Denise-Marie Santiago, Philadelphia Inquirer

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Denise-Marie Santiago, Amid Urban Blight, Urban Beauty
Philadelphia Inquirer, Arts, October 29, 1999

He set his easel in a Kensington field of weeds and household trash. The El rumbled overhead. Occasionally a neighbor crossed his line of vision, a landscape of crumbling skeletons.

Where most see decaying buildings with broken windows covered by plywood, Philadelphia painter Stuart Shils delights in the deep orange of the bricks and the nice yellow of the glued wood.

In the city’s urban skyline not mentioned in tourist brochures, Shils finds much to marvel at from a field on Front Street next to Palmer. The man’s an artist.

"This is gorgeous he told me…I’m looking at this whole place visually," said Shils, the thunder of the El nearly drowning out his voice.

"I’m not seeing in terms of a trashed—out post war Germany…I’m not thinking about who lives here or what goes on in the neighborhood", said Shils, whose work has been exhibited in local galleries and abroad. "I’m just thinking about the visual quality of the place."

There’s the juxtaposition of the walls and the way the sun and shadows hit them, the sizes and shapes. No matter that the walls are abandoned factories or forgotten homes.

This day, the scene Shils paints is the back of decaying rowhouses on the 1700 block of Frankford Avenue. Families live in some of the homes. Others are vacant. But that’s not important to Shils, who started painting inner—city scenes a few years ago after a diet of less—grittier scenes.

"I’ve developed a certain kind of rapport with these places, like a relationship", he said. "Not because of who lives here, but because of the way the place looks."

This is something that happens with painters Shils said. I have a conversation with this place. I talk a little to it, it talks a little to me…

Shils, a Mt Airy native, has been working professionally as an artist for 12 of his 39 years. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, until 1982. He is a beanpole of a man who stands 6 feet tall and wears a beard that is graying, and worked as a house painter to pay the bills before delving full time into his passion three years ago.

Last week, an exhibit of his paintings in oil and acrylic opened at the Mangel Gallery, at 1714 Rittenhouse Square. Thirty seven of the 30 pieces have been sold, mostly to people who are not familiar with his work, according to gallery owner Ben Mangel.

Among the cityscapes and still lifes is a scene from the Kensington vacant lot. There is also a piece depicting a construction site along Delaware Avenue and two others, done last summer, of a demolition of a factory on North American Street. And there’s one of an addition being built for the Philadelphia Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill.

Shils likes doing paintings of buildings going up and coming down. This has something to do with his fascination with big construction trucks when he was a boy.

His fascination this day, though, is in the red brick of the decades – old rowhouses and the trees poking from behind graffiti – marked buildings.

The tranquil scene on the canvas belies the state of the neighborhood. Ivan Rios, who grew up a few blocks away on Hope Street, stopped to admire the little painting on the easel.

"Can I look at it?, he asked, approaching hesitantly.

"It’s beautiful", said Rios, likening the picture to another time, when the homes were not crumbling and the street was not littered.

"I see, if you walk anywhere, it’s quiet, desolate", he said, looking at the painting.

"You can walk anywhere around there and feel safe. I’d rather be there now that be here", said Rios, 20, spreading his hands over the dirty field where he often played as a child. "Certain people see a house that’s about to fall down, certain people see beauty."

These are the kinds of exchanges that add to Shils’ experience of painting inner—city scenes. "People have stories to tell’, he said. "And it’s all part of the same fabric."

But he tries not to think much beyond the visual aspects of his work, the poverty and unemployment that permeate the area.

"If I back out of my painting mind, it’s very depressing", he said… But I’m not a social worker. I’m not here to try to help people cope with their lives. I’m a outsider looking at places that aren’t familiar to me."

What becomes familiar to him are the buildings, the ones he befriends and speaks with, the ones it pains him to see falling down. He learns about them and from them, but it’s nothing Shils can put into words.

"The paintings are what I now about the place", he said, putting away his brushes and preparing to cart his paints away. "I know that Joe Blow walks back and forth at a quarter to 12 every day, but that’s not important."

"What I know about the place is that for the last five or six days, I’ve had this dialogue with these
walls, and with these qualities of light, and with these qualities of color", he said. "And they’ve
become part of me."