Telling the city’s stories through nature

An exhibit at the Painted Bride Art Center showcases Philadelphia’s trees and the stories behind them.

At the Painted Bride, visitors leave notes about personal experiences with trees at “Planting a Forest.” | Elena Iwata TTN
At the Painted Bride, visitors leave notes about personal experiences with trees at “Planting a Forest.” | Elena Iwata TTN

Artistic motivation can be found anywhere.

Katherine Heilman found it in a tree wedged between a dumpster and chain-link fence in Kensington.

“In the spring, I’m like, ‘How is that tree still alive?’” Heilman said. “And it seems like it’s almost determined to live despite its urban landscape.”

Heilman passes the tree each day on her way home from her job at Taller Puertorriqueño, a non-profit organization in Fairhill that serves as an artistic and cultural resource hub for the Latino community.

Heilman snapped a picture of the tree on her phone and sent it to a high school student she mentors as a message of encouragement. The student, a senior at El Centro de Estudiantes who aspires to attend college as a fine arts major, appreciated the peculiar-looking plant, Heilman said.

The photo of the homely tree later became part of the Painted Bride Art Center’s “Planting a Forest” exhibit. Dozens of photographs like Heilman’s will be on display throughout September. Each tree photographed has a distinctive background story that pertains to the Philadelphia community.

The exhibit is part the Painted Bride’s Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia project, which aims to “[use] art-making as a lens for viewing the city and its history and re-place-ing established stereotypes with new narratives and understandings,” according to the Painted Bride’s website.

For Philadelphia filmmaker Sannii Crespina-Flores, the project served as an opportunity to broaden her students’ artistic horizons.

“This was just another affirmation in them growing as young artists or them growing as young activists,” Crespina-Flores said. “It was a project that allowed them to open up another part of themselves.”

Crespina-Flores works with Do Remember Me, an organization that allows teenagers across the globe to compare and contrast their personal struggles related to objectification of youth via Skype. Crespina-Flores said Do Remember Me creates a sense of camaraderie between students, who often face similar problems.

“Our youth here thought they were the only ones who were susceptible to racism, and then they find that that occurs in Brazil, that occurs in Paris, so then it starts a conversation about what you’re going to do about it,” Crespina-Flores said.

While walking through the city, Crespina-Flores guided her students in photographing whichever tree inspired them. A student she mentors, for example, submitted a shot of a budding tree that resembled a dancer.

For Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, the trees in Rittenhouse Square served not only as a scenic backdrop, but as a teaching tool for her young children. Steinberg-Egeth has been heavily involved with the Jewish community of Philadelphia for almost a decade, working with the Center City Kehillah and writing an advice column for the Jewish Exponent, an online faith-based publication.

When she wanted to teach her children the story of Tu B’Shevat, a holiday Steinberg-Egeth describes as “the first day of the trees,” she hit a bump in the road—every Tu B’shevat book she could find was made for children with backyards. Living in the city, she realized, could make it difficult to celebrate Tu B’shevat.

She decided to photograph her own daughter with trees throughout the city, now featured in the exhibit. The photograph serves as an early product of Steinberg-Egeth’s budding project to create a Tu B’Shevat book for children in urban areas.

“It was sort of this quintessential urban nature juxtaposition that I’m always trying to figure out with my kids, like how to get them to have nature experiences,” Steinberg-Egeth said.

“Planting a Forest” will remain on display until Oct. 17.

Angela Gervasi can be reached at

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