Figurative artist and Germantown native Nathaniel Lee has always had a passion for creating art.
His journey to sharing his artwork with the world began as an illustration major at the University of the Arts. From there, Lee would go on to be a stained-glass artist.
For the last seven years, he’s channeled his creative energy by helping the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program transform community spaces, and lives, through public art.
“I’ve always loved making things since I was a little kid,” Lee said. “Whether it’s painting, or doing a sculpture, or anything like that, it was always a lot of fun. Through doing community art, it’s not just making something for myself, it’s making something for other people, and that feels really good.”
Lee is now one of six artists chosen to assist a world-renowned contemporary artist with installing one of the most innovative public-art displays the city has seen.
Helping artists and residents
As the program’s Mural Operations Crew Leader, Lee manages a team that assists visiting artists who come to the city to install murals.
“Most of the artists are from Philly, but they may not have the background in murals and know how to make something that will last in the weather,” he said.
“Or, they’re a really gifted artist. They know how to make a mural, but they just need a good painter to help them because it’s so big,” he continued. “That’s where my team does the behind-the-scenes stuff and support work.”
Lee also serves as an unofficial liaison between residents and MAP, helping negotiate the type of artwork the community would like to see.
“It’s true community art, and we try to do community development through art,” he said. “As a piece is being conceptualized, it always has to have community involvement, especially when we have permanent projects.
“If the mural is doing its job, it becomes like a keystone in the neighborhood; something to be proud of and something a landmark. Pretty soon, porches are getting repainted around it, trash is getting picked up, there’s less graffiti and you can really see it becomes a rallying point for the whole neighborhood.”
Murals in Germantown
Lee has helped artists to install murals across the city, but he said those in the Germantown are some of the most discreetly impactful pieces that the program has created.
“Germantown is not as flashy as some of the other neighborhoods,” he said. “There’s a lot of good murals that are just unassuming and sometimes you don’t notice it the first time you go by, but there’s a bunch of really good pieces there.”
According to EMIR founder Victoria Greene, Lee reworked the idea for the mural numerous times to make sure she was satisfied with the end result. He wound up reaching out to youth participating in MAP’s Restorative Justice Program in conjunction with Saint Gabriel’s.
Greene said the participants were vital to the final mural design.
“Nathaniel and I went out to St. Gabe’s and I told the boys about my son and how he was murdered and I told them what I experienced and they used my story for the design for the mural,” Greene said. “It was a very gratifying experience.
“Nathaniel was excellent in supervising them, he was excellent in guiding them and letting them contribute. We all worked together. It was an excellent collaboration and the mural, it just makes it a unique space, a spiritual and safe space. Everyone that comes here and sees the mural they just love it.”
For Lee, Greene’s satisfaction with the project is the most important part of his work.
“It feels really good when you’re able to make someone’s dreams a reality for them. Whether we’re doing a memorial wall or whatever it is, it brings beauty to their lives. I mean, what more could you ask for?”
Coming soon: Psychylustro
This spring, commuters traveling along the Northeast Corridor from Amtrak’s 30th Street Station are in for a vibrant change to the dilapidated industrial area.
Lee will be contributing to a big part of that change, as he leads a team of Philadelphia artists in a temporary public-art installation called Psychylustro.
The project was created by visual artist Katharina Grosse from Berlin.
With help from Lee’s team of mural artists, Grosse will paint bursts of colorful patterns along the corridor that Lee says will definitely spark conversation.
“People are gonna be arriving on the train, and they’re gonna see this old industrial space; it’s dreary. And then all of a sudden a burst of color for 400 feet, and then back to normal, and then a another burst of color with a new pattern for a another 500-600 feet, and then all of the sudden they’ll just start popping up,” he said.
“For people who don’t know about the project, there’s gonna be some wild conversations going on,” he continued. “For people who do know, it’ll be fun to look forward to seeing these.”
Mural Arts Program Executive Director Jane Golden said she’s proud to have Lee participating in the project.
“Nathaniel Lee is an extraordinarily talented artist and crew leader,” Golden said. “He helps ensure our city is more beautiful by helping to keep lots clean and graffiti removed. I am so proud of Nathaniel and feel strongly that he is a model of someone devoted to art and social change.”