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Learning about Art and Social Impact through Philadelphia Murals and Community Service

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Learning about Art and Social Impact through Philadelphia Murals and Community Service

By Linda Lin.

Before coming to Penn, I had been exposed to the concept of “socially-engaged art” and interested in the intersection between art and social impact. However, I was never sure what these phrases entailed. Once I discovered the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, a nonprofit organization dedicated to igniting social change through art, and learned about the Penn course “Big Pictures: Mural Arts” — co-taught by muralist Shira Walinsky and the director of the program, Jane Golden Heriza — I immediately applied, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of how exactly art can impact people’s lives. Of course, the opportunity to paint an actual mural was very appealing as well. This class exceeded my expectations.

“Mural Arts” is an Academically-Based Community Service Course that aims to “integrate service with research, teaching, and learning, and improve the quality of life in the community.” It is offered through Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships and cross-listed by the Urban Studies and Fine Arts programs. Last semester, the course was comprised of multiple components, each of which provided a distinct insight into the relationship between mural-making and social impact. Readings and research informed us about the history, theory, pedagogy, and case studies of murals and social practice art; several field trips to West Philadelphia, Southeast Philadelphia, and Center City to see murals of various styles in person allowed us to experience the urban environment beyond campus and get to know the different communities of Philadelphia. Guest speakers, including project directors and staff artists from the Mural Arts Program, would frequently come to class and share their knowledge about the organization as well as their experience of working on specific community art projects (Art Education, Restorative Justice, and Porch Light). A site visit to City Hall was one of the highlights of the course and provided the rare opportunity to meet with Councilwoman Cindy Bass. We asked for her opinions on Philadelphia murals from the city government’s perspective, in which she emphasized the beautification of neighborhoods and the social and economic impact murals have effected.

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One of the most important aspects of this class was community service, putting the theories we learned from lectures and readings into practice. Throughout the semester we visited Penn’s partnership school, Henry C. Lea Elementary in West Philadelphia, several times and established friendships with the English-as-Second-Language (ESL) students involved in the after-school art program. We chatted, conducted interviews, made collages, screenprinted, and painted murals together. This partnership model and the art component were designed to help ESL students from around the world (Saudi Arabia, China, Malaysia, Mexico, etc.) better adapt to American culture and make new friends while remembering their cultural roots. We were cautious about not imposing any preconceived ideas upon the students or making artistic choices for them; instead, our mural design incorporated both local and American symbols drawn from the imagery the students chose for their collages. The synthesized style ensured representations of many different cultures, and the students could feel a sense of belonging through their contribution to the painting process.  

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Another special part of the class last semester was bringing the Picture Stories: Refugee Women Framing Their Lives in the U.S. photography exhibition to Penn’s campus. This exhibition was cultivated through a Mural Arts project called Southeast by Southeast, which involves our instructor Shira working with new refugees from Burma and Bhutan at a pop-up storefront in South Philadelphia to ensure a safe and supportive community space, as well as opportunities for education, participation in art and cultural events, and access to social services. We helped curate and install the exhibition and invited the women photographers and their children to campus for the opening reception, aiming to inspire cross-community conversations. Through this exhibition, we not only became aware of the presence of the Southeast Asian refugee community in Philadelphia and were exposed to their culture, but we also realized the necessity of attention for relatively marginalized populations, the complexities of a city and its impact on communities, and the power of art in generating a sense of belonging among people. 

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Our final project was the most challenging yet the most fun: designing a hypothetical public art project. The objective was to combine everything we learned from mural history, Mural Arts Program's practices, and our experiences at Lea Elementary. We were asked to choose a social issue we cared about and address it through public art, a relevant site in Philadelphia, a design, a community we aimed to work with, and an intended community engagement process. Each student focused on a different topic, ranging from Syrian refugee crisis and green energy, to drug addiction and gender-based violence on college campuses. We went through multiple stages of researching, designing, critiquing, and revising, while applying the Mural Arts Program's socially- and community-oriented model to the issues we felt most passionate about and engaging ourselves with the city of Philadelphia.

For me, the end of this class was definitely not the end of this conversation about art and social change. A lot of questions were raised. For example, how do we balance the relationship between the represented and the representing in murals? How do we ensure the most effective and democratic community meetings so that every resident’s voice is heard and respected? How do we tell the story of the community engagement process and its significance behind a mural when viewers often just pass by and see the final product? Socially-engaged art is still a relatively new field, and there is certainly much more to explore. The class “Big Pictures: Mural Arts” is only a beginning.

Please visit the Fall 2015 class’s Tumblr blog>

Linda Lin is a BA candidate in Art History with minors in Fine Arts and Consumer Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is passionate about modern and contemporary art, with a special interest in gender and feminism. On campus, she founded Women in Art Initiative to advocate for gender equality in the visual arts. She is also a docent and student advisory board member of the Arthur Ross Gallery, curator of Penn Art Club, and art chair of The Race Dialogue Project. Off campus, she is a student liaison of Emerging Arts Leaders: Philadelphia and an intern at Freeman’s Auction. 

Edited by Mariah Macias.