Commentary: In city murals, the power of art writ large

Jane Golden

is executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia

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Part of the mural "Contemplation, Clarity, Resilience," named after the three phases of recovery and located at 5630 Chestnut St.

Artists come to Mural Arts Philadelphia in different ways. Some apply for commissions, take a class, or even move to Philadelphia to work with us. But some have a more complex journey. Amira Mohamed is one of those artists. She is extraordinary, and not just for her artistic talent, but also for her resilience and grit.

Amira arrived at Mural Arts after serving time at Riverside Correctional Facility for Women, an institution where we run programs. During her time at the facility, Amira formed a bond with one of our teaching artists, Kathryn Pannepacker. When Amira got out, she remembered the artist who had brought light into her life.

Amira enrolled in the Guild, a Mural Arts program that provides paid apprenticeships for young people, ages 18 to 24, who are on high-risk probation or are reentering society after time in the prison system. Participants are trained in art and carpentry skills, and use those skills to reclaim and revitalize public sites throughout the city. After working with Mural Arts for six months, the end goal is to help participants find their next stop in life.

Philadelphia spends seven cents out of every dollar on holding people in its jails. More than 8,000 people are incarcerated at any given time, and 10 percent are women. The Guild functions on the simple theory that within each person exists the potential to change, to grow, to move toward the light. At Mural Arts, we ask every day: How can we move toward awe and inspiration, and take giant steps away from judgment? Our Guild participants have a low three-year recidivism rate - 28 percent vs. the national average of 65 percent - and we believe that this is because art has a role in generating and reflecting community.

For those like Amira, someone for whom art resonated so deeply, Mural Arts often becomes a home. Amira thrived in the Guild. Today she works with Philadelphia muralist Eric Okdeh, and together they are creating master works around the city. In addition, Amira goes to school for architecture and works part time at Mural Arts. She is alive, curious, and moves through life at the speed of light, wanting to make the most of every minute she has. She was also featured in a 2015 mural by Shepard Fairey that is at the corner of 15th and Race Streets on the Friends' Center.

Eric and Amira's newest mural is called Contemplation, Clarity, Resilience, named after the three phases of recovery. Located at 5630 Chestnut St., and produced through our Porch Light program, the project is a collaboration with the City of Philadelphia's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.

Porch Light focuses on achieving universal health and wellness, especially among those dealing with mental-health issues or trauma, by providing opportunities to contribute to meaningful works of public art. Contemplation, Clarity, Resilience features work from our program at Kirkbride Center, and its design is meant to show that addiction does not discriminate.

Eric has done murals all over the world. When asked about Amira, he says: "I have never put my trust into someone so quickly, to handle so much responsibility." But Amira will not always be an assistant; she is on her way to achieving her dream of becoming an architect.

At Mural Arts Philadelphia, we are committed to discovering and applying the social power of art, and how it reinvigorates our city. Every October, we celebrate this work with Mural Arts Month, a time to recognize all who help make our work possible: community leaders, young people, dedicated arts and neighborhood organizations, and the artists we employ - more than 250 of them each year.

So during the month of October, when you drive by a mural or attend one of our Mural Arts events, let Amira's words come to you:

"Art, like music, is something that speaks to the soul; it transcends barriers. Murals, in particular, broadcast people's stories. People's voices, many of whom were invisible, are suddenly on a huge stage for all to see, understand, respect."

Amira's words ring deep and true. In our deeply divided world, art calls upon us to open up to others and find commonality in difference. Art has an uncanny ability to propel us from the everyday into the world of possibility and hope.

Amira says she can walk by her work and feel people's eyes are being opened to what she is going through and at the same time feel supported, as if the city is standing behind her and cheering her on.

As La Salle religion professor Maureen O'Connell says about Mural Arts: "Social change begins when human beings try to make sense of their lives and defiantly refuse to accept the idea that nothing new is possible." Amira knows. Something new is always possible. And hope for her is echoed on walls throughout our city.

jane.golden@muralarts.org