Mural arts to capture essence of Philadelphia in one image
Monday, March 23rd, 2009
By: Peter Crimmins
If Philadelphia could be distilled down to a single image, what would it be? The Mural Arts Program has embarked on an unprecedented project to design a mural that will represent the entire city. They started by asking residents what Philadelphia means to them.
Monique Qualles was born in New Jersey and now lives in Philadelphia. She says often the city is both despised and loved.
Qualles: "My Grandmom sits there in Cherry Hill and says, 'I hate Philadelphia!' But she loves to eat in Reading Terminal, she loves to walk South Street. She loves to shop in West Philadelphia."
Qualles joined about 150 other city residents to share their feelings about the city at eight public meetings held in different neighborhoods around Philadelphia. Christine Woolslayer is a lifelong Tacony resident.
Woolslayer: "Section of Tacony currently dry, you can't sell liquor, there are no bars. People have tried to open places to sell alcohol, and we fought it. We kept the deed in tact."
The stories will become the raw material of a mural that will attempt to encapsulate what it means tolive in Philadelphia. Mural artist Eric Okdeh says every neighborhood is different from every other – with unexpected surprises. At the public meetings in the southwest, he said there was a lot of concern about crime.
Okdeh: "But then there was a tendency to talk about your family. It was very bizarre. This is only something you can see if you go to all meetings – everybody, before they got into themselves, started talking about their family. How many brothers and sisters you have, how many grandchildren. "
Harris Sokoloff is the executive director of Penn Project for Civic Engagement, which organized of the meetings along with WHYY and the Mural Arts Program.
Sokoloff: "We asked them for real stories. This wasn't about the lights on boathouse row, about the Rocky statue, about the Art Museum. We don't want that, everybody knows that. We want to know, in your neighborhood, what's it like?"
Several themes emerged out of these meetings – many people expressed a great pride in the city's history, and in its diverse population. Many lamented the lack of community interaction, even within neighborhoods, saying people too often spend their time indoors with television and the internet.
Two competing teams of artists are distilling all the voices they heard into mural designs. Creating an image to represent the entire city is a daunting task, says John Pounds of the Chicago Public Art Group. He has been creating murals for 20 years, and he says a citywide mural is best accomplished through collage.
Pounds: "The way we can portray complexity is not by reducing ourselves to a single image, but accumulate a series of images and ideas, stylizations and discordancies to say who we are at this scale."
The next step in the project is to invite the public to vote in May for the image that will become a mural.
Harris Sokoloff says the public meetings were a unique opportunity for city residents to actively engage with one another about their feelings about Philadelphia.
Sokoloff: "We heard the good bad and ugly. They wax nostalgic about the past and wax eloquent about the pieces of the city they love. People talk about murders and violence. 'In spite of that I wouldn't live anywhere else.' You ask them why and it's because of the connections."
The mural will be displayed at 30th Street station at the end of the summer, and then separated into sections to be distributed into neighborhoods throughout the city.
Meet some of the participants in the various meetings and listen to them tell parts of their story at the This We Believe section of WHYY's It's Our City project.
Click on the play button below or right click on this link and choose "Save Link As" to download.