For a few hours yesterday in the basement of the Allens Lane Art Center in West Mount Airy, with music streaming from a radio that had seen better days, a handful of Philadelphians took a stab at telling the story of their city, with paint.
The occasion was the first of eight "community paint days" planned by the Mural Arts Program in an effort to create a mobile mural titled This We Believe.
The inspiration for the piece - 42 panels, each measuring 5 by 15 feet - came from all over the city, the artists said.
"We were really wanting to make the neighborhood of Philadelphia be proud of being a neighborhood," said Lindsey Rosenberg of Mural Arts, going beyond the notion of Philadelphia as a city of distinct neighborhoods.
That thought was open to competition, and two teams submitted proposals based on information gathered at community meetings. After 4,500 votes were cast in the spring, online and at city libraries, the team of Michelle Ortiz, Kien Nguyen, and Eric Okdeh won.
They proposed using photographs from family archives of the Philadelphians who gave input to the project. Ortiz said it was important to stay true to their stories.
Ortiz said her team went beyond the meetings - they interviewed residents in their homes and used them and their stories as models.
"It's like a little puzzle," Ortiz said. "They are helping fill in the empty spaces."
When finished, the piece will portray industry, family, and social struggle served on a bedrock of history. Each of the seven sections will have its own theme, and each detail - from the photos in the tiles on which people walk to a community activist's poem strung with the lights that illuminate a block party - aims to reveal another layer of life in Philadelphia.
In one section, an elderly man blends with an aged tree as rowhouses and corner stores trail behind them.
"It represents the union of person and place so permanent that you can't take one or the other out," said Ortiz, who has been working with Mural Arts for nine years.
When finished, the piece will be able to be moved and displayed at different locales, first at 30th Street Station, then the Gallery at Market East.
"We wanted to work really hard to find portals that all people may come through," Rosenberg said. Afterward, each panel will go to a different part of the city.
Before that day, however, the community will be able to help work on the panels - in a paint-by-numbers fashion.
"Pretty much if you can stay within the lines, and even if you can't, you can work on the project," said Rosenberg.
Among the dozen or so people working on the piece yesterday were the Wilson family from Malvern: Doug, Tracy, and sons Matthew, 6, and Eric, 7 months. They saw it as a fitting way to spend part of Father's Day.
"Before this project," said Tracy Wilson, who worked with Leadership Philadelphia to organize the community meetings, "I didn't have an appreciation for how important the community voice is."
The next community paint day is set for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the John M. Perzel Community Center, 2990 St. Vincent St., in Mayfair. For more information on "This We Believe," go to: www.muralarts.org/