Art & Culture

  • Shira Walinsky

Artist Profile: Shira Walinsky

  • Shira Walinsky
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Artist Profile: Shira Walinsky

Interview by Virginia Seymour

With braided pigtails bouncing as she darted through the Southeast by Southeast community art center, Shira Walinsky proved that Penn lecturers often don’t fit the stuffy professor stereotype. When I met Shira, she introduced herself with a smile before running back to help a little girl screen print a tiger onto her T-shirt. She was leading a community arts project in South Philly, helping community members learn to screen print using Bhutanese patterns and the Nepali alphabet. This is one of many community-building art projects in which Shira is involved.

While each semester approximately fourteen Penn students interact with Shira Walinsky and her work through the class “The Big Picture: Mural Arts in Philadelphia,” chances are, you’ve passed her work every day unknowingly. Shira is responsible for the overhaul of several Philadelphia food trucksincluding campus favorites like KOJA and Honest Tom’sand twenty Philadelphia murals.

Catching up with Shira after the Southeast by Southeast screen printing event, I learned more about her work in Philly and how to get involved in community arts as a student at Penn.

    • Kojo Food Truck

So you are rather busy with several different community arts projects in Philadelphia. Give me a sense of what projects you work on and your role in them.

I am currently involved with a Mural Arts project called Southeast by Southeast, which involves working with new refugees from Burma and Bhutan at a pop-up storefront in South Philadelphia. It’s a collaborative, interdisciplinary project that’s been developed in partnership with the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services and Lutheran Children and Family Service.

I jumped at the opportunity to work with these communities and to offer empowered roles to new refugees. The goal is to provide a safe and supportive community space, while also offering opportunities for education, participation in public art projects, and access to important social services. The project is now in its second year and has been very successful, due mostly to the large number of invested partners and communities.

I program events at the storefront, teach ESL and a teen book art class, and design and paint murals. I also help local artisans find opportunities to develop their crafts. “Resource gatherer” and “promoter of local culture and local histories” are other ways to describe my roles in this project. We have discovered a mind-blowing richness of local culture–weavers, dancers, and more. Who knew that traditional Burmese Karen weaving only found in the mountains of eastern Burma is alive and well in South Philadelphia?

    • Shira Walinsky
    • Southeast by Southeast 8
    • Burmese Karen Weaving
    • SoutheastbySoutheast 4
    • SoutheastbySoutheast 1
    • SoutheastbySoutheast 5
    • SoutheastbySoutheast 2
    • Shira Walinsky
    • Southeast by Southeast 4
    • Southeast by Southeast 5
    • Southeast by Southeast 7

I also co-teach a course at Penn called “The Big Picture,” which involves an ongoing mural project at the Lea School in West Philadelphia. I feel that art and artistic resources need to be spread around the city. The goal is to learn about design in public spaces and have students play a role as agents of change in their own environments. In this project, my role is to find frameworks—for both teaching and design—that allow students from Lea and Penn to have meaningful learning experiences while collaborating effectively.

How did you get involved in these projects?

I became involved in these projects because I love working with communities, using art to reinvent environments, and discovering the intersections of personal and collective histories. I am always learning about the real experiences of Philadelphians across the city. I can know a history by reading, but when I have the amazing opportunity to hear first-hand about the experience of living as a new immigrant in South Philadelphia, or being a student at the Lea School, the impact is great.

How do you hope your murals, and these projects in general, will contribute to and impact the communities they address?

I hope the projects will have an impact on both personal and collective levels. For example, as part of Southeast by Southeast I am working with Burmese Karen teenagers on a book project that provides an opportunity for sharing experiences about immigrating to the U.S. The students have learned to express their stories through interviews with each other, and have learned the tools of digital design through workshops at Penn’s computer labs.

Larger public projects have the potential to bring together disparate communities through the planning of public projects and re-designing of public space. These projects can change the use of public space, serve as a landmarks, become points of public pride, and more.

How do you, yourself, benefit from being involved?

I am fortunate to work with and learn from many diverse communities around the city. For example, working with the Burmese and Bhutanese refugees has taught me so much about the power of very cohesive, tightly knit communities. I also love learning about the histories of Philadelphia residents through the first-hand experience of community dialogues and workshops. While working on a project about local-to-global women's history in West Philadelphia, I was able to meet a series of amazing women who ran soup kitchens.

How do community building and community healing factor into your work on public art in Philadelphia?

Community building is inherent in each project. One of the first steps in creating a mural is to gather a group of stakeholders; they will work together to brainstorm possibilities for the transformation of a public space. Through networking and partnerships, larger changes can often take place, way beyond the scope of the mural. This may consist of turning a lot into a garden, or accessing greater educational resources like art classes. Change can happen through the election of city officials, but it can also happen on a grassroots level—through block captains, teachers, and more. It amazes me to think about these conversations happening all around the city.

Murals and other public arts are particularly interesting in that the artist’s job, really, is to bridge the gap between individuals’ experiences and the identity of the whole community. How do you go about translating small stories and ideas into large paintings that entire communities can relate to?

Murals are bridges between personal and collective experience. A project in Philly that does this extremely well is Steve Powers’ Love Letter, which can be best seen while riding the Market/Frankford El between 46th Street and 63rd Street. It involves over 50 murals that collectively express a love letter between two people, but can also be read as a love letter to Philly.

I love working on mural projects largely because personal stories are such a big part of the process. Listening and talking to as many people as possible helps me understand each story in the context of a wider collective set of experiences. It is also challenging to find the right frameworks to facilitate interaction and engage community members to become part of the process.

Once something appears in public space—a mural, a public sculpture, or set of events—it is an invitation for dialogue. Murals have the potential to bring together disparate groups to have conversations about what might be divisive.

    • Steve Powers' Love Letter

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!


Shira Walinsky received her MFA from University of Pennsylvania. She has worked on community arts projects in Philadelphia for the last ten years, and doesn’t foresee stopping any time soon. For more information on the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia, visit To learn more about Southeast by Southeast, visit The next Southeast by Southeast event will be a community photography show, opening on September 21st at 1927 S. 7th Street.


Virginia Seymour is a BA candidate in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is interested in the intersection of art and gender theory in Near Eastern art. On campus, she is the associate coordinator of the Robinson letterpress, a production assistant at Penn Press, and is on the design staff at Kelly Writers House. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, practicing yoga, and exploring food in Philadelphia.  


Coedited by Virginia Seymour and Naomi Shavin.