The front windows of the Municipal Services Building, across from Philadelphia City Hall, are draped with a large banner depicting protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement.
The temporary mural, called “Crown,” is just steps from where the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo once stood, and the site of large protests in late spring demanding the city remove the statue, which it did in June.
Those demanding the removal of the statue said Rizzo was a racially divisive leader who oppressed the city’s Black population during his tenure as police commissioner and then mayor.
“It was important that this be on a government building near the Rizzo statue,” said Jane Golden, CEO of Mural Arts Philadelphia, which partnered with the city to install the mural. “It shows times are changing. This should now be a spot that acknowledges people coming together, and a spot for healing.”
“It’s been a difficult time emotionally, physically, and mentally for all Americans and all Philadelphians,” said Mayor Jim Kenney at the dedication of the mural. “I want to thank the artist for his grit and determination to make this happen.”
The artist is Russell Craig, from North Philadelphia, who created the previous public art piece on the Municipal Services Building, “Portraits of Justice,” with artist Jesse Krimes.
Both artists had spent time in prison and had participated in Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice programs for artists reentering society. Now, they are enjoying significant success in their artistic careers.
Craig is currently based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and formally studying art at Bard College. Before he enrolled one year ago, he had little training in art history. Now he is taking inspiration from 19th-century French masters Eugène Delacroix and Gustave Courbet.
“My art history teacher, he gonna be proud,” Craig said. “I want to incorporate the things I learned.”
“Crown” is loosely based on Delacroix’s 1830 painting “Liberty Leading the People,” a Romantic depiction of the July Revolution in France of that year, showing everyday citizens walking over the carnage of war as they rally behind a mythological woman, Liberty, holding the country’s flag aloft.
For Craig’s image, he photographed dozens of Philadelphians with fists raised in protest and edited them into a cluster looking out in all directions.
He included an image of himself in the crowd, his gaze looking straight out of the mural. Craig said he participated in recent Black Lives Matter protests in Brooklyn.
“I was there. I’m looking out. I was in the mix,” he said. “We all in it. We might have different perspectives and different takeaways, but we’re all there. We all here.”
Jane Golden had already approached Craig to make a new piece for MSB in the spring, with the intention of installing it sometime this fall. But the events of the summer – the growing BLM protests and the removal of the statue – accelerated the timeline.
The city’s managing director at the time, Brian Abernathy, stepped down in July amid calls for this removal. Golden saw an opportunity to partner with the new managing director, Tumar Alexander, to put an image into the public sphere that reflected this moment in Philadelphia’s history.
“I submitted the design to Tumar Alexander, and I called him maybe 5 times a day. I really felt this was important and important to do now,” Golden said. “We need to remember this moment and hold onto it. While this is a time of pain and anguish and trauma, there’s also something wonderful percolating that we need to hold onto.”
“Crown” is the first phase of the public art going up around the Municipal Services Building. Craig plans to design images that will flank the left and ride side windows of the MSB lobby. He said those images will likely take cues from his favorite artist Gustave Courbet, an artistic revolutionary of his day who died almost 150 years ago.
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