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Think Big: A Streets Dept Oral History with Cathy Harris, Director of Community Murals at Mural Arts Philadelphia

July 26, 2018

Post by Streets Dept Contributor, Phillip Reid, photo above by Conrad Benner, all photos below by Steve Weinik or Mustafah Abdulaziz

Welcome to the Streets Dept Oral History Projecta new 20-week series created by Streets Dept’s first-ever intern, Phillip Reid. Over the course of this series we will be collecting and sharing the stories of a mix of 20 street artists, graffiti writers, muralists, and public arts leaders all working to shape and create the art in Philadelphia’s public spaces. Read more about this new temporary series in our announcement post here.


Cathy Harris has devoted her life to practicing and supporting the arts in Philadelphia. From attending classes at area art schools when she was a child, to working at various other of the city’s diverse arts organizations before beginning at Mural Arts Philadelphia, Cathy has always been deeply involved in sustaining and amplifying Philly’s vibrant cultural scene. During her 16 year tenure at Mural Arts she has helped facilitate the organization’s expansion into a range of new communities and issue areas, including restorative justice and mental health awareness. As Director of Community Murals, Cathy approaches the joyful and the challenging aspects of her position with equal diligence, always eager to do whatever she can to craft projects that will best serve the specific audience she is working for.

I’ve been around art and artists all my life, and I’ve always done it and practiced different things… Being able to provide jobs and opportunities for artists has always been so important to me.

(Mural by artist Parris Stancell, located at 32nd and Cumberland, photo by Steve Weinik)

I was born in Philadelphia and I’ve always lived here. I grew up in Wynnefield, in a house that I’m now back in because my father left it to me when he passed away. When I did own my own home, that was in Overbrook Park, which was like ten minutes away from my childhood house *Laughs* So I really haven’t strayed too far outside of that circle. Most of my family, who is still here, all live in West Philadelphia too, so we’re all pretty close. Wynnefield is nice, quiet. It was very Jewish when I was a kid, and it became more African American over time. Now, because of our proximity to St. Joe’s University, it’s becoming a lot more diverse with more students moving into the neighborhood, so it’s changing up again. It’s been good to watch all those transitions, there’s never been a really bad time to live in Wynnefield. I enjoy it, I feel safe there.

I probably started taking art classes at Moore College and at University of the Arts when I was around 10. I’ve been around art and artists all my life, and I’ve always done it and practiced different things. In high school, I went to Girl’s High and was an arts major there. My brother was a photographer, and he sold art. Muralist Parris Stancell was one of my brother’s best friends, I’ve known Parris since I was 7. After high school I went to Penn State, where I majored in illustration and ceramics. Left there, went to University of DC, got into graphic design, then I came back here started Graphics & Print, my business at 31st and Spring Garden, a building my brother owned. But I early on realized that I didn’t have a particular voice that was *Laughing* going to make me any money, or sustain me. So that’s when I got into the administration.

I went to Drexel to pursue a Master of Science in Arts Administration. We learned about just the whole business of running an arts organization. So you did have courses in writing grants, and how people sustain themselves, and the different ways that arts organizations can raise money. I didn’t complete the program because I didn’t feel that it was focused enough, and I’ve learned a lot more just by being on the ground and doing it.

I’ve always worked for arts organizations in Philadelphia. When I put in my application to Drexel, I actually wrote about the Painted Bride, and a job became available, so I went to work at The Painted Bride. I worked at The Painted Bride for six years and prior to that I worked at Bushfire theater, which was a theater that featured emerging artists. There I was able there to do communications and graphic design work. I was really, at one point, the only employee, aside from the artistic director, so I got to do a lot of things, y’know, wear a lot of hats. Then at the Painted Bride I started as office manager and very quickly became the finance director, even without finance background, but I was pretty good with numbers and spreadsheets and that kinda thing. So, that’s what I did for six years.

