Philadelphia picture show
The City of Brotherly Love has more murals than any other US city. But they're more than art – they're community-builders.
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In addition to a network of 400 artists, MAP (www.muralarts.org) works with thousands of at-risk youth, prisoners and ex-offenders, and police officers, as well as crime victims and victims' advocates.Skip to next paragraph
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The key that opened the door to working with such a broad range of groups was a new method of muralmaking. In 1990, California-based muralist Kent Twitchell was brought to Philadelphia to create his "breakthrough mural" of Dr. J.
Mr. Twitchell used a synthetic rubberlike material called parachute cloth. He painted the design on squares of the cloth and then attached them to the wall using acrylic gel. This innovation allowed MAP to take murals into schools and prisons, where people who might not be able to get to neighborhood locations could still participate in the painting process.
One such mural is currently being erected on the rectory of The Church of Philadelphia. It is part of MAP's Healing Wall program, which works with the Philadelphia Prison System.
Designed by muralist Jon Laidacker and based on Renaissance painter Raphael's famous "School of Athens," it speaks to The Church of Philadelphia's mission, "Find a need and fill it. Find a hurt and heal it."
"They say that a picture is worth a thousand words," says Pastor Carmine DiBiase, "and when I saw the different murals in the city, those that have a message, I felt that we here in the church have a message for the community.
"When this mural is completed, people not only from South Philadelphia but from Center City and other parts of the city will see it and what it says," Mr. DiBiase adds. "And if they go back to their community inspired by it, that's what it's all about."
Despite the mural program's prominence, not everyone believes in its social merits. Because the murals are created predominantly in poor neighborhoods, many people still equate them with urban blight. Prosperous communities don't want the murals, and controversies have arisen over the placement of murals as well as the color of mural subjects' skin.
While troubled by the attitude of affluent neighborhoods, Golden prefers to direct her energy toward neighborhoods that want murals, and she takes comfort in changes the program makes in the lives of children who participate. Data show that 98 percent of the high school students who work with MAP graduate, a big accomplishment in a city where the dropout rate exceeds 15 percent. MAP also helps graduating students find scholarships and takes them on campus visits.
"I'm not saying that murals are a panacea for everything that ails a city," says Golden, "but it's been somewhat extraordinary for me to observe how they can promote that kind of change in a community. Someone once said to me, 'For kids who are troubled, what difference does it make if they have art?' It makes all the difference in the world.
"Do we save every kid? Of course not. No program does that. But the truth is, we save some. And that's a great thing."