Mural Arts Helping At-Risk Kids Develop Sense of Community

By Dan Eldridge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 6, 2010

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Among the inner-city neighborhoods that are considered pleasant places to enjoy an early evening stroll, it’s probably safe to assume that the seemingly endless commercial corridor of Broad Street in North Philly is not considered one of them. But those who find themselves wandering throughout the area during the month of March may have developed a different opinion altogether—assuming they also took the time to admire the nearly two dozen billboards featuring children’s hand-drawn artwork and the logos of small neighborhood businesses.

The billboards were the end result of a months-long educational project organized by an innovative division of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program known as ArtWorks!, which offers after-school workshops to at-risk kids between the ages of 10 and 18. The majority of the program’s kids are assigned to ArtWorks! by the Department of Human Services after having unsuccessfully navigated the juvenile-court system for some time.

The program’s structure, as well as its very mission, which is “to emphasize the development of creative and critical thinking and communication skills, encourage self-expression, build self-esteem and nurture leadership potential,” are both as unconventionally pioneering as they are effective.

According to Homer Jackson, a Philadelphia-based artist, the idea for The Wall Remixed: The North Philadelphia Small Business Advertising Campaign, came to him after a particularly close listening of The Wall by Pink Floyd.

“I kept thinking about animated murals,” Jackson said during a recent panel discussion and exhibition for The Wall Remixed, “and I kept thinking about the wall. We began to talk about a project that would explore this rite of passage of young people.”

The project started to evolve when Jackson and Sherman Fleming, the ArtWorks! program director, got together. The men say that though most young people intuitively understand that they need help with the transition into adulthood, the answers that weren’t clear at all had to do with whether Philly’s urban youth were actually getting that help—and where they should look for it if they weren’t.

Indianapolis artist Carl Pope was brought on around the same time. He was originally recruited to work with the Philagrafika festival because of his background in printmaking and billboard art. It was Pope’s influence that helped the team realize that the answer they were looking for was literally right in front of their eyes.

That answer, of course, is that it’s up to the community as a whole to lead its children into adulthood. And it was with that realization that all the moving parts of this complicated program began fitting together: Jackson and Fleming, it was decided, would use the ArtWorks! program’s most important weapons—technology and digital media tools—to talk to the kids in their own language about what makes a community valuable, and about what ultimately makes a community work. And Pope, for his part, would help the students understand why outdoor advertising exists in their neighborhoods, and why billboards and other forms of graphic art can influence a community.

But as is the intention with nearly every ArtWorks! project, the ultimate purpose of The Wall Remixed had much less to do with the end result—free billboards for two-dozen neighborhood small businesses in North Philly—than it did with the lessons presumably learned by the kids throughout the process. After all, ArtWorks! students are for the most part kids who are living bleak and seemingly hopeless lives; many already have criminal records. And so part of this project’s goal was to simply get the kids thinking about the importance of community. And because ArtWorks! operates at about 10 different sites throughout the city, only those students who were attending ArtWorks! programs in North Philly were chosen for the project.

“The reason we did that,” Fleming says, “is because those kids also live in the area. So we thought [the project] would have special resonance with them.”

Once it came time to start the process of creating the billboards, Pope got the students thinking about things like typography and the history of advertising.

“He engendered discussions about topics like, Why do we advertise? What’s the impact of advertising?,” Fleming says.

And it was largely out of those conversations—and the workshops that followed—that the students’ artwork emerged. After the artwork was collected, Mari Hulick, who was Pope’s main artistic collaborator, used the most arresting and appropriate images to design the billboards themselves.

Part of that process also involved a workshop in which the students met with and interviewed the owners of the businesses that were receiving billboards. Which, Fleming says, is exactly the sort of positive and mutually respecting experience—in this case, between the ArtWorks! students and the members of their community—that has a way of effecting the sort of “transformational social change” that both Pope and Jackson strive to achieve in their own work.

Jane Golden, the executive director of the Mural Arts Program, says ArtWorks! “[is] really a program for young people who have fallen through the cracks. We look at this program as being very experiential in that it’s really about creating projects that have a serious degree of rigor and intensity.”


None of the 23 small businesses and organizations that signed on to become part of the project—like Don’s Doo Shop, Murphy Family Auto Repairs and the Philadelphia Doll Museum—had the sort of budgets that would have allowed them to purchase significant advertising of any sort, let alone a billboard located smack in the heart of the North Philly business corridor. And because nearly each of the billboards feature heartstring-tugging artwork in bright colors, clearly designed by children, the ads seem to literally pop out of the urban landscapes of North Broad Street and West Allegheny Avenue.

“For us, as a small nonprofit, it couldn’t have happened at a better time,” said Verónica Castillo-Pérez, the Executive Director of Raices Culturales Latinoamericanas, a cultural institution that serves the non-Puerto Rican Latino community of Philadelphia. “[The billboard] simply put us in a different position. It was a godsend. That’s all I can say.”

And what about the long-term effects of the project on the 50 ArtWorks! students who participated? That all remains to be seen, the team says.

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