The Art of Change
"This isn't about art that's parachuted down from the sky," Jane Golden likes to tell her listeners, although some of Philadelphia's giant outdoor murals, like the three-story portrait of Dr. J, were first painted indoors on parachute cloth and then embedded with acrylic gel in the wall of a building. Ten years ago that wall was covered with graffiti. The lot in front was littered with garbage bags, tires, and broken appliances, and drug dealers owned the street corner. Now basketball legend Julius Irving presides, in a double-breasted business suit, over a cleaned-up corner.
Golden, the fiery and tenacious and indefatigable artistic director of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program (MAP), is imparting her vision of public art. She speaks at a quick clip and can slip a lot of words into a short space of time.
"A mural is so much more than just art on a wall," she proclaims. The building-size paintings may have the artist's signature in one corner, but each one is conceived and executed in a labor-intensive collaboration among the artist, MAP representatives, and, most importantly, residents in the neighborhood. "The image is rooted in the vision of the neighborhood. If you go in and meet with people and engage them in a dialogue about what they want, the wall is much more powerful --and the murals can be catalysts for positive change in the community."
Golden attends hundreds of town meetings and community forums each year, usually returning many times to talk about neighborhood concerns, its history, and to help pull together the person-by-person consensus over what image will go up on a wall. "We don't just do murals in the neighborhoods," she says, "we really get involved with people's lives." Again and again she has witnessed the healing and renewed life that can come to a community when neighbors work together to bring some beauty into their lives. She refers to art, with evangelical ardor, as "a lifeline"--for blighted neighborhoods, for disadvantaged kids, for herself.
The ambivalence resolved when she received a grant from the city of LA to paint her first mural in Santa Monica where the Ocean Park Pier once stood. As the early 1900s beach-and-boardwalk scene she was painting took shape on a 15-by-100-foot wall, the rarefied theories she held about creating art all fell to pieces. The people who stopped to watch her work would talk about community issues and neighborhood politics, what the pier had meant to them or their grandparents, and how sad they were the city had torn it down. Golden was a hungry listener. "It was a very personal, poignant, vital, exciting, alive experience," she recounts, "a way of forming bonds with people that I had never thought about. By the time the mural was finished, I knew this was what I wanted to do."
For six years bright-colored murals flowed from her hand like a rainbow
river in southern California. Then she started suffering bouts of aching
joints and fevers, and the scaffolds all at once seemed higher and the
paint buckets heavier. Trying to shrug off a thick cloak of fatigue, she
finally collapsed on the way to her latest and largest project to date
on the long wall of an underpass. "I could barely move my left hand
and had a hard time picking up my paint brush. I thought my career as
an artist was over." She was diagnosed with lupus and returned home
at age 28 to Margate, NJ, a grim prognosis packed up with her brushes
Not one to lie around for long, she was up and painting again as the symptoms began to recede, starting with a wall on her father's store at the Jersey shore. Soon Golden was scrambling up scaffolding in paint-spattered jeans, hauling buckets and making murals around Atlantic City. Within the year, she was working for the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN), the brainchild of Mayor Wilson Goode.
The mayor's idea was to somehow direct the creative energies of the city's prolific graffiti writers away from vandalism and toward more constructive undertakings. Golden thought the idea was "visionary" but received no blueprint for the vision. Her job was to work out the "somehow." Along with about 20 gallons of beige house paint, she was given an assistant: Tran, one of Philadelphia's most notorious practitioners of the urban art form. He introduced her to many of the big-name graffiti writers whose "tags"--Cat, Knife, Cool Earl, Disco Duck--were scrawled across the cityscape like emblems of decline.
When Tran brought them--"all large," she recalls--to her home one evening, they went straight for the bookshelf and started pulling down works from Golden's collection of oversized art books.
The wall writers had grown up in some of the poorest and most desperate sectors of the city-"war zones," she calls them. Most had dropped out of school by the ninth grade. Some had become ensnared in the drug trade and the street violence that attends it, bluntly confiding to her that they expected to be dead or in prison before leaving their teen years.
Looking up from an art book, one of her guests turned to Golden and said,
"Tran has been telling us about you, and I've been dying to ask you
a question all week. I want to know what you think of Willem De Kooning
and Hans Hoffmann, and I'd like to know your opinion of the color fields
in Mark Rothko's work."
"You know, Knife," she responded, "that's a pretty esoteric question. How do you know about the abstract expressionists?"
