The big picture
A new TV12 production looks at life, art and Philadelpha's Mural Program
By Mary Eileen O'Connor

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Although Frank Rizzo passed away years ago, the former Philadelphia mayor still keeps a watchful eye on the city he loved. In the heart of South Philadelphia, a mural bearing his image looms over the streets where he once walked as a young policeman. Rizzo is only one figure that is forever immortalized in Philadelphia. Ranging from tranquil garden scenes to larger-than-life portraits, the city is home to over 2,000 murals, the most public murals anywhere in the United States.

Mural, a new, original WHYY production airing June 28 at 9 p.m., intimately explores the struggles and triumphs of creating art on a grand scale. Following four local artists through the summer and fall of 2000, Mural examines Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program, which uses art to beautify and uplift countless city neighborhoods. "These murals have roots," producer Glenn Holsten says, and "each story has its own little twist."

Using handheld video cameras, the artists and community leaders documented the personal stories behind each mural. Mural blends their video diaries with formal interviews to "bring these intimate stories to the public," Holsten says.

Although each artist profiled is a veteran muralist, they still faced personal and creative struggles. Parris Stancell's story illustrates the frequent push-and-pull between artistic vision and community ideals. While visually stunning, community pressure forced Stancell to alter the original design of his mural at Broad and Glenwood Streets in North Philadelphia, which honors the neighborhood leaders who have worked to revitalize the area.

"We dealt with an intricate set of emotions at all times," Holsten says. For muralist David Guinn, painting a spring scene at 13th and Pine Streets in the Center City neighborhood where he grew up was a very emotional process. The son of a prominent artist, Guinn details the enormous pressure to live up to the expectations of his parents and the people he knows, as well as create a meaningful work of art.

Community expectations were also high for muralist David McShane, whose mural in West Philadelphia honors the late anti-drug activist Herman Wrice. Beyond painting a portrait, McShane tried to help the Mantua neighborhood deal with the recent loss of their beloved crusader through his mural.

Diane Keller, who painted the Rizzo mural in 1995, tried to represent the community in her creation at 8th and Montrose Streets in South Philadelphia. Depicting the St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi Church procession, a yearly celebration in which local parishioners honor various saints, Keller's challenge was to capture the longstanding traditions of this increasingly diverse neighborhood.

Mural also profiles the Mural Arts Program's artistic director Jane Golden, a tireless leader whom Holsten calls "a visionary." She shares her passions and frustrations as she pursues her artistic vision for the city. In 1984, former mayor Wilson Goode established the Anti-Graffiti Network, a citywide effort to eliminate urban scrawl and provide graffiti writers with positive outlets for their creativity. Golden, a professional muralist, accepted Goode's challenge to head up the art component of this project.

Diagnosed with lupus, the Delaware Valley native had returned home from Los Angeles, where she had painted several murals and helped found and direct a public art program that reached out to troubled youths. With meager supplies and no staff, Golden began working with local graffiti writers, convincing them to tackle small mural projects throughout Philadelphia.

When the Anti-Graffiti Network came under the umbrella of the city's Department of Recreation in 1996, its name changed to the Mural Arts Program. The program's focus changed from simply removing graffiti to creating permanent works of art. Each year, the program works with individual artists and communities to paint as many as 100 murals that beautify, celebrate, commemorate or promote peace. Another important focus of the Mural Arts Program is art education, providing city students with free after-school and summer art classes.

Murals are certainly more than just pretty pictures, Holsten asserts. One of Jane Golden's mantras, he says, is "art saves lives." In Mural, Golden reunites with some of the former graffiti writers who explain the profound effects that the anti-graffiti program had on their lives. Mural, Holsten notes, "says, 'art is about life.'"

Leading up the the premiere of Mural, presented "The Mural of the Day". Choose one below:

For more information visit Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program website.