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Graffiti – street art – murals – public art?

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
In Philadelphia recently I was hoping to see the home and studio of America’s greatest realist painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). It’s near the city centre and within easy walking distance of the major museums. Although the exterior is intact, the interior is used as offices for the Mural Arts Program, an organisation that excels in providing the city with a range of high quality murals.
Started in 1984 as a way to counter the ‘insidious effects of graffiti’, the program has grown and developed into a professional organisation redirecting the creative talents of these artists towards a less destructive direction. Reacting to the vacant walls, derelict spaces and impoverished environments of down-town Philadelphia, the program injected a sense of belonging and respect into the blighted lives of the occupants. To be of any use, the projects have to be done with the consent, support and assistance of the local people and to reflect their lives and concerns. While high art is safely installed in museums; mural painting takes its chance on the streets and vacant walls of the city and its suburbs. Wall painting and public sculpture have a long history from Neolithic man painting on the caves of Altamira to Anthony Gormley’s angel. Large steel sculptures survive longer than paint. Mural painting is a precarious business with time and the elements taking their toll on work done on the interior of a building as well as the exterior.
In Philadelphia, the Mural arts program started out innocently enough painting directly onto walls and with practise developing and improving their techniques. It was relatively easy for the local community to come up with ideas for a painting but the problem was how to involve untrained individuals in the painting of large outdoor murals. A training and education side arm to the project helped resolve this aspect. The big breakthrough came in 1993 with the adoption of a newly invented mural painting technique. This involved painting on parachute cloth, which could then be adhered to the building. A trained artist would work with the community developing their ideas into a finished painting. The outline is then projected onto the material which is divided into small squares. Community helpers paint each of the squares carefully with pre-prepared and numbered pots of paint. This careful adherence to a master plan produces work that shows a high level of skill. Done in strips, the finished painting is glued to the building like wall paper matched up to complete the finished design. When time and weather erodes a picture it is retouched and conserved. An example of this is the recent restoration and replacement of the wall painting of Paul Robeson to mark his 115th Birthday; four stories tall this artwork was first painted in 1999 but needed restoration. It’s repainting is typical of the subject matter and quality of work the Program can now produce. Other examples include ‘Common Threads / 1998 by Meg Saligman and ’Justice’ a typical technically brilliant example of photorealistic painting. Each year about 50 new Murals are added to the list with Philadelphia now being known as the City of Murals and the world’s largest outdoor art gallery.
In Britain there is a long history of mural painting. Mostly indoors, the work often suffers the fate of being painted over lost or demolished and is only now being recorded. In the 1970’s when Glasgow was tearing itself apart the painting of exposed gable end walls became a fashion, while in Northern Ireland the sectarian divide is represented by political and tribal wall paintings. In London there was a burst of mural painting during the 1980s and a Mural Preservation Society sprung up to document these efforts, a good source of information about wall paintings in the capital.The Hackney Peace mural 1985 by Mick Jones and Ray Walker has been recently restored and is one of the capital’s best murals.
Public art has to be paid for, and Artangel is one organisation that commissions site specific artwork from a contemporary fine art perspective. Notable commissions are Seizure by Richard Wright and Rachel Whiteread’s House. (This is a full size cast of the interior of a terraced house, in existence for four months before being demolished to make way for a park).
Thomas Eakins’ relationship with the city is more problematic. Fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art for removing the loincloth of a male model in a mixed life drawing class, it was not until after his death, when his widow donated his work to the Philadelphia Museum of Arts, that his status as a major artist was consolidated. Thanks to the Mural Program, Eakins’ realist tradition is alive and well on the walls of Philadelphia, but I look forward to the time when this historic house is refurbished as the home and studio of one of Americas greatest artists – I think the locals would approve.

Posted by author: James Cowan
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3 thoughts on “Graffiti – street art – murals – public art?

  • What beautiful and inspiring pieces. Thank-you for sharing–it’s a wonderful story and positive projects can blossom.

  • Thank you, James. I didn’t know about the murals in Philadelphia. I am a great fan of the mural but, sadly, they are out of fashion in Britain. Public art funders prefer sculpture or relief to paintings. I recently bought a book ‘British Murals and Decorative Painting 1920-1960’, Sampson & Co., 2013. It outlines the history of British mural painting with an essay by Alan Powers and highlights particular artists and their main works. Included are several women artists I had not heard of, including Winifred Knights and Mary Adshead. The illustrations are beautifully produced. You are right about many murals being covered up or destroyed. There is a photo of one by Barbara Jones before and after,the after being a pile of coloured rubble. I remember Glasgow School of Art had a Mural Department up to, at least, the eighties. It is a skill that was valued. I hope this new book will help, in some small way, to draw the British people’s (public, artists, funders, councils)attention to this fascinating and socially conscious art form.

    • Thanks for the comments Olivia. I have just bought the book myself and am looking forward to reading it. One of the illustrations I see is Gilbert Spencer’s ‘ Hebridean Memory ‘ 1951 which I saw recently on sale in the Fine Art Society. Paintings on Canvas do tend to survive better than more vulnerable wall paintings.In Gilbert’s case his work is also overshadowed by his brother Stanley.

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