‘Good Neighbors’ exhibit at Ursinus highlights Philly’s transgender community

'Christian' by Emily Smith Satis (2012). Image courtesy of the artist.

Who are the people in your neighborhood? The "Good Neighbors" exhibit at Ursinus College’s Berman Museum reveals some, especially artists in and around Philadelphia. Those featured explore the meaning of home and community as well as themes of family, intimacy, nostalgia, and domesticity. Ursinus says the project also highlights the common ground between audiences and the artists who are their neighbors.

Emily Smith Satis, executive director of Magic Gardens, a mosaic labyrinth on South Street, has six pieces in the exhibit. They’re all portraits, all watercolors, all the same subject matter, all painted in a similar fashion. There’s variety within the consistency, though, because every person is different.

Their faces matter most, she said, but as she works from photos of the subjects, she paints whatever feels most authentic about each person. “There was an older woman sitting, sort of lounging, in this chair. She was joking, saying it was like her throne,” Satis said. “She was kind of commanding the space she was in.”

Another one of a man features his “fantastic smile. He has a little gap between his teeth. He’s smiling and exuberant all the time,” she said.

The subjects all are members of the transgender community. Satis posed the challenge to herself to get to know them better. She’s a member of the LGBT community, but didn’t know any ‘T’ people and wanted to. “The best way to research is to meet people and talk to them,” she said. “It felt foreign to me that I wouldn’t know anybody [who is transgender].”

It was difficult to find people willing to be painted at first, but she eventually connected with a few. She met others through them, she said, once people saw she was trying to handle the subject with integrity.

“The community is vulnerable, often exploited,” Satis said. “There was a hesitancy at first, but they got to know me and they felt safe.”

One goal of her work is to showcase the “way we live in our bodies and present ourselves,” she said. And through this particular project, she became more emotionally invested in the LGBT community. “If you identify as a member of the gay community, if you have any emotional investment in the community as a whole, it’s hard not to be involved, especially now with marriage equality. I just wasn’t involved with the trans community. Now I feel not only do I understand, but I’m also a fierce advocate,” she said. “It changed my life.”

The portraits expose neighbors people might not know much about, “almost like revealing a secret. A lot of people I photographed and painted, you wouldn’t know they were trans,” she said. “It’s about getting to know your neighbors. We’re part of this community. It’s about trying to connect with each other and care.”

"Good Neighbors" is coming to the Berman Museum at Ursinus College, 601 E. Main Street, Collegeville, PA, from October 14, 2014 through January 11, 2015. (The museum is closed on Mondays.) Admission is free. There is a special reception on October 23 from 4-7pm. For more information, call 610-409-3500 or visit the website

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