Mural guru, students paint the town

In a small storefront church at 34th Street and Haverford Avenue, the Rev. Cornell A. Smith Sr. and some of his neighbors waited patiently for a group of Penn students. Their business was planning a new mural at 35th and Wallace with the students.

The students were part of a class taught by Jane Golden, the woman who has made Philadelphia the mural capital of the country. Mural artist Don Gensler is helping to teach the course, which is offered by both Urban Studies and Fine Arts. “It’s about mural painting; it’s about community organizing, about getting students to be agents of social change,” said Golden several days before the meeting.

Back at the church, waiting for the students was William Durham—he said he was 66—whose mother, aged 91, had agreed to have the new mural on the side of her house. He was hoping the plan would have a lot of colors. “Anything lively,” he said.

In the back of the room, a few women seated around a table were eating. Smith said his Gate to Heaven Ministry feeds people three meals a day.

In came the students, Gensler (covered in paint) and Golden. Olivia Chung (C’03) broke the ice by asking if she could have some of that cake one of the ladies was eating. She sat back with them for a while, but the rest of the students sat with Smith and Golden.

“We want your feedback,” Golden said. She added that William’s mother and brother Johnny had seen the design and liked it.

The stained-glass tree motif was a hit with the church-going community, who also liked how the images suggested growth and life-giving. “I don’t see the significance of the hands,” Smith said. The swirl of light emitting from the hands got a thumbs down. But an alternate version, with seeds cast by the hands got a thumbs up.

Golden asked Durham what he thought. “Whatever my mom and brother and sister decide, that’s what I have to go along with,” he said.

Veronica De La Rosa (C’03) double-checked. “Are you guys happy about these colors?” she asked him. But Durham again deferred to his family.

Then Golden switched to the tick list for a Nov. 2 cleanup at the site. The neighbors suggested a couple of organizations that could help, and neighbor James “Smokey” Willoughby said, “We’ll get the bodies.”

Golden said the effort could bring Mantua more city services. “What we did at 29th and Wharton at Peace Plaza we can do here,” she said.

Gensler ended the meeting, saying, “There’ll be a new stained glass window in Mantua, and even a rock won’t bring it down.”

Originally published on October 17, 2002