Copied Philadelphia Wireman, Untitled, ca. 1970-1975, tweezers, electrical cord, button, and wire, 7 14 × 3 58 × 3 34 in. (18.4 × 9.2 × 9.5 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson, 2016.38.56

Artwork Details

ca. 1970-1975
7 14 × 3 58 × 3 34 in. (18.4 × 9.2 × 9.5 cm)
Credit Line
The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson
Mediums Description
tweezers, electrical cord, button, and wire
  • Abstract
Object Number

Artwork Description

Within the record of artists whose identities were lost over time, one known only by an assigned label, the “Philadelphia Wireman,” remains among the most enigmatic. In the late 1970s, about one thousand bundles of wire, wrappers, reflectors, lost possessions, trash-treasures—intentionally encompassed and shaped—were found in a South Philadelphia alley.

Each cocooned sculpture is unique and roughly fits in the palm of a human hand, more specifically that of their maker. These objects have no designated front, back, top, or bottom, no title, and in and of themselves raise questions about both art and artist. Scholars’ observations and anecdotal accounts, together with where the objects were found, suggest an African American male maker working predominantly with his hands. Additionally, the small works are not unlike protective charms or power bundle objects that trace back over a thousand years across Africa and its diaspora. Such bundles, clusters of objects or materials that are inherently meaningful or symbolic, may be imbued with a protective force that can help the holder feel safe, healed, or empowered.

These works describe a maker who went unnoticed and unappreciated in his lifetime, and who may have faced insecurities on a number of fronts. But they also point to an artist who created a body of work chronicling reclamation and transformation, and used the ritualized acts of gathering, seeing, and making as a way to survive, day by day.
(We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection, 2022)