West Philly studio promotes independent publishing

Mary Tasillo, co-founder and president of The Soapbox, prides herself on the artistic community her company creates in West Philadelphia. The Soapbox is an independent publishing center in Philadelphia that opened in 2011 and is run solely by volunteers.

Tasillo, a Pittsburgh native, moved to Philadelphia nearly 11 years ago to pursue a MFA in book arts and printmaking at the University of the Arts.

 In 2011, The Soapbox officially opened its doors.

“Charlene Kwon, a Ph.D. student at Temple at the time, and I both had an interest in in bookmaking and printing and we basically came from situations where we had access to great printing facilities in a university environment,” Tasillo said. “When we finished up with school, we realized there’s not a place to do that in a community. We probably had a year of brainstorming before we opened our doors.”

Tasillo and Kwon wanted to keep The Soapbox accessible to everyone in the city and base it off volunteer work, but they knew they would run into financial issues, so they decided to buy a house together and run The Soapbox out of their home.

“We thought community-minded people should have a place in Philadelphia to be able to take a workshop on bookmaking and keep it accessible,” Tasillo said.

The Soapbox is open four times a month, and all the volunteers, including Tasillo, also hold full-time jobs.

“In an ideal world, this would be a dream job,” Tasillo said, who currently manages the office at an architecture firm, teaches papermaking and writes a column for a papermaking newsletter. “I enjoy the jobs that I do, but my ultimate dream job is the work I do at The Soapbox.”

The Soapbox currently has about a dozen members who pay once a year for access to the studios, and a few work-exchange members. Twice a month they hold open hours, where non-members are welcome to come in and tour the studio or take a workshop.

“We hold additional hours for members only,” Tasillo said. “Members are welcome to work in the studio and have access to the letterpress, binding tools, screen-printing and other tools.”

Along with the usual hours, they also occasionally hold special events. The Soapbox has also hosted poetry readings, zine readings and other art exhibits.

The Soapbox boasts a large zine library, with 1,200 zines, that is open to the public. Zines are small, often hand-made independently-published books. They can be personal essays, poetry, academic journals or any type of self-expression. The Soapbox offers facilities to make zines and share them in its library.

“West Philly has a pretty active, creative community, and a lot of projects are operating out of homes like ours so it’s been great to be a part of that,” Tasillo said. “My favorite part is teaching people to do something for the first time at the workshops.”

One of The Soapbox’s volunteers, Anna Lehr Mueser, started using the studio as a member and is now a Soapbox board member.

“I love what I do with The Soapbox,” Mueser said. “We offer affordable and reasonably accessible art studio space to the whole community.”

Mueser joined The Soapbox in 2012 and has had experience bookbinding in the past.

“You don’t need to be an artist in a private studio or have a lot of money,” Mueser said. “It reaches a lot of people in the area and makes independent publishing more available.”

Temple assistant English professor Brian Teare and art librarian Jill Luedke have worked in the zine library with Soapbox in the past. Tyler adjunct assistant professor Jenn Pascoe has led screen-printing workshops and assistant professor Sneha Patel has brought in her architecture publication class for tours and hands-on demonstrations.

Additionally, Temple alum of the Masters in Art Education, Johanna Marshall, is a former board member and workshop instructor.

In the future, volunteers at The Soapbox hope to eventually move to a new space.

“My vision is that we can also engage more people in zine writing, reading, printmaking and publication art,” Mueser said. “I hope people will be able to express themselves and connect with others through these art forms.”

In the next few months, The Soapbox is holding workshops in printmaking, comics creating and bookbinding. Beginners with no experience are encouraged to drop in for a workshop.

“We’re always looking for more people to get involved,” Tasillo said. “Anyone can stop in if they’re interested in volunteering or learning.”

Chelsey Hamilton can be reached at chelsey.nicole.hamilton@temple.edu

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