(Artists painting a temporary mural designed by The Heads of State on The Oval in 2018, photo by Steve Weinik)

Being able to provide jobs and opportunities for artists has always been so important to me. After the Bride I worked for the Philadelphia Folklore Project. They’re in West Philadelphia now, and what they do is find ways for traditional artists to practice their art form. They write grants to the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, because there’s a variety of grants that are specifically for folklore. There, I started learning how to write grants. So we did a lot of applications and things for that, trying to get traditional artists to be able to sustain themselves through presenting their art, even though their day-to-day might be driving a cab, y’know. The founder, Debora Kodish, was instrumental in getting Pew to actually have a folklore category. So one year all the Pew fellows had to come from a folk tradition. I wrote eight Pew applications that year, one was for Frito Bastien, who’s now one of the muralists we work with here. It’s a great organization, but what they do is so much in the background that people don’t know much about them.

Building community from there, around an art project, can make a significant difference. It levels the playing field. You go into these spaces and you’re working with people who aren’t artists, and don’t know a lot about art. But having that conversation, and particularly painting with people, it’s transformative.

I saw Jane Golden [Mural Art’s Executive Director] speak when I was in grad school, ten years before I came here, and I was like, This lady’s jumping up and down. Why is she so excited about this? *Laughs* I left the folklore project–I took a year off because I lost my mom. When I started looking for a job again, a job became available at Mural Arts. It was just things I knew, because I already had the experience of working with artists, and trying to get artists jobs and contracts and that kind of thing. I already knew about painting because I had my degree in that. I had done a little bit of community organizing at the Philadelphia Folklore Project, not much, but I did gain skills by navigating different cultures that were able to be beneficial in my role here. So it was easy to come in.

I think one of the biggest impacts of the mural work is even just bringing people together who normally wouldn’t speak to one another. I have people on my block now who I don’t know, y’know? We don’t talk about anything. But just making that connection and kinda building community from there, around an art project, can make a significant difference. It levels the playing field. You go into these spaces and you’re working with people who aren’t artists, and don’t know a lot about art. But having that conversation, and particularly painting with people, it’s transformative. And then there’s, naturally, the beautification of a space. If it’s on a drug corner, for instance, where a lot of activity is happening–well now people are stopping and looking at a mural, and maybe those transactions can’t happen on that corner anymore. They move around, but at least this particular space might be changed, in some way, just by the mural being there.

I think the biggest impacts are anything we can do to help people access services. Working for this particular organization, what makes it special, is not just being able to present art, but also to contribute to the overall improvement of neighborhoods. I really enjoy going into communities and identifying ways that Mural Arts can use the resources and contacts that it has to the betterment of that community. Be it beautification, if it’s sealing up an abandoned house, or getting cars towed *Laughs* Because of our connection to the city, there’s a lot of things that we can do that go beyond the artwork and the things that we do in gardens. That’s what I really enjoy.

At one point the city had a program called “Philly Rising.” They were based in like fifteen different neighborhoods, and they gave us grants to work in like ten of those neighborhoods. What was really great was about the partnership was that they were already doing things, already addressing issues. So we would just come in and do the art project, we did garden projects, and we did clean ups. It was great working together, y’know, when you can pull all those resources into one particular neighborhood and make a significant impact, more so than trying to do it alone.

Bringing all those people together around the paint days was so profound, so amazing. We had many more than we had planned for in the beginning, but it was because they just wanted to be together.

The best part about being Director of Community Murals is being able to make a difference. I really love those projects that make a difference, and I like to able to develop ways to reach particular audiences.


(“Personal Renaissance,” mural created in 2010 with artist James Burns, located at 1745 North 4th Street, photo by Mustafah Abdulaziz)

Personal Renaissance,” the addiction and recovery mural, that was the one that really resonated in so many ways, so many stars aligned. We had gotten an application from the building owner, JEVS, and it was a methadone clinic serving 300 people a day. One thing that was unique about this project, at that time, was that we were able to have a space there that we could work out of all the time. That was the model of all the other hubs spaces and things that we do now, ’cause we do it quite a lot. We also ran into a photographer who was just doing an independent project on his own, and made friends with him. He started taking photographs for us. James Burns, the artist, and I both had personal connections to the project. I lost a brother to a heroin overdose, James’ brother was dealing with a heroin addiction. And then we pulled in Ursula Rucker. She had lost a brother over drugs as well. So we wanted to think about how, when you have people who have addictions, it doesn’t just affect them, it effects their family, long-term, it doesn’t go away. My brother’s still dead, y’know *strained laugh*, it still hurts, it’s still bad. And it did change how my life went from that point on. And so just having those conversations and the people, around art projects, just tend to let their guard down in such a profound way, and share so much of themselves. We started thinking about using different art forms because not everybody’s gonna want to paint and express themselves in that way, not everybody can. We had regular writing, we had poetry. We could see that it was really affecting people. The counselors who ran the therapy after the workshops said that the people would come down, they would paint, and they would go back more relaxed. So it made a big difference, and it became the model for everything.

