I’m on my way to buy face lotion at Rite Aid again. With clammy hands buried in the pockets of my corduroy jacket, I pass the Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the world’s most haunted places (among the top 10 according to TIME magazine). The abandoned prison remains a tour-able Philadelphia landmark and the home of “Terror Behind the Walls,” a haunted attraction that supposedly summons the spirits of prisoners who died in captivity there. I scurry across the street to avoid the crowd of anxious visitors and employees in decomposing-zombie makeup on Fairmount Avenue. How sweet these people are to believe that the dead are still among the living, that their ghosts remain preserved.
I’m not an expert on all things paranormal, but I have always found the link between art-making and immortality enticing. The ancient Egyptians believed that a person’s Sheut (shadow) contained a part of their soul and that an artwork of the person was also part of their Sheut. Using this logic, it would stand that an artist’s portrait is, posthumously, a part of that artist, their ghost. In the exercise yard of the penitentiary, high on the wall, is a drawing of a face, created by inmate and mason, Clarence “Kliney” Klinedinst. His spirit is still there.
As I open the door to the Rite Aid beside a group of teenagers leaning on a bike rack, I think about another place several blocks away, where a portrait of Pablo Picasso holding his palette is signed Picasso. Picasso is there. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is haunted. It is inhabited by the spectres of artists and chiefs, of rowers and patients opened up on the operating table. The ghosts of former lovers, lonely maidens, forgotten prisoners, and withered postmen linger throughout the streets and buildings and cultural institutions of my city and your neighborhood and our world. Their spirit-marks are among us.
by C. Eckel
*The Eastern State Penitentiary has a long tradition of working with artists. The header image, also shown below is from Cindy Stockton Moore’s 2014 piece Other Absences. “‘Other Absences’ features fifty portraits of murder victims. The paintings, created with loose ink washes on translucent mylar, depict men, women and children whose deaths were attributed to those incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary.” (Text from the artists’ website)