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Amber makes its very big mark

The Port Richmond public art collective splashes murals all over the city and country, in the name of healthy communities.

Turning art on its head: (from left) Willis Humphrey (Nomo), Keir Johnston, and Bryan Martinez of Amber Art & Design clown around in front of their mural "Directions in Perspective" after its ribbon cutting in October in Bethlehem, Pa.
Turning art on its head: (from left) Willis Humphrey (Nomo), Keir Johnston, and Bryan Martinez of Amber Art & Design clown around in front of their mural "Directions in Perspective" after its ribbon cutting in October in Bethlehem, Pa.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

For a group of young, culturally diverse artists, the epiphany came two years ago.

Sharing a workspace in the emerging creative haven of Port Richmond, the five decided pooling their talents and opportunities would pay off faster than individual struggle.

Amber Art & Design was born, and already the public-art collective has left an impressive imprint, including the Roots mural honoring the Philly hip-hop neo-soul ensemble presented over the summer at Broad and South Streets. The team that "developed organically and out of necessity," as Ernel Martinez puts it, has produced more than 50 works from commissions across the country.

Those include Mural Arts, Asian Arts Initiative, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Jewish History, Fleisher Art Memorial, Painted Bride Art Center, and International House, all within the last two years. The group also has landed a contract with a new soft-drink company.

Martinez and the four other members of the collective - Charles Barbin, Linda Fernandez, Willis Humphrey, and Keir Johnston - are known for their dynamic and artistic interventions in public arenas, from museums to open spaces and large buildings.

Amber Art blends public art with community development via a street-art aesthetic. "We put together our personal expressions that exemplify a variety of styles to create art projects designed for the streets rather than galleries," Humphrey says. "Guerrilla tactics often prevail."

The group is a convergence of diverse perspectives and backgrounds.

Martinez, 38, was born in Belize and grew up in south-central Los Angeles. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a master's degree in painting. Barbin, 34, earned his bachelor's degree from Temple's Tyler School of Art and worked for the Mural Arts Program as a muralist and educator. Humphrey, 39, whose street name is Nomo, hails from Mississippi and graduated from the Art Institute of Atlanta.

Committed to community involvement, Johnston, 33, a native Philadelphian and Penn master's grad, became a social-change advocate at 18. Fernandez, 30, studied contemporary art in Spain, Nicaragua, and Guatemala after earning her bachelor's degree from the Tyler School of Art. She also works as an educator, engaging the Hispanic community in art workshops throughout the city.

"Two years ago, we came together because we were all involved in public art and education and . . . it just made sense to work as a team," Barbin said.

Added Johnston: "It was about forging our own path out of a much more free direction and entrepreneurial spirit. And enforcing a lot of things we learned working with institutions; we represent a lot of creative directions. We collaborated with most of the creative institutions in the city."

Fernandez points out that Amber is even developing its own educational model to accompany its work and outreach with communities. "Right now, we have two educational projects; one is working with youth through the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, and the other is a fellowship from the Center for Emerging Visual Artists to create a cookbook with elders from Germantown Life Center and students from Khepera Charter School. This project will relate to food memories and nutrition. It will culminate in gathering stories and illustrations for an interactive cookbook."

In October, the Amber collective celebrated its most recent major project, the Directions of Perspective mural commissioned as part of Bethlehem's Southside Vision 2014, a revitalization project that also features a state-of-the-art skate park, an anchor in the community.

The artists helped flip the perception of Bethlehem's urban landscape. Amber Art's mural transforms a plain tire garage that extends over one block into a bedazzling wrap-around edifice. Replete with recycled materials found in the neighborhood, the mural reflects different perspectives on how Bethlehem views itself.

Their mural "nails it," says Ellen Larmer, director of the Community Action Development Corp. of Bethlehem. It "does exactly what we had planned; it is colorful, exciting, and engaging. With fields of energetic lines and palette, it serves as a gateway to the city."

In Tulsa, Okla., the Amber collective took on a very different project, conducting an intense community intervention as artists-in-residence. Steve Liggett, director of the Living Arts Center between the merchant-run Brady District and the predominantly black Greenwood District, brought in the design team to employ art as a healing tool for racial tensions that affected the communities for almost a century. Once labeled the "Black Wall Street" for being home to some of the state's wealthiest African Americans, Greenwood was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan in 1921.

At the conclusion of the residency, the group staged an artist talk and an exhibit with large-format photos of a performance piece based on the Greenwood massacre, gravestone rubbings, and two sculptures made in workshops with community members. These wooden totems embodied the idea of resilience.

"In our estimation, it was a tremendous success," Liggett said. "The response from the African American community was strong; however, for the white community, the issues raised were sore subjects. Martinez, Johnston, and Fernandez were wonderful and energetic."

At the National Museum of American Jewish History, Johnston and Martinez's workshops and exhibit "Hemmed Up," pertaining to labor and the history of Philadelphia's textile industry, "meshed the history and stories of our institution with their cultural experiences," chief curator Josh Perelman said. "The installation caused visitors' eyes to light up; people had a strong visceral response. This project was unique for a history museum. . . . [We discovered that] art is a fantastic avenue to explore history."

The group's mission is enriching for the artists and communities, Johnston says.

"Public art not only provides heightened levels of expression for the artist and exemplifies the power of intelligence," he says, "but definitely is a tool to help build communities."