As one of the oldest cities in the United States, Philadelphia is full of incredible cultural history. The city that was once the nexus for American revolutionary activities during the late 1760s and 70s, has consistently been at the forefront of radical social and cultural transformation. A large part of the city’s past and present is represented through one of the world’s largest organized networks of public art, organized by a long-standing arts and art educational organization called Mural Arts Philadelphia.
In 1984, an artist named Jane Golden was hired by former mayor Wilson Goode, to work for his Anti-Graffiti Network, where she collaborated with young graffiti writers on public murals and developed a pedagogical framework for public art. The success of this program led to the formation of Philadelphia Mural Arts Advocates in 1997, which is now known as Mural Arts Philadelphia. At this point, it is important to note that the city is considered to be the birthplace of contemporary urban graffiti (graffiti and murals have both been around for centuries, and were common sights on city walls throughout major ancient cities like Pompeii). Philadelphia’s history as a major instigator of the influential graffiti movement reached its zenith during the 1980s counter-cultural revolution that included hip-hop and punk rock music, fashion and Neo-Expressionist painting. While arousing the ire of politicians and police departments, some works of graffiti truly communicated important social statements, made even more profound by the work’s public presentation on city buildings.
The contemporary socially engaged mural movement is indebted to graffiti, and as previously mentioned the Anti-Graffiti Network provided graffiti taggers with a platform to make art in the public realm without any legal ramifications. Mural Arts Philadelphia turned the oft-covert acts of spray painting buildings into a welcomed endeavor and a communal effort among local artists and the community at large. Graffiti is typically a solo endeavor, albeit one that is connected to social cliques. Although it can certainly be artful and there are many pertinent examples of handstyle as an art form and an engaging art educational activity (see: Christenson, 2017); tagging can also be a destructive and dangerous act. Mural making is a largely collaborative and highly visible effort. The framework behind their creation includes in-depth, collaborative planning sessions and discourse where participants posit and answer questions regarding what should be created, why it is important/relevant/meaningful, how it will be carried out and where it will be on display. This type of democratic discussion and participation is one of the reasons why Mural Arts Philadelphia has had success and support from artists, educators, politicians and residents of the community.
While all this history is well known to the residents of Philadelphia, it is possible that many people got their introduction to Mural Arts Philadelphia through the ABC seires Abbott Elementary. Season two episode seventeen (which premiered on March 1, 2023) is titled “Mural Arts.” The episode’s premise follows a trajectory that is common to both the overall message communicated by both Abbott Elementary and Mural Arts Philadelphia: collaboration, cooperation and developing greater intergenerational and cross-cultural understanding. As I discussed in a prior post called “It’s Artfully Elementary,” Abbott Elementary is an artistic representation of what teaching in a public school often encompasses. The show is especially profound via its portrayal of the supportive relationships between teachers and their colleagues, and their motivation to provide an empowering and empathetic environment for their students. Themes regarding self-expression, valuing community and uplifting the voices of peers are embedded in each episode of Abbott Elementary, and expressed through each mural facilitated by Mural Arts Philadelphia. Therefore, it was great to see a depiction of Mural Art Philadelphia’s process while working alongside teachers and students. The actual process of creating murals in schools takes ample amounts of time, but Abbott Elementary did a nice job of synthesizing it down to fit the show’s thirty-minute time slot.
In the episode, Jacob Hill who teaches sixth grade history at Abbott Elementary is enthusiastic about his students securing their legacies by creating a mural within the school in collaboration with Mural Art Philadelphia’s visiting artists. However, Hill and his students have an ideological disagreement over the content that they feel would be apt for the mural. The students want to depict a recent social media phenomenon involving sock puppets, which Hill thinks is both silly and a flash in the pan that will be irrelevant and subsequently embarrassing to the students and the school. However, after Hill persuades his students to revise their concept to something he clearly spearheaded and conceived of, the project feels stale. While Hill brims with excitement about the idea of his idea, which he assumes is or should be meaningful to his students, they clearly do not feel the same passion or connection to the aesthetic and conceptual aspects. Furthermore, Mural Arts Philadelphia’s pedagogical structure supports a comprehensive student-led initiative, so the project initially fizzled out and the visiting mural artists left the school sans the completion of a mural.
Deflated about the potential missed opportunity to create a legacy for his students, Hill laments to his colleagues, who remind him that he had neglected a key tenet of both artistic expression and constructivist education, which is that the mural should be a reflection and symbol of his students’ lived experiences and collective culture. This especially includes the things they are passionate about at the moment. In essence, every work of art is a depiction of contemporary life, because the artist(s) created it as a means to communicate conscious understandings of what they are experiencing at the moment or period when they are engaged in the artistic process. The mural at Abbott Elementary ends up depicting a profound artistic and pedagogical compromise that strengthens the bond between Hill and his students. The students’ beloved sock puppet characters are presented along with individual mosaic tiles that feature a representation of each students’ personal aspirations.
Abbott Elementary‘s “Mural Arts” episode stemmed from a transformative real-life collaboration between Mural Arts Philadelphia and Abbott Elementary creator Quinta Brunson’s middle school (see: Wang, 2023). The episode received accolades from local artists and educators, including Betsy Casañas, who has worked with Mural Arts Philadelphia, and was also Brunson’s high school architecture and design teacher. Casañas noted the core principles behind Mural making, which the episode encapsulated, explaining that: “when you go into a community, you listen to everybody that’s going to be impacted by the mural…in order to make clear that you’re really listening to what the community wants. It’s allowing yourself to dream about the possibilities for something else…but also highlighting and celebrating community members” (quoted in Hopkins and Mikati, 2023).
In 1898, author Oscar Wilde advanced the theory that “life imitates art” by asserting that, “the self-conscious aim of life is to find expression, and that art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.” Mural making is an embrace of this ethos, and is a collaborative way for individuals to communicate and derive a well-rounded embodiment of the human condition. Furthermore, as the “Mural Arts” episode of Abbott Elementary succinctly summarizes, murals show us that no one person should or needs to control every single element of a process. A major reason why murals are a popular school project is that they convey unifying messages that amplify the beauty and vitality of social consciousness in light of working together. Planning murals involves organizing students and faculty through a democratic decision making process, which eliminates the banking model of education in favor of problem-posing pedagogy. The initial discussions, research and delineation of teamwork is as equally important as the final product. Murals can also energize the school community by prompting further inquiry and inspiring activism (see: Liu, 2017) in regards to important themes and issues that impact students’ lives. This is why making and displaying public art in schools is both elementary and revolutionary.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Wang, Kira. “A Real Art project at Quinta Brunson’s Former school in West Philly Mirrors the ‘Abbott Elementary’ Mural Arts Episode,” Billypenn, 2 March 2023. https://billypenn.com/2023/03/02/abbott-elementary-mural-arts-philadelphia-andrew-hamilton-walinsky/
Christenson, Matt “How to Implement a Graffiti-Inspired Unit: Week 1,” The Art of Education, 18 August 2017. https://theartofeducation.edu/2017/08/18/implement-graffiti-inspired-unit-week-one/
Hopkins, Earl and Mikati, Massarah. “Local artist, educators praise ‘Abbott Elementary’s Mural Arts Episode,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 March 2023. https://www.inquirer.com/entertainment/tv/abbott-elementary-mural-arts-episode-20230302.html
Liu, Michel. “How a New Mural on Campus is Helping High School Students ‘Inform Their Own Activism,'” The Daily Pennsylvanian, 19 March 2017. https://www.thedp.com/article/2017/03/new-mural-institute-of-contemporary-art
Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying in Intentions (1891)