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Monday, September 9, 2013

Running the City with Jane Golden

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Sep 04, 2013
By Thom Nickels

I took a magical mystery tour with Mural Arts Project Executive Director Jane Golden recently to catch a glimpse of new murals in North Philly, Germantown, Northern Liberties and Fishtown.

The last time I took a private tour with Jane was several years ago when she picked me up herself in front of my home on Mercer Street. On that tour it was just the two of us. Jane was talking and doing the driving, so she had to be careful when carousing up Lehigh Avenue to Broad Street, a stretch of road noted for its erratic and eye-popping traffic patterns. Philadelphia drivers are among the most impatient in the world: stop for a few seconds to get your bearings and you are horn-blasted into the stratosphere; linger one second too long at a traffic light and you are similarly blasted with horns, verbal epithets and raised fingers. It’s so bad on the road sometimes it’s as if the entire city is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Of course, driving a car while simultaneously talking about each new mural featured on the tour takes tremendous traffic skills. Jane, however, managed to do this with a minimum of roadside problems.

Jane, who was not the driver on this tour, joined me as a passenger as Cari Feiler Bender, President of Relief Communications, took the wheel, meaning that Jane was free to go into detailed descriptions of the new murals.

Before the tour, I met Jane at the old Thomas Eakins House at 18th and Mt. Vernon Streets (MAP headquarters). As usual, the house was abuzz with activity and conversation. Jane and I sat down for a chat (she’s personable like that), and then she presented me with two MAP books, Philly Painting, and Peace is a Haiku Song, before we joined Cari in the van outside, Our goal was to drive to the 20-plus murals on the list as Cari maneuvered city traffic, stop lights and traffic jams with a PPD patrol car-like confidence.

Buckling our seat belts, we headed up North College Ave. to view the Arise and Reclaim mural when Cari and Jane noticed a familiar looking truck parked on the side of the road. Two guys dressed in painter pants and T-shirts came into view. They carried buckets and brushes and started putting them in the back of the truck. Cari pulled over and honked. The puzzled painters did not know what was happening. "It’s Jane Golden and Cari!" Cari said. Immediately the men relaxed and broke into a smile.

"We’ve come to spy on you," Cari joked, aping the workaholic, dictatorial manner of a Bank of America CEO. The men, their arms covered in paint, answered in their own style of banter. Jane poked her head out the back seat window and said a few words to them. As mural refurbishers, these guys touch up those murals that have been vandalized or tagged with graffiti. When a passer-by or someone from MAP reports a mural damaged by vandalism, the work is marked for a "fix." These two guys come to the rescue and erase the graffiti, smudges, dirt and other assorted stains and blemishes that, if unchecked, would eventually attract other blemishes and work to destroy the mural over time. While these "touch up" artist guys may not have the glamorous title of a muralist (which would guarantee them a place at the podium during dedication ceremonies), without their work the murals in the city would begin to disintegrate.

Jane is really good at spotting a small tag or an equally microscopic blemish on a mural surface. I’m not talking going up to a mural with a Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass, but she can detect glitches and damages from a good distance away. Who knows how she does it, but as we were driving along, at least two or three times she said, "Oops, stop! That one’s been tagged—in the lower right corner—did you see it?" Or: "I noticed something on that one. Did you see a chip or part of the wall missing?" Then she’ll open a small notebook and mark down the name and address of the mural in question and put it on a list. It’s good to kill two birds with one stone: give a city journalist a tour and at the same time check on the health status of the murals.

Cari headed up N. College Avenue, passing two Septa buses, a PPD squad car and an ice cream truck, and then zigzagged to the Henry Ossawa Tanner: Letters of Influence mural, circled and redoubled to visit Cancer Support for Life mural on 22nd Street before averting another traffic jam (and two kids on tricycles) near 25th and Oxford and the Moving Towards Greatness mural on the William B. Kelly School. Stepping up the pace, she passed a stalled Septa bus, a PhilAbundance food line and two women pulling large shopping carts. She made a wide arc (no screeching of tires) around two slow motion jaywalkers while breezing down Cecil B. Moore Avenue, then Diamond Street and finally onto Broad and Christian where we were face to face with mural Grover Washington, Jr. With jazz and saxophones on our minds we hit Broad and York and paid homage to the Horace Pippin mural before heading to the tour’s mother lode, the Philly Painting Project, the multi-block stretch of painted buildings on Germantown Avenue.

While Philadelphia has more than 3600 murals—"…each with its own cast of characters and logistical complexities," as the booklet Philly Painting explains--, the Philly Painting mural is MAP’s largest and most difficult mural o date.

The Philly Painting booklet also reminds the reader that Philadelphia is America’s poorest city, "and the neighborhood surrounding the painting is one of its poorest."

Regrouping at the Creating Healthy Communities mural, we take a 5 minute Royal Caribbean cruise at the Tropical Landscape, Caribbean Sunrise mural before heading to the utopian Garden of Eden Regained mural near 7th and Dauphin, and then to The Jewel Box mural (a Babette’s Feast for the eyes) near Howard and Berks Streets. In a sort of a Tango like dance maneuver, Cari swings the van into Northern Liberties to the Reading the Flow & ChainlinkGREEN mural (no stopping for green tea), then it’s around to Fourth Street past Honey’s restaurant (where people are still lined up outside), around Fifth near the purple onion domes of old Russia and Saint Andrew’s church. Continuing beyond 6th Street we hit the Building America: German Immigration mural before disappearing into the environs of Old City and finally up 10th Street, where I say good-bye to Cari and hug Jane before heading to the Frankford-Market El., my mind awash in color, traffic and swirling conversation.

During the tour, Jane asked us what we thought about the latest push to have her run for mayor. "It’s a flattering proposal, Jane," I said, "but I really think that being mayor is not who Jane Golden is. I mean, politics is ugly, and being mayor would force you to become somebody you’re not: a rat. Art is pure; Art is good, whereas City Hall is a Machiavellian hornet’s nest.

"Not only that, but after being mayor, the name Golden would no longer be golden. "

Jane gave my comment a high-five, then went on to mention an invitation she received to repaint a mural she personally created years ago when she lived in Los Angeles. Though practically a girl when she applied the final LA masterstroke, she was not too shy to knock on Jane Fonda’s door and ask if the actress would be willing to speak at the mural’s dedication. An excited Fonda responded: "Of course I will. I’ve always wanted to meet you. I’ve been watching you paint the mural from the very beginning!"