After bonding with Pedro Ospina over a mutual affinity for building things out of materials reclaimed from the trash, I was a little surprised when I arrived at the corner of Hope and Berks Streets in Kensington to find his sculpture house appear so quaint and neat.
An ornamental vine was in a full, orange bloom as it climbed up the façade of the two-story row house on this block between the traditionally Puerto Rican Norris Square neighborhood and the developing artist haven of East Kensington. In the window was a piece of art that depicted the sun turning into a flower, making the house look as if it was owned by a successful gallery artist rather than a self-proclaimed “sculptor of reclaimed materials.” When Pedro popped his bald head out the door and invited me in with his wide grin, I asked him to give me some background. He sat me down at his table, offered some cookies he had baked that morning, and began explaining his story.
For the past few years before buying the house, Pedro, in his late thirties, made his living as a teaching artist for non-profit art centers, and as a sculptor. Birdhouse sculptures inspired by his many trips to South America had become his bread and butter. As he explained, “in Brazil, it’s really popular to keep exotic birds in ornate birdhouses. It’s like a status symbol for some, so they are always throwing them away and buying new ones. I started collecting them, and turning them into sculptures using found objects.”
But hawking his birdcages in art galleries became tiresome for Pedro, as did navigating the bureaucracy of non-profits. He had the feeling that he needed to make a change in his life, but wasn’t fully inspired to do anything until his father suffered a stroke three years ago.
Pedro’s father had been a builder living in North Carolina, and was successful enough to dream of retiring to a plot of land in Mexico. The stroke ended those plans. In fact, Pedro’s father lost most of his motor skills and cognitive abilities too. But Pedro noticed that when his father was with him while he was building a piece of sculpture, his father would become aware and excited. Pedro took this as a sign that he should pursue a larger construction project. So two and a half years ago, with his mother as the mortgage signer, Pedro bought the house on Hope and Berks. It was little more than a shell.
As Pedro likes to say, “Doing sculpture in not practical. Building a house is.”
To explain what he means by this, Pedro got up from his kitchen table in the rear of his open span, 700 square foot first floor, walked past the wood-burning stove in the dark living room, and began telling the story of how he built the stairwell.
“Getting the stairs was a funny story. I went all the way out to Fort Washington looking for flooring, but the pieces the guy had were way skinnier than what I wanted. But I felt bad getting his hopes up and then not taking them, so I told the guy I’d find a use for them. I don’t know if the guy could tell I was disappointed, but right before I leave he asks me if I want a set of stairs he has laying around. They were this beautiful old wood, and I didn’t have stairs yet, so I said yes.” And later, he would use the skinny pieces of flooring as trim.
The stairs are fastened to a massive old beam that wasn’t original to the house. Pedro had bartered a birdhouse in exchange for it. The most eye-catching element the staircase is the twisting raw-iron banister that Pedro sculpted from scraps he collected after building an iron fence for a local community garden.
Pedro took me up to the second floor, which is an exact imprint of the first floor. Just over the half wall at the top of the stairs, decorated with the wood slats from the rest of the flooring, is his bathroom. I was instantly attracted to the bright splash of an orange mosaic that adorns the back wall into the concrete sculpted shower. He had constructed the mosaic from penny tile he found discarded on the street near Temple University. The mosaic is accentuated by stained glass procured from an art installation he did a few years back. He found the vintage wooden cabinet discarded on a street in Kensington, and the ornate sink below was the reward of a trade with a scrapper to whom Pedro was periodically giving discarded metal from his house projects.
The best story of the bathroom, though, was of the molding. “Yeah, that was a mishap,” Pedro laughed. “I went to this Russian guy’s house up in the Northeast looking for insulation, but it was already gone. That’s the problem with craigslist, sometimes the people have already gotten rid of stuff by the time you get there. But the Russian guy’s dad starts laughing and pointing at me. I ask him what his dad is saying, and he says, ‘He likes you. He says he wants you to have his old dishes.’ So that’s where I got all of the dishes in my kitchen.”
But everything in the house didn’t come from good luck or good will. Pedro purchased the glass block that encloses the shower from the hallway. The architect who sold it to him liked Pedro and gave him a whole palette of bricks that he then used to lay his backyard patio.
Pedro walked down the hall and ran his hand over the banister of the half wall. This too came from a scrapper friend.
He walked into his spare bedroom and he looked at the wall. “You see this wall, it’s a work of art.”
As he was gutting the house, he found the plaster wall that must have once been painted red. Now it’s splattered with the remnants of old drywall Spackle and has chipped holes from the screws. Many people have paid handsomely for pieces of abstract impressionist art. Pedro has his own–simply from pulling down some drywall.
Interior design books are full of reclaimed material–as well as materials that are made to look like they’ve been reclaimed. But none of this seems to influence Pedro, whose style comes from a strong desire for independence.
“The biggest investment I make into this house is with my time not my money,” he said. “If I can make $10,000 in a year from doing some construction or selling my sculptures, I then have the rest of my life to spend working on my house and working on my art. Time is the biggest luxury I can think of.”
This may seem like the teachings of a privileged ascetic or the ravings of an extra-terrestrial eccentric. But Pedro is neither. His house is so calm and comfortable it’s easy to sit there for hours, getting lost in his stories while enjoying chocolate chip cookies. The last story he told me that day was of his dream to create a living space in his unfinished basement for his dad. He said that he has already started designing it, and that his father’s room will be right next to the wood shop.
As I walked out of his door, I asked him about the window art and the vine. “Oh, the art came from this piece of sheet metal I sculpted into a flower and the rays around it came from this bead board I splintered. But the vine,” he smiled, “that was actually this weed that just started growing out of the crack in my sidewalk. I kept cultivating it and once it got big enough, I trellised it to the house. Now look at it, reaches all the way to the roof.”