Painting a canvas made from stone and concrete

For Heath Stokes, a 57-year-old North Philadelphia resident, things seem to be getting better, slowly but surely. “That stuff used to be everywhere,” Stokes said from behind large sunglasses and a thin gray beard. He’s

For Heath Stokes, a 57-year-old
North Philadelphia resident, things seem
to be getting better, slowly but surely.

“That stuff used to be everywhere,” Stokes said from behind large sunglasses and a thin gray beard.

He’s referring to the graffiti that virtually covered every building within Philadelphia’s cityscape 27 years ago.

“And the worst part about it was that you couldn’t even read what it said,” Stokes concluded enthusiastically, shaking
his head with confusion. “I never really
got it.”

It would have been easy to play off
Philadelphia’s graffiti problem by simply
using the old adage, “art for art’s sake,”
but that’s not what the city had in mind.

In 1997, the Philadelphia Mural Arts
Program was created as an extension of
the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network.
The PAGN appointed mural artist Jane
Golden as program director. Golden utilizes
her position to not only oversee the
commissioning of mural painting throughout
the city, but to also work with young
graffiti writers and other youth in order to reveal for them the positive impact that
public art can potentially have on their
own neighborhoods.

Golden’s work for the Mural Arts
Program has unquestionably made leaps
and bounds. Since the conception of the
program, Philadelphia has seen more than
2,700 murals fused into its urban canvas
– more than any other city in the world.

In fact, Golden has gone as far as sacrificing the practice of her own art in
order to offer her undivided attention
to directing the Mural Arts Program.

“I’ve made peace because I look
at running the program as a very creative
endeavor,” Golden said. “We employ
close to 400 artists a year, we’re
serving 4,000 kids and we’re painting
about 120 murals. It’s really a demanding
job and I think that I would shortchange
it if I tried to paint as well.”

Golden’s artistic background provides
her with the solid foundation needed for such a creatively demanding position.

“The fact that I did paint murals makes me a very supportive person in charge,” she said. “I have a very clear understanding and sense of empathy for the art we create as opposed to someone who has never painted murals before.”

Golden said her vision for the future of the program is very concrete, although the sky is the limit.

“We have a very definite plan for the future,” Golden said. “In 1998 and 1999, because of budget cuts, we were only serving about 50 kids a year, so there’s really been tremendous growth since then. Now we’re working in prisons, we have partnerships with the school districts,
the department of human services and the court system and it’s just really wonderful.”

The program’s headquarters is located at the home of Thomas Atkins, the site where the 19th century Philadelphia artist worked and painted. Currently under renovations, that Atkins’ home is being transformed into an art center for children, Golden said. By working with nearly 4,000 youths each day, the Mural Arts Program’s art education department aims to enhance the experience of Philadelphia’s youth through art and its creative power.

Art education classes are offered after school and throughout the summer at no fee with professional working artists serving as teachers and mentors.

With 400 artists working within the many neighborhoods and communities throughout the city, the Mural Arts Program’s artist community represents many different cultures and experiences within itself. Amazingly, the program’s artists are just as unique and diverse as the art they are producing.

“I became friends with Jane in 1992,” said Patricia Ingersoll, one of the program’s contributing mural artists.

“What she was doing was so exciting that I asked her if I could work any time on a mural with her.”

Not long after, Golden granted Ingersoll her wish.

“She gave me a wall at 33rd and Spring Garden,” Ingersoll said. “And I had never done a mural before in my life, so I didn’t know anything. I would just go there after work and paint.”

And that’s how Ingersoll became a mural artist. “That first wall was such a fantastic experience because I had all kinds of problems,” Ingersoll said. “Not understanding the paint, not understanding perspective. But as the experiences of doing these murals grew, I realized I had an inner eye. I didn’t have to get down off the scaffolding every time to check on what I was doing. You just know after a while. It’s really amazing.”

Ingersoll’s largest mural is located on Main Street in Manyunk, stretching close to 420 feet.

“I feel very proud of the fact that my work is now, literally, a physical part of the city itself,” Ingersoll said. “People still say to me, ‘I always think of you when I drive by your mural.’ And when people say that it always reminds me of how amazing that particular project was. It’s a reminder of how extremely difficult murals are. And when people say things like that, it’s affirming. You realize why you did it.”

In fact, Ingersoll’s work with Golden and the entire Mural Arts Program community has truly been a life-changing experience.”In my whole career as an artist, the Mural Arts Program really helped me to see a broader life from the one I had been living. It was the most wonderful experience,” Ingersoll said. “I feel a passion for this organization.

“When I paint a mural it’s important to me to paint a part of my vision,” she said. “Which is one of a beautiful world.”

Although it may not be such a perfect world, the Mural Arts Program is working to achieve that one brush stroke at a time.”The difference that mural art makes in the city is incredible,” Stokes said.

“It’s nice to know that people are out there that actually care about this city and how it fits in with the rest of the world. That really makes me proud of where I come from.”

T.C. Mazar can be reached at

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