Prarthana Jayaram is a Philly-based writer and regular Festival Blog contributor.
When I walk up to Connie’s Ric Rac, a small nondescript bar in the Italian Market, on a Monday night, I’m not sure what to expect. I decided to scope out a group meeting here on a whim, after finding an ad on Craigslist for a collaborative called Artists Anonymous. Armed with minimal information and a wealth of curiosity, I find myself walking into the basement-like interior of Connie’s Ric Rac, where an orange cat runs to greet me and an almost-empty room stares back. For a second, I wonder if I’m in the right place, but then I find Lauren [Serowik], who (as I learn) is behind the whole collaborative.
She tells me that the group seems to have a life of its own, and things change every week, depending on who shows up and what kind of art they make. On that note, she explains that things don’t usually get started until a bit later at night. She bartends at Connie’s, so she leaves it as more of an open house. At the moment, all I see is a handful of musicians setting up their equipment on the small stage in the back.
But Serowik does lend some structure to the weekly meetings. She points me to a few arts pieces hanging on the walls that visual artists have collaborated on during these Monday night sessions. They strive to do bi-monthly shows to share their work (both individual and collective). Usually performance artists make use of the stage and provide music or entertainment for the night.
“Our main goal is to help promote the arts by bringing artists together in a creative environment,” Serowik says. She emphasizes Artists Anonymous is open to anyone with any kind of art to work on or share; in the two months since its inception, the group has seen visual artists, web designers, musicians, and other performance artists. Here, they have a place to come together and to try to collaborate. Together, Artists Anonymous participants have tackled painting an underwater scene on a long table (which involved 15 different artists!) as well as smaller projects, like a collaborative sketchbook. In addition, several musicians have found each other through the group and connected to jam, practice, or form bands.
“It’s open to everyone, which, I think, is the most exciting thing. There aren’t enough free artists’ collectives in the city,” says Serowik, who attended the University of the Arts and has tried to stay involved with the Philadelphia arts community. Serowik estimates that five to ten of the artists at the meetings are regulars, plus a good number of others float in and out of meetings, totaling maybe 60.
Artists Anonymous has relied mainly on word-of-mouth to spread news. Many participants simply became part of the crowd because of their connection with Connie’s or with Serowik herself. This is the case of Doug, one of the guitarists from the jam session who is setting up onstage early in the evening. I end up chatting with him as he gets together his sound equipment, and he explains that, while he has played at the bar before, Artists Anonymous helped him to find a bass player and a drummer to jam with, as well as visual artists who can help with album cover art.
“You never know who’s going to come through,” he says, “Plus, this gives me an audience, which is really nice.”
By 9:30, a few more people have showed up, but the mood seems more relaxed and focused on having fun (there’s karaoke and ping-pong going on) than pushing forward with any project in particular. Serowik doesn’t seem concerned.
“You have to be able to roll with the punches,” she says, accepting that this may not be the week that a second table gets painted or another cool visual arts project is completed.
While the musicians chat and karaoke, I sit down with a few of the visual artists who are sketching at a table near the front. Most of them have found their way to Artists Anonymous from attending the open mic nights at Connie’s.
“I really like drawing while live music is going on,” says John, who draws and paints. “I started coming just so that I could be around other artists.”
The collaborative meetings get him out of his studio, which he finds beneficial for his creative process.
Also at the table is Dan, a banjo player who just moved to Philadelphia. As someone who moves fairly often, Dan says he likes that there is a lot going on in the artistic community here. Events like open mics or collaborative meetings can lead to other opportunities.
“I’m hoping to get more connections by coming to these arts events,” he says. “This is a really friendly place; my favorite thing is the sense of community.”
After we chat and the karaoke music fades out, Dan declares that he is reclaiming the mic in order to “save the world from karaoke” and he takes the floor with his banjo. He doesn’t waste any time and starts playing an extremely quick, upbeat piece with a country twang. As a skeptic of all things bluegrass and country, I was surprised to find myself loving it. Maybe it was just the karaoke-hangover effect, but Dan and his banjo seemed to make the bar come alive.
During Dan’s performance, I am absorbed by the visual artists, who are working on a collaborative drawing project called “Exquisite Corpse,” in which people take turns drawing different segments of a body, hiding the previous parts before the next person draws. The result is generally a somewhat ghoulish and disproportionate figure with mismatched head, torso, legs, and feet. The artists induce me to put the finishing touches on one of the “corpses” by drawing the feet. After politely declining a few times, I end up with some markers in hand, and I ineptly sketch in some fishtail feet for the drawing. (Sorry, corpse…)
Looking around the bar, I notice lots of similarly cryptic and eclectic art projects adorn the walls. I have to wonder how the art has been selected and curated. It’s not until a little later in the night that I sit down with Joe Tartaglia, the owner of Connie’s Ric Rac. He tells me the bar, much like the arts collective, has more or less built itself.
“When this started out, we weren’t a business. We just had a big black room with a stage,” he explains. The space was a family business before Tartaglia repurposed it for a friend’s improv acting class. Eventually, he started getting requests for gigs from local bands, which prompted him to charge a cover until the bar raised enough money for sound equipment.
In terms of booking shows and accepting art, Tartaglia’s policy seems to be about the same. “As long as you don’t start fires or mosh pits, we’ll let you do it,” he says.
Now, much like Artists Anonymous, the crowd is loyal and the nights can vary greatly.
“Some nights, we’re really crowded. Others, it’s slow,” says Tartaglia, with a calm nonchalance similar to Serowik’s.
The relaxed vibe in the bar makes it a cool hangout spot, making it easy for the artists to focus on fostering a sense of community each week. Though the group doesn’t always work on a big project, establishing this productive and creative atmosphere is an accomplishment in itself.