Glass House + Meddow
in Philadelphia, PA
In the heart of the River Wards neighborhood,
at 1400 N. American St.
sits the InLiquid Gallery.
One of the first written mentions of the River Wards came in the 1690s, with references to the “Glass House and Meddow.” This indication of a glass manufacturing mill in the area foreshadowed the colonization and industrialization that shaped Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Port Richmond, and Kensington, a pocket of Philadelphia perched on the Delaware River, for generations.
By focusing on this particular spot on the planet, Glass House + Meddow examines the human impact on the local environment to engage with a global issue, and make community participation and sustainable action more accessible. In pursuit of perspective in the face of overwhelming crisis, three local Philadelphia artists – Jaime Alvarez, Donna Backues, and Chantal Westby – examine the past, present, and future of human impact within the River Wards.
This exhibition is made possible through the support of The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, and The Penn Treaty Special Service District.
To this day, the neighborhood is dealing with the repercussions, contaminants, and decline of its industrial past. Donna Backues began her series of paintings about this past with research, turning to historical maps and modernist philosophy for inspiration. As a self-described “outsider” to the region, Donna was able to further objectify these records — deconstructing, then molding these cartograms into emotional representations.
As Donna discovered by comparing various elevations of the region, these maps are not only biased—influenced by their cartographers, illustrators, developers, and colonial settlers— but inherently violent. Maps cannot illustrate a full reality and, through their additions and omissions, offer a version of history that primarily served the industry of the time.
If maps themselves can be reduced to a series of abstractions and half-truths, Donna’s work can be seen as an effort towards further abstraction, reducing these maps to their basic shapes and emotions. The sadness, vulnerability, and violence of this region’s history makes a return, alongside an acknowledgement of the hope, optimism, and humanity that persist alongside it.
Today, the neighborhood faces new challenges as it grapples with a changing identity, with the remaining factories and warehouses often serving alternate purposes such as housing, offices, and art galleries. Constant construction spawns condos and retail space, attracting new and more residents.
Reflecting on the urgency of this moment, Chantal Westby, in collaboration with printmaker Rhonda Babb, emphasizes the need for action and activism to make meaningful progress. This installation illustrates the journey of water from rivers, to our faucets, and back again – a demanding cycle that requires both civic and individual involvement.
While the factors that contribute to climate change have been churning for decades, there is still a sense that this is all too new, too fast, too hard to settle the mind on a single facet. Inspired initially by frustration with the omnipresence of single use plastic bottles, Chantal focuses on how water, one of our most basic needs, is affected by human action— or indifference.
To think of sustainability, it is imperative to think of the future. Confronting the unknown, Jaime Alvarez imagines what the neighborhood might look like decades from now. He defines sustainability as “the length of which something has to survive, whether it’s abstract, like a thought, or physical, like a boulder— or structure.”
Abstracted, simplified, and cast out of beeswax, this residential cityscape reflects what Philadelphia may look like centuries from now. Wax Homes depicts a version of the neighborhood populated by the city’s characteristic row homes alongside conceptual structures that could house future residents.
In this imagined future, the houses still stand, but the colors have faded from the facades to warm amber brown tones. The fragility of the beeswax foundation of this miniature community is a reminder that without being more proactive about our own environment, could be lost in the future.