If you’re walking past the Broad Street and JFK Boulevard in Center City, you might stop and take notice of the vivid mural painted boldly above its front door. By illustrating images of protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement, Crown by Russell Craig stands as a testament to the fight to end the scourge of systemic racism in Philadelphia and across the country. It is one of three murals featured by the city’s Mural Arts for Black History Month walking tour.
The impact of community murals is far–reaching. If art evokes empathy and increases feelings of belonging, murals make those experiences free and accessible. They open the door to necessary, stimulating conversations with yourself or others. They ask you to slow down on your walk and to join it for a thought, cultivating a sense of community in an age of political division and social distancing.
In a city struggling with a dark and tainted history for its Black residents, we need Black artists and Black voices more than ever. These projects are impactful and effective in their delivery, and understanding the artist and artistic process behind them allows for a deeper grasp of their messages. On a public arts program trip seeking to foster such understanding, youth members visited artist Amy Sherald’s studio in Jersey City. It was then that 19–year–old North Philadelphia local, Najee Spencer–Young, became the muse for Sherald’s next project.
Amy Sherald, widely recognized for her historic portrait of Michelle Obama, is the creative mind behind the stunning six–story mural of Spencer–Young. The Untitled Amy Sherald Project spans the side of a Target at the corner of 11th and Sansom streets. When presented with the project, Sherald was looking to paint someone who would accurately represent the community. She notes feeling drawn to Spencer–Young’s energy, an experience that is emulated by the striking composition of the final portrait. Posing in a black and white floral coat with glimmering gold buttons, Spencer–Young’s confidence brightens up the whole block.
Just several streets over from Sherald’s work is Lincoln Legacy, a collaborative mural project pieced together by five local public schools and a number of individuals, including Philadelphia muralists Jack Ramsdale, Josh Sarantitis, Eric Okdeh, as well as inmate artists at The Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford. At nearly 10,000 square feet and with over 1 million hand–laid glass tiles, Legacy holds the title as the largest glass–tile mosaic in the city.
The work of art, which features a young Black girl rising from blue flames holding an abolitionist coin, serves as a modern visual ode to the efforts Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln in ending slavery. The left side of the mural shows wooden planks of a slave ship broken to reveal a map of Africa, produced by Okdeh and the inmate artists who painted the scene on cloth before it was transferred to the wall.
Black History Month is a time of celebration and recognition of the massive contributions to our society by Black individuals. It is a time to reflect on history we’ve lived through, and history that we are still trying to understand. It is an opportunity to take advantage of the rich artwork that bolsters the beauty of Philadelphia. These, and many more murals allow us to see, to marvel, to listen, and to ultimately deepen and better our understanding of Black history.