Remembering Bethlehem Arts During a Pandemic: A Digital Trip to The Banana Factory

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I never expected to be finishing my last year at Lehigh from my house in New Hampshire, which is just over three hundred miles away from Bethlehem. And yet, here we are. I’ve spent the better part of the last twenty one years of my life in my hometown. Its sights, smells, and sounds are like an extension of my family, always greeting me with open arms after my drive back from Pennsylvania. Over these past few weeks, however, home has not felt like home because a large part of me is still in Bethlehem. I didn’t know anything about the city beyond Lehigh’s campus, let alone the South Side Arts District, until I began my work with the Southsider. I’d never explored my surroundings beyond the campus’s stone walkways and artisan brick walls until this publication gave me a reason to explore the city.  

Southsider helped me actually see Bethlehem. Through the literary readings, holiday markets, scavenger hunts, theatre festivals, and so much more, I came to realize how lucky I was to be living in such a vibrant arts community filled with such genuine people. I’ve never known food like I have through the restaurants native to the south side. Actors and artists shared narratives that served to unite all those who took the time to listen. Local authors held up their published works and received rounds of applause from the community members who’d been with them since the first step of their journey. 

There’s something really special about this community and its commitment to celebrating the arts and culture that give it life, which makes this sudden goodbye all the more painful. I’ve logged countless miles across Bethlehem, and I still had more to go. Instead, I’m now isolated in a small town that celebrates art only with an annual craft fair. I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to figure out how I could escape the same four plain walls and once again feel like I was connected with some sense of the outside world. Digital trips to the Louvre and Guggenheim provided me with the art aspect, but they still didn’t make me feel any closer to what I was missing. The major urban museums couldn’t bring me close to the community I knew from Bethlehem. So, I took a trip to the Banana Factory and found that I could return digitally to the community that I have grown to love. 

The Banana Factory houses thirty resident artists and three art galleries. Social distancing currently prevents us from experiencing great artwork in person, but the Banana Factory does have three digital exhibitions. Browsing through these pieces did more for me than I can currently put into words. But, I can say that they finally helped me feel the sense of togetherness that I’d been missing. Hopefully the snapshots I’ve included of some of my favorite pieces below can do the same for you. 

Peter Keady: SmokeEaters

In addition to his career as a photographer, Peter Keady serves as the Chaplain for the Palmer Municipal Fire Department. His idea for the digital exhibit came after he took a color portrait of Tom “Pappy” Condosta, a firefighter with forty years of service. From this photo, Keady realized he wanted to tell the story of volunteer firefighters that went beyond the action shots pictured on the news. He wanted to show the sacrifice that goes into this service, and he wanted to show that the figures behind the masks and fire gear are real people. This exhibit gives you a look into the workings of a community that not many of us know. However, Keady’s photos do more than just invite you in; they make you feel like you know these people. The visual stories he manages to tell speak to the power of being invested in a cause and the bonds that develop among firefighters. In our current climate of isolation, we can use that reminder. 

“#Pappy” – Peter Keady (Photography)

The image featured above was the seed for the exhibit. Tom “Pappy” Condosta was so dedicated to Station 27 that even when he could no longer ride on calls, he still came to the station to manage attendance and fill out paperwork. 

“After a Call” – Peter Keady (Photography)

Keady made the photo pictured above of firefighter Keith Soltis lacing up his boots after a call. The pictured gear is always kept either in personal racks or close by as the volunteers have to be prepared to act on a 24/7 basis. Keady uses photos like this one to remind you of everything volunteers give up in order to serve. Family and personal time comes second to responding to calls. 

Compendium: Chroma Color Through the Decade

This exhibition didn’t have a description or dedication, but the expansive collection of works all speak to the same topic: color. It’s hard to ignore the monotony that can set in with quarantine and stay-at-home orders. Days once categorized by difference become blurred together in an endless stream of passing time. These bright works bring back a semblance of uniqueness. You never know what is going to come next, and each image is awakens viewers to the beauty of the world. 

“Drive By” – Wendy Jamison (Photography)

This above photo put me in two places: my family’s summer camping trips in Maine and along the canal that passes through Bethlehem. If I look at it long enough, I imagine the warm sun on my skin or the mist that shrouded my morning runs along the packed trail. I can hear my dad’s voice calling to me from the campfire or my best friend’s sneakers hitting the ground with the same rhythm as my own on Bethlehem’s D & L towpath.  

“Rogue Ladies” – Dore Vorum (Photography)

I’ve spent the past few years admiring all of the murals that fill up the walls in South Bethlehem. Vorum’s photo reminded me of all the Thursday mornings and Friday afternoons I’ve spent walking down to Lit Coffee Roastery and Bakeshop. My route took me through a parking lot that put me face to face with the giant painted steelworker that called the side of the building home. I’d step into the small coffee shop and immediately be hit with the warm smell of dark coffee and the best spread of baked goods I’d ever seen. After a few visits, I started to recognize other faces there and felt like I was part of something, even if we never spoke beyond the sounds of tapping keyboards.

Encore Exhibition

Every work in this collection was created on either vinyl records or CDs. It’s truly amazing how much the artists capture within this medium—I never would’ve even thought to consider a CD as a blank canvas. The range in artistic styles showcases the innovation of South Side artists. 

“Zen Circle” – Kelly Berk (Paint on Vinyl Record)

I’m not sure what I thought before I attended Lehigh, but I never realized just how beautiful Pennsylvania’s mountains are. Growing up in New Hampshire has allowed me to know hiking and camping and the outdoors. I assumed that would disappear during my college career, but it didn’t. Hiking up the Glen Onoko Falls and exploring the lakes of Jim Thorpe showed me all the beauty that exists in Pennsylvania. I’d hoped to do more exploring in the warmer coming months; Berk’s vinyl proves I still can. 

“The Jeff Goldblum Album” – Nicole Gencarelli (Acrylic and Photo) 

I don’t know what else to say other than that Gencarelli’s piece made me laugh and put a genuine smile on my face. Sometimes it’s the smallest joys that can make the biggest impact. 

I’m not ready to say goodbye to the South Side Arts District. I wasn’t even ready when I knew I still had two months to prepare. These digital exhibitions helped make that goodbye a little less painful, and they’ve given back a part of the city that I’ve come to love as my own. Southsider truly has changed my perspective of Bethlehem for the better. I look forward to the day when I can join celebrations like Restaurant Week, Christkindlmarkt, and First Friday again.

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