Kay Healy is a visiting professor in the Ursinus Art Department where she teaches painting and printmaking. An accomplished artist, she currently has her work shown in an exhibition, Coming Home, in Terminal E (for ticketed passengers) at the Philadelphia International Airport, where each day 10,000 people pass by her 40-foot long by nine-foot tall installation. The oversized exhibition features screen-printed, sewed, and stuffed life-sized furniture.
Kay Healy knows exactly when her interest in home, and all the meaning that word encompasses, began.
“I grew up in this incredible house on the water in Rosebank, Staten Island,” Healy explains. “We had views of the Verrazano Bridge, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty and New Jersey. I lived there for 16 years until my Mom sold it in 2006. I’m not sure I knew it at the time, but saying goodbye to my childhood home really affected me. It was the end of an era.”
Healy began pouring her feelings of loss into her art. Having graduated in 2005 with an Art History degree from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, she went on to graduate school at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. One of her first projects while studying there was called Nesting in Philadelphia. Healy used old furniture — a cushioned gold chair, a side table, a mirror, and a lamp — that she found curbside and set them up in inhospitable places around the City, such as on railroad tracks, in a pizza place, or besides the Wissahickon Creek. She photographed them, sometimes with herself or a stranger sitting in the chair.
After creating life-sized furniture prints for her thesis exhibition, Furnishing Philadelphia, Healy began creating fabric versions. She screenprinted her line drawings on fabric, sewed a backing material, and added stuffing to create a three-dimensional effect using the “trapunto” process. She used the same approach with other installations that were displayed in windows on Broad Street and at City Hall.
When Leah Douglas, Director of Exhibitions at the airport saw Healy’s work at the two Philadelphia locations, she was instantly captivated.
“Kay’s installation receives a lot of attention from passengers,” says Douglas. “They not only respond to its enormous scale, but to the imagery, her craftsmanship and the nostalgic nature. I think the most successful exhibitions at the Airport, exhibitions that make people stop and look, feature artwork that includes familiar recognizable elements and upon closer inspection, the viewer discovers something unexpected. Kay’s work does this by including ordinary furnishings —yet the way that they are hand-drawn, hand-sewn, makes them unique.”
Coming Home includes four life-sized rooms — a bathroom, kitchen, dining room, and living room — with hand-drawn and stuffed pieces of furniture in each. The rooms are all arranged atop hand-printed fabrics that represent patterned wallpaper or tiled walls. The rooms are based on Healy’s interviews of four Philadelphians describing their childhood homes. At first, Healy was going to base the exhibit solely on her memories, but soon felt like it was missing something.
“I decided it was much more interesting if I took four different types of people and made their memories into a communal home we can all access,” she explains.
Healy and 10 student interns from the University of the Arts worked on Coming Home for a year and a half. The back panels were quilted on a 12 foot long arm sewing machine with a grant supported by a Continuing Studies Faculty Enrichment grant from the University of the Arts, since the pieces were far too big for a normal sewing machine. She worked in the Paradigm Gallery in Queen Village, Philadelphia and made the work itself into an exhibit called Starter Home by inviting the community to stop by and assist in assembling the piece.
“Friends and friends of friends came in and helped,” says Healy. “I never could have finished the exhibit without them. It was wonderfully communal; sewing is a natural form for people to come together.”
The airport exhibit was completed in August and will stay through December, 2012. Recently, Healy flew to Boston and arrived early for her flight. She sat for two hours in front of the exhibit listening for reactions. Most passersby were quite taken by it, but many people seemed curious about the process, as opposed to the finished pieces. In response, Healy plans to hold a workshop at the airport on December 19 with some pre-sewn pieces and people who are interested can stop by and help stuff them.
“I like the idea of taking this transient community and getting them to interact with each other,” she says. “It won’t give them a sense of home, of course, but it will at least get them talking with each other.”