Backyard art honors a family’s forward thinking message

The Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum isn’t your typical stuffy art gallery. Visiting the museum is more like hanging out at your cool older cousin’s house with his friends, except he and his friends are

The Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum isn’t your typical stuffy art gallery. Visiting the museum is more like hanging out at your cool older cousin’s house with his friends, except he and his friends are all amazing artists displaying their work on every wall and every corner.

When you walk up to the ordinary West Philadelphia townhouse at 3819 Hamilton St., you’ll be greeted by the laid back Tiberino family lounging on the porch with friends and the family dog, Dutch, who will roam around and browse the art with you.

The museum, which houses the work of the late Ellen-Powell Tiberino, the Tiberino family and other artists, began in a townhouse in 1999 and has since expanded to include gallery space in neighboring houses. The courtyard that joins the galleries is filled with murals, sculptures and mirror mosaics.

“You feel more at home since the space is composed of five homes and a courtyard. You feel like you’re not in West Philly,” said Gabe Tiberino.

Gabe Tiberino, 23, is the youngest of four children of Joseph and the late Ellen-Powell Tiberino. Like the rest of the family, Gabe is an artist, having graduated from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and now involved in Philadelphia’s Mural Arts program along with the Tiberino Museum.

Ellen Powell was one of Philadelphia’s greatest known artists. Her pieces are displayed in the Philadelphia Museum of art and other Philly galleries. She passed away in 1992, but her work and spirit live on through the family museum. Her distinct style is characterized by dramatic shading, and several pieces incorporate herself or her family.

The family’s brightly colored murals in the yard quickly grab your attention, along with the art’s bright thick paint, trumpets, flags and other 3D objects. In the “March of America” mural, figures mesh together to form art that carries the American theme, while questioning themes and issues surrounding counter culture, activism and the black community.

The recently added “Wall of Black Heroes” piece painted by Joseph, Gabe and Raphael Tiberino, is like a Beatle’s “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” cover, illustrating important black figures like Barak Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Martin Luther King.

There is local importance, with a mural painted by Joseph, dedicated to the MOVE confrontation of 1985, in which the activist group barricaded themselves inside their headquarters at 6221 Osage Ave. Police fired at the townhouse and dropped a bomb on the roof, leading to gas explosions that burned down the block and caused 11 deaths with 250 people left homeless.

The Tiberino Museum participates with West Philly’s “Second Friday,” a late-night art event similar to Old City’s First Friday, which occurs in art galleries mostly along Lancaster Avenue in the Powelton Village neighborhood. The event has generated interest from new galleries in the area and their informal feel. “We usually get around 100 people here on second Fridays. People have a lot of fun,” Gabe Tiberino said.

The “Carnivolution” event on Second Fridays in the Tiberino Museum courtyard is hosted by Jelly Boy the Clown and is a circus, concert and Halloween party all rolled into one wild and amusing event. A cast of about 20 sword swallowers, fire blowers, dancers and poets dressed in costumes and makeup perform alongside the local Philadelphia band Hydrogen Jukebox. Sometimes the audience gets into the show by dressing up too.

“It’s basically a variety show bringing back old forms of circus and vaudeville. It’s a certain kind of magic when the performance groups and museum come together. All the boundaries seem to melt down,” Jelly Boy the Clown said in a phone interview.

Matters Squidling, bassist and keyboardist for Hydrogen Jukebox says, “The museum is a perfect backdrop matching our political and social messages, conveyed in the music and the sideshow.”

Stu Jerue can be reached at

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