In the last few weeks, his world narrowed to the distance between his home and the nearest grocery store, Mark Strandquist observed uneasily the creeping desolation settling over his neighborhood.
“What you’re seeing is empty businesses, empty schools, empty playgrounds. What is the emotional toll that takes?” Strandquist said. But as artists, he and his friends also couldn’t help noticing that all those plywood boards looked a lot like blank canvases. It gave them an idea, he said: “How can we replace some of that emptiness with images of hope, resilience, anger, and also dreams of a future that is hopefully not far off?"
That impulse was the spark for one of a growing number of DIY public art projects that have sprouted from the gloom of Philadelphia’s pandemic response — turning boarded-up storefronts and silent sidewalks into one big, plein-air exhibition bearing messages of solidarity and comfort.
The rush of creative energy is coming from all angles: professional artists, shut out of museums and galleries, and families, stranded and stir-crazy at home.
Mural Arts Philadelphia has stepped up, hiring artists to design vinyl decals for supermarkets to place at six-foot intervals, and working with Broad Street Ministries to beautify new hand-washing stations for homeless people. And hundreds of kids with buckets of sidewalk chalk are collaborating to turn the city into a rainbow scavenger hunt, at a time when so many other childhood pleasures, from playgrounds to ice cream trucks, are suddenly off limits.
Some projects, like the one Strandquist is working on, are sprawling, multi-tentacled group efforts. He invited artists and poets to answer a question: “If you could paint Philly’s empty walls, what would you put up to support people’s emotional and physical health?” Dozens of submissions are posted online, at coverthewallswithhope.weebly.com for anyone to download, print, and post in their windows, or to post with wheat-paste in their neighborhoods. Artists are putting up posters around town, and businesses are invited to partner with the effort by offering up walls or printing up banners.
Other efforts are evolving week by week, like One Philly Art, a project started in a flash of inspiration by Robin Mack-Ward, a South Philadelphia mother and real estate agent. “I was thinking, What are we all going to do when we’re just stuck in our houses? I thought about the ‘One Book, One Philadelphia’ program. It’s so cool — of course, I’ve never actually done it.” But art was something she could do. She made a Facebook group March 15, and within a week it grew to 2,500 members, and a map of 200 sites where artists, laboring in isolation, have enlivened their front doors and windows with paintings, paper crafts, and drawings aligned with weekly themes.
Mack-Ward said others have asked her if the works will be archived, collected for some future exhibition.
“I would love to see that happen,” she said. “For me, I can’t even think that far ahead. We are very much on a one-week-at-a-time basis here in my household.”
Other acts of public art are at the scale of one lone soul, taping drawings to her storm door. That’s Lisa Solis, who started a project called Fishtown Doodle to distract from the despair that’s overtaken her day job, crunching numbers for the Pennsylvania Ballet, which canceled midway through its March run of the ballet La Bayadere, and postponed its April program indefinitely. She invited neighborhood kids and parents to submit suggestions and requests via email or Instagram.
“To help clear my head, I decided to sharpen my pencils and get back to being creative, and maybe brighten someone’s day when they walk past," she said.
That same impulse has led hundreds of families to install rainbows in front of their homes, a meme translated into sidewalk chalk and columns of helium-filled balloons.
Fairmount resident Julie Assis said the daily rainbow hunts have become the one way she’s able to coax her 4-year-old daughter, Juniper, into going outside for walks — which are, according to Juniper, boring, without a trip to the playground or to see other kids.
“This is a way of playing with other kids — without touching them,” said Assis, who helped Juniper contribute her own enormous chalk rainbow to the gallery.
Kathryn Snyder, whose art therapy practice, Parent to Child Therapy Associates, has relocated from South Broad Street to the Zoom app, said even those who don’t consider themselves artistic can benefit from such healthy diversions. She suggested swirling around some watercolors, seeing what emerges, “giving yourself permission at this time of strangeness to make a mark without inhibition.”
“All the feelings are coming up, and people are looking for places to put them,” she said. “People want to express and people want to connect."
Conrad Benner, 34, who runs the StreetsDept photo blog and podcast, said he’s been encouraged to look out his South Philadelphia window and see the rainbows drawn on his block.
It’s hard to ignore the storm clouds, though: His artist friends are suddenly jobless. Their photography gigs, craft shows, and exhibits canceled, some are already trying to sell laptops and other gear to make rent.
Benner volunteered to help curate the installation for Broad Street Ministries’ nine artist-designed hand-washing stations, a project at the intersection of public art and public health. It was one thing he could do to help his friends, and the greater community.
Jane Golden, Mural Arts’ executive director, said that project is just one way the organization has shifted gears to keep programming going, serve the public in this crisis, and get artists paid even as the city has shut down.
Some mural-making has moved online: They’re asking the public to submit photos, videos, and artwork for a virtual mosaic mural that will reside on their website, but also may eventually be projected on an actual wall for a post-pandemic public showing.
But other Mural Arts projects will be tangible, like coloring books and art-making kits to be distributed at sites where the city is offering meals to replace free school lunches.
What Golden is seeing now across Philadelphia reminds her of the first time she stepped into the grim confines of the maximum-security prison where Mural Arts ran programming for decades.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. "But the art therapist told me: ‘Wait until you get into the classrooms and see the artwork. Creativity is like the wildflowers that grow in a vacant parking lot. You can’t tamp it down.’”