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Philly's Street-Smart Art

By Todd Pitock
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 21, 1999; Page E01


    Mural, Philadelphia, Pa. A group of children is dwarfed by "Peace Wall" by Jane Golden and Peter Pagast. Other murals and their locations:

1. Celebration of Community: 44th and Market Streets.
2. Passion Flower: 42nd Street and Powelton Avenue.
3. Boy with Raised Arm: 40th Street and Powelton Avenue.
4. Stop Domestic Violence: 17th and North Streets.
5. Dr. J: 12th Street and Ridge Avenue.
6. Common Ground: Broad and Spring Garden Streets.
7. Mario Lanza: Broad and Reed Streets.
(By Todd Pitock for The Post)

With blockbuster exhibitions of the Barnes Collection and the works of Paul Cezanne and Eugene Delacroix, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has stood in the art world's spotlight each of the past few years. In fact, though, a bigger story has been happening outside the museum's walls--indeed, it's been told on the walls of Philadelphia itself.

The Mural Arts Program (MAP), an initiative intended to combat graffiti when it started in 1984, has turned this city into what may be the largest outdoor art gallery in the world. Other cities have mural programs but none has been nearly as prolific. Chicago, for example, has done about 150 murals in 20 years. Philadelphia did that many in 1998 alone, and has more than 2,000 total, including more than 1,800 commissioned by the MAP. They range in size from a mosaic tile series in one West Philadelphia neighborhood to an eight-story, city-block-wide painted tapestry in the Spring Garden section.

Starting in April, the program, which is funded by private, corporate and government contributions, will resume a limited schedule of tours it piloted in October. Accompanied by guides and transported by a trolleylike bus, visitors on the two-hour tour see about a dozen murals in a cross section of neighborhoods. Because demand is strong and the schedule is limited, the program publishes a guide for visitors to go on their own. The city is laid out on a grid, and it's fairly easy and safe to get around.

Either way, you get a glimpse of Philadelphia from an unusual vantage point--the inside.

It doesn't really matter where you start, but it's a good idea to sample different neighborhoods. Because each community collaborates with an artist on the design, most murals strike themes that are intrinsic to the neighborhood, and the styles range from abstract and religious to historical and personal. But they always address the residents. In predominantly Italian South Philly, for example, there's a portrait of Frank Rizzo, the controversial late mayor. Predominantly Puerto Rican Norris Square proudly displays "A History of Puerto Rico."

In West Philly, "The Boy With Raised Arm" features a child standing erect with his right arm thrust skyward as sunlight dapples the ground around him. A Walt Whitman quotation accompanies the piece: "I am large. I contain multitudes." At the opposite end of life but in the same neighborhood, "A Celebration of Community" portrays an elderly African American couple from the neighborhood. They stand near vegetable gardens, their cheeks affectionately joined. The couple's contented smiles, and a basket overflowing with produce, suggests that they are enjoying, quite literally, the fruits of life's labor. There are no messages as such in "Ode to West Philly," just a montage of scenes familiar to everyone who lives there.

In a section of town Philadelphians refer to as the "Art Museum area," which is largely populated by Spanish speakers and young professionals, "The Right to Live in Peace" is a moving tribute to Atia Rodriguez, a 21-year-old woman who was allegedly killed last year by her estranged husband. In the mural, Rodriquez looks out from a caged window onto rolling fields and mountains and a cerulean sky. The victim's ailing grandmother badly wanted to see the mural finished; two days after its dedication in August, she died.

Nearby, there's an "Homage to Diego Rivera" and a "Tribute to Rousseau." Just north, "Project Home Mural" is an abstract designed by a homeless woman, while "Helping Hands," a scene of the city with people cleaning up, is about rejuvenating neighborhoods.

The Spring Garden section--once a quiet suburb and home to Edgar Allan Poe, later a vivid example of urban blight and a home to drug enthusiasts--has a dignified, 38-foot portrait of basketball legend Julius Erving. "Dr. J" depicts Erving not in his 76er uniform but in a double-breasted business suit, which--along with eyeglasses and his graying hair--lends him a wise, patrician look. Artist Kent Twitchell wanted to portray an athletic hero who had successfully graduated to the business world.

Also in Spring Garden is "Common Threads," one of the world's largest murals, and arguably the most accomplished in Philadelphia. Painted in a Renaissance style, the mural gracefully juxtaposes classic porcelain figurines with contemporary, mainly African American students at nearby Benjamin Franklin High School. It's an imaginative composition, and the myriad textures and subjects have one thing in common--the thoughtful expressions of the people that suggest that despite the gap in time and circumstances, people are not so different from one another.

In South Philly, a triptych honors Mario Lanza, the great opera singer and actor. The frames portray the South Philly native at different stages of his career. Two are bordered like old photos, and a depiction of a medallion shows Lanza in one of his last roles, as a tragic clown.

"Moonlit Landscape," done almost entirely in cool blue hues, occupies a wall at Eighth and Christian streets that had been a magnet for "taggers"--amateur graffiti artists--who were attracted by the way street lights hit the wall. As one resident put it, "It glows like the moon." So, artist Diane Keller did an imaginary landscape at dusk. On South Street, an eclectic stretch of mostly boutique retail stores, dense foliage in a Rousseaulike fantasy jungle called "Brazilian Rainforest" adorns the side of a McDonald's.

Jane Golden, the program director who, along with assistant artistic director Dietrich Adonis, shepherded the program from its inception, conducts the organized tour, and she includes a wealth of detail on the art and technique of mural painting. Muralists face issues other artists do not, contending with the weather, property owners and logistics like scaffolding--not to mention helping coordinate the disparate elements of society that become involved as volunteers, activists and patrons. The tours are also a fascinating look at neighborhood relations.

"A lot of people think of art as frivolous," Golden observes. "But the murals have transformed whole communities. We've seen their impact."

Take the "Peace Wall" in Grays Ferry, a working-class section of two-story row houses. In 1997, racial tension was so high that it received national media attention. Golden proposed a mural. Cynics may have doubted that a pretty painting on a wall would magically open the hearts of mutually hostile bigots. The idea, however, was not off the wall. After persuading reluctant community members to attend a block meeting, Golden and fellow artist Peter Pagast created a mural showing a dozen hands of all colors resting on one another, like those of team members before a game to demonstrate unity. Residents not only took to the idea but became deeply invested in it. Since the 30-by-48-foot "Peace Wall" went up, calm has reigned.

The Mural Arts Program tours begin at the White Dog Cafe, a trendy West Philly restaurant on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania at 34th and Samson streets. The $35 price includes a light breakfast and a full lunch. A self-guided tour with directions to 26 murals is available in "The Philadelphia Mural Tour Guide." To order the guide, or for more information about tours, contact the Mural Arts Program at 215-683-3689.

Todd Pitock last wrote for Travel about playing golf in Jamaica.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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