< back to articles
From July 2003 to October 2004, as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I followed the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program in its effort to create a mural about healing the wounds of violent crime. The project attempted to get crime victims, community members, and incarcerated felons to reach a shared vision about their experience. Teaming up with an Inquirer photographer and making multiple visits to both the neighborhood and Graterford prison, I chronicled the project in a series of articles. Below are two of the articles in the series, which earned “Story of the Month” kudos from the paper’s editors.
Finding common ground has taken time in a mural effort meant to reach distinct groups.
September 30, 2003 • By Leslie A. Pappas
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
The idea was too much for one three-story wall to hold.
A mural for a North Philadelphia neighborhood was supposed to bridge three distinct worlds. But convicted felons, victims of violent crime, and neighborhood residents have had different ideas about what the wall should say about healing the wounds of crime.
In prison classrooms and church sanctuaries, hours of face-to-face conversations about the design have led to surprising moments of connection and painful tales of isolation. The encounters have drawn out raw emotions and bitter memories, too.
Only recently — six months after the project began — has a common vision started to form. And it's going to take two walls.
Jane Golden, director of the city's Mural Arts Program, has called the project "painful, difficult, and at times . . . almost impossible." She sees it as "a journey of faith and hope."
If all goes as planned, the three disparate groups will find a shared message. Then they will meet at the prison to paint on acrylic cloth squares that artists will affix onto two walls in the 3000 block of Germantown Avenue.
A self-described eternal optimist who believes a strong will can thrash through the thickest weeds of resistance, Golden has brought conflicting groups together before. The peace mural at 29th and Wharton Streets, for example, helped unite Grays Ferry after racial tension tore it apart in 1997.
This time, however, finding one path has proved elusive.
Repentant inmates, eager to give back to a neighborhood they say they once terrorized, want the mural to convey hope as well as a warning to neighborhood children at risk.
"I want them to change," said one inmate, who has family in the neighborhood, at a prison class in August. "I don't want my little cousin to come to jail."
But at least one victim advocate said her priority was the victim's pain, not the offender's.
"I'm speaking as a victim and a survivor: I don't care what he [the inmate] has to say," said Dawn Dixon, a victim witness coordinator in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.
And some community residents objected to images of victims on a neighborhood wall.
"That's going to bring back too many bad memories," said Mark Robinson, of the 3000 block of 10th Street.
Unlike most murals, where opposing sides crowd into one room and argue until they agree on a design, the stakeholders in this project have yet to meet en masse.
That's because a third of them live at Graterford, the maximum security prison in Montgomery County.
Since April, Mural Arts has shuttled victims and community members, one or two at a time, to the prison.
In small groups, visitors and prisoners exchange stories, trying to pinpoint the mural's message, probing the meaning of words such as pain, forgiveness, healing, and rebirth.
Unexpected connections have emerged.
"Less than an hour after my brother was murdered, I had a weapon," said Ruth Birchett, a crime victim who visited the prison in August.
Inmates listened as she recalled the rage, then grief, of losing her brother in 1972. The memory of "that pain in the butt" who stole the last meatball at spaghetti suppers still resurfaces whenever she hears Marvin Gaye's voice singing "What's Going On" on the radio.
After she recounted her brother's violent end, an inmate raised his hand.
Someone he knew from the neighborhood was killed about 30 years ago, he said slowly. It happened at that same bar at 18th and Dauphin Streets. The guy was working as a doorman. A regular customer, angry about a $2 cover, shot him four times.
Birchett stared at him.
The room fell silent.
"You knew my brother?" she whispered.
At the end of each session, participants struggled to translate emotional breakthroughs into images.
Golden scribbled pages of notes to read later at community meetings, where neighborhood residents had other ideas.
"How about a picture of children running to Christ?" suggested Juan Negron, a member of Maranatha Ministries Church, a bright blue building on Germantown Avenue, where a meeting was held in July.
"You've got Africans and Muslims out here," Deborah Bentley, a resident of the neighborhood for 17 years, objected. "It can't all be Christian."
Community members didn't like many of the images artists had drawn from Graterford discussions. Some were too obscure: a bee in a Venus'-flytrap to symbolize the temptation of drugs. Others were too harsh: Crack vials and prison bars sent a strong message, to be sure, but wasn't reality already painful enough?
But they agreed on one thing: The mural should speak clearly, with a powerful moral message that neighborhood children would understand.
"They need something," Bentley said. "My nieces and nephews, most of them are on drugs. We need to recreate our children."
In the end, artist Ceasar Viveros-Herrera wove together images from several meetings: an inmate behind bars, reaching out; a victim's burning heart; a tree, for the strength and growth of community; an angel shining light and hope.
Muralists hoped they had captured a shared vision. But when victim advocates gathered earlier this month to view the preliminary sketch, muralists realized they still had work to do.
"It's beautiful. It speaks to inmates and the community," said Mary Achilles, the state's victim advocate. "I don't see victims in there. I don't see the anguish and pain, the abyss."
And so, six months after it began, the mural expanded from one wall to two.
"It was clear from the conversation that this was bigger than just one wall," Golden said.
Two days after the meeting, muralists met in Golden's home over coffee and cookies and reworked their plan. They decided that the design just completed would be used for the first wall, to speak for prison inmates; the second wall, still on the drawing board, would reflect the views of victims. Community ideas would be blended into both.
The project, just one of about 30 that Mural Arts is pushing to complete, was originally supposed to be finished by fall. Now it looks as if it won't be done until spring. Golden says the complexity of the project is the reason.
"Our more difficult murals always have engaged people in a process that has been somewhat painful," she said.
