‘Philadelphia Mural Arts @ 30′ captures the social effects of public art

mural arts mantua mostoller
Volunteers help paint a new mural by artist David McShane to commemorate Mantua community activist Herman Wrice on Saturday at a community painting day organized by Mural Arts. Credit: Charles Mostoller/Metro

In planning a third book about the Mural Arts Program, executive director Jane Golden said she didn’t want to repeat the art-catalogue style of two previous books exploring the murals created by the program.

“We decided, instead of a third coffee table book, to have a collection of essays, so that to people from all over the country, whether you’re in government, running a non-profit or in an academic setting, there is something relevant,” Golden said.

The result, “Philadelphia Mural Arts @ 30,” is a book that celebrates 30 years of murals in Philadelphia and includes perspectives on the program written by artists, therapists, writers and educators.

It also includes an overview of several murals created since 2009, a period in which the program has focused more on projects that stress community involvement and which have meaning beyond just beautifying a wall, Golden said.

“It’s the breadth and depth of the project, rather than just the number of murals,” Golden said. “What is muralism in the 21st century? We feel we’re in this really grand tradition, but there’s this responsibility to be experimental. We can’t and shouldn’t stand still.”

One project she cited as exemplifying the program’s new approach was “Personal Renaissance,” a mural undertaken in 2009 on the wall of JEVS Human Services at 4th and Berks streets.

JEVS, which provides methadone treatment and addiction services, was unpopular with neighbors. So JEVS asked Mural Arts to help improve both the appearance of the building and to mediate their relationship with the community.

Mural Arts’ response was to ask both people in treatment at the center and residents of the neighborhood to work together on the towering mural project, led by artist James Burns.

“One thousand people worked on it. We took over the basement of a clinic and turned it into a studio. People in the program started to say, ‘I no longer feel like an addict, I feel like an artist,’” Golden recalled.

As David Updike, editor for the book and a staff member at the Philadelphia Art Museum, put it, “The process is one of the most valuable things that Mural Arts does.”

“I work at the Art Museum, and we kind of have opposite but complementary missions,” Updike said. “Our mission is to bring people in to see great art; they want to take art out to the people and the neighborhoods, and they want to respond to those people’s lives, needs, stories.”

All mural projects are subject to community meetings and discussion, so that the finished product will reflect the values of the community where it stands. The painting projects themselves, while guided by artists and Mural Arts staff, will include the efforts of everyone from truant teenagers to members of the Guild program for ex-inmates and people in programs with the city’s Department of Behavioral Services.

In recent years, the program’s comprehensive community-based approach has led to projects such as the 2012 mural “Color of Your Voice” by artists Keir Johnston and Ernel Martinez, at 2417 Ridge Ave., in which participants’ experiences of homelessness were used as part of the mural’s subject. In the ongoing “Southeast by Southeast” mural project, between 7th and 8th streets and Emily and Dudley streets, artists Shira Walinsky and Miriam Singer worked with teenage refugees from Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal.

One project that highlighted the program’s interest in social process was “Or Does It Explode?,” a 2009 installation by artist Dread Scott. Scott worked with a group of students who photographed and interviewed each other for the piece. The final product was light-boxes with photographs of the students lined in the ground in two rows in front of Family Court in Logan Square.

“Those images are very haunting. They’re almost kind of entombed,” Updike said. “Then you think about how many kids die in this city, when there have been these epidemics of violence in this city, and these kids who have so much to offer could be cut down — it’s a very powerful image. And it will stick with you in a way that something less challenging wouldn’t.”

The Mural Arts Program began in 1984 under the auspices of Mayor Wilson Goode’s Anti-Graffiti Network. The first project, undertaken by Golden in the summer of 1984, involved rounding up kids from the neighborhood to paint a bridge on Spring Garden.

“I think we were always engaged in social practice, although it didn’t have a label at the time,” Golden said. “Our practice developed into a much more complex form of public art making.”

A pivotal step towards its new approach was when the program changed its name from the Anti-Graffiti Network to the Mural Arts Program, Updike said.

“The change of the name was huge. It was, ‘We’re our own thing now.’ That shift, I think, changed people’s perception of it,” he said.

“Mural Arts @ 30″ will be published on Feb. 14. Golden and Updike will speak about the book at the Free Library’s central branch on March 25.

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