Arts Culture

A parade of creative abundance hatches from a giant egg in Frenchtown

The egg is 14 feet tall and made of welded steel, covered in a shell of polar fleece. When it cracks on June 25, dozens—maybe hundreds—of people in outlandish, creative, awesome bird costumes emerge, a steady stream of fowl in many shapes and colors that enter the egg in the back and emerge to onlookers through the front.

On Saturday morning, an egg will crack at an old egg hatchery in Frenchtown. But this is no ordinary egg. Inside it, no ordinary organism. The hatchery itself, transformed far beyond its original purpose.

Indeed, everything about the Hatch is extraordinary.

For the egg is 14 feet tall and made of welded steel, covered in a shell of polar fleece. When it cracks, dozens—maybe hundreds—of people in outlandish, creative, awesome bird costumes will emerge, a steady stream of fowl in many shapes and colors that enter the egg in the back and emerge to onlookers through the front. Some will play instruments. Some will flap shadow-making wings, others with long necks bobbing as they waddle. 

They’ll continue to parade around Frenchtown as a New Orleans-style brass band, Ocean Avenue Stompers, serenades those who’ve gathered to see the spectacle. Paraders will unfurl a 100-foot-long tapestry and carry it along the parade route. Stilt-walkers in tree costumes will clomp down the street, a few giant stilt-steps away from the Delaware River.

Artyard Hatch Frenchtown
Courtesy of Artyard

This communal display of creativity, called Hatch, started in 2016 as a way for Artyard, a contemporary arts center, to announce its arrival in Frenchtown.

“People didn’t know who we were,” says Jill Kearney, Artyard founder and executive director. “This was our way of saying hello, come and join in the joy and inventive experience of incubating new art.”

Kearney and her husband, Stephen McDonnell, started what would become Artyard in an unheated dairy barn in the backyard of their Bucks County, PA, home in 2010. They organized music, theater, dance and literature events on a makeshift stage, but after a decade of “joyful mayhem,” Kearney and Artistic Director and co-founder Elsa Mora sought a bigger, more suitable space for Artyard programming. In Frenchtown, they transformed an old electronics warehouse, in which they held exhibitions and performances starting in 2016, and an egg hatchery a few blocks away, which opened last year and features two levels of exhibition space and a stunning performing arts and film theater. 

“I always felt like something like this was really missing from this community, sort of a third space people could gather, and encounter people from different communities,” Kearney says. “I finally realized if I didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to happen.”

And Kearney was, indeed, an ideal person to do it. Her parents ran an arts center for decades and she spent summers as a kid in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a town—not unlike Jersey and PA river towns—populated by a unique combination of creatives and fishermen. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in English and creative writing, and worked in film and arts journalism. Eventually, she married McDonnell, founder of Applegate Farms Organic and Natural Meats, and moved to Bucks County, where she raised her three children, sat on the Applegate Farms board, and even worked the sausage line.

But life intervened in their trajectory; in 2013, McDonnell suffered a catastrophic stroke and, eventually, had to sell Applegate Farms.

“So we found ourselves with lots of resources and a need to reinvent our lives in a  constructive way,” Kearney says. “We’ve been the funders in the early years; that’s not going to be always the case, but it gave us the freedom to envision it as we wanted.” 

And the vision for Artyard is huge, from the programming—film festivals, diverse exhibitions in a variety of media, live music and dance from various traditions—to its artistic support programs, like a five-unit residency building and a forthcoming program that connects artists with developmental disabilities with working artists and the necessary resources, including space in the former Artyard exhibition building, to create.

Artyard Hatch Frenchtown
Courtesy of Artyard

The grand vision also extends to the use of the space itself. On display now is Ecstatic Decrepitude by Peter Schumann of Bread + Puppet Theater; though there’s plenty to explore in the formal gallery space, guests can also interact with the work in hidden exhibits—that is, you find a hidden peephole somewhere in Artyard, open it and experience art within a cubby. Outside, Schumann’s constructed a 400-brick bread oven, from which he’ll bake bread and distribute it to visitors next month.

Simply put, Artyard activates visitors. In a recent exhibition, Going to the Meadow, guests were asked to sketch what they care about on a chalkboard tablet and set it on a shelf for all other visitors to see. Now, certainly that device wasn’t novel, but it is indicative of Artyard’s penchant for finding creative ways to wriggle into the brains of visitors to create little moments of connection between the art and the viewer.

Artyard Hatch Frenchtown
Courtesy of Artyard

Artyard’s programming also integrates the physical environment of Frenchtown. In Going to the Meadow, four cohorts of artists created mixed media installations using, in part, materials found on the Delaware. And Alexandre Arrechea of the Cuban art collective Los Carpineteros is currently finishing a massive watercolor work using water from the Delaware; that show starts in September.  

Hatch, meanwhile, uses the Artyard lawn and Frenchtown streets as its canvas. In that framework, Hatch connects the community directly to creativity and, not for nothing, to each other.

“There aren’t that many accidental ways anymore that people that don’t know each other can encounter each other, and building floats, building costumes, making parades is one way … to create a beautiful web of community. It doesn’t happen accidentally anymore; you have to come up with an excuse, so we came up with an excuse,” Kearney says.

At the risk of sounding grandiose, events like Hatch—and Artyard’s Aqualumina, a fall lantern festival with dance and performing arts on the Delaware riverbanks—are critical to restoring communal ties after years of growing political, social and economic divide and a brief but absolute period of isolation in the last two years when we couldn’t physically convene.

Put simply, we need birds. Giant birds. And music. Gaiety and spontaneity. And we ought to do it together. That’s Hatch.

“It was always meant to involve the community,” Kearney says. “I was very influenced by Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude. He wrote about how in South and Central America, when people get a little bit of resources, they have communal festivals together, where they celebrate the experience of being alive together. In North America, when people get money, they go off by themselves in silos or go on vacations with their families.” 

You can be a bird, by the way. Just show up at 9:30 a.m. to find a bird costume if you don’t have your own and to learn a few bird steps.

Hatch. June 25 @ 11 a.m. Artyard, 13 Front St., Frenchtown.

We visited the Artyard grounds earlier this week to witness the transportation of the giant egg from their workshop space to its Hatch location outside the Artyard gallery grounds. The steel egg is large and unwieldy, but light enough for a handful of staff members to move. Inside the workshop space, bird costumes hang on racks, and the larger ones rest in corners. In-progress costumes lay on tables, surrounded by materials and scraps. Photos of the process below.