Walk through the door of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, and you are faced with a miniature city caught in suspended animation.
A football player leaps into the air to makes a pass. An urban Romeo stands in the alley and woos his lady, perched on a fire escape among the wash. Street vendors sell fruit and cheese. Children jump rope. Dudes play pool. An old man sits on a park bench and feeds the pigeons.
Construction workers break for a beer, and the trashman hauls a pail into a truck that hovers in midair.
This is "Phil Ratner's Washington," a collection of sculpture on display at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, 2405 Martin Luther King Ave. SE.
It's Capitol Hill, the O Street Market, and E Street downtown. Most of all, it's Anacostia, where Phillip Ratner has taught high school art for 19 years.
This show, says Ratner, is his way of "making love to the city." He was born in Washington, attended Coolidge High School, earned his M.A. at American University and now lives in Potomac, Md.
In 1959, Ratner was teaching at American University when asked by the D.C. Public Schools to substitute at Anacostia High School for a teacher who had just had a nervous breakdown. He needed the money and accepted the job.
Ratner's financial position soon changed. A solo exhibit at the Arena State in 1959 was followed by a series of other exhibits. He was commissioned by Edward Fields of New York to design tapestries and his bronze statue of the Warren Court was installed permanently at the Supreme Court. He has designed the interiors of synagogues from Maryland to Canton, Ohio.
Despite changes in both his professional life and at Anacostia High, Ratner remained - because he likes it. "I've spent half my life teaching there," says Ratner, who recently turned 40. "It's kind of like home."
Ratner says he is not there to discover and mold "geniuses," who will make it with or without him. "My purpose in teaching high school is to heighten the sensitivity of all the kids to what's around them. I can show them that trashmen and street vendors are as valid a topic (for art) as Washington crossing the Delaware."
Drawings by several of Ratner's students are also on display at the museum. They, too, depict city scenes.
"Before, when I saw an old woman, I didn't notice all the wrinkles, the double chin, the bends," says Nate Chittams, 18, who has several sketches in the show. "From Ratner, I learned to really look at a person, to go into detail."
Two years ago, Ratner agreed to do a show at the Anacostia Museum. He decided an appropriate topic would be the people of Anacostia - "not as a guy living in a $250,000 house in the suburbs going into town to see 'the people,'" says Ratner, but as someone who is part of the community.
So he began to travel with a sketchbook in his car. Whenever someone - or something - caught his attention, he would stop and capture it on paper. Later, in his studio in Potomac, he would translate the drawings into sculpture.
Ratner is a Washington chauvinist who wanders around Anacostia during his lunch break and uses his commute to work to explore the city. Doing the show, he said, was a relevation. "It was like living at home and never realizing that your mother was a fantastic person."
The sculptures are made of a welded steel frame fleshed out with molded vinyl. Ratner developed the technique about seven years ago, when his sculpture began to include so many figures that casting in bronze was unworkable. He learned welding from a welder working on the subway.
While the activities and attitudes of his figures are clearly identifiable, the faces are not. Ratner says this technique is intended to help the viewer see himself and his experiences in the sculpture.
"I know who he is," says Ratner of his sculpture of an old man feeding pigeons, "but I'll leave it open enough that he could be your grandfather, too."
"Phil Ratner's Washington" will be on display at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum through Aug. 27. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.