PHILADELPHIA — At the corner of 10th and Ellsworth in South Philadelphia is where art and laundry intersect. Walking up to Lisa Budnick’s coin-op, your eyes are drawn to a mosaic that frames the quaint storefront and adds color to the Passyunk neighborhood’s brick-and-mortar row houses.
Art in the coin-op is nothing new. Back in the ’70s when harvest gold top loaders and pastel tumblers were all the rage, retro laundry collages and framed serene landscape paintings offered weary customers a visual escape from the monotony of tumbling clothes. As white, almond and stainless steel machine panels ushered in today’s clean industrial look, brushes were taken to vanilla wall space to create ubiquitous cartoonish washers and whimsical bubbles.
Some coin-op owners have embraced art in such a way as to set themselves apart from the competition, draw in trade, and make laundry day an experience for the senses.
HUB OF CREATIVITY
For Budnick, who has been the creative force behind South Philly’s 10th Street Laundromat for a decade and a half, the coin-op’s revamp into an intimate community gallery for budding artists grew out of her dislike for anything cookie-cutter.
“There was no grand plan; it just evolved,” she recalls. “Everyone told me I needed TVs and signs, and, oh yes, mirrors to make the store appear bigger than it was. As you see, I never did anything they told me.”
What the energetic novice operator did back in 2000 was follow her instincts and carve out a niche where locals washed to a backdrop of homegrown artistic talent. Out went drab paneling and in went fresh drywall painted with vivid colors and covered by, at first, her own artwork.
Early on, she was encouraged by staff and others to turn the laundry into a hub of creativity. With inspiration and tutelage from renowned artisan Isaiah Zagar, whose works adorn numerous South Philly venues, the rookie store owner undertook a three-month labor of love to collect and painstakingly piece together a mosaic that reflects her determination to make 10th Street Laundromat a shining example of what a neighborhood coin-op should be.
When she wasn’t outside sprucing up the storefront with her mosaic and decorative window planters, Budnick was inside pulling double duty processing wash-dry-fold orders and hanging pieces of her personal art collection, drawing curious stares from passersby.
“In the beginning, the neighbors didn’t know what to make of it, but the response was very positive,” she says.
Budnick was ahead of the curve, as her corner of South Philly had yet to undergo its latest gentrification into one of the hottest real estate micro-markets in the city. At the time, Passyunk remained an artist colony and the coin-op became a focal point for exhibitions and performance art.
At the urging of a musician residing upstairs, Budnick offered up wall space to the artist community and hosted semi-annual parties at the laundry turned gallery. Canapés were passed between rows of machines while music and wine flowed. Perplexed patrons were encouraged to rub elbows with the invited guests and join the celebration of talent on display.
One memorable event featured a dance performance in a darkened store illuminated only by light bulbs strategically placed inside machines and around the laundry’s interior.
“All the artists brought their own spin,” she comments. “The more amateur the artist, the more open they were and thrilled to have the exposure.”
There was a brief hiatus in showings last year due to equipment upgrades, but are set to resume again in the near future. Typical exhibitions at 10th Street Laundromat run four to eight weeks in length, with the artists responsible for hanging their works and posting their autobiography and pricing. All proceeds go to the artist, with Budnick usually offering $50 even if no pieces are sold.
“It’s good energy. We’ve never had anything stolen or ruined and never had any artist complain,” she says.
Budnick draws new talent by putting word out to her customer base and local organizations, as well as posts on the InLiquid.org website.
The civic-minded owner also donates art supplies to the local elementary school attended by children of her longtime attendant Edith Miranda. My recent visit coincided with an exhibition of the pupils’ finished pieces.
“They couldn’t believe it,” Miranda recalls of the reaction of the fourth-graders and proud parents upon seeing the handiwork on display, adding, “Art gives a nice presentation to the laundry.”
Patron Melissa Fehlinger echoes those sentiments: “Having art here sets itself apart from a typical laundry and makes it a place you want to come back to.”
Emily Goettler, who was drawn to try the laundry after noticing the mosaic, likes the store’s vibe.
“It’s homier and less sterile and stark,” she observes. “I love it here. They really capture the uniqueness and essence of the neighborhood. You know you’re in South Philly when you see mosaics.”
Check back Thursday for the conclusion featuring Liberty Laundry, Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.