One wish, inscribed on a soft strip of gray cloth, came from a first grader who wanted good friends in school. Another swatch of fabric contained a prayer from a mother who had lost two sons to a drug overdose on the same night.
“There were so many that shocked and moved,” said artist Meg Saligman, who plans to compile about 30,000 prayers—from heartwarming to heartbreaking—as part of an art installation for Pope Francis’ visit later this month. Saligman draws inspiration not only from the Pope’s favorite painting, but also the city around her.
The project was started by Sister Mary Scullion, activist and co-founder of Project HOME, an organization that aims to help the homeless population in Philadelphia. Once finished, the “Knotty Exhibit” will stand tall outside of Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway when the Pope—and potentially millions of people—visit Philadelphia this September.
The project pays homage to “Mary Undoer of Knots,” an 18th-century Baroque painting that depicts the religious figure untying tangled fragments of cloth that symbolize struggle.
“I thought, ‘Well, what is meaningful, do we just want to repaint it? Does that mean anything?’ Maybe not. It’s been painted a thousand different ways,” said Saligman, who has been creating public art around Philadelphia for the past quarter of a century.
Her colossal creation “Common Threads,” filled with whimsical portrayals of figurines her grandmother owned reenacted by Philadelphia students, stands a mile away from campus at the corner of Broad and Spring Garden streets.
Instead of crafting a smattering of knots like the artist Johann Georg Schmidtner originally had, Saligman opted to include about 30,000 real, physical knots in her piece. Inscribed on the grey strips of cloth are prayers and wishes submitted by the city’s resident as well as people from around the world.
Saligman called in Dan Ostrov, a Temple alumnus with a degree in glass, to help create a skeletal, grotto-like, mahogany-and-ash dome to house and display the knots.
“I’ve been telling everybody, tonight’s Dan’s night. He made this thing,” Saligman said at a sneak peek reception for the exhibit last Thursday at the Steam Chamber studios in East Falls.
Patrons at the crowded reception were encouraged to write their prayers or wishes on free pieces of fabric that would later become part of the project. Half-joking, one of the visitors asked if she could submit a prayer for the Eagles.
Ostrov’s wife Stephanie Cole, a graphic designer working on the project, focused on the meticulous detail of the infrastructure during its construction.
“I love everything [Pope Francis] stands for, and I feel like his message is just so in line with what Project HOME is doing in Philadelphia,” Cole said.
Ostrov said the art piece took one month of ten-hour work days to physically fabricate. The team members included Thaddeus Waschek, one of Ostrov’s students, and Elliot Lamborn, a 2015 Tyler alumnus who played on the same ultimate Frisbee team as Ostrov.
The prayers, collected from online submissions as well as non-profit companies in Philadelphia and Camden, provided glimpses of hardships and hopes.
Saligman included many prayers herself—some for the success of the pioneering papal project. The exhibit will officially be on display Sept. 8th at “The Grotto” outside the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul. Prayer submissions will remain open through Sept. 27, the Pope’s second and last day in Philadelphia.
“Everybody has a struggle and they touch you in different way,” Saligman said. “But they somehow end up strengthening you and lifting you up.”
Angela Gervasi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.