On the street and in the studio, Bethlehem artists prevail

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By Lisa K. Berton

It's been a long day for exploring innovative street art, but the home decor store is still busy with shoppers entertained by a singer-songwriter. Gallery doors are open at a high school for artists, and belly dancers are proving that hips don't lie at a Greek restaurant. This is First Friday in Bethlehem's SouthSide Arts District, and everyone's invited.

On the first Friday of the month, entrepreneurs, gifted artists, and the Bethlehem Economic Development Corporation put out an enticing welcome matt.

During this popular talent showcase, chefs dazzle with culinary specials while bartenders mix drinks with flair. Local businesses run giveaways and sales. Needless to say, SouthSide Arts District has a lot going on.

Gusts enjoy art on exhibit in the Crayola Gallery
Gusts enjoy art on exhibit in the Crayola Gallery

Smiling pleasantly, painter Lauren Kuhn warmly greets anyone who wanders into her small studio space at the Banana Factory. Her paintings are colorful and whimsical reminders of youth, energy, and wonder. The pop-art style catches the eye of a couple. His brother might enjoy Lauren's rendition of a motorcycle. They step outside to discuss it and perhaps make a phone call.

Kuhn's artwork extends far beyond her studio. Her mural of a 1955 Chevy Bel Air, featured above, can be found at 65 E. Elizabeth Street, in the parking lot of Pinnacle 65 Apartments.

Despite the name, the Banana Factory Arts Center (formerly a fruit distributor) is void of banana peels. Instead, it is filled with fashion, graphics, metal jewelry, sculptures, and every other imaginable artform. During First Friday, the Center, operated by ArtsQuest, hosts numerous demonstrations, talks, and activities for kids.

jeweler hammering metal strip
Kevin Herbst Haaf creates metal jewelry
Wall covered with small sculptures
Studio and work of Virginia Abbott

Thanks to a grant from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, South Bethlehem's streets are filled with a vivid imagination. A group of grand potted plants was painted by multiple artists of every skill level starting in 2017. Likewise, public benches and flower boxes have been decorated in bold, happy colors. You'd be hard-pressed to miss their unique street art collection that includes murals and sculptures.

The SouthSide Arts District's overall plan is to attract new businesses, grow existing ones, and help to bring in tourism. By beautifying the blocks along and in between Third and Fourth Streets, they have literally painted a new picture of South Bethlehem, which was once home to the second-largest steel mill in the United States.

Large plant pot painted with a lion's face
Artist: Albert Negron III
Large plant pot painted with a faceless woman
Mural of musicians
"Southbound" by Matt Halm. Located at E 3rd St and S New Street.

After operating for over 100 years, Bethlehem Steel closed its doors and left over 18% of Bethlehem's population unemployed. Roughly 10 years later, the steel mill and its buildings became SteelStacks, a campus that hosts tours, festivals, concerts, films, improv performances, a restaurant, and more.

ArtsQuest, a non-profit organization, is responsible for giving countless talented people multiple creative outlets. From overseeing the Banana Factory's classes to securing over 100 artisans for Christkindlmarkt to running one of the top-rated music festivals, they do it all in the name of freedom of expression.

The next time you feel like you could use some color on your walls or a sculpture in your garden, take a drive over to South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. And bring a van, you'll want to take home some gifts.

Metal abstract sculpture
Celebration of Life by Salma Arastu
Defunct steel mill lit with red lights
SteelStacks lit up at night gives it a whole new look