(“Finding the Light Within,” mural created in 2012 with artist James Burns, located at 120 South 30th Street, photo by Steve Weinik)

When we did the suicide and suicide prevention mural, I had so many paint days, because people just enjoyed the camaraderie of being with other people who were going through the same thing, be it they had lost someone or they had attempted suicide themselves. This time we worked with First Person, a storytelling organization in Philadelphia. We had workshops and it really was–for some people–very raw, y’know, they had just lost someone to suicide. So these twelve people gathered and over several weeks wrote their story. And then we had a performance of those stories at Christ Church. It was a packed house, and again, it affected these people, they really became the core for this project. And then moving out from them we had firefighters who, y’know, a comrade had killed themselves, police officers, veterans–it affects so many different communities. Bringing all those people together around the paint days was so profound, so amazing. We had many more than we had planned for in the beginning, but it was because they just wanted to be together.

(“ASpire: No Limits,” mural created in 2014 with artist Ernel Martinez, located at 21st and Ellsworth Streets, photo by Steve Weinik)

Another highlight would be “Aspire.” Tariq Trotter (aka Black Thought), from The Roots, is on our board of directors, and he had a friend who he lost to hypertension. He was only forty years old and he had a two year-old son, it was like totally unexpected. His name was Shawn White and he had a musical career where his rap name was Air Smooth, and then after Air Smooth he got his doctorate in public health. So what he was doing was going into barber shops and talking to young men between eighteen and twenty-four about HIV and AIDS and parenthood, fatherhood, y’know, a variety of topics. If you’re in a chair getting your haircut, you’re a captive audience ’cause *laughing* you’re really not going anywhere. So he was doing this in South Philly. So when Tariq asked us to do a project about him, we kinda took that model and recreated it by working with a network of barbers who already had a mentor program that they were doing. So those kids now would come every Monday from 5-7 for a mentor session with black men from a variety of professional industries. We brought in a robotics engineer, we brought in an actor from “The Wire,” a musician who wrote a song with them, a filmmaker who did a quick film with them, printmakers who printed t-shirts with them. But they would see these men who had pulled themselves up and made a life and career for themselves, starting the same way as they were starting, just young people without having very much. We would do that and then we would paint. So we were getting the mural done but at the same time we were showing these kids what’s possible, and having those really positive conversations with them, while they were in the barber shop. But I really enjoyed being able to develop a project for them. With all these young black who were being shot at the time–it just is definitely an audience that, on several projects, I’ve made a priority.

If you are a developer coming into a community–and particularly if you’re taking something away by tearing down a mural–we just like to talk about the importance of the mural to that particular community, and what erasing, perhaps a piece of history, means to the community itself.

(“My Life, My Path, My Destiny,” mural created in 2004 with artist Cesar Viveros, located at Lehigh and Aramingo, photo by Steve Weinik)

I love challenges, too. I think something I hadn’t had as much experience in before coming here is the whole community engagement piece. I’ve done a lot of learning about how to navigate different people, how to find that nexus where people can agree on moving forward on something—or, not. Being able to recognize when it’s time to say, Y’know what, this is just not gonna work out. And be able to step away. People, they have opinions. *Laughing* I think that Mural Arts has been around for a long time, and people can be difficult at times. At first you go in and you feel like you’re gonna do this great thing, and people will be so appreciative, and it’s not always that way. Because we have been around for a long time, I think people have started to feel almost entitled or just don’t understand what our funding can pay for. Sometimes communities don’t know how or who to ask for the things they need and they’re like, “Well, we don’t need art, we need streetlights”. And I have to explain, “Well, the money that I have to come into this neighborhood is never gonna buy you a street light. So if we don’t do the art, we can just pack up our toys and go to another neighborhood.” There’s a level of expectation, because of our connection to the city, that’s sometimes challenging. It’s also great when you can help seal a building or get an abandoned car towed or lot cleaned.

