Truth and purpose through art and activism

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Arleen Olshan at Mt Airy Art Garage
Arleen Olshan inside the Mt Airy Art Garage

Passion and purpose drive Arleen Olshan

Artist and activist Arleen Olshan has been an enduring presence in the LGBT community and beyond for decades, with a purpose and passion that continue to burn strong no matter the obstacles. She is the co-founder and treasurer of Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy Art Garage and has always been driven to create. She is an avid painter and sketch artist and has worked crafting custom leather since her late teens. However, fostering communion with art in the lives of others—allowing it to be a touchstone and constant—is her number-one mission.

Arleen Olshan shows the art and space inside Mt Airy Art Garage
Arleen Olshan shows the art and space inside Mt Airy Art Garage

“I took a design course once with a very interesting teacher,” she said. “[I learned] really everything is art. It always affects you, however you live. Everything that is created starts with a design, starts with an idea, somebody’s invention in their head, and then it becomes something. I had an early appreciation for the fact that whatever you’re doing… it makes your life richer. It’s so important to think about and not just live on a day-to-day plane of necessity or living only for money. There’s so much beyond that.”

It was with this perspective that Olshan and her wife Linda Slodki founded Mt. Airy Art Garage in 2009. Defined as a community-based art center “founded and driven by a dynamic group of professional artists” its goal is allowing for “creativity, collaboration, and self-actualization that both inspires and facilitates creative expression as an instrument for social change.” Central to this is providing a platform for professional and emerging artists to share their talent with others in the community, especially children, for a two-fold benefit.

Olshan has pursued this with vigor since she and Slodki first conceived of the organization. But her ambition is indicative of a life that’s always been governed by a search for truth and purpose.

When the New York native set out to make her mark on the world the landscape was a far cry from what it is now. Coming out as LGBT was not as simple in the late 1960s and early 70s and it was much more of a challenge to find one’s community and a place to thrive.

“It took me a while to actually come out and be active, and that was before Stonewall, too,” she said. “I wound up going to Los Angeles for about a year and when I signed my apartment lease and talked to the manager of the place, coming down the steps were six Mexican lesbians. I just thought ‘Oh my! I can’t get away from this!’ It was kismet and led to a wonderful awakening.”

“[They] took me out to get clothes that would help me be my butch old self,” she added with a chuckle.

After coming back east and putting down roots in Philadelphia, she continued to seek authenticity.

“Women would come on to me, even from across a crowded room,” she said. “I finally started recognizing that was where I belonged. It was wonderful.”

Fate stepped in when Olshan came across a tiny ad for the meeting of a new organization called the Radical Lesbians.

“I went to the meeting by myself and walked in to see hundreds of women,” she said. “It was remarkable—this was about 1970, just after Stonewall—and it was a real mixture. There were academic women, straight-looking women, African-American women. It was amazing. The feminist movement had already started. There was the National Organization for Women, and there was also a multifaceted women’s center on 46th and Chester with a lesbian hotline, consciousness-raising groups and people getting together to organize marches.”

She quickly became a fixture in the community, reveling in the atmosphere and working hard to forward equality and connectedness in the era bridging Stonewall and the AIDS epidemic.

Artist and activist Arleen Olshan
Artist and activist Arleen Olshan

“I was active in the first Gay and Lesbian Center in Philadelphia, becoming the coordinator there,” she said. “I was there for a number of years. Those were wonderful years—but it didn’t last. It was too expensive a building. The gay men raised money like crazy trying to keep it open, too—renovating it, fixing it, everything.”

After making friends with Ed Hermance, who also served on the board, Olshan teamed up with him as business partners to take over Philadelphia’s legendary Giovanni’s Room when the opportunity arose at the end of the 70s. As of 2020, it remains the oldest American gay bookstore still in operation.

“It was founded by Tom Wilson Weinberg, Bern Boyle, and Dan Sherbo in 1973 at its original location on South Street,” she said. “It was taken over by Pat Hill for about a year, or two. But the restaurant below bought out the building from under her and she decided to sell [the store]. That’s when Ed came to me and said, ‘you’ve been in business and I’ve been in business… let’s do this’”.

Olshan relished the challenges of throwing herself into a new venture.

“[LGBT activist] Barbra Gittings would publish lists of books we should all read in the gay community and any time there was anything even a little bit gay she would put it on the list,” she said with a laugh. “Back in those days there were hardly any books, maybe two dozen, and a number of magazines. We moved it to 1426 Spruce Street with a good realtor and a very cheap rent, and then all of a sudden, with both the feminist movement and the gay movement, the publishing industry started really exploding with gay and lesbian and feminist books, and we just happened to be there to ride the crest.”

This was a long time before the days of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. LGBT people having access to literature that empowered and validated them was transformative and vital. Olshan took the work seriously.

“We were the second gay bookstore—Oscar Wilde Bookstore was the first, and Craig Rodwell was the owner of that, and he taught us what to look for and what to buy,” she said. “He took us to a distributor and helped us figure out how to manage things. Maybe twice a month we’d run up to New York and buy a bunch of books and bring them back to Philadelphia.”

Artist and activist Arleen Olshan is proud of the work at Mt Airy Art Garage
Artist and activist Arleen Olshan is proud of the work at Mt Airy Art Garage

Unsurprisingly, there were setbacks to endure.

“The building was sold and the new landlord said, ‘We don’t want you here’,” she said. “A lot of men would cruise along the street, and they somehow blamed us for Spruce Street being gay.”

