By JoAnn Greco | November 20, 2013 | Lifestyle
Garden of Delight by David Guinn for the Mural Arts Program. (203 S. Sartain St.)
In a studio in a beat-up section of Kensington—where outside, the simple message IN LOVING MEMORY OF SEAMUS, painted in green and adorned with two shamrocks, faces off against weed-strewn lots—David Guinn and Eric Okdeh are hard at work crafting much more ambitious art. They’re painting side by side amidst a warren of musicians’ and photographers’ studios carved out of a former carpet mill, but their styles couldn’t be more different. Guinn leans toward lyricism while Okdeh favors a documentary approach, but the two men share a lot more than their 500-square-foot space.
Each has been part of the city of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program for most of their adult lives, enlivening dozens of barren walls throughout the city with vivid imagery and compelling tales. “Murals have an impact that’s so exciting,” Guinn says. “They’re out there in the world and they have a specific function, whether to beautify, tell a story, or offer a spiritual or human connection. They’re unmediated, democratic, and accessible.”
Mural Arts began in 1984 as the artistic component of Mayor Wilson Goode’s anti-graffiti initiative, enlisting street artists and encouraging them to paint more productively. It has since grown (“at 100 miles per hour,” according to Executive Director Jane Golden, its guiding light from day one) into a project that has yielded some 3,600 murals—making Philadelphia the unofficial world capital of the form—painted by thousands of artists. Some are famous; some aren’t. Some are professionals; some, like hundreds of at-risk children and prison inmates, are just enthusiastic amateurs.
Eric Okdeh’s The Tree Is a City is part of Mural Arts’ Restorative Spaces initiative.
Guinn and Okdeh are just two of some 200 artists on contract with Mural Arts, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a slate of events over the next year, including the publication of a new book, a retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the program’s first-ever street art festival.
Wearing a plaid shirt and paint-spattered black jeans, Guinn, an architect by training, says the lessons of that discipline have found their way into his mural work: “Architecture stresses the importance of the site and its context. That’s true of a mural, too. It isn’t just a painting but a part of a larger place.”
These days Mural Arts is based in the Brewerytown row house (now a National Historic Landmark) where Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins lived at the turn of the 20th century. With a staff of about 50, it operates on a $6.5 million annual budget, 30 percent of which comes from the city, the rest from private foundations. “We’ve become pro-art, not anti-anything,” says Golden.
What’s stayed the same is the program’s commitment to engaging the communities that host its work. It still holds town hall–style meetings where Mural Arts staff and artists listen to ideas and present their own concepts. Community members are still invited to pick up paintbrushes when the work begins.
Philly Painting, in Germantown, was created by renowned Dutch artists Haas & Hahn.
Increasingly, though, the program’s artists are more thoroughly embedding themselves in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, opening up storefronts, hiring residents, and participating in an art movement known as “social practice.” “We’ll always do walls,” says Golden, “but the future for us is not another 2,000 murals.” She estimates that these days only about a third of the organization’s projects are traditional wall paintings.
Okdeh’s work on The Tree Is a City at Hartranft Elementary in North Philly is one example. Part of the Restorative Spaces initiative—which works with city agencies and community groups to revitalize schools, recreation centers, and commercial corridors—it’s an exuberant mix of paint and mosaic that emblazons the school’s institutional façades with trees, clouds, butterflies, birds, and flowers. But it also features three-dimensional pieces from ceramicist Jennie Shanker and a greening component that added plantings to the concrete schoolyard as well as classroom and after-school environmental and tree-tending programs.
“Murals and the other community-based public art projects that Mural Arts creates help catalyze positive change because the work is rooted in an important process that builds social capital and creates opportunities for engagement that crosses boundaries between public, private, and civic sectors,” says Golden. “It engages volunteers, connects artists and community members all over the city. And this process of inspiring and getting people to co-create and realize a vision of public art into public life has a huge impact on the people who are part of the process. Our community-based work inspires them to think about what’s next, as well as what they want for themselves and their community.”