There’s a lot of gentrification of course, around Philadelphia, so dealing with that is really challenging for us, people coming in and people feel almost threatened by what you might be doing, what you might be bringing to the table, and who you might be bringing to do it, y’know? So that is something else that has to be navigated, just making sure that people and community histories are respected. That is really important. As long as you go in with that kind of mindset, then you’ll have a easier path as you try to do some of these projects in some neighborhoods that are changing.

I don’t think of the art being a gentrifying force. Because I’m in community murals, particularly, a lot of the projects that I do are smaller, and they are those kinds of murals where we might be honoring an individual, be it someone famous that came out of the neighborhood, or someone who just deserves that honor. I don’t think of the art as being part of it, but I know that there are people who do and who feel like if we’re coming in with a mural that things are gonna change–particularly if we’re working with a developer, that’s a concern, too. But we try to work with developers who are community-minded.

We meet with a lot of people and there are some who are amenable to helping us support projects. We feel really strongly that if you are a developer coming into a community–and particularly if you’re taking something away by tearing down a mural–we just like to talk about the importance of the mural to that particular community, and what erasing, perhaps a piece of history, means to the community itself. We do work with communities to help give voice to their issues and concerns. And hopefully, *chuckles*, developers will help us by financially putting up a part of the cost of doing these things over again. We lost a lot of murals at one time in Strawberry Mansion, but fortunately one developer, Penrose properties, did really rise to the cause and gave us the money that we needed to replace John Coltrane, which was really an important mural, really iconic for the neighborhood. So we will continue to work with that particular developer, he really enjoyed working with us, he was very invested, he came to meetings, he came to the dedication. It’s great when the developer values public art. Alan Lindy, from Lindy Communities, is another example. They have so many properties around the city, and we’re workin’ on like four different structures that are near where their properties are. So he really is invested in the overall beautification and he wants the community to be involved. One of his buildings has seniors and we’ve talked about even possibly doing some programming on a regular basis inside. When you have a developer like that, you know they really care. It’s not just for their own good or just to line their own pocket, it’s to really invest in the communities that they are in.

There are also several developers who we have refused to work with. Developers have a lot of money, and if they aren’t willing to invest that shuts down conversation very quickly *Laughs* We have talked to and met with a lot of people who don’t care. Most don’t live here, so they really aren’t invested in Philly as a whole.

It’s gonna be hard, but y’know when I say I like the challenging ones, I really mean it. When you do it, you just feel so good about it.

As far as community murals are concerned, we get mural applications and requests all the time. So it just comes down to gathering all of that information, and then like twice a year Jane and a few of us sit down to review all the applications or the requests and try to see what rises to the top as something that we really wanna see happen, or if it’s a topic that we really wanna touch on. We also get a lot of requests from the city–from those council people who we need to approve our budget *Laughs* So there’s always some smaller projects that we may have to do for those reasons.

  (“Ed Bradley,” mural created in 2018 with artist Ernel Martinez, located at 949 Belmont Avenue, photo by Steve Weinik)

We have a lot of people murals on our list right now. Joe Frazier recently got a street renamed after him, so his daughter has come to us and asked us to do a mural of him. And then we just try to do some new things. Right now we’re taking advantage of this time that this artist is here from Chile, and we are talking to him about doing something around immigration, which is so timely. It’s time for us to do something at a time when people really wanna talk about it.

The current work that Porch Light is doing in Kensington is really amazing. They have a storefront in Kensington, right in the heart of the whole opioid crisis. They’re really surrounded by it. So what they’ve been doing is programming, in this space. Ursula Rucker just finished a series of open mics, Kathryn Pannepacker has been down there and doing weaving workshops.

(2018’s Temporary mural designed by The Heads of State on The Oval, photo by Steve Weinik)

Right now we’re doing murals in these pedestrian and vehicular tunnels on 5th street, with the Delaware Valley Port Authority. My colleague, Noni is managing that. Kate, who’s also in my department, is about to do The Oval. Its 33,000 square feet, and has to be painted in like ten days. And then on top of doing that, this year they’re doing a bunch of intersections leading up to the oval. So it’s a huge undertaking. That’s gonna be exciting and fun. It’s gonna be hard, but y’know when I say I like the challenging ones, I really mean it. When you do it, you just feel so good about it.

  (“Families Belong Together,” mural created in 2018 with artist Ian Pierce, located at 2536 North Front Street, photo by Steve Weinik)

The organization is trying to look for opportunities to bring new artists on board for projects. The artist Ian Pierce (also known as Artes Ekeko,) who’s here from Chile, he was a friend of an artist who lives here and was recommended, and showed his stuff, and I was able to show it to Jane and say, “Y’know, I think it would be great if we could work with him,” just to have new artists in the city. We are doing a whole series of street art, smaller projects which give people opportunities. Everything that we’ve done in in Spring Arts, those have not been our regular artists. I’m also working on the Mt. Airy trestle–the trestle behind Trolley Car Diner–and for that we had an open call. So I got a bunch of artists who we’ve never worked with before who applied for that. So we haven’t selected the artist yet, but it was nice to be able to open it up that way. And then for the projects that I’m doing with Lindy communities, we’re working with with Danny SimmonsRussell Simmons’ brother—who has the Rush Gallery in Olney. So Danny is going to be sending the wall pictures and the information and everything to a whole bunch of new artists that we’ve never worked with before, to try to mix it up a bit.

For artists who are interested in working with us, David McShane runs our artists application process, there’s an application that’s online. The open calls and the RFQs, which we always post on our website, are a good way to get your foot in the door. At least once a year the project managers here come together and we share all these new people who have sent stuff to us, or who we’ve come across through these processes. It’s a good way for everyone to see who else is out there.

I think of Community Murals being an incubator for other things.

Personally I am really enjoying the work that is coming out of Mural Arts Institute. I’ve been able to to travel to other cities and advise and learn about how different organizations do things. I think that’s really a positive thing for the organization, ‘cause we’ve been spending a lot of time advising people for a lot of years, but not in a very formal way. So it makes us really look at what we’re doing, and write it down and have some kinda structure for it. So I think that’s all, y’know, it’s really important for the organization as it grows.

We’ve started collaborating with new artists as a result of doing the Mural Arts Institute. Marcus Akinlana from New Orleans is somebody who Jane knew of, and then we were able to connect with him when I went to New Orleans for a conference. From the conference I also learned a lot about just that whole idea of letting a community take care of itself, and giving a community the support they need to do that. So for instance, at 32nd and Dauphin, I’m working around there and I find that there’s a young lady who is a horticultural expert. There were all these gardens that were in really bad shape, so we brought her in to be able to tap into her expertise. She’s already in the neighborhood so she’s already invested. A lot of the mural organizations that I’ve had experience with were nowhere near us in terms of the whole community engagement process, so that was a conversation where I was giving more to them than they were giving me. But then also from some of those organization I’ve learned about the viability of being able to do things faster, quicker, temporary, more of a happening process, that’s also an idea I’ve taken from meeting with other organizations, and something that I would enjoy us being able to do more of here.

(“Going Home,” mural created in 2006 with artist Ann Northrup, located outside Riverside Correctional Facility, photo by Steve Weinik)

I think of Community Murals being an incubator for other things. During my time we’ve created new departments in the organization that developed as a result of my earlier work with Community Murals. When I started, Community Murals staff were the ones going into the prisons, so I used to go out to Graterford and all that. Restorative Justice, as a Mural Arts department, didn’t exist before I was here. All the prison work was my work with Community Murals, it just made sense in terms of what was happening in the world, that all this re-entry work needed to be done and art could be a part of that. Those were my Community Murals projects, in the beginning, until the funding fell into place for Restorative Justice to become its own department. The same thing for Porch Light, it came out of six projects that I did with Community Murals. We did all those projects, and then the Yale School of Medicine actually got involved on the addiction and recovery project. What they were doing was analyzing and trying to create a structure to evaluate the work we were doing, and out of that we were able to write this grant to Robert Wood Johnson in order to get the million and a half dollars to create the Porch Light Department.

I’ve gotten opportunities to do things here that I wouldn’t have if I was in other arts organizations. I get to meet amazing people as a result of the mural program. I had the opportunity to put together a beautiful book with a forward by the Surgeon General of the United States. Mural Arts has a lot of resources and you really go into things feeling like anything’s possible. So, I can think big here *Laughs*.

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