It’s stunning, and famous around the world, yet for the most part the 20 central players are something less than household names.
Thousands of people pass their huge likenesses every day. The leading figure is about 50 feet tall, painted on a brick wall that has become one of the – maybe THE – iconic mural in what is almost indisputably the leading mural city on the planet.
It’s called “Common Threads,” and it has been gracing the wall of a former school district building, soon to become an apartment building, at the corner of Broad and Spring Garden streets since 1997.
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We have some 3,800 murals on walls in Philadelphia, from Jackie Robinson, to Dr. J, to Ghosts of Philadelphia Industry and more.
And this is the season when visitors tend to be peering upwards at many of them, when guided tours begin. Not much fun to be on a mural walking tour with the snow up to your ankles.
“I love that mural,” said Jane Golden, head of the city’s Mural Arts Program of Common Threads. “I think it was life-changing for our program.”
People come from all over the world to see it, she said, saying things like, “I’ve heard about that, I’ve read about that, I’ve come to see it, I’ve come to photograph it.”
Common Threads, by artist Meg Saligman, was a game changer for the mural program, Golden said.
“I think Meg Saligman is a brilliant artist and it shows people that murals can be the same quality as art hanging in a gallery in a museum.”
For the kids, she said, the mural had a “power of wow.”
Saligman knows the names of most of the then-students she painted, and she has talked about the 17-year-old who dominates the 90-feet tall mural.
Tameka Jones, then a student at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts is not only the largest image, but also comes with an almost Mona Lisa enigmatic look on her face.
Only Jones knows what she was thinking on the day the photo that became the basis for the painting was taken.
But she did talk, in a book called “Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell,” of which Golden was one of the authors, about what it’s like to see yourself in a 50-foot image each day.
“Knowing there’s a picture of you up 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year – it’s almost eerie,” Jones said.
Why is it called Common Threads? Saligman had been doing a teaching residency at another city high school, and she became fascinated by the elaborate braids and buns the female students wore.
They reminded her of figurines of 18th century-style in her grandmother’s curio cabinet. The title came, then from the common threads across the centuries.
Why write about it now?
Because every time I drive by it I think about the lives of those kids, and hope they’re well.