He pulled a rolled-up copy of Art in America, one of the more sophisticated art magazines, from his pocket. "I've been stealing this since I was ten," he explained.
They told her how they had been drawing from comic books since they were little kids and showed samples of raw talent in the black books all of them carried. "They had an intuitive sense of design and color and anatomy," Golden comments.
She convinced the wall scrawlers to sign a pledge promising to stop tagging walls and invited them to join PAGN, offering them jobs--with city benefits--if they stuck with it. She had arranged with the art museum to set aside space for her to teach classes on Saturdays and promised to introduce the graffiti writers to artists, architects, designers, photojournalists, and other professionals. "Look at what we could do in Philadelphia," she exclaimed, showing them a book full of LA murals.
The next morning she spied new graffiti on the way to her office in City Hall. Along with Tran and Knife and Cool Earl, the walls were tagged with a new name: Cool Jane. "It's some girl in Kensington," Tran offered to her vexed boss.
Golden, the graffiti writers later told her, was the first adult who took them seriously and showed them respect. "Too many kids," she asserts, "attend schools in this city where art is not an option [because of budget constraints], and they have nowhere else to turn. We fix potholes--I think art should be a city service too."
Those who grabbed hold of the lifeline she threw managed to pull themselves from the flood that was sweeping them away. "Many of these young people were with us for years," she notes. "We were a surrogate family, and they became forever marked by this program." After leaving PAGN several of the graffiti writers entered the computer industry. One is a policeman, another a minister, and another owns a barbershop in North Philly. One earned a degree in art and started a design firm in New York.
Painting the Town
Typically, observes Golden, Philadelphia's mural art tends toward realism. Many portray idyllic landscapes with waterfalls and flowers. Some memorialize children lost to street fighting and provide a site for grieving. Others are a celebration of neighborhood heroes or offer lessons on ethnic heritage.
Not all the murals are aimed at reclaiming blighted parts of the city. There is a strong sense of civic boosterism in some of the downtown murals like Philadelphia Muses. Singer Mario Lanza adorns a rowhouse in Italian South Philly, and Welcome to Mummer Land is painted on a wall near the site where the tradition of a New Year's Day Mummer's Parade started.
Ariel Bierbaum, C'00, the program coordinator who oversees MAP's projects, points out that "the murals are almost all autobiographies of the neighborhoods . . . and together they create a visual map of the diversity in Philadelphia." She first met Golden in senior year when she and a group of urban studies majors took a fine arts course that MAP's artistic director was teaching at Penn. "They're not 'hoods,'" Bierbaum contends, "they're neighborhoods; they're communities; they're people living their lives."
Golden recalls the moment at a church when people finally came together to photograph the image that would become a mural. Everyone started reaching toward each other to pose--old and young, black and white. "It was an interesting moment," she comments, "one that I wished we could freeze. There had been such deep animosity, but now people were starting to talk to one another about the mural." The result is Peace Wall. MAP continues to hold art programs, and a new mural is slated to go up in the summer.
Mark Stern, a social work professor, is conducting a "community impact assessment," which is developing the data to measure how murals and other MAP programs bring change to a community. "MAP understands that the community impact of murals does not come from just putting paint on a wall," he observes. "Murals help build communities when they provide a focus around which existing community assets can be mobilized."
Murals are not a solution, admits Golden, but they can help bind and heal the wounds of the city. Sometimes the changes introduced are subtle: a simple appreciation of something beautiful appearing unexpectedly on the street. Sometimes--Golden says often--the changes are sweeping. Art and beauty can rekindle the spirit of a neighborhood, especially in demoralized places where the only "art" is graffiti-marred walls or billboards advertising alcohol or cigarettes.
In Norris Square, situated among the gutted factory carcasses and falling-down rowhouses in the city's "badlands," Golden worked with the Motivated Ones, a group of Latino women who wanted to take back their disintegrating community. She painted Wall of Neighborhood Heroes, depicting these tough and angry women at work in a garden. Residents held sleep-ins around the painted wall to face down drug dealers and chase them from the park. The community pressured police to conduct sweeps, city agencies were called to help clean up the vicinity, gardens were planted, and new murals created. Now there's a playground where no one would venture before.
The mural, contends Professor Stern, offered "a means of empowerment" to the Motivated Ones. "The portrayal of the women reinforced the work of the group. It created a 'place' for the women --literally and figuratively."
"I've seen art--always a lifeline for me--become a lifeline for
young people and for communities," Golden attests. "When people
ask me what our program is about, I answer them with one word: Hope."