Aboveground at Philadelphia’s famous Independence Mall visitors discover an impressive collection of monuments to American history. Often called the “Cradle of American Liberty,” the popular tourist site contains sculptures of Founding Fathers, buildings inside of which the U.S. Constitution was written and signed, and symbols like the Liberty Bell that Americans have imbued with patriotic meaning.
Underground, that American history gets complicated and challenging. Along the 200-foot platform of the SEPTA Independence Mall-5th Street subway station, Philadelphia-based artist Tom Judd created a 3,000 square foot patchwork of images from the city’s early history.
“Portal to Discovery,” commissioned through SEPTA’s Art in Transit program, is composed of dozens of images assembled like a collage. Many of the image combinations are jarring. Such as Judd’s pairings of the slave owner Thomas Jefferson and abolitionist William Sill, who is known as the father of the Underground Railroad.
Judd began work on “Portal to Discovery” by collecting hundreds of images from Philadelphia’s history and putting them together to see what would resonate for the viewer. “As a visual artist, I don’t come up with a verbal idea and then try to figure out how to make it visual,” said Judd. “I literally work in a visual language. I put images together that I find interesting. That’s how it starts.”
Opened with little fanfare during the pandemic lockdown, the installation is a permanent addition to Philly’s Old City tourist attractions.