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Funding for the Dorrance H. Hamilton Public Media Commons was provided by:

  • Dorrance H. Hamilton
  • Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
  • Lincoln Financial Foundation
  • Delaware River Port Authority
  • The ARAMARK Charitable Fund at the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program
  • Arcadia Foundation
  • Bank of America Foundation
  • Priscilla Brown
  • Kyra McGrath
  • Wachovia Wells Fargo Foundation

The People's Stories, Through Art Video and Audio

An artist transforms walls and her neighborhood. Produced by Kate Dolgenos, Lea Hoika, Lance Bennett, Alexandra Hughes, and Sari Soffer.
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The People's Stories, Through Art

Text by: Kate Dolgenos and Alexandra Hughes
Media produced by: Kate Dolgenos, Lea Hoika, Lance Bennett, Alexandra Hughes, and Sari Soffer

Betsy Casañas lives in a rough neighborhood in North Philadelphia. She regularly hears gunshots at all hours of the day. Betsy's children - and the other 80 or so kids living on her block - do not often leave their houses for fear they will fall victim to these senseless acts of violence. "There's all of these kids, and absolutely no recreational spaces based within three blocks," says Ms. Casañas, who has witnessed crimes herself. "I've seen people get shot. I've seen a lot."

Many people, in this situation, would give up hope. They might avoid spending time in their own neighborhood, or even move to a different area. Not Betsy. Ms. Casañas, along with her business partner, Pedro Ospina, has begun a project to beautify her neighborhood through her partnership with Mural Arts. "The neighborhood is a lot prettier," says Pedro, "...Children are playing outside more. So it's a big change."

And the project involves more than just murals. Mr. Ospina says its success lies with the community. "The project has to do with how people can get involved and take the initiative to change the way their neighborhood looks... by doing such simple things as cleaning up their neighborhood, painting, adding flowers, doing things that anybody could do, that's how we start. The project grows on community participation."

Ms. Casañas' work is not limited to her own neighborhood. She has also created murals in such diverse places as Ireland, Mexico, and Cuba. Each mural is influenced by the social climate of the surrounding area. She painted one of her murals in a village in Mexico that had no males over the age of 14. The men had fled to the United States in order to create a better life for their families. "It was a cool experience, going over there and seeing what we don't normally see - the men that never return, and then the women, still there, and [they] can't really continue on with their life, because everyone knows that that person is married," she says.

Ms. Casañas mainly paints self-portraits, many of which she posts on her MySpace page (www.myspace.com/zcasanas). She says that creating a mural is a totally different experience than creating self-portraits. "Murals are less personal, they're less about you. It's really about the people's stories." And for Ms. Casañas, creating a mural is not exactly a solitary experience. "With murals, there are so many people, and you're always meeting new people...It's not like I'm running in, painting the mural, and leaving. I'm working with the kids and having everybody involved."