Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: PRHBTN festival engages Lexington citizenry with public art murals

What a difference this Philadelphia mural made to a corner otherwise notable for a convenience store. This 2002 mural by Meg Saligman is called Theater of Life.
What a difference this Philadelphia mural made to a corner otherwise notable for a convenience store. This 2002 mural by Meg Saligman is called Theater of Life.

On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I saw what Lexington's PRHBTN festival could grow up to become.

I love PRHBTN. The festival, organized by John and Jessica Winters, has made a huge contribution to Lexington in its first five years. It has brought some of the world's best street muralists here to cover blank city walls with impressive works of art.

This year's festival, which has been going on for the past week, added four new murals to our civic collection. Go see them at 266 Jefferson Street, 431 Jersey Street, 350 Short Street and 185 Elm Tree Lane.

My favorite this year is Portuguese artist Sergio Odeith's image of the late jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong on a 30-by-70-foot wall of Lighthouse Ministries at Elm Tree Lane and Corral Street. It is a warm smile for the whole East End.

My all-time favorite PRHBTN mural is the colorful rendering of Abraham Lincoln on the back wall of the Kentucky Theatre. It has been a local icon since Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra's spray paint dried two years ago.

I don't like all of the PRHBTN murals; a few of them just seem creepy. My least favorite is the enormous piece depicting an "outlaw" street artist that was painted on the Old Pepper warehouse on Manchester Street last year.

That mural was done by European artist MTO, who seems to like creating controversy as much as art. While technically excellent, the mural strikes me as self-indulgent; a vanity piece that missed an opportunity to relate to its setting.

But those are just my opinions. I was discussing PRHBTN with a friend last week, and it turned out the murals I dislike are among his favorites. And that's fine.

Good art often elicits strong emotions. That is especially true with public art, which is big and out there for everyone to judge. A piece that touches one person's soul can turn another's stomach. Public art without any edge is often boring and forgettable.

If you want to see some unforgettable public art, go to Philadelphia. And I don't mean the "Rocky" statue near the steps Sylvester Stallone ran up in the movies, or Robert Indiana's famous LOVE sculpture, with its right-leaning O.

Over the past three decades, Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program has worked with artists and community groups to create more than 3,800 murals all over the city. Many of them are stunning works of paint and mosaic art that reflect a vibrant city in all its diversity.

The program began in 1984 as an anti-graffiti campaign when Philadelphia was a city in decline. Artist Jane Golden realized many of the young "taggers" defacing buildings across the city had both talent and a desire to create art. Mayor Wilson Goode hired her to redirect their energies into something positive.

The public-private partnership now works in every Philadelphia neighborhood to provide arts education to young people and pair artists with community and non-profit groups to collaborate on public art.

Many of the murals celebrate neighborhoods, the contributions of ethnic groups, workers, industries and other aspects of the 333-year-old city's history and culture. Subjects run the gamut from universal themes of humanity to one mural on the side of a pet hospital celebrating dear, departed cats and dogs.

My family took a bus tour of several dozen downtown murals, and our guide talked about how they and the process of creating them had helped improve understanding and communication among Philadelphia's disparate populations.

While many were painted directly on buildings, others were done in pieces on special cloth and later assembled on walls. That allowed schoolchildren, nursing home residents and even prison inmates to help with the painting.

Some of the most interesting murals are mixed-media pieces, combining various painting techniques with mosaic tile and glass.

Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program has inspired many imitators. Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory in 2007 started the Artworks Mural program, which has created 90 murals in 36 Cincinnati neighborhoods and seven nearby cities.

The PRHBTN festival has shown that high-quality art murals can enhance Lexington and engage its citizens. How could we build on that?