The Power of Public Art
walk under the train tracks and down Edgmont Avenue in central Chester, Pa., from the 109 bus stop that connects this city to Swarthmore. To my right, behind a chain-link fence stand ornate wooden buildings, their window frames empty of glass. This was once a fish market, and on its wall still hangs a wooden sign in the shape of a crab, now covered with vines. A long block of abandoned businesses with boarded-up doorways stretches ahead. On their faded signs are painted the names of a billiard hall, a clothing company, a Muslim prayer house. These shops have a powerful presence, their facades distinguished by the bay windows, baroquely carved finials, and unusual details that characterize Chester architecture. The painful beauty of these falling buildings hits one in the heart. Funk music blasts from a boom box one street over, carrying across a deserted parking lot.
The skyline of the city is pierced by church spires, rising over Art Deco roofs and trees sprouting from hollow buildings. One block away is the new Andre Café, which features eclectic jazz performances. At Edgmont and Fourth Street, I reach the phenomenal Freeman Cultural Arts Complex, where I worked last summer while preparing to start the Chester Mural Collective. Delores Freeman's gallery is a social hub, and features art from around the world, especially Africa - wooden sculptures, bold paintings, images formed of butterfly's wings. Walk past the now-empty Chester courthouse, built in 1724, which is America's oldest public building. Walk past the new City Hall, a bland glass behemoth incongruously built among historic municipal buildings. Cross the street: the Kimberley-Clark plant, one of many such facilities along the Delaware River in Chester, spitting fumes from its smokestack. The smoke can be seen from all over Chester.
Walk one more block and turn right onto the corner of Second Street. On the Chester Hardware & Supply building is a sixty-foot-long mural created by a Chester artist, adult volunteers, business owners, children and teens, and several Swarthmore students. The mural represents the past, present, and future of Chester, incorporating sepia-colored images of landmark architecture, historical maps, and flowers in silhouette. In the center of the image is a young Black girl. She holds a bird in one hand and carries a picket sign in the other. On her long dreadlocks she wears a crown of thorns.
I believe that a mural should not be just a decoration or a band-aid over a broken building, but should fit into and comment on its surroundings. Some of the housing projects of Philly that face the highway are adorned with splashy murals. The grinning faces seem taken from a corporate propaganda pamphlet on diversity, in strange juxtaposition to the reality of the environment. A lady from Chester called those murals "appeasement." And I believe public art is not about appeasement. It shouldn't say that everything is all right. That's what advertising was invented to do. I hope the Chester murals will draw attention to the profound beauty and devastation of the surrounding landscape, and remind people of the great talent and creativity of residents and the history of that city.
To plan our first mural, we publicized the dates of our open meetings to the Chester community and placed announcements on a local TV station. From those discussions with older residents, it became clear that people wanted the mural to highlight Chester's history. The artist commissioned to design the mural, Joseph Church, chose to use the subdued, elegiac colors of surrounding buildings, colors that also suggest old photographs. Church grew up in Chester, attended an art school in London, and returned for the first time to make this piece. The design was tweaked a few times, until it reflected both the ideas of the residents and Church's vision. After the mural was mounted on the wall, many Chester residents said that they wanted the girl to look unmistakably African-American, so we darkened the color of her skin.