I know you teach this great class at Penn with Jane Golden called “The Big Picture: Mural Arts in Philadelphia” where students get involved in the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and work with the Lea School and other community partners. How has this class been involved with Southeast by Southeast in the past?
In Spring 2012, the Penn class interviewed members of the South Philadelphia community to understand the refugee experience within the context of the wider neighborhood. They created a book based on interviews and photographs from South 7th Street. Penn students have also participated in art classes with Burmese teens and community paint and clean up days. This semester, I hope to work with the Penn class in South Philly on several fronts. They will help connect the new refugee community with older existing communities through mural paint days, interviews, and more. Specifically, we will come up with a series of events to enact during the semester within Southeast by Southeast: a book drive, a printmaking workshop, a computer literacy workshop for moms, and mural painting sessions.
Take me through the basics of what you’ve done with this class in the past. Are students involved in the process from start to finish in a single semester?
The basic structure of “The Big Picture: Mural Arts in Philadelphia” is part mural history, contemporary muralism, and social practice, and part hands on collaboration through a public mural project. This exploration is based largely on site visits, guest speakers, and the use of the city as a classroom. Students conduct interviews with artists and community members and then present their research in class. The heart of the course involves being part of a mural project.
Most murals take at least six months to develop and complete. Therefore, a semester is a bit short for a very large-scale mural. The ongoing project at Lea School has worked very well over the past two years, allowing us to develop a new section of the mural every semester. When the goal is within a smaller scale, students can have first-hand experience and understand the arc of the project. Each class can build on the research of the previous semester, and all students have a chance to be part of the conceptualizing and painting. This combining longer-term involvement with working at a smaller scale allows students to be part of an ongoing relationship and dialogue.
What do you hope your students get out of working with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program?
I hope that students have a real world experience of interacting with a community and being part of a public art project. Through first-hand experience at a site, they learn about a section of the city and community with whom they may be unfamiliar. This experiential learning teaches students how to ask the right questions when going to work with a community, the ethics of community arts projects, and how to listen. Learning from mistakes is also important. I think working with Jane Golden, Director of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, means that they get a sense of how Murals Arts interacts in the larger context of the city. Her thoughts on running the largest public mural arts program in country are illuminating and really help students understand the many levels of partnerships, from block captains to the mayor’s office. Being part of a project that will be there for years to come is an amazing experience. Last semester, many Penn students came out of the course saying that they learned more from the Lea students than they had anticipated.
I’ve noticed you have painted several murals in Philadelphia with students from Philadelphia public schools outside this class as well. What attracts you to working with younger students in the community on your mural projects?
I have worked on murals with students at all age levels. From middle school through high school, identity often becomes a prevalent issue. Teaching art and mural-making at this level is a dynamic experience, because they can function as tools of reinvention. During the past year at Lea, I was blown away by the insights of 8th graders. Their reflections on the mural images we introduced were amazing.
How can students get involved with community art in Philadelphia even if they don’t take this course? Are there other ways to get involved through Penn or the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program itself?
There are many levels of involvement with the mural program: the Mural Arts website lists paint days, dedications, events, and volunteer opportunities. The greatest part of the mural program is that the murals themselves are free and out there. Take the subway to 63rd Street and see Steve Powers’ murals from the window. Go to Center City or any other part of the city and take a walk. Totally free!