Drawing new lines for Philly restaurants and environmentalism with Gail Kotel’s ‘Take Out Series’

3 minute read
Ants Pants owners Nancy Silverman, Paul Puma, and Liz Fleming pose with their paintings. (Photo by Gail Kotel.)
Ants Pants owners Nancy Silverman, Paul Puma, and Liz Fleming pose with their paintings. (Photo by Gail Kotel.)

Michael Lynch, owner of the South Street bistro Miles Table, looks sober, his jawline sandpapered with five o’clock shadow, his portrait captured in oil paint in a round take out tin. In another image framed by crinkled aluminum, Ellen Mogell, co-proprietor of Honey’s Sit ‘N Eat, gazes pensively to the left. And Lisa Cosgrove, who co-owns The Bakeshop on 20th, is caught mid-laugh inside a cardboard cake box.

They’re all part of the Take Out series by Philly artist Gail Kotel—portraits of local restaurant owners painted inside the take out containers that have become ubiquitous during the pandemic.

Painting imperfect pictures

Kotel, who is also a Pilates-based physical therapist, conceived of the series as a way to generate buzz for suffering restaurants while calling attention to the mounds of packaging that are at once a health safeguard and an environmental hazard.

For years, Kotel has used found objects—window frames, bubble wrap, glass bricks—as her canvas. As she piled up her own take-out boxes during 2020 while watching beloved restaurants limp through the pandemic, she decided to render images of the owners inside those repurposed containers.

She painted the portraits, working from photographs, at no cost to the restaurants, with hope that proud owners would display the finished works in their windows, even if the establishments—like the South Street location of Honey’s Sit ‘N Eat—were temporarily closed.

“I think it’s really important to have the human face behind the struggle,” Kotel says. “It’s not just ‘this restaurant.’ There’s an owner. It’s their baby.”

Mogell says she was happy to lend her storefront to boost a local artist’s visibility. “I thought it was a wonderful idea. It’s restaurant-centric. And I’m behind any kind of repurposing.”

Lisa Cosgrove, co-owner of The Bakeshop on 20th, with her cake box portrait. (Photo by Gail Kotel.)
Lisa Cosgrove, co-owner of The Bakeshop on 20th, with her cake box portrait. (Photo by Gail Kotel.)

Another person’s treasure

Each portrait takes Kotel between four to five hours to paint; the ones on cardboard get a protective coat of gesso. And by putting people's faces on containers that would otherwise be trashed or recycled, Kotel wants to make consumers think twice about these tangible by-products of Covid-19.

“I think that if we take something that we would normally throw out and make it into art, we will naturally spend a little bit more time thinking about the object itself,” she says.

Initially, Kotel planned to approach restaurant owners who were offering only outdoor dining and take-out/delivery service. Recently, she decided to expand her reach to include small restaurants with limited indoor seating. She’ll cap the series at 22 restaurants, in honor of April 22—Earth Day.

What, When, Where, and Accessibility

See portraits from the Take Out Series and other work by Kotel at Ants Pants Cafe, 2212 South Street; The Bakeshop on 20th, 269 South 20th Street; Honey’s Sit ’N Eat, 2101 South Street and 800 North 4th Street; and Miles Table, 1620 South Street. See more of Kotel’s artwork online.

Image Description 1: Framed inside a tall, wide-open window, Nancy Silverman, Paul Puma, and Liz Fleming pose with take out boxes illustrated with their likenesses. Each of them wears a mask, and Fleming wears glasses. These likenesses appear as the illustrations.

Image Description 2: Lisa Cosgrove stands with her illustration on a cake box inside The Bakeshop. There are other framed images (not by Kotel) hanging on the brick wall. A chalkboard canvas has illustrations and notes for what's being served at the shop.

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