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Abandoned Buildings Inspire H-H Grad's Art

Hatboro-Horsham High School graduate Liz Coppola exhibits a hauntingly beautiful eulogy of social institutions with 'Myopia,' in Ambler’s Art in the Storefront gallery.

The latest gallery at the Art in the Storefront in Ambler, features the photographs of local artist Liz Coppola.

The subjects of Coppola’s art are not people, but rather places. She focuses her lens on the ins-and-outs of abandoned and dilapidated structures, most notably former asylums, and the social injustice that reportedly took place within many of those walls. Through her artist’s statement, she describes her work, in part, as documenting the “failed tenants of the American Dream,” and the lasting impact these places have on the rest of society.

“It’s a eulogy of all the people that used to live there,” Coppola said. “It’s a remembrance.”

Liz Kallikak

Coppola, 25, who also goes by her artist’s name “Kallikak,” is a 2006 graduate of Hatboro-Horsham High School.

Living in Eastern Montgomery County, Coppola recalls being fascinated with the once-looming and abandoned Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry.

“Growing up there had a huge impact on me,” Coppola said. “It drove me to study psychology and my art.”

Coppola tells the story of how the hospital, also referred to as Byberry State Hospital, once housed 7,000 psychiatric patients and hundreds of staff by the mid-1900s. She notes that by the late 1980s, the hospital was shut down and reports of horrifying unethical treatment of patients were released.

Prior to its demolition in 2006, the Byberry State Hospital became notorious for receiving trespassers in the form of thieves, vandals and squatters. However, for the high school-aged Coppola, the state of ruin of which she found the hospital drove her to exhaustive research of the hospital’s history and the reformation of mental health treatment.

It was for these reasons she had brought a single-use film camera along, so she may help document and tell the hospital’s story.

“When you go to a facility, such as Byberry, you imagine how this place used to be,” Coppola said.

By her senior year of high school, Coppola had upgraded her equipment to a film SLR camera, and learned the fundamentals of photography. The following year, while attending Villanova University, she acquired a digital SLR camera, but did not pursue further photography studies.

“Everything I learned was trial and error after Hatboro-Horsham,” Coppola said.

Coppola, who now lives in Ambler, received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Villanova, as well as a master’s in Criminology Law in Society from the same university. She currently works at a research firm in Princeton, N.J.

However, Coppola did not abandon photography, which she called her “passionate hobby.”

She has volunteered to photograph local theater groups, such as the Village Players of Hatboro, and has done work for the Penhurst Memorial Preservation Alliance.

She has also travelled to Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey seeking social institutions of historic or aesthetic worth, as she did with Byberry State Hospital. Her expeditions led her to capture Kirk-bride designed mental asylums, spiraling churches and abandoned industrial plants.

“It was something haunting and eerie,” Coppola said of one trip to an abandoned asylum. “But, it was beautiful.”

“Myopia”

While she took hundreds of photos, stored on hard drives, Coppola said she only developed the courage to exhibit her artwork publicly in the last few years. She won a special distinction while exhibiting at the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center’s juried art show. She again won the same award at that art show in the summer of 2012.

Through a friend, she then came into contact with Mark Elliot, proprietor of No Bare Walls Framing Studio in Ambler and president of the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center.

Elliot is also a co-curator of The Art in the Storefront gallery, where Coppola is exhibiting her first solo show,  through mid-March. 

She explained that “Myopia” was for those shortsighted enough to demolish certain structures that could have adaptive reuses.

Speaking at her artist’s reception on Jan. 18, Coppola happily noted the coincidence that her show is taking place in a building that was also once abandoned and dilapidated.

“It feels wonderful, I like the idea of showing more than just pretty pictures,” Coppola said. “It could plant the seed that we could save these buildings.”

The Art in the Storefront

The Art in the Storefront, located at 41 E. Butler Ave. in Ambler, exhibits artwork six times a month in two-month intervals. It is a community-based arts initiative, utilizing the former storefront of Denney Electric, and turning it into a sidewalk art gallery.

While exhibited art ranges in medium throughout the year, from photographs to sculptures, all artwork have the same common theme: the artists are local to Montgomery County.

The Art in the Storefront’s co-curators are Elliot and Karen Kieser, a sculptor and owner of Immersion Studio in Ambler.

Kieser, who was an Ambler Borough Council member from the late 1990s to 2000, said that The Art in the Storefront was part of the borough’s revitalization efforts. 

“Galleries can be intimidating,” Kieser said. “The idea is to make this storefront much more interesting.”

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For more information about the artist: Contact Liz Coppola at 215-900-1520 or elizabeth.coppol@villanova.edu.

For more information about Art in the Storefront, contact Karen Kieser at 215-654-0106.

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