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Will Smith, Amanda Gorman, Kamala Harris: Murals help inspire students at three Philly schools

“Murals change your climate,” said KaTiedra Argro, principal of John Barry Elementary in West Philadelphia. “They make the kids feel good.”

A mural of Will Smith is photographed in the hallway of Lamberton Elementary School in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia.
A mural of Will Smith is photographed in the hallway of Lamberton Elementary School in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia is a city of murals, but many of its schools are generally better known for their drab cinder block.

Antoinette Powell wanted to shift the narrative at Lamberton Elementary, the Overbrook K-8 where she’s principal. So she hired an artist to transform walls all around the building as students returned to in-person classes this fall.

“We wanted to bring some joy, some life, some color into the school, so the kids weren’t just looking at bare walls,” Powell said.

Lamberton isn’t the only city school with murals adorning its hallways and even bathrooms — the Mural Arts program works in schools across the city — but it’s one of a trio of Philadelphia School District buildings with vibrant, of-the-moment wall paintings by the local artist Willow Orr.

In a year with gun violence, the lingering effects of COVID-19, and economic turmoil, the art is a bright spot, said Shavonne McMillan, principal of Vaux Big Picture High School.

“I wanted kids to look all around them and see inspiration,” McMillan said.

Vaux Big Picture High School

McMillan had a $8,000 school beautification budget and the seed of an idea: filling the building with images — featuring idols like Kamala Harris and Chadwick Boseman — that resonated with her students. And she wanted to foster school spirit at Vaux, which reopened as a reimagined high school after being closed for several years.

A colleague of McMillan’s recommended Orr, a University of the Arts graduate working as a freelance artist and designer whose projects include typography, signs, and, most recently, painting a 16-foot trailer. Projects at Vaux, Lamberton, and Barry Elementary are her first works for Philadelphia schools.

Last fall, McMillan let Orr loose on the vast building at 23rd and Master in North Philadelphia, making murals in the cafeteria and in bathrooms (”important transitional space,” Orr said), on stairwells, and in hallways. There are inspirational quotes — “Your mistakes don’t define you” and “This is going to be epic” and a sunny yellow sunburst. There’s a smiling Rosa Parks in a field of purple, red, and blue swirls.

All told, the Vaux murals took Orr nine months to complete.

Students appreciate the work, McMillan said, mindful of how it elevates their environment.

“They’re not trying to graffiti this,” said McMillan. “They respect the space.”

Lamberton Elementary

Powell’s favorite Lamberton mural? A silhouette of a Black woman, graceful neck extended, Afro perfectly arranged, against a backdrop of reds and oranges. “Hey Brown girl, you’re Beautiful,” it reads. (Not far away is “Hey Brown Boy, you’re royalty.”)

Said Powell: “It’s a constant reminder. You’ll walk down the hall and just see the kids standing there, looking at it.”

Powell and Raymond Roy-Pace, an assistant principal, chose images that would “affirm who our young people are and the experiences they have,” Roy-Pace said.

In the cafeteria are Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, a nod both to powerful athletes and to those struggling with mental health issues. (Osaka earlier this year withdrew from the French Open to preserve her mental health and has openly discussed suffering from depression and anxiety.)

There are Will Smith (of course there’s Will Smith — it’s West Philadelphia) and Nelson Mandela. Near a classroom is a rainbow heart rimmed in black, with “In This School, Everyone Is Welcome” lettered in white.

“We wanted all things Philly, but also things that our kids would be able to stop and say, ‘Who is this?’ It sparks a conversation,” said Powell. “It’s kind of like history on the wall.”

Barry Elementary

The murals at Barry, at 59th and Race in West Philadelphia, are a memorial to Mark Maples.

The beloved teacher, a Barry fixture, died of pancreatic cancer at age 49 in 2020. He was Barry’s hype man, perpetually cheerful, the DJ at every school party and event, the never-have-a-bad-day guy. His loss gutted the school and KaTiedra Argro, the principal.

“Some kids said, ‘We can’t have parties anymore without Mr. Maples,’” Argro said.

Argro had also heard about Orr’s work and decided at the end of the last school year to allocate funds to murals honoring Maples, who was the school’s digital literacy teacher and a talented artist who adorned his own classroom and many spots around the building with art he drew freehand then painted. It was a way to help students move forward, remembering.

Walk into Barry and one of the first things you see is a wall with Maples’ image, front and center, smiling, wearing a Barry sweater, surrounded by some of the things he loved — music notes, a Barry bulldog, the logo of his alma mater, Cheyney University.

More murals adorn the fourth floor, where Maples taught.

Maples would have loved the vibe, said Argro.

“Murals change your climate,” said Argro. “They make the kids feel good.”