How many times have you visited a town and noticed a huge work of art painted on the side of the building? More than you can probably count.
Maybe you noted the theme of the mural and decided whether you liked it or not. Then you went on your way. Maybe you thought of that mural again, maybe not.
What you probably didn’t realize is that it may have taken a whole lot more than one artist’s vision and hand to create that work of art.
Just 30 miles up I-95 from Wilmington are more than 4,000 murals that were produced by, or in partnership with, the Mural Arts of Philadelphia program in the last 30 years. If you’re not familiar with Mural Arts, you might just think that Philadelphians really like murals.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll learn that what Mural Arts is doing is building community – because while the finished product is wonderful, it’s the process that makes the mural so important. And it’s this process, rooted in community-engaged art making, that has made Mural Arts a model that cities all over the world have replicated.
Recently, through a partnership with Connections Community Support Programs Inc., a group of 25 Wilmington artists completed a free program to learn the process of community-engaged public art making.
Led by expert muralist Eric Okdeh, the participants in the Creative District’s first Public Art Prep Program learned how to lead community discussions about the theme of the mural; how to distill those discussions into an image; how to ask the community for feedback on the image; how to project the final image onto parachute cloth and trace it out for painting; how to select and mix paint colors; how to lead public paint days; how to create mosaic as part of the painted mural; and how to install the finished mural on the wall.
It took six months, almost 100 hours of meeting and making time; 31 sections of 5-by-5-foot parachute cloth; 50 gallons of paint, primer and sealer; 107 different colors; and three public paint days. The finished product, the Veterans Freedom Mural “Getting Back to the World,” is located at 901 Washington St. and is simply stunning.
But the bigger story is the months and hours that the prep program artists spent side by side with community residents and veterans and their families. More than 100 people, ages 6 to 91, had a hand in making the mural. They came from all different cultural, socioeconomic, racial and gender backgrounds – a true reflection of our diverse Wilmington community.
And there’s now a bond between them. As more than 30 of those participants stood together at the mural’s dedication in late June, the feeling of pride, the spirit of camaraderie and a sense of community were palpable.
About four blocks away from the Veterans Freedom Mural, at Seventh and Tatnall streets, is the mural “Be the Light, Spread Love,” which was created by brothers Corei and Crae Washington, who produce their work under the name Smashed Label. While this mural wasn’t created in the same way as the Veterans Freedom Mural, it did have an equally interesting impact on building community. Crae Washington spent many hours up on ladders, both day and night, painting the mural. Each time he was on site, countless people would stop and talk to him about the mural – its meaning, his process and why he was doing it.
And while they didn’t have a hand in making this mural, Crae Washington would ask their opinions on different features of the mural and they would stop by and check on his progress. Now that the mural is complete, people can be seen at all hours stopping by the mural and taking photos and selfies, even asking strangers on the street to take their photo in front of the mural.
Again, this mural has created a sense of connectivity between strangers. Art is building community.
The next mural in the Creative District will be led by local artist Terrance Vann. The mural, as yet untitled, will be created on site at the William “Hicks” Anderson Community Center in West Center City with the help of neighborhood children and families and employees of the center. Work will begin in early August, and the mural will be installed at its permanent location at Seventh and Windsor streets in September. Like the two murals before it, Vann’s mural will help to build and strengthen connections in the neighborhood.
These three murals expand on the beautiful and poignant collection of murals dotting our city’s neighborhoods. And there are others being made.
Christina Cultural Arts Center and the Creative Vision Factory just announced a partnership to create a mosaic mural in conjunction with the families and clients of both organizations and the broader community. The project kicks off at the end of July and will be unveiled in October at its permanent location at the rear entrance of the CCAC building at Seventh and Shipley streets.
While murals can be controversial – some people love them, some do not – it’s not the final product alone that is important. The mural making process, while sometimes challenging, is also important – perhaps even more important – because it’s that process that fosters communication, understanding and partnerships.
So the next time you see a mural, enjoy the artwork. Let it delight you, challenge you, inspire you.
But then think about how that mural might have been made by many, many hands and how that mural might just have changed the people who made it for the better.
Think about the process as well as the product – and think about how art can build community.
Behind the scenes is a column by leaders of area arts organizations that looks at how they cope with the demands and challenges of focusing on the arts in the First State. Dr. Carrie W. Gray is the managing director of the Wilmington Renaissance Corp.
If you go
WHAT: Dedicated of the “Be the Light, Spread Love” mural in Wilmington
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Aug. 5
WHERE: Creative District’s iNSPIRE Lot Block Party at 7th and Tatnall streets.
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