The Big Picture, continued

The finished version of the mural in Mantua (right), with the grid-design that students worked from (above).

Golden became a mural painter in 1977, after graduating with degrees in fine arts and political science from Stanford University. Her first work was in Santa Monica, a 20 by 100 foot depiction of the once-popular Ocean Pier. (“I called the city every day for three months to let me do it,” she recalls.) It was named a historic landmark in 1984.

The process became “addictive,” she says. “When you paint a mural, you get continuous feedback from people on the street. Each time someone said, ‘Thank you,’ it made my day—and eventually changed my life.”

For the next six years, she painted murals from Beverly Hills West to Los Angeles. Weary of having her work defaced by graffiti, in 1982 she founded the Public Art Foundation in Los Angeles to train kids on probation to create public art. “Mural painting is an incredible way for kids to transition from graffiti to constructive work,” she says. “I [tried] to teach them that there are responsible ways to express themselves.”

Golden was diagnosed with lupus and moved home to Philadelphia to be closer to her family. In 1984, with the disease in remission (where she says it remains), she was hired by the city as artistic director of the mural component of the start-up Anti-Graffiti Network—she calls it “the epitome of a grassroots organization with no money but an incredibly sound philosophy.”

Today, the Mural Arts Program, part of the city’s Department of Recreation since 1996, has an administrative staff of 13 and a yearly budget of $2.5 million. Along the way, the program has garnered a slew of awards, both locally and nationally, as well as significant corporate and foundation support. (Only $800,000 of the annual budget comes from the city.)

In nearly two decades of championing the cause of public art, specifically murals, in Philadelphia, Golden’s mantra has remained the same: Art Saves Lives.

“A mural is so much more than a painting on a wall,” she says. “A mural becomes a catalyst for positive change in a community.”

Golden has seen it happen in neighborhoods across the city that have reinvented themselves around the creation of murals. Trash-strewn lots become gardens, drug dealers relocate, graffiti disappears, and residents rediscover pride in their community. But it doesn’t stop there. In the last five years, approximately 2,500 kids have enrolled in her program’s extensive year round art-education components, painting murals or participating in workshops offered at churches and schools, while over the last three years another 5,000 people have participated in its popular tours of Philadelphia’s outdoor murals—the nation’s largest collection of its kind, numbering over 2,000.

Currently, the art-education program for children ages 8-17 operates in 20 sites around the city, including eight recreation centers, four community centers, and eight public schools. This fall, a high-school component, the Mural Arts Corps, was initiated, featuring accelerated design courses, art history, and studio practicum. The program has become a natural component of current Mayor John Street’s “anti blight” campaign, and its outreach program has been expanded into prisons, homeless shelters, and youth-detention centers.

In November, the program moved into a new base of operations, a brownstone at 1729 Mt. Vernon Street that once was the home and studio of the artist Thomas Eakins. For the first time, the program is able to offer a central arts-education workshop for children throughout the city, complete with a computer lab and exhibition space. “This is an unprecedented opportunity,” says Golden.

One reason for the prolonged success of the Mural Arts Program is Golden’s insistence that the process work, as she describes it, “from the bottom up.” She tells her students at Penn that their course, “will explore what that means. There is a certain immediacy to what we do as opposed to the think-tank, top-down approach.”

Another reason is Golden herself—who appears to sleep, breathe, and eat her mission. “She is tenacious, driven, and fabulous. I’ve never seen anybody keep going and moving forward like she does,” says Robert Yermish, chairman of the board of directors of the Mural Arts Program. “Jane is a visionary,” adds David Langfitt, another board member. “She sees in her mind what needs to be done and she does what it takes to implement what she sees. What propels Jane is an unwavering belief in the power of art to inspire, change, and, in some cases, actually heal.”

Midway through her opening lecture—in which she relates the history of the Mural Arts Program—the Penn students are entranced. “It’s a very difficult concept to link art with social services,” Golden concludes. “It’s not an easy process but it is tremendously rewarding.”


Other Mural Arts projects in the city, including (left to right) Spring, by David Guinn;
The Philadelphia Muses
, by Meg Saligman; Peace Wall, by Peter Pagast and Golden; and
“The Comcast Mural,” by Michael Webb.

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Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 2/28/02