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Philly mourns the loss of Willis ‘Nomo’ Humphrey, noted muralist

Humphrey was responsible for many murals portraying black heroes in Philly.

Willis 'Nomo' Humphrey.
Willis 'Nomo' Humphrey.Read moreSteve Weinik / Mural Arts Philadelphia

Willis "Nomo" Humphrey, who died Wednesday, was a beloved muralist and a leading voice in Philadelphia black portraiture, whose steady hand can be seen around town on subjects from W.E.B. Du Bois to Octavius V. Catto.

News of the painter's death sent shock waves through Philly's artistic community. According to his partner, Valerie Caesar, Humphrey died of a heart attack at age 44. He was the father of three teens.

"Willis was rare in that his brilliance flowed in every direction: As an artist, he was intelligent and intuitive, committed to expressing the experiences of his people from a soul level," Caesar said. "And as a partner, father and friend, he was beautifully kind, patient, and supportive."

Humphrey, who lived and had a studio in North Philadelphia, was responsible for a number of high-profile murals for Mural Arts Philadelphia, often taking on grand-scale portraits of black heroes. His murals have featured Richard Allen and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others. Two of his more recent murals were the 2017 Kevin Hart mural at Max's Steaks in North Philadelphia and the Catto mural in South Philadelphia, a collaboration with Keir Johnston that debuted in October.

Humphrey was slated to work on a Joe Frazier mural, which Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden said was "a dream project" for him.

In an interview for Mural Arts' site, the Biloxi, Miss., native explained that his father had served in the Air Force, so his family moved around, hitting "a little bit of everywhere." He was a graduate of the Art Institute of Atlanta, where he studied graphic design. In murals, though, he saw an opportunity to make a living while blending art with community engagement.

"There's a lot of stories that have to be told," the artist told the Inquirer and Daily News in February. "A mural is a way to have that front and center."

Humphrey worked with incarcerated people through Mural Arts' restorative justice program, and created paintings and illustrations independently.

Colleagues of Humphrey's launched a GoFundMe drive to raise money for Humphrey's children.

In interviews with the Inquirer and Daily News, and elegies posted to social media, friends and colleagues described Humphrey as a kind soul who had a "calming effect" on others. Ernel Martinez, one of the founders of Amber Art and Design with Humphrey, said that in the decade he'd known the man, he never once heard Humphrey raise his voice.

Working with Mural Arts can call for a talent for designing through committee, Martinez said, and Humphrey handled this with grace. Humphrey's warmth and attentive ear, he continued, comes through in the work.

"Willis carried himself with a tremendous amount of pride as a black man and a black father, and that was reflected in how he conducted himself," said Martinez. "I think what makes someone a good public artist is a willingness to listen, but also a willingness to be humble. He did all that, but he had all this talent."

Golden said that Mural Arts staff was shocked and crestfallen.

"His work was referential in a way to the past, but also very much Willis," said Golden. "You could tell he was looking at muralism from a contemporary, social, political, civic lens. He's really an artist who was really keeping muralism relevant and exciting, and really carving out a space for its future."

Over the years, a hallmark of Humphrey's style became his layering approach. In many portraits, he'd incorporate visual references to archival documents, written text, architecture, and other period figures of note. Humphrey achieved this through "a very methodical process" that required technical deftness, Martinez said.

David McShane, director of staff muralists and mural training instructor at Mural Arts, admired seeing "life histories" and social commentary inside Humphrey's paintings.  "He really broke out," McShane said. "The back and forth between private work and his public work really kept ratcheting up."

Humphrey made a major impression, said artist-curator Noah Smalls, acting director of Rush Arts Philadelphia and the director of the Upper Darby Art Gallery.

"I just imagine what the art scene in Philadelphia would be like without his influence. It would be a fraction of what it is," Smalls said. "His ability to really translate that historical narrative to the audience in such great detail — that's something that will be chased by other artists for some time."

A public memorial service will be held next Tuesday, Dec., 11, at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, 419 S. Sixth St. A viewing will be from 9 to 11 a.m. with a service immediately following.