Monday, September 26, 2011

Dreaming in Color

The Magical World of Philly Muralist Emilie Ledieu and Her Enduring Pursuit of People Power.

Emilie Ledieu at work. Image: Emily Wren.
No other arts program in the world quite captures the sense of community like the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia. The vast collection of murals, perhaps greater than any city in the world, is a celebration of the city's diversity as well as its commonality. They tell a colorful story of the Philadelphia experience.

In this second installment of our series, Designer In Exile explores the unique artistry of Emilie Ledieu and her devotion to social causes. The exchange reveals why the program has become a symbol of pride for the city and a model of virtuosity for the world. 

How long have you been working with Mural Arts and how did you get started?

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and when I'd come into the city, the murals were always something visible, but I had no idea about the community background of them. Then, when I was attending Villanova University for a degree in Social Justice and minor in Women's Studies, I became very involved in an activist world. A friend of mine who was going to Bryn Mawr was into much of the same stuff and was doing a colossal paper on the Mural Arts Program. I remember helping her with the presentation and being blown away by the stories of the murals. There was an instant correlation.

For a short period, my career led me out west to an apprenticeship in public art where I worked with James Hubbell, a wonderful, sort of renaissance man with an incredible international social vision. I was loving what I was doing, but after a year, I realized that my ultimate goal was to come back to Philly and work with Mural Arts. I had already been working with mosaics out west and noticed that there was this whole community involvement in the projects, so for me it was the perfect intersection of art and social change. I love the idea of something on the street that's available to everybody. You don't have to go to a museum. Just look around the streets of Philadelphia - you have this great outdoor museum.

Mosaic project, The Philippines. Image: Sarah Encabo.

You incorporate glass mosaics in your murals - your work is unique in that regard. Tell us more about that process.

Most of my mosaics with Mural Arts have been made out of stained glass. I was very lucky in that my first job with them happened to be in their headquarters building, where I was commissioned to do some glass-work on a Paul Santoleri mural. Paul was the one who introduced me to the notion of just using stained glass instead of tiles. That project was so eye-opening for me as an artist and eye-opening about the whole organization, because I was working in their headquarters, meeting everybody who worked there, and seeing how much goes into the work behind the scenes.

You were born in the US, but are of French lineage. How has that aspect of your life intersected with your career?

Ledieu's work in Paul Santoleri's mural.
I was born outside Pontiac, Michigan - the only one in my family not born in France. I moved to France with my family when I was two and lived there until six, and then spent many summers there with my grandmother thereafter. So technically, I spoke French before I learned English. My grandmother lived in the 93rd district right outside Paris which had changed quite a bit. She was involved in helping with the Arab immigration; she taught a lot of women who were showing up how to knit sweaters, and taught a lot of incoming immigrants to speak French.

Would you say this broadened your awareness of community issues?

I think so, yes. Early on I lived in an area of Detroit that had definitely seen poverty, but my grandmother lived in a neighborhood that had evolved tremendously in her life. She was born and died in the same room. And by the time she died it was a completely different demographic there. She was way ahead of her time in terms of social power and awareness. She was involved in helping people instead of what's going on now in France with a lot of the anti-immigrant mentality. Rather than the white nationalism that some people are fighting for, she was very open to welcoming people and seeing the beautiful landscape of different cultures coming into her neighborhood. So I think that did make me more aware.

You worked on a special project in France on behalf of Mural Arts. Describe what that was like.

 "Angel",  Viking Mill. Image: Alex Stolypine
I was fortunate to take part in an exchange program that sent me and two other muralists to France to represent Mural Arts and their community process. And since I speak the language, I ended up being the translator, communicator, and, to some degree, the manager. It was a first taste of project management for me, because I was doing a lot of the community engagement, programming, and background work.

It was interesting because you had a bunch of people there looking around wondering what these Americans were doing putting up art on walls. But then it was funny because I'd tell them of the summers I spent in my grandmother's district - not Paris proper - and all of the sudden I'd get all this street cred, like "oh, then you know 93, cool, so sorry." I didn't feel like a tourist.

What differences or similarities have you encountered between Philly and Paris in terms of the mural experience?

The one thing that's different about working on Murals in Philly, as opposed to other places, is that because we have this immense mural program, people are usually like "you're with the mural program? Great!" Often it's a much different conversation and generally very positive, especially in Philadelphia, which has some tough landscapes. The fact that you're just bringing in some color and something pretty makes people thankful. That is one of the reasons I keep going back for projects.

There's always going to be naysayers. You're putting artwork on a building - you can't expect that every person is going to love it. Thank God every person doesn't love it - that's sort of how art works. But Jane Golden has done a great job resolving those situations.

French exchange artist project in progress, Viking Mill, 2010.

Rendering of the project by A. Stolypine, P. Santoleri, and E. Ledieu.

What sort of behind the scenes work goes into making a community mural?

We do a whole community interaction that involves the design process before and as it's being put up. It's quite a process to engage people - it's not like you just show up and all these people come flocking to your project. I've had parents come up who are worried that it's school district money, that it's money that could be bettering their children's library. So sometimes it's a simple thing like letting people know that funding is coming from elsewhere.

There is some public funding, but most of our support is private money from foundations that are giving to Mural Arts, a lot of grant work, the Independence Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Knight Foundation and groups like that - it's not taking books off of their library shelves. When they hear that, then people turn around instantly and you can begin talking to them about the background and community work needed to put it all together.

Let's rewind a bit. Tell us briefly about the techniques used by Philly muralists, both past and present. Your process is with mosaics, but most people associate murals with paint.

Mural in Kensington.
Yes. And they still are primarily paint. Then the mosaic thing just started to happen. At the time, an artist not affiliated with Mural Arts, Isaiah Zagar, was putting up massive mosaics, which put mosaics in the dialog of public art in Philadelphia. Then it started to be blended in with murals. Mural Arts is making an effort to do projects they call "off the wall." For instance, one of the first lead-artist projects I worked on was at 39th and Lancaster on non-mural objects. I created a fence for an auto-body shop and then decorated some planters which sort of tied together murals that were on nearby walls.

Mural Arts has been expanding what they've been doing beyond murals quite a bit lately, like the recycling trucks and the "Big Belly" solar powered trash cans. They've done some really cool non-mural projects that have an artistic impact, promote great ideas, and generally involve children, which is awesome.

"Off the Wall" recycling truck by Desiree Bender. Image: D.A. DeMers.

That is awesome. Thanks so much for sharing your time with our readers, and good luck on your future creative projects and voyages.

More information on the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia and upcoming October Mural Arts Month events can be found at For a link to more of Emilie Ledieu's work, visit


Up next: What does Philly and Houston have in common? Um, well, not too much, actually... But Designer In Exile does. So we'll check in with friends at a green-building store in the Lone Star State who've built a thriving business selling healthy, sustainable products for the home. They've also helped to enlighten the community along the way.

Oh and just one last thing (Columbo reference). We'll also take a look at local Philly artist/entrepreneur/activist/social therapist Scott Bickmore's newest endeavors. Be sure to see him and other local talent at the VWVOFFKA gallery First Friday event, October 7th. More on that here at Scott's website... Wow. Lots going on. Exciting. Yay... Ok, I'll stop now.

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1 comment:

  1. A lot of work seems to go into your posts. This was one in particular has been very informative and enjoyable. I had no idea how community driven the mural program was here in Philly. More articles like this, please.