Whitman at 200



Artistic Commissions

The participating artists represent a range of ideas, approaches, and methods. Several projects focus on the Delaware River waterfront, drawing attention to Whitman’s direct connection to that locale. Others extend into the neighborhoods. All are easily accessible to a broad audience in public locations. Major support for the artistic commissions was provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

I think of art as something to serve the people—
the mass: when it fails to do that it’s false to its promises.
Mark Stockton,  The Poet in His Bedroom… , graphite drawing, 2019

Mark Stockton, The Poet in His Bedroom…, graphite drawing, 2019



New Songs of the Open Road

May 18, June 8, June 22, July 6, 2019

Interdisciplinary artist Homer Jackson draws on the history of civil rights protests and freedom songs, as well as Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” and select Langston Hughes poems, to organize four walks in diverse neighborhoods around Philadelphia. These neighborhoods range from Strawberry Mansion in North Philadelphia and Germantown in the Northwest to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Whitman Plaza in South Philadelphia, the latter the site of ongoing racial tension and demonstrations related to a housing project proposed in the 1960s and finally built in 1982. The walks are accompanied by original musical compositions and led by a gospel choir.


When You Look on the River and Sky

Mid-May - September, 2019

Spencer Finch, a New York-based artist known for sculpture, installations, and drawings that capture fleeting natural phenomena and sensory experience, creates an interactive work on the RiverLink ferry that operates between Philadelphia and Camden. In Whitman’s day, a number of ferries connected the two cities, but today only one ferry runs, from May to September. Finch’s piece directly links Whitman’s journey in the late 19th century to today’s visitors’ experience of the river. Ferry-goers match the color of the sky and water by spinning two color wheels of Pantone swatches Finch selected after observing the ever-changing tones of the Delaware river and the sky above it. The ferry flies two color flags each day, one the color of the sky and one the color of the water. Finch has created a number of works inspired by writers including Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, and Whitman. Finch also created an installation for the High Line in New York titled The River that Flows Both Ways, inspired by the color and movement of the Hudson River.


Contradict This! A Birthday Funeral for Heroes

May 31 - June 2, 2019

The Bearded Ladies Cabaret, an experimental group led by John Jarboe, created an outdoor performance that explored both the human and heroic sides of Whitman featuring cake, coffin, gavel, choir, composers, and live musical trolling. On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the much lauded homo poet Walt Whitman's birth, this group of Philly queers and misfits gathered overlooking the Whitman Bridge to put this ancestor and his legacy on trial. The performance was picked up by New York City’s La Mama as part of Stonewall 50. In 2013, the Beards also staged Wide Awake, A Civil War Cabaret at the Kimmel Center, in which Whitman’s poetry was featured.



June 4 & 6*, 2019 —8pm and 10pm

Installation artists Carolyn Healy and John JH Phillips collaborated with performer James Osby Gwathney Jr. to create a multimedia work based on Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” The piece took place on a large industrial barge on the Delaware River and featured video, sculpture, lighting, and electronic sound in an environment in which Gwathney performed the entire text of Whitman’s poem. While a tugboat guided the barge from Penn’s Landing, where the audience boarded, to a point downriver and back, the audience freely followed Gwathney as he recited the poem, traveling with him along the 130 feet of the barge deck through the structures of the set. The artists hoped the experience of being afloat on an unusual vessel in the middle of the wide river under night clouds and stars created both a sense of unease and exhilaration that resonated with the poem. Whitman frequently made the crossing from Camden to Philadelphia, especially to hear opera, one of his favorite art forms. The artists wished to create a unique tribute to Whitman that could be experienced both from the waterfront and by the audience on board the barge. Healy and Phillips have previously designed settings for sections of James Joyces’s Ulysses (at Symphony Space and LaMaMa in New York and the Cini Foundation, Venice) and Finnegan’s Wake.

*This performance date was changed due to impending weather