Artist Spotlight: James Peniston

Artist Spotlight: James Peniston

James Peniston, a sculptor, has been making art in West Philadelphia for more than a decade. On Oct. 5 at 10 a.m., the city of Philadelphia will dedicate “Keys To Community” at 4th and Arch Streets in Old City. The 9-foot bronze bust of Ben Franklin, which is covered with keys donated by local schoolchildren, will replace the old “Penny Franklin” sculpture. James is also one of four co-founders of Studio 34: Yoga “¢ Healing “¢ Arts, a new West Philly space that fosters wellness and community through healing and creative arts.

1. Where in Philadelphia are you from?

I live and sculpt in West Philadelphia, near Clark Park.

2. Tell us about your art.

I make figurative and abstract sculptures in bronze. Working in multiple styles helps prevent imaginative fatigue. I work in clay, and cast in bronze.

There’s a rhythm and a motion that I’m going for in my sculptures. When I sculpt a figure, I’m normally feeling the figure from the inside out. I put myself in the place of the figure, feeling the tension or relaxation of a muscle; feeling the placement of one bone next to another. That, in combination with research done with medical books, and with working with a live model, can yield a decent figure.

The pose of the Franklin was a reaction to a lot of busts that are straight and stiff. I wanted to give some torsional movement “” a twist. The head is not in line with the rest of the torso, the shoulders are not straight. As your eye takes in the piece, you ought to be invited to move your feet. If a sculpture is accessible, you ought to want to move around the piece, because you never feel like you have the entire picture.

You can help the viewer along with the expression of the eyes, the direction of the folds in the clothing “” a lot of little things. Baroque sculptures were really great at turning figures into spirals.

3. Are there any particular areas in Philadelphia that inspire you?

Fairmount Park. Philly has one of the largest parks in metropolitan America, and it’s underused. We take our dog out there, and there are inspirational rock formations and all the shapes of nature. When your imagination is not enough, you can go there and replenish it. It’s a library of shapes — water, wood and stone, all the shapes you could need to know as a sculptor, and pretty much all the textures you need to know.

4. If someone wanted to find your sculptures here in Philly, where would we have to look?

There’s one at Villanova University, a sculpture of Gregor Mendel that the monks commissioned to stand in front of their science center. They came to the foundry where I worked — Laran Bronze in Chester — and asked if anyone could sculpt a 7-foot figure in two months. And the foundry owners asked me whether I could, and I said, of course I can. Then I had to figure out how to do it. One of the challenges of the Mendel was drapery “” robes. For reference, I studied some of the sculptures down along the Schuylkill River, along Kelly Drive. They have some really fine robes and capes.

5. What inspired your Ben Franklin “Keys to Community” sculpture?

I’ve always wrestled with whether I have a good excuse for spending my life making art. The answer to that has always been that I believe is that art has a subtle but powerful positive effect on our lives. Yet recently that hasn’t felt like enough. So this project is an experiment to see what else I can make my art do. The question here is: Can art be used to help the community more overtly?

I began by trying to get children thinking about the notion of community, and how communities form. I went to about two dozen Philly schools, to 4th- and 5th-grade classes, and spoke to them about Ben Franklin — not about his life as a statesman, but as a community coordinator. I would start by saying, “Ben Franklin started all these institutions we still use today: the fire department, the library. How do you think he did that? Did he build them brick by brick, by himself?” Now, 4th- and 5th-graders are fairly sophisticated, and so they would respond that no, he must have had the help of many people.

Once the children had that idea, I asked them to contribute one key to this sculpture project. The hope is that when they see this sculpture they will realize that it didn’t take any great effort from any one of them, but that without all of them, it wouldn’t have happened.

It’s an introduction to democracy, or at least to volunteerism. They weren’t rewarded for this; they were doing it to be helpful. The doing was the reward.

It could have been done very simply with fewer people, but the idea was to involve many people. The Philadelphia Fire Department helped raise money for it through a penny drive in the public schools. Literally hundreds of firefighters took buckets to 500 schools, then picked them up full of pennies, and sorted change for hours. It started with a few people and grew to hundreds of adults, and thousands of children, and people from the Fire Department, Office of Public Property, city administrators, and right on down the line. Form and function fit together.

Funnily enough, I meant for the “Keys to Community” project to help children expand their notions of community, but I think the transformative effect has been greater on me and the way I look at myself in relation to my community.

Find out more about James Peniston and “Keys to Community” at his official website,

Check out the event here on Uwishunu!

Studio 34: Yoga “¢ Healing “¢ Arts
4522 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia, PA


Leave a comment directly on the blog

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *