Philadelphia School District murals light up school walls

Philadelphia is a city of murals, but many of its schools are generally best known for their drab cinderblock.

Antoinette Powell wanted to change the narrative at Lamberton Elementary, the Overbrook K-8 where she is principal. So she hired an artist to transform the walls all around the building as the students returned to classes in person this fall.

“We wanted to bring joy, life, color to school, so the kids weren’t just looking at the bare walls,” Powell said.

Lamberton isn’t the only school in town with murals adorning its hallways and even bathrooms – the mural art program works in schools across the city – but it is one of a trio of buildings in the Philadelphia School District with vibrant and current murals by local artist Willow Orr.

In a year with gun violence, the lingering effects of COVID-19 and economic turmoil, art is a beacon of hope, said Shavonne McMillan, principal of Vaux Big Picture High School.

“I wanted the kids to look around and see the inspiration,” McMillan said.

McMillan had a budget of $ 8,000 for the school’s beatification and the seed of an idea: to fill the building with images – featuring idols like Kamala Harris and Chadwick Boseman – that resonated with his students. . And she wanted to promote the spirit of school in Vaux, which reopened its doors in a redesigned high school after being closed for several years.

A colleague from McMillan recommended Orr, a University of the Arts graduate working as a freelance artist and designer whose projects include typography, signs and, most recently, painting a 16-foot trailer. The Vaux, Lamberton and Barry projects are his first works for the schools of Philadelphia.

Last fall, McMillan unleashed Orr on the sprawling 23rd and Master’s building in North Philadelphia, doing murals in the cafeteria and bathrooms (“important transitional space,” Orr said), in the cages. stairs and hallways. There are inspirational quotes – “your mistakes don’t define you” and “it’s gonna be epic” and a sunny yellow ray of sunshine. There is a smiling Rosa Parks in a field of purple, red and blue swirls.

In total, the Vaux murals took nine months in Orr.

Students enjoy the job, said McMillan, aware of how he elevates their environment.

“They’re not trying to do graffiti,” McMillan said. “They respect space.”

Powell’s favorite Lamberton mural? A black woman’s silhouette, graceful elongated neck, afro perfectly arranged, against a background of reds and oranges. “Hey, dark-haired girl, you are beautiful”, we can read. (Nearby is “Hey Brown Boy, you’re royal.”)

Powell said, “It’s a constant reminder. You’ll walk down the hall and just see the kids standing there looking at him.

Powell and Raymond Roy-Pace, Assistant Director, chose images that “affirm who our young people are and the experiences they are going through,” Roy-Pace said.

In the cafeteria are Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, a nod to both powerful athletes and those with mental health issues. (Osaka withdrew from Roland Garros earlier this year to preserve her sanity, and has openly discussed suffering from depression and anxiety.)

There’s Will Smith (of course there’s Will Smith – that’s West Philadelphia) and Nelson Mandela. Near a classroom, a rainbow heart bordered in black, with “Everyone is welcome to this school” in white letters.

“We wanted everything about Philly, but also things our kids could stop and say, ‘Who is this? It starts a conversation, ”said Powell. “It’s kind of like the story on the wall.”

Barry’s murals at 59th and Race in West Philadelphia are a memorial to Mark Maples.

The beloved teacher, a staple of Barry, died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 49 in 2020. He was Barry’s hype man, perpetually happy, the DJ of every party and event of school, the guy who never had a bad day. Her loss emptied the school and KaTiedra Argro, the principal.

“Some kids said, ‘We can’t have parties anymore without Mr. Maples,” Argro said.

Argro had also heard of Orr’s work and decided at the end of last school year to allocate funds for murals honoring Maples, who was the school’s digital literacy teacher and a talented artist. who decorated his own classroom and many places around the building with the art he designed. freehand then painted. It was a way of helping the students to move forward, to remember.

Step into Barry and one of the first things you see is a wall with the image of maple trees, front and center, smiling, wearing a Barry sweater, surrounded by some of the things he loved – musical notes , a Barry Bulldog, the logo of his alma mater, Cheyney University.

Other murals adorn the fourth floor, where Maples taught.

The maple trees would have loved the ambiance, Argro said.

“Murals change your climate,” Argro said. “They make the children feel good. “

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