Smith Playground in South Philadelphia is now home to a one-of-a-kind public sculpture, the latest in a city-owned collection dating back six decades.
Unveiled on Wednesday, ‘MVP’ is one of the few statues in the city with a female subject and the first freestanding statue depicting an individual African-American girl. In this case, a basketball player with a fierce, competitive look in her eyes.
After a white sheet was peeled off the statue, a couple of dozen campers swarmed around it to get a closer look at the playground’s newest addition.
“The statue looks beautiful,” said 6-year-old Aiyah Warren.
“It looks like me a little bit,” said 11-year-old Joyce Andino.
“We are so proud that when children and teens come to this playground every day, they will be inspired by this powerful sculpture that looks like someone in their community,” said Kelly Lee, the city’s chief cultural officer, during a short ceremony.
‘MVP’ is based on a real-life middle schooler, who posed for Indianapolis-based artist Brian McCutcheon.
The piece was inspired by Philadelphia athlete Ora Washington, a trailblazing basketball player who led the Philadelphia Tribunes in the 1930s and was later inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. (Washington was also a champion tennis player, dominating the sport for more than a decade in the 1920s and 30s.)
The city commissioned the bronze statue as part of Philadelphia’s Percent for Art Program, which requires the city to earmark money for public art whenever it spends more than $1 million renovating one of its facilities.
Smith Playground, a short drive from the Schuylkill Expressway and Wilson Park Apartments, recently received more than $3 million worth of upgrades, thanks to a partnership with Make the World Better Foundation, an organization founded by former Philadelphia Eagles player Connor Barwin.
“Our park system is not just a place of recreation and activity, it’s also an outdoor museum,” said Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell.
McCutcheon was paid $25,000 to create the sculpture, which sits at the heart of the playground, feet from new basketball courts and playground equipment.
McCutcheon, who spent a decade in Philadelphia after graduate school, said the statue was informed by the city’s stable of sculptures depicting famous Philadelphia athletes, including Hall of Fame pitcher Mike Schmidt and Hall of Fame small forward Julius Erving.
“Since it’s a small South Philadelphia park, we should be honoring the athletes who perform here,” he said.