Patti Smith – Horses

Neshaminy Mall’s Freedom Wall, 2019. (Photo by author)

Neshaminy Mall’s Freedom Wall, 2019. (Photo by author)

High on a hill, just beyond the city limits of Philadelphia, stood Neshaminy Mall’s totem pole shaped sign. The mall was typical for the 1970’s, a nondescript boxy look outside and a selection of popular chain stores inside. Its name, Neshaminy, of Leni-Lenape origin, honored the neighboring creek. On the totem pole’s four acrylic side panels were bright graphics, similar to ones that might be used for the logo of a sports team mascot. The pole was so tall that it could be seen before anything else as you rode the highway out towards the suburbs. It proudly marked the location of one of America’s first malls. To reinforce that from far off it would not appear as just a towering rectangle, wing shaped vinyl panels stuck out from each side and a small rounded “beak” from its topmost face.

This describes the view from the Septa bus that took me to work at Baskin Robbins several afternoons and Saturdays while I was in high school. Inside Neshaminy, in front of one of the two department stores that bookended the long central court, were a few more references to the area’s original inhabitants. The most traditional in style was a larger than life bronze sculpture fountain of Tawanka, a chief of the Leni-Lenape tribe. He was stooped down atop some rocks, scooping up water for a drink. At that time, there was a popular television commercial to fight against pollution in which a Native American steps onto a smoggy highway just as someone tosses garbage out of a car window. The trash lands at his feet and the commercial ends in a close-up of his face as a tear runs down his cheek. The sculpture in the mall was kind of like that, except instead of polluted land, Tawanka looked out over shoppers for fashion, greeting cards and stereos.

Not far from the sculpture and set into marble was the Freedom Wall, a series of mechanical dioramas with scenes from American history. Each had a button that if it were pressed would start a narration about the depicted scene. The little figures inside flung their arms around while their bodies moved back and forth in syncopation. There was the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington at Valley Forge and crossing the Delaware, and one of William Penn purchasing what would become Pennsylvania from the Leni-Lenape. Penn, looking similar but more colorful than the statue atop Philadelphia’s City Hall, reached two hands out in union towards the leader. Off to the side you could see one of Penn’s men offering to another Native American their means of treaty in large storage chests.

In the winter of 1976, I had a few minutes left on my Saturday afternoon break from scooping and headed over to Sam Goody to flip through the record bins. Goody’s, a large chain store had long rows of alphabetically arranged vinyl records, cassette tapes and 8-tracks, and was at the mall’s end opposite from the bronze sculpture and the dioramas.

In the front of Goody’s, before you entered, was a display window. It wasn’t large, but had a prime location, making it hard to miss what was being featured inside. That Saturday, behind the glass and stacked up like a house of cards were multiples of one new album. From the spare black and white photograph on the cover, a woman in mannish clothes stared out at me — defiant.

I never made it through the entrance to the store — the image on the album stopped me in my tracks. Except for her black — chopped up shoulder length hair, jacket that was tossed over her back, ribbon slung around her neck like an untied tie, pants, eyes, eyebrows, nostrils and downward curve of her lip — the album cover was almost white. There were a few pale gray forms, her face, hands and thin forearms that extended from the frays of her white collared shirt with the torn off cuffs. Spare details — a horse pin on the jacket’s lapel, a dainty watch, a ring on her middle finger, and what looked like someone else’s monogram on her shirt pocket. The image stood in high contrast to everything that surrounded it.

I wore my Baskin Robbins’ uniform. Even at best, before covered in ice cream, it was hideous. The color was Pepto-Bismol. Its button down, double-breasted bodice was topped off with a gargantuan white collar that had a “31” patch off to one side. The short sleeves just about reached my elbow. It was sackish, too long and made from thick, stiff, poly-blend. I had on sagging knee socks and sneakers, gummy from too many shifts behind the wet counter.

I stood there frozen, staring for the remaining time of my break. The photograph on the album cover blind-sided me with beauty, honesty and poetry. I had never seen anything like it. The woman in the image was audacious, out of category, and beyond permissions. She was a beacon that lead away from the mall and convention. It would be no surprise to learn that the record company who produced the album did not like the photo or her messy hair. At one point they tried to tame it with an airbrush, but she fought for its freedom. They may have been worried about its reception in places like Neshaminy Mall, whose shoppers might balk at her style, until its stores eventually sold white shirts with collars and thin black ties for women.

The following Saturday I went to look again. The album’s display had been replaced by a newer release. Even though the name of the album and artist had been right there, prominent above the image, I never noticed and it was gone. It would take many years before I put the details together — Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, artistic collaboration, rebellion, representation, truth, politics and love.

While my brief, but epic moment happened at one end of the mall in the front of Goody’s, others had theirs by the dioramas at the other end. Just short of fifty years after they were installed in the marble wall in 1968, a petition in effort to have the dioramas restored was signed by those hoping to relive their moment. The lights in the seven historical scenes had gone dark, the figures no longer moved, and the speakers that told the stories were silent.

The sculpture of Tawanka looks out over the shoppers much as he did when I worked at the mall. The totem pole sign, damaged after a storm, was rebuilt in 1995 with only a hint of its original shape — a few simple waves of blue neon water to reference the English translation of Neshaminy’s name, “double stream.” After a few more decades, the pole was removed — it’s structure no longer sound. Left behind is a short brick base flanked by two spotlights angled up towards the same empty spot, high above the hill.

Patti Smith – Horses is an adapted excerpt from a yet to be complete work of the same title.

Guest Contributor
Shelley Spector
Shelley Spector

Shelley Spector is a multidisciplinary sculptor and installation artist based in Philadelphia. In her practice she responds to available materials and objects, most often discarded, to make work in search of social interconnections and economy of resources. 

Spector’s work is part of many public and private collections including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which presented her solo exhibition “Keep The Home Fires Burning” in 2015, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, West Collection in PA, and Human Rights Campaign Headquarters in Washington, DC. Her projects have been presented in Brooklyn, Costa Rica, San Francisco. Chicago and Montréal. Her work has been reviewed in Artforum, Art In American and featured in ARTnews.  Spector has received grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Independence Foundation Fellowship in the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Leeway Foundation.

In the fall of 2019, Spector will be faculty in the Fine Arts program, University of Pennsylvania.