Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Blessed are the Artmakers

A look at Philadelphia's inspiring 'city of murals' and the artists who've created it.
Mural TourImage by via Flickr
Philadelphia Mural
Philadelphia is mighty among the world's bustling art centers. It's the host of several acclaimed university art programs, has a world-class museum, and has spawned a new generation of artists - many of whom are locals, but also those who have left New York City and nearby regions in search of a fresh, innovative experience, and more affordable work-spaces.

One fact about Philadelphia's connection to art is indisputable - it has more murals than any city anywhere, essentially crowning it the mural capital of the world. The city's murals can be certainly stunning to the eye, but they are much more than just beautiful paintings on a wall. They are powerful and enriching projects for the city, rituals through which Philadelphians come together to show the world their unique sense of community and commitment to a greater good.

This summer, Designer in Exile is featuring insightful interviews with a few of the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia's many talented artists. Below is the first installment in this tribute, featuring an exclusive chat with distinguished muralist and teacher Harvey Weinreich, a veteran of the city's monumental program.

Philadelphia mural. Image: Lisa Krieger.

Designer In Exile:  How long have you been with Mural Arts Program and how did you get started with the organization?
Harvey Weinreich:  I knew of Mural Arts before I worked there and it was just a curiosity for me because I had never done any public art. In 2001, I left my job with the University of Pennsylvania where I managed a building, I had a friend that I had gone to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with who said ‘oh, we have job openings.’ At that point I joined what we called ‘the crew’ which built the scaffolding and prepared the walls for murals. That’s how I first started there. I am now a staff artist at Mural Arts.

In school, what were you studying? Painting?
The focus Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts is strictly fine arts and you are either doing drawing, painting, or sculpture and my area was painting.

What projects with the Mural Arts Program have you worked on recently?
We do a lot of projects with the public school system where we interact with the kids and have some lessons on mural painting and how we do a mural. We execute murals in the schools. Sometimes on material so the kids can work on tables and then we apply the mural to the wall. I’ve also recently put up the mural that’s on the front of the Hawthorne Cultural Center and the design on the inside, along with another artist, Mike Smash.
Mosaic detail.
The process of making murals is fascinating, though I think a lot of people outside the mural arts community are unaware of the techniques or technology involved. Could you elaborate on that, especially on how the community participates?
Sure. First of all, the old school method - and it’s mostly what Mural Arts did and it’s been going on before Mural Arts - was the grid system, which is basically where the wall was broken up in measured squares and there’s a drawing that represents the mural. The drawing would be on a 2 x 3 foot piece of paper, but it has a grid on it and everything is just gridded up to a larger size when you draw it out on the wall.
That was the old method, the most traditional method of reproducing a small image to make a larger version of the design. But since then, the use of Photoshop and computers makes some of that process a lot easier—you could do it on the computer instead of it being on the wall, which limited the amount of time we could paint because we could only paint when the weather was fair enough and it had to be above freezing, of course.

But now that we work with this non-woven material we call parachute cloth. It’s not really parachute cloth, per se, it’s a very light material and we prepare that material and paint on it, usually in 5 X 5 foot squares. People think we’re putting up wallpaper because the mural’s not there and then one day it’s just being pasted up. It’s still being painted just as it used to be, it’s just that instead of painting directly on the wall, we paint on the cloth and then apply the cloth to wall.

And who does the painting?
Primarily, the artists are either commissioned or hired to do the painting, or staff artists do the painting. Usually, almost all of our murals involve the community on one level or another. Most murals have a least one community paint day. But, first of all, if I could back up a little, before it is even started there are community meetings and conversations with people who live in the area about what they would like to see on a wall. Often it’s someone in a community who have the wall who has requested the mural in the first place, but we still involve other neighbors to put in their thoughts and ideas because we’re not doing a mural just for one person, it’s public art. My attitude is to just give people what they want as much as I can. I don’t really think of it in the realm of art as I would pursue it as a painter, it’s a whole different baby.
Philadelphia mural. Image: Lisa Krieger

Philadelphia mural, Fishtown. Image D.A. DeMers.

That leads to my next question; my blog focuses on art and design that is connected to community outreach, social justice, and environmentalism. Can you tell us some related themes that the Mural Arts promotes? 
We do a tremendous amount of work about social justice and with within the prison systems with adjudicated and at-risk youth. Our art education program is all oriented towards working with people in those arenas.

I recently spoke with Katherine Gajewski, Director of the Mayor's Office of Sustainability, who explained that some murals were coordinated with the city's Big Green Block program, an innovative project aimed to develop green infrastructure and foster water reclamation by utilizing mostly existing resources, rather than overhauling entire sewer systems. Here in Fishtown we see evidence of that collaboration by environmental murals with phrases like "take me to the river." This community has suffered much from the loss of heavy industry and jobs, but also from soil contamination and brown-fields left from that boom.
You are in South Philly, and since each area has its own needs and perspective, what do you see is the greatest benefit of the Mural Arts Program from your view?

I see it on a couple different levels and it’s hard for me to fully put myself in someone else’s shoes, but I think that it must be a lot of fun to walk around the city to see all of these ideas and all of these colors. I feel kind of proud that I’m part of that. At the same time, we have people who think there are too many murals and that we're preaching messages, and I can understand that as well. I’ve advocated for more murals that are just art for art’s sake but that’s a hard sell when there’s public money involved.

Philadelphia mural.
That brings up some complex philosophical notions about art and what art is for.
Yes, and I have some conflicting ideas when it comes to being an artist, and being an artist that simply caters to the community. Being an artist is deeply personal and the whole spirit of art comes from thinking outside the box and discovering things. If all that's taken away, I don't know what's left. On the the other hand, I enjoy working with the community and I'm glad to have a job that involves art. There’s a dialogue that's running within Mural Arts in recent years that's been more engaging about these notions - not just in the protective mode, but actually interacting, inviting people to talk about these things, so I think the organization is really growing in a good direction.

Going back to the pride aspect, I was walking my dog this morning and looked around at all the great wall art. I felt that same feeling you mentioned, it really makes me want to show the world what we do here, what you do.
We actually have groupies now that come to every dedication, there’s like a fan base and it’s very interesting to me. Of course anyone can get involved in Mural Arts, we have volunteer programs; there’s always something, some way for people to participate. We’re considered the capital of murals of the world. I believe we are negotiating and having conversations with other cities about helping them set up programs modeled after our program. Of course, there’s there been a lot of growth to get where we’re at. Things have changed a lot as we became more professional in our approach.

Thank you for sharing your time with our readers and thanks for giving so much back to our great city.--D.A. DeMers.
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  1. Nice piece!


  2. I've heard about the Philly murals, and have been told that the tours are well worth attending. But I had no idea how developed and organized this program is. Informative stuff. Thanks.

    Francis K.