Philadelphia Daily News June 12, 1991

Art is Brewin’ in this Old Ruin

By Ron Avery


Talk about creating exciting art. The very act of viewing Todd Gilens’ masterpiece is an illegal, dangerous and death-defying experience.

In fact, his lawyer advises Gilens to keep the location of "Urban Birds" secret to protect the public from injury and him from lawsuits.

Before allowing a reporter and photographer to see his work, both signed waivers releasing the artist and the building’s owners from liability in case of injury, dismemberment or death.

Gilens’ "art gallery" is a long abandoned, crumbling, massive old brewery built in 1894 in East Falls. There are dozens of gaping holes in the floors, missing steps and other booby traps that could prove deadly for the absent-minded.

Of course, everyone in East Falls, particularly underage drinkers, knows the place. No matter how many times the owners try to seal the building, the kids find their way inside.

The beer-swilling kids say the place is taken over at night by devil worshippers.

It’s certainly among the ugliest, spookiest and most treacherous buildings in Philadelphia- which made it perfect for Gilens.

After six months of negotiation with dubious owners, the artist received the green light to work inside. It’s easy to describe what Gilens did inside the brewery. The difficult part is explaining why.

In the spirit of the prehistoric cave painters of Spain and France, Gilens has painted the outline of figures on the walls, ceilings, floors and stairways of the derelict building.

All the figures are birds. Some birds are 40-feet high. Others are tiny. Some actually look like birds. Others require a great deal of imagination to see a bird.

Some outlines blend into the graffiti-marred walls and debris-laden floors, making it difficult to discern any drawing.

In all, Gilens has painted about 120 bird outlines in the building’s 19 rooms. "The basement and sub-basement were too dark to work in," he explains. He titles the project "Urban Birds."

The burning question, of course, is why the artist spent nearly a year inside a dangerous, depressing hulk of a building painting birds. No, it wasn’t to beautify the place.

The 31-year-old Gilens is a slender, dreamy, monk-like figure with pale sensitive eyes- the archetypal starving artist.

"This building is a microcosm of industrial history," he says, standing in the inch-thick dust. "It spans the period from the 1880’s to the 1980’s… Like a bird, it kind of hovers between the old use and the future.

"The birds are a metaphor on a number of levels. There’s the migratory quality of industry from places like Philadelphia to the Third World. Birds also represent the birth of spirit, they soar from the ashes. Something new might rise here… The heart of this work is to animate something that is inanimate.

"There’s a beauty, a sadness, a feeling of something valuable being thrown away here," He adds. Photographs of his birds were part of a gallery exhibit at the Moore College of Art and Design. The program explains, "By engagning the factory with his drawings, Gilens invests this discarded urban object with a spiritual dimension that seeks to transform its meaning and our relationship to it."

Now do you understand?

Both the Painted Bride Art Center and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts saw merit in Gilens’ unusual project and awarded him grants totaling $7,200.

In the course of showing his work to the Daily News, Gilens encountered two neighborhood youths on the roof enjoying a beer.

"Hey, are you the guy who drew that stuff?" asks a teen-ager who gave his name as Chris "What are they, big birds and s---?"

"Yeah, you’re the nature man. Yeah, I notice them (birds) all the time… It’s pretty neat, pretty weird… You have a good imagination."

The pair pepper the artist with questions. How did he get up so high? How long did it take? Do you only paint birds?

The artist seems pleased to learn that his work has been noticed and aroused the curiosity of these teenage trespassers.

They follow him around as he points out birds they may not have noticed. And they teach him something about the old brewery.

"This is what we call the bird room," says Chris in the hightest room, seven floors up. "Birds roost up there in the roof. Some guys shoot them with BBs."

"Devil worshippers come here sometimes at night," says Chris.

"They kill bats and birds. Then they wrap them up in an Iron Maiden T-shirt and put a cross in the mouth of the bird."

It almost sounds like another off-beat art project.