporary spots are found on the floor, and Weiser starts to get a sense of the overall impact of each suggested placement. "I'm not sure about that white-on-white," she says, nodding toward a paper-and-board abstract piece called "Reaction." She continues, "But we'll find a place for it." A large, blue piece comes in, trailing a tail of colorful streamers.

Magiera takes me upstairs to a sunlit room that runs the length of the building. A painting class is brushing up on various techniques, taking full advantage of the light admitted by windows that stretch to the ceiling. The adults peer at their canvases, daubing a bit of color here and a touch of shading there.

I lean into one of the artists who is working on a colorful sky. "That's beautiful," I tell her, and she smiles in appreciation. "If I were to attempt something even half as nice, I'd need the little numbers on the canvas." She laughs and continues adding interesting hues to the deck of clouds she's painting.

 

"This is such a great space," Magiera beams, and it's impossible to disagree. "We also have yoga classes in here in the mornings."

The next stop is the basement. Magiera shows artwork done in the center's series of children's classes, including a pair of prop wings that were used in a summertime production. "We encouraged the kids to write some poetry of their own," she says. "We then got them onstage to deliver it, and these wings were part of the show. Of course, there were four and five year olds who just stood there and, when their cue came, said nothing. But it was all okay," she laughs.

We weave back and forth through a warren of studios. I see the center's printing press and various workstations for jewelry-making. We enter another room, and a ceramics class is busily creating intricate figures. A cat is taking shape in the hands of one creator, and another is cutting circles and artistically decorating tiles. Another artist sits behind a pottery wheel and uses a damp sponge to craft the exact shape she wants.

The Cheltenham Center for the Arts is easily accessible by car and even public transportation (SEPTA Route 70 bus stops at its door; the SEPTA Fox Chase Line to Cheltenham Station is walkable). In 2015, the center will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

In addition to the art of being a talented painter or sculptor, there is also an art to being a good host. The hoteliers in Valley Forge and Montgomery County, Pa., have become expert at making visitors feel welcome and comfortable. Bring some color to your weekend and spend an overnight in one of our suggested accommodations. And to enjoy the art of cooking, treat yourself to a meal at L'angolo Blue in Blue Bell, where the homemade potato gnocchi with three cheese sauce is a masterpiece.