Like so many accomplished muralists, Marcus Akinlana is always looking at the big picture.
So when he proclaims Philadelphia a visual-arts mecca, when he compares Philly's arts scene to the vibrancy of his native New Orleans, maybe those of us who live here should take a closer look.
It's easy to overlook the city's beauty. These days, we're so preoccupied with public safety, we hardly take time to take in the beauty of public spaces. And yesterday, with the untimely death of Anne d'Harnoncourt, the spirited director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it's hard to celebrate an artistic identity without feeling the void left by the loss of one of the city's biggest arts cheerleaders.
But as an outsider who's spent five months here painting the "Artsolutely Awesome North Philly, Yeeaah!" mural, which was unveiled Saturday at the Arts Garage at 15th and Parrish, Akinlana sees the city's untapped potential clearly.
He also sees Philadelphia's being its own worst enemy.
"There's a thing called ego - individual and cultural," Akinlana, 42, says as we stand back and take in his work, an impressive nod to the history and culture of the Francisville neighborhood on a 30-by-120-foot stretch on the Arts Garage's wall.
"Philly is one of the richest cities in arts and culture that I've ever seen. . . . But when I turn on the news here, all I hear is about the homicides." In New Orleans, he said, "we have just as many, but we don't blast ours like that."
"What I'd like to focus on is a restoration of the cultural ego of Philadelphia."
Through his painting and teaching, Akinlana sees himself as the keeper of the culture - in Philadelphia and in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina three years ago destroyed almost everything the married father of six cherished.
"Artsolutely Awesome North Philly," which comes complete with a soundtrack embedded in the wall, tells the history of a diverse community.
Starting with the Lenape tribe that carved out the route that would become Ridge Avenue, the mural pays tribute to the arts and civil-rights struggles of the Francisville neighborhood: activist and pastor the Rev. Leon Sullivan, saxophonist John Coltrane, artist Emilie Zeckwer, opera star Mario Lanza, Freedom Theater, Puerto Rican
musicians, and Meta Vaux Fuller, one of the city's most influential artists/activists you've never heard of.
"So we paint Meta Vaux Fuller 25 feet high," says Akinlana, referring to the largely anonymous sculptor who was the first African American woman to receive a federal commission for her art. "When you do a huge wall, it presses on the psyche and you never forget."
The mural, says Ola O. Solanke, executive director of the Arts Garage, a creative space for emerging artists, "is spectacular, like a rain forest. Colorful, with each thing balancing the other, thriving."
Akinlana's work has already had a profound impact on Mural Arts Program director Jane Golden, who commissioned the artist to come to Philly after seeing his work in a book about African American muralists.
Nobody would argue the Mural Arts Program's value to the city. Under Golden, Philadelphia gained its reputation as the "City of Murals," with more than 2,800 works of public art created since 1984.
But recently, MAP has received its share of criticism for doing bad paint jobs on crumbling walls and calling it art when the money could have been used to help get rid of the crumbling wall entirely.
But Akinlana, says Golden, has single-handedly "raised the bar on the types of projects we should be doing," not only through his talent but with his mentoring of MAP students who helped paint the mural.
Not to mention that painting a wall in Philadelphia over 41/2 months in the chill of winter provided just the soothing balm the muralist needed.
Akinlana doesn't like to talk about Katrina too much. "I'm going to do this real quick," he mumbles when asked to recount the hurricane and its aftermath.
He ended up evacuating, he says. Lost his home in the Gentilly section of the city, along with three galleries and a few close relatives. His wife and kids were forced to relocate to Washington.
But slowly, Akinlana rebuilt. His home is coming along, and last summer, he and his business partner opened Gallery Cayenne in the French Quarter.
"I'm alive. We're back in our culture and doing our thing," he says.
It is Philly's good fortune that the artist has found a second home here. He'll be coming back this summer as the lead artist for a mural at 39th and Chestnut that will pay homage to the Tuskegee Airmen.
"I'm a little more relaxed now, but when I first came, I was coming off my Katrina edge," Akinlana says. "This has been a blessing for me to come here with people who are great cultural activists. It's like a dream come true for what I want to do with my art."