Yet, some healing may have already begun.
Clarence Carter, 82, trembled slightly as he told his story to a circle of inmates this month. He had never been inside a prison before. Until a few months ago, he had lived in West Philadelphia for 38 years without ever experiencing crime.
Then he was mugged in front of his house by two men, with a gun to his head, and the threat: If you yell, I'll blow your brains out.
Now he's afraid to leave home. "My life has changed completely," he said, his voice breaking. "I'm traumatized."
An inmate spoke: "As a violator, what can I give you? To take your pain away?"
"I want an apology," Carter replied.
The inmate leaned forward.
"Can I give you a hug?"
"Well . . . sure," Carter said; the room erupted in applause as he slowly rose to his feet
December 29, 2003 • By Leslie A. Pappas
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Pain and fear permeated the house, Myra Maxwell of West Philadelphia remembers.
After suffering a violent sexual assault, her teenage daughter wouldn't eat, couldn't sleep. Her other children became scared and protective; her husband aggressive and vengeful; Maxwell helpless and angry.
"It kind of trickles through the entire family," she said of the crime's aftermath. Five years later, there is still anger and "lingering, ongoing pain."
Maxwell's journey, and those of others like her, are the inspiration behind a mural that will be painted in North Philadelphia to honor victims of crime.
The mural will be the second to grow out of what originally was supposed to be a shared vision.
Muralists at the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program had hoped that crime survivors, neighborhood residents, and convicted felons could collaborate on a single mural about healing the wounds of crime.
But the disparate groups, though connected by violence, found that they had little in common.
Muralists decided there was too much material for one wall and created a second. Each wall could cost $18,000 to $20,000. About $8,000 has been spent already for paint, cloth, and stipends for the artists. Right now, the project is about $15,000 short of $40,000 needed for two walls. Still, there has been talk of a third.
Since the project began in March, community leaders and crime victims, one or two at a time, have gone to Graterford Prison in Montgomery County, scooting chairs into a circle of inmates for brainstorming sessions and tearful sharing.
Inmates stressed what they had in common with victims — feelings of isolation or abandonment. But they also gravitated toward images of redemption, making amends, and forgiveness — themes that victims did not always share.
"I don't think there are many victims I work with that think about forgiveness," said Mary Catherine Lowery, a victim advocate with St. Gabriel's System who is involved in the project. "They try to come to terms with what has happened to them."
In 2002, there were an estimated 147,000 crimes in Philadelphia involving victims, according to Capt. Thomas Lynch of the Philadelphia Police Department's Victim Services Division. Lynch's review of crime statistics does not count the ripple effect — the children, family and friends of the victims, who also may have felt the impact of the crime.
"These are forgotten folk," Lynch said. "And there are lots of them."
Victims can experience excruciating feelings of pain, anger, turmoil and loss as they try to rebuild shattered lives, advocates say. For many, the effect of the crime is so profound that they come to see themselves as two different people, one before the crime and another after.
One victim described her life as a fresh sheet of white paper that had been crumpled up and spread out flat again: still intact, but forever changed.
Asking the victim to understand or forgive the person who caused the pain would be an unfair burden, victim advocates told muralists.
Even the concept of healing is charged with emotion. Who has the right to tell any survivor of crime how, or even if, he or she must heal?
Earlier this month, victim advocates gathered at the Mural Arts Program's Center City office to give their opinions about the second mural's design, which was created after they reacted with frustration and anger to the first.
The first mural, drawn after numerous discussions inside Graterford Prison, included an image of an inmate in a jail cell, reaching back to the neighborhood he left behind.
"This is the inmate's voice. This is the inmate's pain. Not the victim's pain," Kathy Buckley, director of victims services at Pennsylvania's Office of the Victim Advocate, said in September when the design was unveiled.
So mural artist Ceasar Viveros-Herrera, in collaboration with artist Parris Stancell, created a design for a second mural.
Designed with victims in mind, the second piece depicts images of anguish and death as well as visual metaphors of beauty and strength.
On the left, two people kneel over a grave. Behind them, a man raises his hands to the sky, his face screaming a silent "Why?" to God.
Marble gravestones and stone angels dominate the right side of the mural. A tiny boy reaches to one of the female-shaped grave markers, as though asking his mother to pick him up. Fluttering doves and creeping morning glories offer hopeful symbols of journey and growth.
Victim advocates applauded when the design was unveiled in mid-December.
"He heard what we were saying," said Kathryn Battle, a victims assistance officer of the police Homicide Unit. "I see that the jail cell is gone. And that little boy raising his arms, as if saying, 'Who has me now?' To me, that right there is the icing on the cake."
During the next few months, crime survivors and victim advocates will help paint the two murals, side by side with Graterford inmates, using a color-by-number technique on acrylic cloth squares. Painting on the first mural has already begun, with five of the 75 panels completed. This month, victim advocates joined inmates in their first group effort.
The Mural Arts Program will offer paint days at its offices at 17th and Mount Vernon Streets in Philadelphia once a month, beginning in January, for crime victims who do not want to go to the prison.
If all goes as planned, the two murals will be installed in June on two walls in the 3000 block of Germantown Avenue.
Jane Golden, the project's director, already has plans for a third mural, using ideas generated from the first two.
"It should be about the search for justice," Golden said. She plans to gather input from district attorneys, police officers, social workers, and probation officers.
Golden hopes the project will provide a forum for long-term discussions about the difficulties of crime and punishment.
"Can we take the agony and isolation that is caused by crime and punishment and . . . bring meaning into the lives of those who have suffered?" she asked.
Victims and their advocates say the second wall could be a start.
< back to articles