They moved Giovanni’s Room to what would become its current location—12th and Pine. This wouldn’t have been possible had the local LGBT community not come together to give them an interest-free loan, allowing them to make a down payment and perform needed renovations.

“Those were amongst the best years of my adult life,” Olshan said. “We were distributing American books to gay and lesbian and feminist bookstores all over the world—Italy, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, New Zealand. You name it, we sent our books there.”

The work of purveying literature for a niche audience the world still largely misunderstood inevitably led to trouble.

“Oh, there were controversies we had to face” she said. “There was a bookstore in Montreal [we distributed to] and they confiscated our books and said, ‘These kinds of books are against the law.’ We had to fight it. It took years but we did win the case. It was a setback but it didn’t cripple Giovanni’s Room.”

Olshan planned to stay with the business for five years, intending to pursue her art, but five years turned into ten.

“There was an organization for feminist booksellers, and I went to one of their conventions,” she said. “After I tried to share some ideas a bunch of dykes got up and said, ‘Your opinions don’t count because you work with a man.’ [Many back then] saw things as either gay-owned or feminist-owned, where as we [at Giovanni’s Room] tried to provide for the whole spectrum.”

Around the time Olshan left the business the AIDS crisis began to reach new peaks of devastation, decimating the community she had long taken solace in.

“We all had to stand strong and support one another,” she said. “It was such a hard time, watching friends of ours die; especially with [President] Reagan not even acknowledging it was happening. They didn’t even acknowledge it was real until Rock Hudson got it. Pretty soon we saw the making of the [NAMES Project] AIDS Memorial Quilt, and all the marches to Washington… It was a really hard time emotionally.”

Arleen Olshan took on a number of jobs with a common denominator of giving back to the community

Through the years Olshan took on a number of jobs with a common denominator of giving back to the community. She went to shelters and taught, helping recovering addicts attain their GEDs. She also worked for a period as a Psych Tech at the now-defunct Betak, a final stage HIV/AIDS hospice founded on the mission that those who were dying deserved warmth and dignity. Later, she became certified as a Certified Addictions Counselor and worked at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital with Methadone clients, assisting pregnant and parenting women recovering from heroin addiction.

Upon retiring, Olshan had an epiphany.

“I retired at 62 and began traveling the country to sell my wares at women’s music festivals for a while, and I said to Linda ‘I’d like to find a way to showcase art, others’ art as well as my own’—and she said ‘Go for it!’ And that’s what started Mount Airy Art Garage.”

The mission from the outset was to highlight a wide array of culture, and things quickly started growing.

“Our first building, which we had from 2010 to 2016, [allowed us to] have jazz bands, poetry slams, a full gallery, studio, and classes in handcrafts and fine art,” said Olshan.

MAAG wasn’t initially a non-profit, so the building was renovated with support from the community. The result so impressed the landlord that—in an echo of Giovanni’s Room—he decided to sell it for a profit out from under them. Of course, Olshan couldn’t let that be the end.

“For the past four years we’ve been in a small gallery, and we’re continuing the same work,” she said. “We also work in [Emlen Elementary School] doing murals with the kids—we teach them drawing and painting, the language of art, and how to work modeling for one another, doing portraits and full body drawings, and they learn the color wheel and how to use ink and brushes. We call it the Community Pride Mural and Literacy Project. We also have a relationship with Philadelphia Theater Company. We had a whole gallery [of artists’ works] there—and took some of the kids to the theater. For most of them it was their first time seeing a live performance like that. We sure miss live theater!”

Surviving the Covid-19 pandemic has indeed presented more challenges. Olshan said outside support from those who recognize the importance of the work MAAG is doing in the community has been crucial.

“March really screwed us big time,” she said. “We had to close down for three months, but we’ve kept alive. We have a very wonderful man, who has sponsored a lot over the years, and I found a building [at 7054 Germantown Ave.] and he bought it, and we’re opening soon. We’ll be paying rent—he’s our landlord—but we have a 10-year lease.”

Olshan and her collaborators didn’t want to cease operations completely, and conceived of Art in the Time of Coronavirus, a virtual gallery where members submitted an array of works cementing a theme of interconnectedness in the face of physical distance and adversity. A representative from FreshArtists.org, which highlights the artwork of children countrywide, also contacted Olshan and expressed admiration for one of the students’ murals, requesting to incorporate art from it in online games that help children work on sharpening concentration. The finished product is on the web site.

Through it all, Olshan said she remains resolute that art plays a role in healing and connection, particularly in trying times, and remains committed to her goals.

“We all need to live up to our potential, and that’s part of it, too. Some of [our students] won’t become artists, but we can say to them ‘You can do this. We want you to have this. Say who you are.’ It’s about being proud of yourself, your community, your family, and telling your story through art. Things are obviously difficult now, but we will be back [together] again.”

Having surmounted many challenges, she encourages those who are despairing not to give in to the darkness that gnaws at them.

“The one thing you can count on in life is change,” she said. “And it isn’t just artists. Everybody can feel a sense of ‘What is going to happen next. Where are we going?’ All kinds of people are suffering. It’s just a terrible time right now, but we have to make the most of it. Go out and enjoy the fresh air while you can. [Do] whatever inspires you. Take walks. Believe the scientists. Don’t be foolish with your life. Don’t let hostile people discourage you, either. You just have to go on. Sure, some days are not going to be so nice, but other days will be a whole lot better. Keep doing your work. Keep being creative. It’s good for your soul.”

To find out more about Arleen and Mt. Airy Art Garage, including the opening of their new facility, you can follow them on Facebook, Instagram or visit the web site: MtAiryArtGarage.org