Speaking with Kim Creighton, the founder and director of the Portside Arts Center in Fishtown, on a warm afternoon, I am expecting a brief and ordinary conversation about her ordinary work and the ordinary community she calls home. But over the course of a little under an hour of chatting, I discover that her work and her community, are far from ordinary.
When I call her, there’s a short dial tone and then, before her voice on the phone has a chance to say hello, I hear the animated sound of running feet in the background. This sound is immediately followed by the boisterous laughter of children. When the excitement dies down, we’re able to make introductions. But then, out of nowhere, I suddenly hear Kim ask a child to “Give me some sugar!” This, I later learn, is an often used expression at Portside Arts Center which means “Give me a hug!” I immediately know this will be an unusual interview.
Kim, a Philadelphia native since 1989, is the motive force and central figure at the Portside Arts Center. She has the contagious energy of someone who’s mind never truly rests. At any given time, she’s helping the Center in a dozen different ways. Whether it’s helping her kids with oil paintings or devising strategic partnerships with local businesses, she’s a woman with vision, determination and the grit to make it happen.
In literature and popular culture, artists are often depicted as having their heads in the clouds; I can definitely say that this artist is pragmatic and firmly grounded in the mission of the Arts Center.
Origins and Struggle
I ask Kim about the early days of the Center and she recalls her career in sales and the realization that it was not the path for her. So, using the resourcefulness she learned as a mosaic and metal artist, she searched high and low for a space that would house her ambitions for a community center focused on arts. She envisioned a safe space, beyond bullying or name calling, where children could come after school and during summer to express themselves and grow artistically. A space that would inspire growth and confidence with her young wards. A space that, to date, has expanded beyond her initial vision and now also helps special needs children, the elderly, and veterans. The Portside Arts Center has grown far beyond it’s original mandate and is now a central and unifying fixture in the neighborhood.
With a wistful laugh, Kim also remembers the early struggles she overcame. How, with a very limited budget but the help of the community she loves, she found space in a disused canvas factory that fit her needs. She then tells me about mortgaging her own home to raise over $400,000 to cover all expenses and renovations.
But the difficulties did not end there. After cleaning and renovating the space from top to bottom for over 6 months, the winter set in. A spike in copper prices at the time had devastated her budget and, without money for heating, students and staff met and held classes in heavy winter coats. The experience left of a mark on Kim. “That was my wow moment,” Kim tells me, “this will be my legacy.” From then on, she made a conscious and deliberate decision that the Arts Center would be her full focus.
If adversity builds character, Kim has become a fountain of it. In Kim’s own words “you gotta keep on keepin’ on.” She keeps an optimistic attitude and now considers the difficulties she went through as rewarding in their own way.
Kim’s thoughts on Fishtown
The Portside Arts Center is located in Fishtown. The area is both an inspiration and comfort to Kim. As an artist herself, she has a particular fondness for the area “Everyone is interested in art [here]” she exclaims, “it’s chock full of artists!” The community has been receptive of her work and she credits the success of the Portside Arts Center at least in part to that attitude. “Art changed the whole area,” she tells me.
That fondness for the area also extends to how she hires instructors. Many of her teachers and administrators come from from Fishtown and also nearby neighborhoods of Port Richmond and Kensington. But, in case there’s any suspicion of favoritism, she’s quick to point out how hard her staff works. She tells me about her program director, Jenna Wilchinsky, who works full-time developing programs for all ages at Portside Arts while simultaneously paying for and attending the Arts Administration Master's program at Drexel University. She also tells me about Sara Damiano, her ArtsMobile director, who along with Kelsie Lilly, a visual arts teacher, are hard at work driving arts integration to schools in Philadelphia.
What is Kim most proud of?
When I ask Kim what she’s most proud of, she betrays an innate modesty. “I’m proud of my [neighborhood] parents and teachers,” she explains. She mentions a sign above her door that reads; Enter as strangers, leave as friends. It’s a simple statement, but it fully embodies the guiding philosophy at Portside Arts. “If we can get a family in here one time, that’s all we need to do,” Kim says. She has dozens of stories of parents coming by to drop off their kids, preparing to leave and pausing when they see how animated and fun the atmosphere is. Often, the parents go from occasionally bringing their children in to becoming recurring members. “Parents drop off their kids and often just decide to stay!” Parents also have many opportunities to interact with the Center during events such as Family Art Night and Art on the Rocks. Both are fun evening events that also appeal to parents.
