I was not blessed with the coordination to climb ladders or the physical strength to hold a paint roller above my head for minutes at a time. I have never played sports and I haven’t gone to Pottruck since 2010. I am physically incapable of manual labor.
But what I lack in “ordinary strength,” I make up with an obsessive-compulsive attention to detail and a love of art. Which is why I’m spending my summer with Haas&Hahn, the working title of Dutch muralists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, making a mural without actually making said mural.
My clumsiness and my weakness are innate parts of who I am. I remember writing my college essay four years ago, chronicling the many sports I had tried and failed, explaining that I had no other choice but to study art. It was an essay that my college counselor referred to as “deeply unsettling” and “an insult to artists everywhere.” Look at me now, Tim!
I’m a rising senior, an architecture major, an urban studies minor and an intern at Haas&Hahn (famous for having transformed one of Brazil’s most notorious slums into a community-driven open-air gallery) — an intern who isn’t allowed to paint. Which works out quite nicely for everyone involved. One of the defining features of Haas&Hahn’s method is the pair’s decision to befriend, recruit, and train local residents to execute the murals they’ve designed. These community members are employed and compensated, leaving them with a sense of ownership and a set of newfound skills.
The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program contacted Haas&Hahn after taking note of their work in Brazil. The organization wanted the Dutch artists to paint a mural between the 2500 and 2800 commercial blocks of Germantown Avenue, in Northeast Philadelphia. Deemed “The Badlands” by its residents, this is a neighborhood rife with gangs, violence and drug abuse. Its streets are lined with decaying architectural remnants of the industrial era and vacant, decrepit townhouses. Its residents live largely in poverty.
Haas&Hahn accepted the challenge, and so began their newest venture: the Philly Painting project (like it on Facebook – my bosses will think I’m powerful). They moved into the neighborhood in late 2011, renting a home and studio space a few blocks from the worksite. Befriending nearly the entirety of the community, the pair began to research the self-image of the neighborhood in order to create art that would preserve and enhance local identity. They turned afterward to the area’s landscape and architecture, exploring and selecting colors unique to northeast Philly and ultimately producing 35 distinct color palettes from which to work.
It was around this time that I started my internship with Haas&Hahn. I forgot to mention: Aside from being uncoordinated and gawky, I’m also quite socially awkward. Which is why it is even more amazing to observe the ease with which these artists interact with the community.
Sometimes, I venture out to the avenue to pet stray cats, pretending I’m shadowing Jeroen and Dre (the first names of the guys behind Haas&Hahn). They’re on site various times throughout the day, checking in with store owners and paint crews. There is a great sense of camaraderie, artists and locals treating each other as peers in this vast endeavor. Dre and Jeroen are on a first-name basis with most residents. If they weren’t two massive Dutchmen, you might even mistake them for locals.
I — on the other hand — was raised in a suburban bubble, am plagued by terrible anxiety issues, and have no social skills. On my first trip to the work site, I panicked. I was a young, white girl in business casual attire in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Locals stared. Clearly, I looked out of place. I could have easily had a meltdown, but I turned instead to Dre and Jeroen who were laughing together across the street. (I have still not determined if they were, indeed, laughing at me.) They were so relaxed and natural. They took me down the avenue, greeting passerby by first name, and introduced me to their local friends. Thanks to their kindness, I never felt uncomfortable again. Also, I stopped wearing business casual attire.
Production is already underway on the mural. Storeowners along the avenue are allowed to choose the color palette they’d like used in the design of their façade. Jeroen and Dre are in constant negotiations with these business owners, altering proportions and geometries to secure their approval. Philly Painting’s final product will be a series of interwoven bocks of color, chosen by storeowners, figuratively tying the community together. It’s an exciting project, one that encapsulates the identity and capability of a struggling urban neighborhood.
The ribbon cutting ceremony is slated for this October, and the mural is on track to be entirely completed by December 2012. Make sure to take a trip to the avenue this fall.