Driving through the city at rush hour is always risky business—but that didn’t stop Billy Dufala from maneuvering a homemade cardboard military tank through the busy streets of Philadelphia in 2004.
“I didn’t get hit by a car,” Dufala said. “And I wasn’t arrested.”
Though it was inspired by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, Dufala said the tank was not crafted to make a specific political statement.
If any statement was made, “It was, ‘I’m doing this, because I really want to see people’s reactions to this militarized object that’s made out of a very commonplace material … and what is that reaction going to look like?’” Dufala said.
When Dufala altered the tank to make it rideable and debuted it on the streets, his more pragmatic artistic partner—also his older brother—was out of town.
“Steven’s the much more calibrated, and, you know, thought-out voice in what I would call the collaboration of being a duo,” Dufala said.
Billy and Steven Dufala have been working together within their family of five brothers for as long as they can remember. The South Jersey natives progressed from playing jailbreak as children to playing with public spaces and prevalent socio-political issues as artists.
Steven Dufala broke into the Philadelphia art scene when he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for printmaking; his younger brother would gain a certificate in sculpture from the same academy three years later.
Propelled by formal artistic education, the two have used materials far beyond the traditional means of paper and graphite, creating a living room set out of fiber glass and functional tricycles out of toilets.
Often, they work through what they refer to as “found objects.”
“We use a lot of trash,” Billy Dufala said.
Billy Dufala was active in shaping RAIR, or Recycled Artist In Residency, a company located in a Northeast Philadelphia waste recycling facility that focuses on combining artistry and sustainability. The organization offers residencies to artists, supplies recycled materials and promotes exhibits to celebrate what RAIR refers to on its website as “the value of waste.”
“I’m pretty dirty. And in reality,” Billy Dufala said.
The scrap metal, discarded wood and other sourced materials at RAIR played a role in the Dufala Brothers’ latest exhibition “Waste Dreams” at the Fleisher Ollman Gallery.
The brothers’ works in “Waste Dreams” extend to almost any media imaginable. Massive twisted pipes, a disco ball coated in reflective safety tape and a 1,500 pound mass of aqua-blue patinated copper dot the spacious, lofty room on 1216 Arch St.
Alex Baker, the director of Fleisher Ollman, said although this was his first time working with the Dufala Brothers, he’d admired them since the 2000s.
“The Dufala Brothers cleverly comment on the transitional nature of rustbelt Philadelphia,” Baker said.
The ongoing exhibit featured a new plane through which the brothers are projecting their work: film. In “Tic Tac Toe,” Billy Dufala drove a massive crane through Revolution Recovery, the demolition site in which RAIR is based.
Instead of using the crane for construction and demolition, Dufala opted to drag a piece of chalk across the concrete to replicate the primitive game. The project failed a handful of times before he perfected the slow-moving film: a demonstration of the brothers’ frequent trial-and-error method.
“So to be able to do a piece that the main focus is the controlling of a large piece of industrial machinery as a drawing implement … that was pretty huge,” Billy Dufala said.
The current exhibit, open until Nov. 11, follows the Dufala Brothers’ work with the Mural Arts Program’s Open Source Project. By creating works in the former South Philadelphia Bok Technical High School, the duo illustrated the construction and demolition of local structures.
Together, the brothers have been planting ornamental sculptures, re-lettering abandoned signs and facilitating a waste transfer station in the defunded, discarded school.
“I think it’s the manner that their work engages with the postindustrial nature of Philadelphia that makes them standout,” Baker said.
Angela Gervasi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.