But it’s not all fun and games at Portside Arts, Kim tells me. Sometimes the enthusiasm the kids show has darker underpinnings. In our conversation she shares stories of children with difficult home lives that found expression and validation in art. Taking a more serious tone, Kim explains a fundamental truth she’s observed; “art saves peoples lives.”
Ongoing programs and their patrons
If the early days of the Arts Center were a struggle, the present day is still a grind. The work of funding and running a community arts center never really ceases. In Kim’s own words; “I have no plans for retirement.” Portside arts has numerous ongoing projects, most notably:
Acquiring a shuttle bus to reduce the number of trips to transport students around the city.
Working in collaboration with the Veterans Program Impact Services to boost employment, self esteem and mitigate PTSD among veterans through upholstery classes. Headed by CEO Casey O’Donnel, the program boasts perfect attendance.
Providing art tools and education to 40 Philadelphia schools.
Working with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program to clean and paint a mural onto a nearby bridge for the upcoming September Festival.
Raising $80,000 for the ArtsMobile to drive arts integration in Philadelphia schools.
Overseeing upcoming events such as Nature Days, After School Arts Programs, Summer Camp, and Greensgrow Tours. Events that highlight the beauty of nature and how to incorporate that beauty into the children’s art.
The scale and number of the projects underway are matched by supporters that are coming to the aid of Portside Arts:
State Representative John Taylor has been, in Kim’s own words, “on our side since forever.”
Additionally, Councilman David Oh, is another long time supporter of the Arts Center.
Famed mural artist César Viveros, who’s previous works include the mural of Pope Francis on his recent visit to the city, created the sprawling artwork that adorns the exterior of the Arts Center. He is currently working on building a rooftop Koi Pond for the Center.
The Penn Treaty Special Services District is raising between $60,000 and $70,000 to sponsor festivals and build a gallery and music room.
Advice for kids and parents:
I ask Kim what advice she could offer to children looking to grow artistically. Pausing to gather her thoughts, she tells me there is one thing that is crucial for development; Seeking out instruction. She then uses herself as an example; when she began, she actively sought out and found instruction on welding. As she developed, she built on her technical foundation and injected her own personality and style to make her work truly her own. Seeking out instruction and keeping her humility led her to become the woman she is today.
And what advice does she have for parents that want to raise well-rounded, well-adjusted children? Giving the children credit. “They’re smarter than you think,” she tells me, laughing. As if to illustrate the point, she tells me about some of her kids learning art techniques so well and so quickly that they were later looking after and instructing other kids with special needs. Receiving empathy teaches empathy, she elaborates. And of course “Keep em busy!” she adds with another burst of laughter.
Funding art education and tools:
Kim finds a genuine reward and energy from her work; “Every kid is special,” she tells me, “the kids we have are awesome.” But she makes a point of highlighting the contributions of the parents and the community at large. Through donations of time, energy and sometimes even home appliances, the Fishtown community has helped Portside Arts Center remain viable and a major force for good, “it’s many of our parents priority.” And she tells me that she herself has developed from her time with the children at Portside; “I became a stronger and better person,” and pausing to consider her words, she adds “more patient.”
If patience is one of Kim’s qualities, so is persistence. Despite all that she has accomplished, Kim hopes to see the Center grow. She sees the Center expanding beyond it’s current location and going further north and further south, possibly even to Olde City. To make all of this happen, Kim is tirelessly petitioning and campaigning to receive more funding. She is working to make the Center more financially self-sufficient.
With Kim at the helm, the future of Portside Arts Center is bright. There will always be difficulties, but her calm and persistent leadership coupled with dedicated and hardworking staff means that as long Fishtown is around, Portside Arts Center will be there to teach it’s residents and children to dream bigger, aim higher and to always see the beauty in the both the world and themselves.