An 8,000-square-foot former trolley manufacturing warehouse in West Philadelphia is the workplace, gathering space and namesake for Traction Company, a 12-member arts collective made up of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts alumni and faculty members. “Traction Company is both a thing and a place,” explained PAFA director Harry Philbrick during a preview of the museum’s latest exhibition. 

Beyond simply the walls in which they make their art, however, place is a constant concern for Traction Company members. The neighborhood is ever in flux, and the collective’s home at 41st Street and Haverford Avenue is at the nexus of the expanding Penn and Drexel campuses. Having such an extravagant studio space is a luxury that, the members fear, that may come to an abrupt end at any moment. 

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“We don’t know the fate of our studio where all this magic happens,” said Traction Company co-founder Billy Blaise Dufala. “The reality of that situation is tragic and what’s happening in that neighborhood is pretty tragic. There’s student housing everywhere and people being forced out.”

Dufala made those foreboding points while standing beside his contribution to the exhibit: A 3,000-pound cast-iron sculpture made of life-size, action-figure-styled body parts representing pre-adolescent suicide bombers. 

Other dramatic pieces in the show include Brendan Keen’s 14-foot wooden piece resembling a giant seed pod etched with a night starscape, John Greig Jr.’s elaborately mounted stone inspired by Chinese scholar stones, and Joshua Koffman’s plaster piece commissioned by St. Joseph’s University for the Pope’s impending visit.

But the exhibition space is dominated by an enormous triangular wooden truss, weighing 8,000 pounds and measuring 64 X 14 feet. Built using mainly 19th-century construction processes, the truss is a full-scale replica of one of the trusses holding Traction Company’s roof in place and was made using wood from a similar building in the neighborhood that had been demolished to make way for new condos. 
“A lot of this exhibition is centered around this idea of what would happen if this building didn’t exist,” explained curator Jodi Throckmorton. “It’s a memorial to the building if it were to disappear.”

That spirit is also reflected in the modular stacking studios that make up part of the show, smaller spaces that can exist within the larger building and which could be moved should the need arise. In addition, the exhibition includes “subTRACTION,” a 1/6-scale walk-in replica of the studio chock full of dollhouse-sixed artwork and materials.

Traction Company won’t have to worry about losing a home for the duration of this exhibition, though – members of the collective are working in a makeshift workshop in the PAFA gallery every Friday, creating another modular studio and interacting with visitors.

If you go:

Traction Company
Through Oct. 11
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
118-128 N. Broad St.
$12-$15, 215-972-7600
www.pafa.org