Sitting at a cafe in the shadow of his Garden of Delights — a wash of azure blues and sunflower yellows laid down with vigorous brushstrokes — mural artist David Guinn, 40, considers his oeuvre, of which this piece is central. "Not everything has to be thought-provoking," he says. "The aesthetic element is just as important."
But while Guinn leans toward lyricism, Eric Okdeh favours a documentary approach – relying on reportage to, yes, convey some blatant messages. He and Guinn paint side by side in a tight space set amidst a warren of musicians' and photographers' studios that have been carved out of what was once a carpet mill about two miles outside of downtown Philadelphia.
Their contrary styles are representative of the 200 or so artists who currently work with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, a non-profit effort that's celebrating its 30th anniversary all year. The fun has already started with a retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and culminates next October with a street art festival featuring 30 invited artists who will come to Philly from all over the world to paint the town red . . . and purple, and green, and . . . right in front of everyone's eyes.
The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program got its start in 1984 as the artistic component of an anti-graffiti initiative. It's since morphed – "at 100 miles per hour," according to Jane Golden, the program's guiding light from day one – into a formal program that pairs professional artists like Guinn and Okdeh with community participants (from schoolchildren to activists to prisoners) and has yielded some 3,600 murals – making Philadelphia the unofficial world capital of the form.
To get a good idea of what's out there, take the self-guided walking tour of 17 murals scattered within Philadelphia's downtown. The tour begins at 707 Chestnut St, where muralist Joshua Sarantitis' Legacy tells a tale of the slave trade in Philadelphia, and ends at Carl Willis Humphrey's Mapping Courage, at 6th and South streets, which pays tribute to the great African-American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, as well as to the city's heroic firemen. In between these socially charged murals, you'll encounter not only Guinn's garden, but his equally wondrous Spring and Autumn, as well as two allegorical pieces by another Mural Arts stalwart, Meg Saligman; Philadelphia Muses and Theater of Life, both near the city's major performing arts corridor.
Together, says Golden, the city's collection of murals offer a "biography of Philadelphia". "They all in one way or another speak to Philadelphians about things, people, and issues that were at some point important to them."
Written by JoAnn Greco
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Have you experienced the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program first hand? Which were your favourites?
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About the author: JoAnnJoAnn Greco
JoAnn Greco is a Philadelphia – based journalist who writes frequently on travel, hospitality, lifestyle, and architecture. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler, Hospitality Design, History Magazine, and many other publications.