Eric Okdeh’s Family Interrupted was inspired by the stories of some 100 relatives of prison inmates.
About a mile and a half east of Hartranft, the sun pours in through the tall, arched windows of Okdeh’s studio and bounces off its whitewashed brick walls. “Working with Mural Arts,” he says, “gives me a sense of being a part of a community.”
That was certainly the case with his mural Family Interrupted, also not far from the studio. A more traditional painting, it nevertheless stretched Okdeh and his collaborators—including inmates from Graterford State Correctional Institution—who drew inspiration from the stories of some 100 family members of incarcerated individuals. Consisting of interlocking grids of text (HIS DAUGHTER WAS TWO MONTHS OLD; NOW SHE'S THIRTY) and screen-printed photos over images of bricks, fences, and scrawled tally marks, the mural snakes around four zigzagging walls.
Adding a multimedia component, Okdeh wove QR codes into the mural to allow viewers to connect via smartphone to the original audio clips and Web posts. “Using the Internet and technology is a great way to help people better figure out what the piece is about,” he says, “and to make sure that the stories don’t die when the muralist isn’t around.”
Healing Walls by Cesar Viveros-Herrera and Parris Stancell for the Mural Arts Program. (3049 Germantown Ave.)
As Mural Arts’ involvement with social issues continues to grow, the organization is looking beyond Philadelphia, and even the United States, for its artistic partners. “It’s like Mural Arts 2.0 now,” says Donna Frisby-Greenwood, Philadelphia program director for the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “More than ever, Mural Arts is seeking to bring artistic excellence into the community.”
Recently the foundation provided the nonprofit with a two-year $100,000 grant to lure Dutch artists Haas & Hahn to Philadelphia. Their project, Philly Painting, “brought Mural Arts to the next level,” says Frisby-Greenwood, “by allowing it to work with international artists, across a larger canvas, and engaging the area’s small businesses.” The result—great swaths of turquoise and orange and lime green rollicking across four blocks of battered storefronts on Germantown Avenue—was a sweeping act of economic stimulus as well as beautification.
Back at the studio, Guinn peers at some of the 36 panels that will constitute his third mural for a series called Be Kind to Animals, sponsored by the Utley Foundation. He’s getting ready to bring the panels to the Vare Recreation Center in South Philadelphia, where middle schoolers will help by filling in the colors. “I’ll have to go back and clean up the lines and the brushstrokes,” says Guinn with a laugh, “but they will make a big difference in getting it done.”
Black Holes by Ryan McGinness for the Mural Arts Program. (3711 Market St.)
Later, as he sits at a Washington Square West café in the shadow of his message-free Sartain Garden—a wash of cerulean blue and daffodil yellow in Van Gogh–like brushstrokes—Guinn considers his work. “Not everything has to make a thought-provoking statement,” he says. “If a message is too blatant, I think people stop seeing it. The aesthetic element is just as important.”
But beauty for beauty’s sake isn’t always appreciated. Last year, his evocative Bella Vista mural Autumn—one of Golden’s favorites, depicting a small house set in a forest of trees ablaze in golds and crimsons—was embroiled in a neighborhood furor when a developer built in front of it. But Guinn is sanguine. “I’m sad to see it gone, but at the end of the day, what really touched me is that the neighbors tried so hard to save it.”
As a collection of public art, the murals form a “biography of Philadelphia,” says Golden. “That’s their legacy. They all, in one way or another, speak to Philadelphians about things, people, and issues that were at some point important to them.”
But she has also come to accept the fact that sometimes walls are torn down, murals are painted over, or buildings are erected in front of them. Some of the program’s early murals—including its first, a Philly street scene painted under the Spring Garden Street bridge—have disappeared. “I’m always sad to see one go,” she says, “but, as with life itself, we all have to accept that some things are meant to be temporary.” Mural Arts, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere.
Photography by Jeffrey Stockbridge; Michael Reali (Family Interrupted); David Guinn (Animals)