Philadelphia mural blends WPA style with modern tales of working

Long after Labor Day parades are over, one art project designed to tell the history of Philadelphia workers will live on.

“How We Fish” is a new mural that draws inspiration from the Works Progress Administration of the Depression era.

It uses that imagery to tell modern stories.

How do you bring the many facets of labor to one place in one image? With a new mural that shows a lot: Work and labor. Industry and technology. Office work and agriculture. Immigration. Mom and pop stores.

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It also portrays how we learn to work.

The core idea comes from the proverb: “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime. “

Ennis Carter, founder of Social Impact Studios, designed “How We Fish.” She and muralist Eric Okdeh took the Works Progress Administration imagery of the 1930s and ’40s to convey the many layers of modern labor.

“We can talk a lot about big ideas. We can talk about how work means pride or work means independence or work means my family being able to have a future,” said Carter. “Those are big ideas that get us up in the morning and keep us going. But also the fact that we need to eat, we need to pay our rent or mortgage, we need to have the car filled with gas. Whatever those things are that we need to live and that we need to run a society.”

Collective inspiration

It has taken almost two years to bring the mural to a wall in Chinatown, at Eighth and Cherry streets. To provide inspiration, Harris Sokoloff, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Project for Civic Engagement, invited people to share work stories at several workshops.

“Say a sentence or two about your first job,” urged Sokoloff at one session. People shared stories of flipping burgers at McDonald’s, shining shoes, collecting soda bottles and baby-sitting.

Hundreds of people turned out at a high school in South Philly, an employment training center in Center City, a community hall in Chinatown, and a Latino community center in North Philadelphia.

When asked what work means to them, the answers ranged from “I need the money” to “work is my identity.” Participants spoke about pride, responsibility and self-worth.

Those ideas resonate with Mural Arts Project director Jane Golden. She says they go well with the iconography of the Depression-era WPA art.

“The meaning of work, the value of work definitely as a route to economic self-sufficiency, but also as a route for self actualization for people, an expression of people’s personal identity and their attachment to their community,” said Golden. “Also a national identity in a country that was trying to find ways to get people back to work.”

A conversation starter

What does that have to do with this mural? Well, the stakeholders in the project, the city, the Mural Arts Project, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Citizens Bank Foundation wanted to open the floodgates of discussion on an issue as all encompassing as labor and employment.

The mural becomes the most visible expression of that discussion.

The art hub for the project is the Mural Art Project’s studios at the Gallery Mall. Dozens of children and adults, guided by artists, are given brushes and panels of an especially sturdy fabric to paint. It’s a paint-by-the-numbers project that creates an immense puzzle that will become the mural.

Rose Hollandez, a program analyst for the Department of Labor, is painting part of a blue landscape.

“I enjoy getting out of the office and contributing to the community,” said Hollandez. “Personally, I enjoy the arts and beautifying our city.”

Nearby, Okdeh is supervising the construction of a stained glass for the mural, as he checks details of the design’s narrative on his laptop.

“There’s a clear section where it’s agriculturally based, then instruction-based economy than a future technology knowledge-based economy,” said Okdeh. “This wall is great for investigating close up because of its interactivity and you can work you way through it . The fabric is a big giant pattern and panels tells the story about the interdependency of work. And all the people that we rely on and require of other people in order to do our work.”

All that’s left now is to complete the physical mural by gluing the fabric panels and securing the stained-glass sections.

As most public art does, “How We Fish” will continue to be a conversation starter about Philadelphia’s rich labor history.

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