More than 40 people shelled out their life stories to artists last Thursday, giving their input for the Mural Arts Program’s biggest project.
“There was never an uncomfortable silence,” said Eric Okdeh, a mural artist. “They actually had to stop the conversations.”
Held at the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Elverson Building, the event was the last of LEADERSHIP Philadelphia’s community meetings for the mural program’s 25th anniversary.
Artists like Okdeh heard stories from all over the city, searching for an idea that would best sum up this year’s theme: “This We Believe.”
“I know how it was, growing up [as] an Irish Catholic [in] Southwest Philly,” Okdeh said. “You didn’t have a family so much as a small army.”
Guests and artists got into groups at the meeting and discussed specific themes and issues. Topics included the city’s budget crisis and the closure of recreational buildings.
“There’s this thirst for life that can never be extinguished,” said human rights activist Onaje Muid. “We’ll just keep rebuilding and rebuilding ourselves no matter what happens.”
Mural artist Damon Reaves described Philadelphia’s celebration of President Barack Obama’s victory on Election Day.
“There was an older woman with a giant blue Obama sign in her hand,” Reaves said. “She was just ballin’ out. Tears were pouring. By her side were two college students, helping and holding her.”
Doris Thomas, an education policy activist, laid out her love for cultural celebration.
“There’s a Caribbean festival, an African festival and even an Indian Festival,” Thomas said. “You don’t have to lose your identity to be part of Philadelphia.”
All the groups decided to work with similar themes, including hope, truth, commonalities, overcoming trouble, courage, constant change, rebuilding and diversity.
“Sometimes people tend to focus on the bad things that happen,” Thomas said. “But overall, we have a heart.”
The Mural Arts Program started in 1984 as part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. The program has produced more than 2,800 murals and is now a public-private partnership.
“Normally, our murals are an individual community effort,” said Kerrianne Parrigh, a Mural Arts Program volunteer. “We hold paint days and promote art education in that area.”
For the past few weeks, LEADERSHIP Philadelphia has held one public forum meeting for each region of Philadelphia. LEADERSHIP Philadelphia is a nonprofit organization that works with groups with goals to benefit the community.
“We’re getting every part of the city to voice on this mural,” Parrigh said.
The finished mural will be frequently dismantled so it can be moved to other parts of the city.
“But beyond this project, there is something more important,” said Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program. “Art connects us at times of distress – it uplifts and inspires. It can be, in some ways, the bedrock of our society.”
Golden said she was pleased to see people who wanted to change Philadelphia, rather than those who want to complain.
“Having lived in other places across the country, there’s nowhere else like it,” she said.
Director of Special Projects Lindsey Rosenberg said artists are now working on a number of different ideas. All their ideas will then be posted on the Mural Arts Program’s Web site, muralarts.org, where residents can vote for the final design.
“I know this group of artists,” Rosenberg said. “It’s going to be a hard decision.”
Ian Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.