Thursday, February 16, 2006

#22 Neighborhood Art

Though I had walked through this part of the city dozens of times, somehow I had missed this particular corner, with its little mural tucked under the railroad trestle: a banner reading And the Angel of Philadelphia sayeth:, a pastoral scene with human figures portraying strength and love, and a signature, Rainbow Warriors, 1993. Who are the Rainbow Warriors? Who is their angel? What forces came together to create that mural? This is a big city, and I may never know. But I was warmed by the energy that put such a message on the wall.

I remember reading a review in the newspaper of the art in our city’s mural program. The critic was, well, critical. The murals were so heroic. The themes were so simplistic, so one-dimensional, so determinedly upbeat. Where was the complexity, the ambiguity, the struggle with darkness, the angst? Could this really be called art? I remember thinking that, while critics might choose to take a museum trip through ambiguity, darkness and angst, not many of us need more of that confronting us on the street corners of our gritty neighborhoods. There is something right about wanting visions of hope and humanity in our daily lives; my heart is touched every time I see the mural of the two old folks, so clearly in love with each other and their vegetable garden.

I pass by the big mural of Frank Sinatra every week. Hands in pockets, leaning back a little, he croons to the adoring fifties-era fans at his feet. I am not a Sinatra fan, but the mural is in his old neighborhood, and I imagine how it evokes warm feelings for so many people passing by. Somehow it seems fitting and right that he be there, calling forth all that love. Other neighborhoods have different heroes, but the quality of love seems the same. Having such a variety of public portraits, picked by whole communities to look out over them from neighborhood walls, provides a context of respect in the midst of sometimes contentious diversity, and calls out the best in us.

An arts project has grown up in a run-down part of the city—from the vision of one remarkable woman. With her energy and that of the neighborhood children, attracted like moths to light, murals, sculpture, mosaic pillars, flights of fancy have spread like living things, squeezing through alley ways, blossoming out in open areas. I read in the paper of how a homeless unemployed man, not long out of jail, found his salvation in tending and expanding that startling beauty—and claimed his identity as an artist and a healer in the process.

Murals need empty walls, and blighted neighborhoods where row houses have been torn down have lots of them. A heavily-Spanish corner of our northern city now has a look of the tropics—with wall after wall full of bright flowers and lush country scenes, murals in a greater density than any other part of the city. It is so fitting that, for once, those who have the least get the most. (These murals, combined with the vibrant garden project that is reclaiming vacant land there, gives a glimpse of new possibilities for city living.)

Local art brings people together. An artist who works with glass and tile mosaic has single-handedly created a signature look on the walls of one whole neighborhood. His art has overflowed from his studio into a long-vacant lot next door. The owner, now wanting to sell, has demanded that it all be removed—and the neighbors are up in arms. This place of beauty, created by one man, is now enjoyed and claimed by all.

On a recent visit to my son in colonized, poverty-stricken Nicaragua, it was the murals of a small town in the north that most lifted my spirits. We admired many from the revolutionary era, then came across a young people’s workshop where teenagers have been gathering to create art, including big new murals. My son had a long conversation with a passionate intense young man who directed us to their greatest triumph—a block long panorama of the history of Nicaragua. It was a striking testament to struggle and hope, a gift to the town from its youth.

There are many social institutions that reflect back different pictures of who we are as human beings. The advertising world shows us as busily pursuing happiness through purchasing. The evening news offers a sobering portrait of a people prone to violence and victimization, consumed by fear. The art that we create for our communities, in contrast, draws its inspiration from our hearts and our spirits. As such, I am coming to believe, it reflects back to us a picture that is much deeper and much more true.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 6/04


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