My guardian angel appeared in the form of a 38-foot black man in a double-breasted suit one cold, icy morning in 1994.
I remember slipping and sliding down 12th Street, trying to find the Inquirer Building, when I ran smack-dab into a larger-than-life mural of Julius Erving at 12th and Ridge. The artist's rendering was not of Erving the Hall of Fame basketball icon, but of a more dignified Doctor - suited, graying, bespectacled - gently ushering me to my destination.
They say art is supposed to resonate. As cold and miserable as that day was, that image of Dr. J framed my impression of Philadelphia as a warm and welcoming city.
Some murals speak powerfully to a sense of strength, struggle and unity, such as the Common Threads wall at Broad and Spring Garden, or the image of Malcolm X at 33d and Ridge, or the Peace Wall in Grays Ferry.
But others? Others simply appear, such as the garish Girl Scout mural at Callowhill and Broad that shocks my senses as I come to work every morning. It's a completely discombobulating riot of color - flowers, inexplicable asterisks, and dizzying images - with seemingly no viable connection to the neighborhood.
"Badly executed social realism" is how one of my artist friends described it.
I quickly learned that if Philadelphia is the nation's premiere mural motherland, then Mural Arts Program director Jane Golden is its fairy godmother, using her restorative powers of art for good throughout the 'hood - to the tune of 2,800 murals, most of them painted in disadvantaged neighborhoods. There are 2,000 more waiting to be commissioned.
And while we're not talking Bearden or Cezanne, we are talking about eye-catching art that performs the dual service of employing artists and sustaining blighted neighborhoods.
Or are we?
Joseph P. Blake doesn't think so. He's the playwright and former Inquirer and Daily News editor whose new play, Muralista, has provoked anew questions about the purpose and process of murals, especially in poorer communities.
Muralista, to be presented Saturday at the Arts Garage on Parrish Street as part of the Philly Fringe, takes a critical look at the vexing urban questions of gentrification and representations controlled from one perspective, as well as the quality of the art itself.
In one scene, a brick wall, primed and sealed, refuses to be painted.
Blake and Muralista director Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon believe that while murals may create interesting illusions, oftentimes they do nothing more than divert attention from the harsh realities of a neighborhood.
That's not to say Blake isn't a fan of some of the murals. He loves the wall art in Chinatown that features a hand, symbolizing the community, stopping bulldozers from razing the neighborhood to make way for a ballpark.
"If murals don't move you, don't stir you, if you just go by and say, 'Nice mural,' it's not doing its job," he says.
Blake, who grew up in North Philly near Ridge Avenue, a once-vibrant business corridor decimated by the riots of the 1960s, insists his play is not about the Mural Arts Program: "It's about progress and the people left behind. The money they spend putting pictures on the wall would go a lot further to educate people to what they would like to see on the wall."
For her part, Golden says she cannot understand how Blake can suggest that her program isn't responsive to the people who see the murals every day.
"I would like to take Joe on a mural tour. I'd like to have him spend a few days with me and see how completely devoted we are to the community," she says.
Neighborhood input is crucial to the vision for the murals, she says. Community meetings are held. Neighborhood people are plucked as models. "People take ownership of it," she says.
She argues that the process that determines where to place a painting and what the image will be is collaborative between the artists and the neighborhood - "a process with integrity."
Yet, even in Golden's world, nothing is perfect. While she reels off after-school and prison-arts programs that Mural Arts supports, she concedes that it can do more.
"I'm glad there is a waiting list, but I'm not interested in doing 3,000 more murals," she says adamantly. "You just don't go into a neighborhood with the intention of doing a mural. You look at it in a global way. In a city where there are so many competing needs, you try to deliver as much as you can. . . . In the next three to five years, we hope to be an office of arts- and community-building."
Truthfully, it sounds to me like it wouldn't take much to bridge the differences between Golden and Blake when both seem to have the community's best interests at heart.
One thing's for sure, Blake's play has artists and arts supporters pondering new questions in different ways.
"No doubt, what Jane is doing is incredible work," says Ola Solanke, executive director of the Arts Garage. "But when I heard about the Muralista perspective, it opened my eyes. . . . You start asking: 'Where is the real opportunity for the community?' For me, it's a delicate balance."
It sure is. On Sunday, the renowned New Orleans artist Marcus Akinlana will start work on a Mural Arts project at the Arts Garage, the day after Muralista closes.