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
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
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.