Mural Arts Philadelphia: Art That's For Everyone
Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love, and there are likely few programs espouse that principle more wholeheartedly than Mural Arts Philadelphia. The largest program of its kind in the nation, Mural Arts supports public art as a vehicle for community, education, social justice, and change. Founded by Jane Golden in 1984, the program helps create 50-100 murals annually throughout the city. Golden was kind enough to sit down with Route1Views and share her take on three separate murals (all easily accessible off Route 1), each representing a unique story and aspect of the program, the city, and its people.
The Mural Arts Program Inspiration
Jane Golden didn’t always know she’d work in public arts: in fact, she was an artist who thought she’d go to law school. After graduating from Stanford University, Golden moved to Los Angeles, where she encountered “glorious murals” that planted the seed for her life’s work: the idea that art isn’t contained within the walls of a gallery, but rather, that “art is for everyone.” Golden began working with graffiti writers as part of the LA Mural Program, which further reinforced this belief. After moving back to Philadelphia in the mid 1990s, Golden wanted to continue her work with public arts, but found that no such a program existed. So she approached the mayor of Philadelphia, who—to her surprise and delight—approved a public community program. Golden’s vision for the project was that “art could be a city service.” Mural Arts Philadelphia would become a place where people could request a mural, where artists could get paid for their work, and where the program acted as a bridge: between private and public sectors, community members and the government, a person’s sense of individual identity and their connection to a larger whole.
The Significance of Mural Arts
Murals, as a movement, were born as a statement of the outsider. Minority populations, including African Americans and Hispanics, were excluded from the galleries and museums that typically housed artists. Lacking a proper home for self-expression, minority artists turned to the streets, where buildings acted as canvasses and the people in their neighborhood—people with similar backgrounds and life experiences—could participate without censorship. When Golden first started working with Mural Arts, she went directly to community leaders, who provided feedback to her on their experience with art. “The only visual stimulation we have is on billboards advertising alcohol and tobacco,” they told her. “Things are done to us, or not done. No one asks us what we want.” Golden set out to respond to that shortcoming, by directly engaging with community members. She and her colleagues would take backpacks full of pictures of murals to various locations—someone’s home, a church, a rec center—spread out the backpack’s contents, and ask people for their feedback. What did they like? What would they like to see on the walls of their city? Funded by both public and private sectors, Mural Arts began bringing in artists who could fulfill the dreams begun from those informal meetings. Over 20 years later, Golden is still working on the grassroots level. The experience, she says, has changed her life. “This is not work that just happens and you pass through and leave,” Golden shares. “It’s about work that’s rooted, and because of that, it’s catalytic. The work is a beacon, a sign, that people care and things can change and that art really matters.”
The Forgiveness Project
Golden shared her insights on three murals that sit just a short way off from Route 1. The first mural, “The Forgiveness Project,” stands at 13th Street and Erie Street and depicts three people: Kevin Johnson, an adolescent African American who was shot and paralyzed over a basketball jersey he was wearing; Kevin’s mother, Janice Jackson Burke; and Michael Whittington, the young man who shot Kevin. Michael reconciled with Kevin after being released from prison, and for a time the two toured local high schools talking about the impact of gun violence. When Kevin passed away from complications related to the shooting, Janice also began speaking: about forgiveness. “We’re all angry about something,” Janice would say, but forgiveness is a powerful tool of healing that allows you to move on from that space. Mural Arts created the mural on the side of a women’s shelter as a way of honoring Kevin’s courage, Janet’s resilience, and to continue sharing the message of both with the world. Golden shared that this message of forgiveness spilled into other areas of Mural Arts. “Healing Walls,” for instance, is a series of projects that brought together crime victims, victim’s advocates, and prison inmates themselves in order to artistically collaborate on murals. Because of these different backgrounds, “people showed up with very different points of view,” shares Golden. “There was quite a bit of acrimony.” But when the participants started to work together, those power dynamics shifted, and misunderstandings resolved themselves. “When people sat side by side [to paint a wall] and said, ‘Oh, can you pass me the green? Can you give me the small brush?’ Suddenly, everyone was the same.” The experience was transformative for many, as they ceased seeing people through the lens of their societal roles, and started connecting to them as humans. Golden continued expounding on lessons learned from that project: “Our society is so judgemental. We punish people, and punish more. We’re in this excessively judgemental, punitive society. The Healing Walls Project calls on us to appeal to our better angels; to go through life with some grace and empathy.” The project also hearkened back to one of Mural Art’s founding principles: that art can act as a great equalizer, removing the power dynamics that block human connection by providing a common ground, a space where unheard voices and unseen faces can feel recognized and celebrated.
Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood
“Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood” continues that theme of honoring the underrepresented. Situated at 5th and Huntingdon, the mural depicts a Latinx woman, with hair composed of imagery and symbols from Latin America and the Caribbean, pulling back the divides of a wall. The mural’s artists, Ian Pierce and Betsy Casanas, came up with the idea shortly after former President Trump began separating children from their families at the U.S. / Mexico border, causing the mayor to declare Philadelphia a sanctuary city. The woman in the mural “represents many different cultures,” says Golden. Like the other murals sponsored by the program, “Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood” was a timely collaboration between the artists, the program, and the community’s neighbors, who contributed to painting it. Spanning two full walls and part of a third, the mural is a testament to the program’s ability to hear the voice of the people and create art that responds to it.
John Coltrane Mural
Last but not least, Golden divulged the process behind one of the city’s most beloved murals: that of John Coltrane, standing on North 29th Street, just a few blocks from Coltrane’s home. “Coltrane is brilliant and a part of the city’s history,” says Golden. This legacy is partially responsible for the mural’s impending rebirth. Last year, a new construction project began that will render the mural unviewable. Mural Arts vouched to redo the mural at a new location in Strawberry Mansion, still close to the historic Coltrane house. The artwork will be completed by the same artist used for the original, Ernel Martinez, in a style very similar to the old mural. New developments are to be expected, says Golden, but she also clarified that when a new development does arise, that Mural Arts tries to work with the developer to replace it. “Murals are civic assets, signs of who we are as Philadelphians,” she says. As one community leader explained: “When murals go away, we feel like our lives are being erased.” In this instance, the developer did make a donation to fund the new mural, although the program still has a way to go before hitting its financial goal for completion. “Our budget is smaller since Covid,” says Golden, citing a $900,000 reduction in public funding. “We’ll have to pull a rabbit out of a hat,” she jokes: a magic trick at which the program excels. The most real magic, of course, is the murals themselves and the bonds they form over time with their community. While all three of these murals are easily accessible off Route 1, we encourage you to explore Philadelphia at large and the thousands of other murals created by the program.
Elisia Guerena PA Philadelphia Mar 11, 2021 Visual Arts