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A gift of art

The death of her husband, and the kindness of people who cared for him, inspired Renee Daily to brighten the walls of nonprofit agencies with her murals.

Renee Daily puts the final touches on her mural at the West Philadelphia Child Care Network in West Philadelphia. (Michael S. Wirtz / Inquirer).
Renee Daily puts the final touches on her mural at the West Philadelphia Child Care Network in West Philadelphia. (Michael S. Wirtz / Inquirer).Read more

Renee Daily's idea was the brainchild of gratitude and grief.

Her husband, illustrator Don Daily, died of lung cancer on a Tuesday night in May 2002. The next morning, her eyes stinging with tears, Renee sat through a guided meditation at the Wellness Community of Philadelphia, where both she and her husband had sought support during his nine-month illness.

"I was able to reach this calm place for half an hour before doing all the things I had to do," Daily recalls.

She wanted to give something back to the Wellness Community. As a freelance muralist, a large donation was beyond her means. But she could offer her art.

There was a blank wall in the renovated barn where meditation, yoga and nutrition classes take place. "It was a great big glaring space that was begging for something," says the Wellness Community's executive director, Kimerly Hinkelman.

Daily met with Hinkelman and other staff to discuss mural ideas that would evoke the site's history (it was a former sheep farm) and its mission of providing education and emotional sustenance to people with cancer and their caregivers.

Daily donated her time; the Wellness Community bought the paint. The resulting mural, which Daily describes as "primitive American style," shows a barn, grazing sheep and roosters with bright plumage. Across the bottom, it reads, "In loving memory of my husband, Don Daily."

She completed that mural in 2005. But Daily wasn't finished. She'd become interested in Buddhism and the notion that all of life is interconnected. She liked the idea of bringing her art to people who could never pay for a privately commissioned piece.

Maybe there were other blank walls, in other nonprofit agencies around the city, just waiting to be filled.

"Murals really do change the energy of a place," she says. "I wanted people who couldn't afford to do that - the way my clients in private homes can - to be able to benefit from this change."

This month, Daily completed her most recent canvas - a wall painted the shade of coral lipstick at the West Philadelphia Child Care Network at 41st Street and Lancaster Avenue. A mutual friend arranged the match, and the agency's mission appealed to Daily: The Child Care Network provides training, advocacy and materials to neighborhood day-care providers.

Once again, the art began with a conversation. Daily, Child Care Network executive director Howard W. Tucker, professional-development coordinator Kweli Archie and other staff tossed around big concepts - diversity, knowledge, opportunities for growth - and talked about the reality of network students' lives.

After a long day of diapers, circle time and reading One Fish, Two Fish to squirmy toddlers, child-care providers come to the network's snug headquarters to study brain development, safety precautions and nutrition. They need an energy boost, says Archie.

Daily took those ideas home and designed a series of ribbons, each patterned with symbols of a different culture (American Indian, Ghanaian), that weave together toward a stylized tree, with ferns to represent growth. On the left side, where colors burst into butterflies and stars, "it's an explosion of energy, for going out into the world with confidence and knowledge," says Daily.

For network student Lisa Richardson, the mural is a bright and tranquil counterpoint to her training manuals. The 42-year-old mother of three, an assistant teacher at the Caring Center on Spring Garden Street, says she enjoyed watching Daily's progress on the mural.

"Each time, I was excited to come in and see what she had done," Richardson says. "When you first walk in, it hits you. I spend a lot of time looking at it."

Though Daily's art may transport those who see it, the process of making "pro bono" murals has brought her out of the isolation of her Bala Cynwyd studio and into neighborhoods and agencies she'd never have found otherwise.

The Philadelphia Senior Center was one of those. Daily, 59, knew one of the agency's board members. Soon, she was meeting with staff to brainstorm ideas for a 35-foot wall in the room where clients have Bible classes, drama groups and choral practice.

"Her concept was great," the senior center's chief executive officer, Bob Groves, says of the mural, which Daily completed in January 2007. "It's the different stages of life, represented by trees."

The trees' roots burrow into bands of blue. Under the mural, in small letters, the words "We are all connected to the flow" repeat over and over.

Groves says the image reminds him that "whatever's going on at the moment, it's part of a bigger process. [The mural] gives the room a lot more life."

Almost a year later, Daily found herself and her sketchbook in a basement room at Project HOME.

"The room had not been painted for a long time," recalls program manager Alyssa Bowers. "It's a weird lavender color, and it's kind of dingy down there."

In meetings with residents and staff, some said they wanted a visual contrast to the world outside 1515 Fairmount, home to 48 formerly homeless men and women.

Daily designed two pastoral images - one more stylized, one realistic, with trompe l'oeil columns - depicting leafy trees, a distant mountain range and a portico that seems to beckon viewers into the scene.

Residents voted. The realistic image won.

"It looks like a patio walking out to the mountains," says Bowers. "If [staff members] had time, we'd probably just sit there and look at it all day. It's very calming."

Daily's donated works - which would cost $4,000 to $5,000 if they were commissioned - require about seven days of painting.

First, she makes a small-scale, full-color rendition, then she marks the wall with a chalk grid and scales the drawing up to size. She climbs a folding scaffold or a Husky ladder, painting freehand with interior latex and artist acrylics.

This month, as she put the finishing flourishes on the Child Care Network's mural, Daily was already envisioning her next canvas: "I want to do a children's place, a hospital or shelter, a place where children are frightened or sad."

Her murals are partnerships that demand trust on both sides. "[People] are a little apprehensive at first: Who is this strange person who's volunteered to come in and paint on our walls?" At the same time, Daily must have faith that abstract concepts will somehow take shape with a fistful of brushes and a palette of paint.

When in doubt, she remembers her husband, the Wellness Community, the calm island at the center of her grief.

"I trust that good things will come, and they do. I trust that something will come out of all these blank walls."