Until 2004, the small park at the corner of 39th and Aspen streets in the Mantua neighborhood of West Philadelphia was decimated, littered with old tires and rusty appliances. The patches of faintly green grass were sandwiched between giant walls of graffiti - hardly an inviting playground for neighborhood children.
But at that same corner today, one wall displays a painting of a Mantua resident, Ms. Jones, holding a quilt; the other shows small children picking up and examining the other end of the fabric. Purple ornamental basil fills the grass between the walls, giving the illusion of one continuous quilt.
"Holding Grandmother's Quilt" is one of over 2,700 murals in Philadelphia commissioned by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. The program has launched
Philadelphia as an icon for international public art, and the city now boasts the most murals in the world.
Since the program's inception, Philadelphia has become increasingly well-known for its murals, and for their effects on the community. And with mural culture an established part of Philadelphia, Penn has increasingly seen itself joining in.
Amid widespread "tagging" of walls around the city, then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode started the MAP in 1984 as part of a citywide initiative against graffiti. For its first project, he hired mural artist Jane Golden to work with a group of children from Mantua as part of a six-week summer art class.
"Nobody felt that they could finish [the first mural] in time. It was seen as an impossible task," said Amy Johnston, MAP's assistant to the director of community murals.
But the group did finish the mural, entitled "CityLights," that summer, and Golden was hired full time.
Since that first mural, she and other local artists have beautified the city one blank wall at a time in order to enhance community life, making Philadelphia a beacon for mural culture.
The city is recognized not only locally but internationally for its public art efforts: MAP receives two to three inquiries per week from cities worldwide about how to create and expand outdoor mural programs.
New York City has in the past decade implemented a mural-arts restoration program through the Municipal Arts Society that has restored over 440 public indoor murals in schools, libraries and courtrooms, but program director Phyllis Cohen said, "We haven't had that stream of success that Philadelphia has had."
People living outside of Philadelphia can now enjoy images of the city's murals as well. Golden has published two books, Philadelphia Murals and the Stories they Tell and More Philadelphia Murals and the Stories they Tell in 2002 and 2006, respectively.
With each new mural, Philadelphia finds its walls a little bit tidier.
The murals help prevent against future graffiti because the community becomes invested in them, according to Fine Arts Department undergraduate director Julie Schneider. "You don't just plop a mural down - you work [for months] with the community."
As a result, less than 1 percent of the city's murals are defaced, an exponential improvement from when graffiti ran rampant in the 1970s and '80s.
"Holding Grandmother's Quilt" was co-painted by Golden and Design professor Donald Gensler in order to bridge the gap between community seniors and the local youth.
Community members now maintain the previously sordid corner, and each year events such as barbeques and reunions are held at that plaza.
"The Mantua neighborhood is important to me as I've done so many projects there," Gensler said. "I've actually gotten to know Ms. Jones very well, . and urban renewal really can arise from just working together" on such projects.
And, in addition to the neighborhood's involvement, the artists enlisted the help of Penn students throughout the planning and painting process.
Golden has been teaching a course at Penn entitled "The Big Picture: Mural Art in Philadelphia" for the past five years. The course, run through the School of Design and the Fine Arts Department, will be held again in the spring.
"About 10 years ago, we started making forays into public art. . There was a lot of faculty interest in site specific work and working with communities on neighborhood projects," Schneider said.
Each semester, the students select a site in need of transformation and work with the community to develop and paint a mural in that area.
Golden said the class "asks students to think about the nexus of art, community and economic development all in the context of a more grassroots agenda."
Students are instructed to think about not only the mural but the "lots in front of the mural, the entire block, neighborhood issues and political concerns," Golden added. The students also act as mentors to neighborhood children in after-school programs and teach them about the mural planning process.
To start, students must choose a wall, and then the participate with the neighborhood in a discussion about the mural's design. Before painting, the artists coat the space with a waterproof base. In order to transfer the design to the wall, individual squares are typically sectioned off, and each small space can be tackled like a puzzle piece, eventually fitting together to create the large mural. Finally, after the mural is painted, it is dedicated to the community.
College senior Pam Rook, who took the class this past spring semester, said she "learned that public art is so much more of a learning process and involves a lot of collaboration between a diverse group of people."
And although the class is a significant addition to mural culture at Penn, it's not the only way the University is involved.
In addition to the Mural Arts class, one of Penn's community-service and performing-arts groups that teaches dance to students in West Philadelphia elementary schools, CityStep, based its first show around Philadelphia murals in 2005.
CityStep director and College senior Stephanie Sklar noted trying to improve the "tensions between Penn and West Philadelphia" as motivation for using the murals as inspiration for the students' dances.
"We went into the classrooms and showed them a picture of the mural and had a full discussion with the students about the mural's meaning, .and we extrapolated on that to create [interpretive] dances," she said.
Additionally, Penn's Catographic Modeling Lab, in conjunction with MAP, has established an online database that displays the location, artists and often images of over 1,100 of the city's murals.
However, Penn still has yet to create a mural of its own on campus.
Last year, Design professor Amy Hillier said she "had a series of conversations with the University Architect" about painting a mural of WEB DuBois on the Kappa Sigma fraternity wall.
But "it was clear that there wasn't the necessary support from his office and the art review committee on campus to proceed, so I never formally applied," she said.
In the end, Philadelphia's wide array of murals has impacted both Penn students and Philadelphia residents.
While reflecting on her experience in the Mural Arts class, Marrow said, "I remember my last day of classes senior year, I was scaffolding and painting with kids and I can't imagine ending my Penn career any other way."
But it's not just the artists that are touched by each painting, Golden noted: "I love galleries and museums, but art does not necessarily have to exist behind those walls; art should be for every citizen of the city, and murals make art accessible to everyone."
Staff Writer Jacob Schutz contributed reporting to this article. Each week, The Daily Pennsylvanian takes an in-depth look at an issue affecting the community. Look for Perspective every Tuesday.Comments powered by Disqus
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