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At the corner of art and solidarity: ‘Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood’ mural to be unveiled today

August 27, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
The two artists are on the street, putting the finishing touches on a mural less than 24 hours away from unveiling, when the interviews take place — in English with one of them, in Spanish with the other.

They’ve been working from 9 a.m. to midnight most days, Philadelphia artist Betsy Casañas tells me (in English), trying to cram five months worth of painting and design into seven weeks to complete the mural on the walls of the Providence Center at 5th and Huntingdon streets.

“Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood” — an 3,000 square-foot mural encompassing two full walls and a portion of a third — is the result of a partnership between Mural Arts Philadelphia and two local organizations that have long served the Latinx, African American and immigrant folks in the community: Providence Center and La Puerta Abierta. It will be dedicated today at noon.

Artists Betsy Casanas and Ian Pierce work on their collaborative mural at the Providence Center, August 16, 2019. (Photo by Steve Weinik)

The mural, described by Chilean artist Ian Pierce (in Spanish) has three distinct component parts. The largest wall has the image of an Afro-Caribbean woman, with imagery and symbols of Latin America and the Caribbean in her hair, making an opening in the southern border wall; a full side wall has one dominant image — an Indigenous Mexican or Central America woman — and approximately 400 other figures depicting aspects of immigrant journeys to the southern border wall. The third part of the mural is on a partial wall and depicts a jíbaro playing a güiro— an iconic representation of traditional Puerto Rico — which reflects the neighborhood’s predominantly Boricua population.

The new mural, in fact, covers a nearly 20-year-old Puerto Rico-centric mural that was painted when the building was Taller Puertorriqueño‘s education center. The older mural included depictions of the Virgin Mary dressed in the Puerto Rican flag, famed baseball player Roberto Clemente, a traditional carnaval stilt-walking vejigante, and a Grito de Lares flag, among other imagery.

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Even though the older mural was faded and sun-bleached, it was a neighborhood landmark. Pierce recounted how initially some neighborhood residents reacted with an “Oh my God, you are changing the mural” when the new mural was proposed — but thanks to a community meeting and outreach, the neighborhood is on board with the new artwork.

“We didn’t want to just parachute into neighborhood to make a mural,” he said. “There was a lot of community involvement. Around 30 or 40 people came to a community meeting to discuss it.”

It helps that Casañas was one of the artists who painted the original mural (along with Danny Polanco, Roldan West and Dani Torres). Her parents are from the Utuado municipality in Puerto Rico, but she was born and raised in the neighborhood — at 4th and Cambria — not far from the mural site.

She started painting in the neighborhood when she was 14, took classes at Taller, and went on to study at Moore College of Art. She worked with kids in a Network Arts program at the the Village of Arts and Humanities, then began her association with Mural Arts as one of its muralists of color. She now has work not only in Philadelphia but in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico and other Latin American countries as well.

The wall Casañas designed for the mural is the one depicting the immigrant journey, something she says is suited to her style, which she describes as “realistic and gritty.”

“Ian’s art is much more graphic,” she said. “We are very different, but it flows beautifully.” [Editor’s note: Pierce designed the wall in the photos that accompany this post.]

Pierce — born in Dallas but raised in Chile by a Chilean mother and an American father — studied art at the University of Chile at Santiago, and at the Universidad Central of Venezuela. Though he draws some inspiration from Mexican artists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Ecuadorian Oswaldo Guayasamín, Pierce says he is really a street muralist and more attuned to the work of the BRP (Brigada Ramona Parra) — a group of Chilean muralists who defied the Pinochet dictatorship with their graffiti-inflected murals.

Working on on the collaborative mural, August 16, 2019. (Photo by Steve Weinik)

“Like many public artists from around the world, Ian emailed us [several years ago] and indicated how much he would love to do a mural in our city,” said Jane Golden, the executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. “Personally, I was drawn his dramatic narratives. It reminds me in some ways of the work by the Mexican muralists, with dense compositions that tell important, contemporary stories. We invited Ian to Philadelphia in the summer of 2018 and his visit coincided with the Trump administration separating families. Ian visually flew into action and created a mural, ‘Families Belong Together’, that would become an iconic image of the struggle to combat these draconian policies. That image has been published broadly and it lives on far beyond the address where it is located.”

“As immigration issues continued to heat up in the U.S.,” Golden added, “Ian stayed in touch with us and asked if he could come back to do a larger piece in partnership with Betsy Casañas. Together they are a dynamic team…Ian’s bold figurative style connected with the intricacies of Betsy’s work, create a visually rich composition that is evocative and powerful. They are also not just gifted muralists, but strong and empathic teaching artists who brought the community and young people into the painting process. Ian and Betsy created a village of people who are bringing to life a powerful image that resonates deeply with our times.”

For both artists, the “Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood” mural is an expression of Latinx unity and solidarity with immigrants.

“Public art can be used as a catalyst,” Casañas said. “It can be used to change the circumstances of a community. My focus was to create empathy with those taking that [immigration] journey, to leave home, to leave everything familiar, to take this uncertain journey, to come here … and then to be so mistreated. I wanted to have people connect with that story … You see all these beautiful things they bring to the community ….”

Both of the artists worked on painting every part of the mural, working on 5-foot by 5-foot pieces of parachute cloth that were numbered and mapped on a grid. They were also helped by children from Taller’s art workshops — some of them Puerto Rican children who came to Philadelphia after Hurricane María — and eight members of The Guild (part of Mural Arts’ restorative justice program for returned citizens).

Once the parachute cloth pieces were painted they were adhered to the building’s wall with Nova gel, according to Casañas.

“You can see the seams,” she said. “so once it is on the wall we finalize the details and clean up some sections until it is complete.”

That’s what they were working on as their interviews took place, and amid the noise of traffic and machinery and the hubbub of the city. Pierce hasn’t seen much of Philadelphia outside of North Philly but he says he truly likes what he’s seen of the city.

“I’ve learned a lot from the Puerto Ricans and African Americans who live in this neighborhood,” he said, then goes on to talk about some of the community artists who worked on the mural with him and Casañas.

“There are several we worked with who have a real future as artists,” he said, “But it is hard to dedicate yourself to art [if you don’t have money]. It is a luxury, and so a double challenge for them.”

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