When Russell Craig’s older sister completed a drawing of characters from The Simpsons, their foster parents swooned. Attempting to duplicate the attention, Craig tried his hand at a drawing of the Simpsons, only he didn’t get the same response.
He kept practicing — drawing images he saw in magazines of LL Cool J and Erykah Badu and whoever was Jet Magazine’s “Beauty of the Week.” Working on art allowed Craig to escape the harsh realities of growing up in Philadelphia foster and group homes.
Craig’s art practice has evolved over the years into more ambitious projects, such as the vinyl protest mural, Crown, that has been installed on the glass windows of the Municipal Services Building. The mural will be unveiled by Mural Arts and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Thomas Paine Plaza, near City Hall.
When he was called about the mural project “I was honored,” said Craig, 39. “It was perfect for the type of work that I do with social justice.”
The mural is located just steps away from where the statue of the former controversial mayor and police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, once stood. The statue was removed in June amid attempts to topple and set it on fire during protests demanding justice for the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other victims of police violence.
The statue symbolized “a troubling time in Philadelphia,” said Patty Jackson, veteran WDAS radio host. “[Rizzo] was very divisive. … He really stoked the flames of the racial strife in the city at that time, as the leader.”
“There are people who think he was the greatest mayor ever because he was about law and order” but for others, the statue is “a painful reminder of a racial divide” in Philadelphia. The statue was “not a good look for this city,” Jackson said.
Following the protests, city officials created a steering committee to spearhead reconciliation efforts in Philadelphia.
“Early on, one of the desires clearly expressed by this group was to have some public art installation that highlighted and honored the protesters — Crown does exactly that,” Kenney said in a statement. “Now, these powerful images of people fighting for justice and demanding change will greet those entering the Municipal Services Building.”
Crown is Craig’s reimagination of the neoclassical masterpiece Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, which is exhibited at the Louvre in Paris. The mural is set in Philadelphia and incorporates contemporary iconography from the Black Lives Matter movement and marches. It depicts a Black woman as the female allegory of Liberty. The assembled figures in the mural form a crown, a nod to the microscopic shape of the coronavirus.
Craig was inspired by the four protests he attended in Brooklyn, where he’s lived for eight months and works as a full-time artist. The first protest he attended was at night, and “things got pretty hectic quick,” he said, describing the chants and sirens that filled the courtyard of the Barclays Center. “It really got me thinking artistically about how I can contribute.”
Craig used Adobe Photoshop to brainstorm ideas for the mural’s layout and went through a handful of ideas before settling on the final. “The first [rendering] was too radical,” he said. “So I calmed down and focused on the protesters.”
Craig grew up in North Philly but often moved around in foster care. He has never seen his father and was only 5 years old when he was placed into the foster system with his two older sisters after his mother began to suffer from substance abuse. In 2006, Craig was arrested on a drug possession charge and spent the next seven years incarcerated at Graterford state prison. While there, he learned about Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Guild program, which gives inmates and those on probation the opportunity to learn new skills and make a positive contribution to their communities through art and other ways.
“A lot of the gentlemen that was in the program were serving life sentences and I had a five- to 10-[year sentence], so I knew one day I would get out,” Craig said. “But when you’re a felon, you can’t get jobs easy. So I wanted to be an artist because you can navigate your own schedule or career.”
Craig’s work combines portraiture with social and political themes, often critiquing the prison system. He’s worked on several murals around Philadelphia and has exhibited at the African American Museum of Philadelphia. His work has also been featured on HBO and in the New York Times. He is a 2017 Right of Return fellow, and a 2018 Ford Foundation: Art For Justice Fellow.
Crown “is not only a powerful statement on behalf of Russell, his generation, and peers, but it is emblematic of our core values as a city as it relates to criminal justice reform,” said Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. “The goal is for this piece of public art to become a focal point and a beacon, a source of pride and inspiration, and, most important, a place where healing can begin.”