“Dream Weaver” is not just a song by Gary Wright: It’s also a description of a woman, Linda Slodki, who, along with partner Arleen Olshan, is making dreams come true for the artist community at the Mt. Airy Art Garage.
PGN: Are you a native Philadelphian? LS: No, I’m a native New Yorker. But I’ve lived in Philadelphia for 25-plus years. As a young person, I moved about the country trying to find myself and, in the end, I wanted to be near New York but not too close and Philadelphia fit the purpose. I ended up here by a fluke and have loved every minute I’ve been here. It was kismet: When you least expect it, something wonderful happens.
PGN: Tell me about the house that you grew up in? LS: I grew up in Queens, an only child. My family was very musical. They all played in various symphonies, most of them were clarinetists and I was in the performing arts singing and playing piano. At the age of 10, I became part-specific and jobs were harder to come by, but the performance artist is, always with me. It’s really where my heart is though I ended up going the corporate route for a number of decades. I always kept my hand in by singing with Anna Crusis [Women’s Choir] and doing some local theater. And now I satisfy my artistic side here at the Mt. Airy Art Garage. It’s like coming full circle. You end up where your heart is.
PGN: What did you like to do as a kid? LS: Well, most of my time was involved in performing or training. I went to Professional Children’s School in New York, which was a school for kids working in dance, theater, sports and music. I was focused on getting work.
PGN: What was a favorite job? LS: At the beginning of color TV, there was work to be had when you were a kid with talent and red hair. When I was 5, I did a live commercial for “The Perry Como Show.” I was skating and they gave me a cup of cocoa. I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever had and out loud said, “Yuck.” After that, they stuck me in the back row!
PGN: How did you end up studying biology at Barnard College, one of the Ivy League Seven Sisters? LS: I was my father’s son and so I started out being pre-med. It didn’t last long but Barnard was an incredible experience. I was there during the era of discovery and revolution and enlightenment. We discovered feminism and women and participated in the antiwar movement and it all came together in a very positive way. I’d been a very sheltered child in some ways and Barnard is where I first explored bisexuality and lesbianism and feminism. Back then you were somewhat forced to label yourself and I sometimes envy the kids of today who aren’t worried about labels: You can be queer and let it define whatever you want it to be.
PGN: I also understand that you were the first female rail engineer. LS: You’ve done your homework! In the 1970s, I was among the first six female engineers on Conrail. [Laughs.] I admit to my moments of joy sticking my head out the window and seeing people go, “Oh my God, there’s a woman driving the train!” It was quite an experience. I think it helped develop a part of me that learned to step up to challenges. The men really didn’t want us there so you had to prove yourself every day. You’d walk into the locker room and it was filled with pictures of naked women. They’d give us the worst assignments, out in the freezing rain, running the switches knee deep in water, and you knew no one else had to do it.
PGN: You also got a degree in organization design and development at Temple and did the corporate route for a while. LS: Yes, I did. And was very glad to move away from it. It taught me great skills but it never fed my soul.
PGN: When did you come out? LS: I started out in my early teens as a fag hag and I don’t know that I ever officially came out; I always just was. I always struggled with identifying myself: Am I a femme, am I gay, not gay, bisexual? I felt the need to define myself, but couldn’t figure out where I fit in. I knew I liked women but hadn’t acted on it. I was married for a while, then I met Arleen and I was done. I was head over heels, smitten and in love. We’ve been together 14 years. I now proudly define myself as a high-femme dyke!
PGN: How did you start the Art Garage? LS: One day Arleen opened up a booklet for the Open Studio tours in the northwest and she said, “How come I don’t know any of these artists? None. I’m too isolated as an artist. Let’s create an organization!” She looked at me and said, “Make it happen.” As a team, Arleen is the dreamer and I’m the business end. So my corporate training does come in handy. But here, if I’m going to work and give every fiber of myself to make things work, it’s for something that has value and gives sustenance to my spirit.
PGN: When did you open? LS: We’re two years old. We started off in a different space during the blizzards of ’09 with no heat, no water, no bathroom, a little bit of light and a lot of spirit. We did a fine-art and handcraft market, just like the one we’re about to do, and it was wildly successful. Not just sales, but the whole camaraderie of it all. We had neighbors and businesses bring food, professional musicians stopped by to play, kids found us on Craig’s List and there was a great feeling of what could be. Today we are in a beautiful 5,000-square-foot space with 104 members and growing. It’s something that was our dream and it’s now becoming a reality: a place that is an incubator for the arts in the northwest. A place where you come to dream and to create and to share, where artists and art lovers share their skills and knowledge, where we teach children and adults about the arts and we’re just starting to get warmed up. We just entered an amazing collaboration with the Mural Arts Program where we will be hosting community paint day sites. We have a great exhibit by Meei Ling Ng up right now and we’ve been getting a lot of school groups coming in and the kids draw and write poetry, all sorts of things. It’s exhilarating to see what we can be!
