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a weeping hemlock branch painted purple


Purple, historically a color of royalty and nobility, took on a different meaning in the military, thanks to an act by Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

“There’s a wonderful line in his order creating the original Badge of Military Merit: ‘The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all,’” says Sean Barney ’98, recipient of the modern-day version of the honor, the Purple Heart. “Washington chose this color of aristocracy for an award that was the first of its kind—expressly for enlisted men and noncommissioned officers.

“By saying this was something that anyone could earn in this Army, it sent a broader message about what they were fighting for in the Revolution.”

And that egalitarian message lives on through today’s Purple Heart.

“This is the only medal that—whatever your rank, whatever race, whatever gender, documented or undocumented—if you bleed in service of your country, you receive it,” Barney says. “Nobody can decide that they’re not going to favor you with it.”

To Barney—a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War who was seriously wounded by a sniper in 2006 (—the Purple Heart symbolizes a willingness to sacrifice for fellow citizens, a virtue still meaningful in his current role as a Delaware public defender.

“There are many lawyers in our office who could do better for themselves financially in another area of practice,” he says, “but they’re committed to ensuring for all people that the rights we have in the Constitution—the rights the Founders fought for—are respected in the courts.” —ES


“Why yes, there is a purple tree on campus!” reads a Swarthmore College Facebook post from 2015, soon after the dead weeping hemlock near Sharples was painted to honor its beauty and fragility.

But it won’t be there much longer: The tree will be removed this spring for safety reasons (as seen above, it’s beginning to fall apart) and to make way for a living replacement.

“I was keen to paint the dead hemlock,” says Josh Coceano of the Scott Arboretum. “It had a great form, was in a prominent place on campus, and was a plant species that was dying in the wild.

“We are so quick to discard things as they age, die, deteriorate,” he adds. “This is especially true in gardens: Get rid of anything that looks less than perfect.”

The weeping hemlock became the third tree on campus to receive a colorful afterlife, following a Chinese maackia painted blue in 2006 and a bur oak painted red in 2010.

“This time, orange and purple were the two colors up for debate,” says Coceano, with Royal Purple becoming the winning hue. As a compromise—and for contrast—a couple hundred orange tulips were planted underneath.

“Purple has long been a symbol of cooperation and bipartisanship,” Coceano says. “Honestly, it’s my favorite color in the garden. It engages and blends at the same time.” —ES



“Color is central to all our projects in telling stories, representing experiences, and transforming places,” says Caitlin Butler ’06, chief strategy officer for Mural Arts Philadelphia.

As the nation’s largest public art program, Mural Arts is built on the idea that art ignites change. For 30 years, the program has connected artists and communities working to create art that transforms public spaces and individual lives.

“We sometimes describe our murals as Philadelphia’s autobiography,” says Butler. “Artists and residents co-create projects that highlight people, places, traditions, and ideas that are important to our communities.”

Established as part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, Mural Arts is led by artist Jane Golden H’98. A mural painter herself, Golden connects with graffiti writers to redirect their energies into constructive public art projects.

“For an artist, color is a tool,” says Butler. “It communicates emotions and energy, and it can help shape the message. If an artist uses colors one wouldn’t expect, it could be a challenge to viewers to question their assumptions, or look at things differently.”

With up to 100 public projects each year, Mural Arts also offers programs and learning opportunities for thousands of Philadelphia youths and adults.

“Many of our murals feature lush landscapes full of vibrant foliage and vivid botanicals—images desired by people lacking easy access to nature,” says Butler.

The Mural Arts outdoor gallery is now part of the civic landscape and a local source of pride, earning Philadelphia international recognition as the “City of Murals.”

“Color is an important part of what our artists are sharing, be it a memory, a symbol of their identity, or a place that they love,” says staff artist James Burns. “Like a musician working with notes, a painter uses a range of colors to create a song for your eyes.” —KC


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