Distilling “Germantown Neighborhoods” into a mural

“What does the Germantown neighborhood mean to you?”

It’s a generalized start to designing a mural, but one that will no doubt engage the community, and it’s the question mural designer and lead artist Jon Laidacker is posing to the locals who will play a key role in developing a new Germantown mural, planned for completion in Spring 2012.

The 92-foot-wide, 25-foot-tall wall slated for the mural is at 310 W Chelten Avenue, the site of a former Christian bookstore (the completed mural will greet SEPTA riders exiting the Chelten Avenue station on the Chestnut Hill West line).

Laidacker recently served as lead muralist for a prominent project: the enormous “How Philly Moves” mural, the second largest piece of its kind in the world, which now graces the Philadelphia International Airport. Now, teaming with assistant Charles Newman, who also worked on “How Philly Moves”, as well as Mural Arts Program Project Manager Kevin Brown, Laidacker turns to Germantown residents to inspire his next project.

Beginning last August, Laidacker held three community brainstorming sessions to spark the mural’s themes and images. While he has a “basic architectural template” in mind of how the mural will ultimately look, “a good portion of the mural design will be based on community artwork.”

At two art workshops this month, attendees were encouraged to put their ideas down on paper with paint, pencils, crayons or markers.

Despite relatively high attendance for the previous meetings, only a few artists turned out for Wednesday night’s session on Pulaski Avenue. But they got to work drawing and discussing what they would like to see. Participants Arleen Olshan, a co-founder of Mt. Airy Art Garage, and Germantown resident Susan Mangan, a freelance graphic designer, hoped for depictions of the region’s diversity.

“It’s an eclectic neighborhood. There are a lot of really original people here,” said Mangan, also noting her appreciation for the beautiful trees, parks, local architecture, and the profusion of community gardens, some of which have been maintained for decades. “I love the neighborhood so much.”

Olshan emphasized the rich local diversity, including people of all races, religions, ages, and sexual orientations. Brown added that while many Philadelphia neighborhoods have a similar makeup, Germantown and Mt. Airy are areas “where people really cohabitate, and have connections to their neighbors.”

“People are friendly, open, and they look out for each other,” said Olshan.

Laidacker and Brown, as well as workshop attendees, are hoping the mural will depict some of Germantown’s noteworthy historical figures and events.

These include the first anti-slavery protest in America, held in Germantown in 1688, long before the United States even existed. The region also hosted visits from historic activists like Sojourner Truth and Mary McLeod Bethune, and is the birthplace of Grace Kelly. Brown also points to more current events, including a 2008 visit from Barack Obama.

“This has always been a community of encouragement of freedom,” said Olshan. She added that Germantown has its problems today, compared with the “grandeur” of several decades ago, but despite some current decay, disused buildings, and crime, “this is a neighborhood that can come back.”

Laidacker wasn’t discouraged by the low turnout. “This is the first step of the mural’s next phase,” he explained. “You need to start somewhere.”  A third session, date TBA, will take place after the holidays. Artistic confidence is not a requirement for participants: Laidacker is hoping to collect everything from sketches to written brainstorms to photographs. Community members who can’t make it to the sessions are encouraged to submit drawings or photos through the mural’s Facebook page.

This winter, once the design is finalized, the project will continue through open-invitation community painting sessions at Mt. Airy Art Garage.

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