PGN: How do you bring the artists together? LS: There are a variety of things. A while back we did a Friday-night artists café and we opened it up, completely free to anyone who wanted to come, other art groups, non-members, everyone. We invited people to share their stories, to bring marketing materials, artwork, whatever. We became a place to exchange ideas and people loved it. Recently we asked one of our artists who offered to help us out to make a suggestion; she suggested a salon. So now we’re doing a breakfast club that’s only open to artists — visual and performing — and people just support each other and share information, talk about challenges and dreams. We’re having one where you can bring your artwork and get it critiqued by the group. It’s a chance to build a bond with like-minded people who can help you through the difficult times or motivate you to go back to your studio and create.
PGN: It’s a great spot. LS: Yes, our former vice president, Saul Levy, who’s now passed away, found it. It’s been standing vacant for 22 years! For one year it had an ambulance company; that didn’t work in this neighborhood because of the sirens. But now it’s become our community center for the arts. We’re from here and love that it’s a diverse area that’s savvy, art-loving and involved. It’s truly a community-supported effort. When we got the permit, neighbors would knock on the door and give suggestions or ask when we were going to start classes so they could join. We ask permission of the local neighborhood groups before we do anything that might affect them. We have a great relationship. That’s one of the reasons that we’re excited about the Mural Arts Project. They are in a space downtown, but we’re the ones connected to the community, so it’s a nice bridge. That’s what we’re here for. We want this space to be available for all of the arts, film, writing, music, whatever the fantasy holds. We have so many queer people here, we’re hoping to do our first gay event soon.
PGN: Back to you: Do you speak any languages besides English? LS: I do. My parents are Holocaust survivors and I’m first-generation American. I spoke German before I spoke English. As a kid, I went to a Swiss girls’ boarding school and so learned to speak French and, growing up in New York, it was natural and necessary to learn Spanish as well. As a kid I dreamed in four languages.
PGN: What was a memory from boarding school? LS: I was always in trouble. I was the one you set up to do the deed and I always got caught! You’d nudge me in the back and I’d step up, but with my red hair I always got nailed. I remember one time on a dare I hung from the window of the chateau. Another girl and I were hanging from the eaves and naturally got caught. Another time I climbed into a tub with four girls in the middle of the night and we couldn’t get out. Busted again! But it was a good time: It was the first time I remember touching other girls. There was one girl from Africa and we’d lie in the grass and I’d put flowers in her hair. I think it was my first crush.
PGN: How did you meet Arleen? LS: We met at a dance at the Commodore Barry Club. It was a straight club and they were having a fundraiser for organizations working to prevent domestic violence. Being Mt. Airy, I’d say 30 percent of the women there were dykes! Arleen came up to the table where I was and I was immediately smitten. People always tell me I met my match with her, that it was meant to be. I say I met the butch of my dreams.
PGN: Something fabulous she’s done for you or vice versa? LS: Well, she’s a master leather crafter, along with her painting, etc. In our first years, when we were courting, she’d invite me over every time she got a new skin. I’d go to her house and it would be spread across the bed, waiting for me ... Dare I say, it was delightful. PGN: If you had to leave the states, where would you live? LS: Berlin, without a doubt. I love that city. It has two of everything; Because of the time when the Berlin Wall was up, they had to have two modern art museums, two opera houses, you name it. I also still have family there and my cousin is the founder and executive director of the Gay Museum in Berlin.
PGN: How did your family handle you coming out? LS: I was married previously and my husband was black. When Arleen and I got together, I decided I needed to tell my parents, who had no idea I was even bisexual. I’d been divorced for some time and I told them, I’m in love and the good news is she’s Jewish! They freaked out a bit but they got over it. Now my dad and Arleen talk leather craft.
PGN: If you could have dinner with any artist, who would you choose? LS: Tony Kushner, who wrote “Angels in America,” and Maurice Sendak. Have you ever read “Mommy?” by Sendak? It’s an amazing book and the illustrations are marvelous. And I would do anything that Julie Taymor wanted me to do. She directed “Frida” and “The Lion King.” I’d be her towel girl if she wanted. Anything to see her while she was creating.
PGN: And what can we look forward to here at the garage? LS: We are going to put in seven permanent studios that will be made available to our members, workshop space for teaching, as well as space for artists to collaborate. Or if you needed information on how to do a certain thing or where to get certain materials, this is a place to ask other artists. Any time you walk in the door, you’re surrounded by creative people, from professionals to beginners, from kids in their teens to people in their 80s, from all different walks of life including a large number of people from the LGBT community.
The Mt. Airy Art Garage Holiday Market takes place the first three weekends in December. For more information, visit mtairyartgarage.org.