The National Archives at Philadelphia

Alina Josan, Artist

Statement About Painting the Explosion


Since completing my studies at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 2004, I have had the pleasure of working with several historic sites in Philadelphia, and creating interpretative illustrations for Eastern State Penitentiary, the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks and Bartram’s Garden.

The creation of an illustration of a historical event based on textual records and occasionally augmented by fragments of visual information always poses an interesting challenge.

When I began work on the project based on the Allegheny Arsenal explosion, I was aided by excellent sources that detailed the event, its context and impact, but offered very little description of the physical architectural space where the explosion took place.

The only images of the site I was aware of at the time were several photographs of a monumental gate.

I learned that the arsenal was populated by a series of buildings, including the main laboratory where the explosions took place so I researched similar complexes contemporary to this one. Fortunately, images of other arsenals that functioned during the Civil War were plentiful, and supplied me with a better idea of the architecture and materials used at the time. The neat pyramidal stacks of cannonballs and corrugated zinc roofing are examples of recurring details.

Since I could glimpse the façade of a building through the iconic gate, I decided to incorporate it into the drawing. An early draft had this building at the center of a group clustered just behind the gate.

When a map outlining the actual placement of buildings on the grounds turned up late during the process, along with a photograph allowing for greater scope, it finally became clear that there were two separate arsenal areas, each enclosed by gated walls and separated by the cobblestoned Butler Road.

The building I'd made the center of the complex turned out to be a storage building in the “upper arsenal” and on the other side another gate, made of metal bars and bound by four posts led the way to the lower grounds and the location of the building that I set out to focus on. My initial view of the space was literally turned on its head!

The final version follows the map as closely as possible, while focusing on the laboratory building. In the moment depicted, the collapsed porch still fumes from the initial explosion and successive blasts are issuing from the building.

My hope is that this depiction of the event will help draw the viewer to the exhibit and continue to serve as a reference as more is learned.

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