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Mural Arts, Redux

Anne Dalke's picture

This summer, my daughter Marian told me that, as a birthday gift, she wanted to treat me to a Mural Arts tour. Researching the various options, she came upon the Restorative Justice tour (and the rest is history. Our 360 went. We saw. We problematized....)

This Sunday, I finally got my birthday gift, as Mar, her partner Ari and I went on the North Philadelphia Trolley Tour. It was so interesting to re-visit another whole set of murals through the lens our 360 had constructed around the "restorative justice" group. Our Sunday guide, Lisa, was much more celebratory than Jerry had been of the public art of the graffiti writers--"Look @ all this color! Isn't this amazing?"--and also quite eager to talk about what she saw as the difference between graffiti and mural arts (her position was that graffiti was the work of individual artists, while the murals were the expression of a community; she also had some really wonderful backstories to tell about how some of the murals --most recently, "How We Fish"--were collaboratively conceived, as folks sat around, telling stories about what their work meant to them, and the artist took notes...). But there were certainly some false notes (as I took the liberty of telling Lisa afterwards), especially the moment when she said, "I used to live in this neighborhood. You couldn't walk down the street...." She admitted, in conversation, that "some kinds of people felt uncomfortable walking down the street" might have been more accurate representation of what she meant....

Mar, Ari and I said to one another, over dim sum afterwards, that the tour guides need better training in explaining how the murals intend to "improve" the neighborhoods --without putting down the neighborhoods in the process. What I've been thinking since, though, is that such a spiel really isn't tenable. The Mural Arts Program does come into a neighborhood and impose an aesthetic, as part of a project to enliven the space. In such a context, mightn't the conversations with those who live there said to be colonialist? imperializing? (I know, for instance, that when my neighbors were invited out to brainstorm about the mural that eventually went up @ the end of my street, several of them wanted to be sure that there were "no mosaics: this was Washington Square West, after all; NOT South Philly!"...all this made me wonder about the jingoism of neighborhood pride....and also raised a number of questions for me about art "by committee"...and the problem of the lowest common denominator, which might well describe what we finally got:

On Sunday evening, I had supper with a colleague and friend, Alice Lesnick, who'd just taken her ESem to see Isaiah Zagar's Magic Gardens in South Philadelphia. This project is so interestingly different than the Mural Arts Program: entirely the vision of a single (quirky, unique) individual...and yet perhaps also thereby strikingly expressive of the ethos of that neighborhood?



S. Yaeger's picture

Just a note here, almost

Just a note here, almost totally unrelated to your words, but you've posted a picture of the steps where Chuck proposed to me.  I've always loved the Magic Garden, and all the surrounding murals and mosaics.  There's something in there that makes me feel like there really is limitless potential for this city.  That's probaby partially related to the fact that South Street was a favorite haunt for me in high school, but also because Zagar's art education efforts are asstounding, as is his vision.