Bridging Connections

By Susan Gettlin | June 20, 2017

A public art project brings together Arcadia students, businesses, residents, and the Glenside community.

By Lini S. Kadaba

Standing a few rungs up a ladder on a crisp April afternoon, Kalee Shomo ’19 dips an ample brush in a cup of light gray. The Interior Design major drags the bristles across the striated concrete wall of the underpass at the Glenside SEPTA station and fills in the arms of a K.

It is a subtle homage to the Keswick Theatre and the neighborhood institution’s well-known marquee off Easton Road.

Next door, classmate Angela Martin ’19 dabs swirls of deep green around the silhouette of a Cheltenham Township roofline. Near the platform stairs, Sydney Welch ’20 paints a wedge of happy blue that borders the crenellation of Arcadia’s signature Grey Towers Castle. 

Stroke by stroke, a mural is taking shape.

But the Public Art Project at Glenside Station, an intriguing piece of contemporary art three years in the making, represents much more than another pretty picture at a busy commuter stop—more than even a grand celebration of a community through a collage of its architectural flourishes.

Stroke by stroke, a burgeoning, deeply felt connection between Arcadia and its surrounding community is taking shape, too.

In 2014, at a meeting of the Downtown Glenside Community Partnership, talk turned toward the bridge at the Glenside train station. The underpass already had a modest painting of a sign that declared Glenside Pride, a commission by local artist Kimberly Mehler. What about something more—a mighty mural—to further spruce up this connection of two townships?

Immediately, Arcadia’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Laura Baldwin ’12MBA, a member of the group, started spinning ideas: “Could Arcadia be involved? Could this be a learning experience for our students?”

Baldwin, who has a design background, is an art lover. But she also has a vested interest in Glenside, the community she calls home. From the start, Baldwin had outsized ambitions for the township.

“What an instrumental way to have students be part of a community project based around art, not only to beautify the township but to hopefully spark some type of economic development,” she says. “This station provides connections to the world. How can this project be a catalyst for change?”

The Public Art Project at Glenside Station presented a promising answer.

The traffic light at the intersection of Easton Road and Glenside Avenue turns red, and an SUV stops in the underpass. The back window rolls down, and a young boy, his face lit up in a smile, calls out a compliment: “That looks dope!” 

The student painters smile back as the light changes and the car goes its way.

The mural is, indeed, worthy of shout-outs from passing cars. For an outsider, it might be easy to pass off Glenside as a suburb with a run-of-the-mill business district. The latest and arguably boldest addition to the muralscape of this small town, however, insists you reconsider.

Through the design’s details, Glenside now boasts a quirky, engaging draw. Study the joyful colors and big geometric shapes of the 90-by-14-foot mural. Then look around town. Notice the art deco tiles at H&R Block? The mural pays them respect. See the elegant latticework on the roof overhang at Elcy’s Café? It gets its due. How about the rosette carved into the stone façade of Won Acupuncture Clinics? In there. Remember the old-fashioned thermometer dial at Humphreys Pest Control? There’s a hint. Fancy the impressive archway of the PNC Bank? Can’t miss it.

This is a giant game of I Spy Glenside.

“What we were going for is representing the spirit of Glenside,” says veteran Philadelphia artist and muralist David Guinn, who oversaw the spring semester [2017] project as an adjunct professor in the Art and Design Department. “We latched on to this idea of doing that through the physical environment of Glenside and liked the idea that people could recognize their community in the physical aspect of it.”

As the students paint, he delights in the horns tooted and encouragements shouted. “This is more than I expected,” says Guinn, who rendered the design with input from students and their survey of locals. “Just the people going by, all the support. I think in Philadelphia, where there are already so many murals, people take them for granted.”

The public aspect of mural art can be nerve-wracking. “You have to get permissions, and you feel judged,” Guinn says, even after 40 works of art on walls in Philadelphia, around the country, and as far away as Amman, Jordan. “But on the other side, you really feel that it’s impactful, meaningful.”

Nineteen-year-old Welch kneels to dab blue on a divot in the wall. The Reading, Pa., Art History major is understanding firsthand the pull of public art. Passersby ask, “What will the final design look like? How can we get involved?”

“You worry, do they love this project?” she says. “And then they do.

Soon after Baldwin’s meeting with the downtown Glenside group, she enlisted Arcadia Art Gallery Director Richard Torchia to collaborate on the project.

Torchia saw possibilities to vitalize the space. “My role was to aim high,” he says. “I’m always trying to find an innovative and ambitious solution.”

SEPTA, which often collaborates on station art, assessed the wall’s integrity (Guinn worked around water leaks) and prepped the surface.

“For us, it’s a big deal for people to recognize that SEPTA’s not a faceless corporation that delivers transit services,” says Director of Support Services Ed Wallace, who has a penchant for contemporary art. “We’re a vibrant part of the community. Any opportunity to build that kind of relationship is helpful to us.”

Wendy Green-Harvey, manager of local and community affairs for SEPTA, adds: “It was very, very interesting how the University’s art department took this to a whole other level.”   

For one, a course was developed to execute the project. What emerged was a unique apprenticeship experience where 11 students—not the typical one or two—came together from across majors and grade levels to create a piece of art from scratch.

The apprenticeship was all about practical experience, “from engaging with Glenside residents, business owners, and community leaders, to presenting designs in a public forum, to implementing the work of public art,” says Associate Professor of Art Abbey Ryan ’03, who also co-directs the Apprenticeship program.

Nearly two dozen applied for the 11 spots.

As a class, we’ve had a whole semester together, learning to work as a group and utilize everyone’s individual strengths.

“This was a hands-on opportunity to get more experience in project management and work on my interpersonal skills,” Shimpei Ogawa ’17, of Rome, Italy, says, sounding every bit the Business Administration and Management major.

Sociology major Tina Ma ’17 grew up in San Francisco, replete with wall art. “I’d walk by and not appreciate the murals,” she allows. Now, she’s part of one—and says she not only appreciates murals, but the whole process of making one. “I’m excited. It’s a good contribution.”

Angela Martin, of Toms River, N.J., is a Graphic Design sophomore. She embraced the chance to change up Glenside. “I think it creates vibrancy, a more positive community around art,” Martin says. “It gives the town something unique.”

Leading the charge is Guinn. Torchia, who contacted him, says he has long admired the muralist’s portfolio. In fact, the Philly resident often walks by a favorite, Gimme Shelter, on the side of the Morris Animal Refuge.

It is indicative of the affable 44-year-old’s work—a backyard scene full of detailed portraits of local pets rescued from the shelter. A dog sniffs at a barbecue grill. Several animals sunbathe. A cat eyes a fish bowl.

“I see it almost every day, and it makes me smile,” Torchia says. “The images are playful. Increasingly, mural painters produce their works on large pieces of Tyvek that are then rolled up and applied to the sides of buildings, much like billboards, rather than what David Guinn does.”

“His murals don’t look faxed to the wall,” Torchia says. “They have a handmade quality. They relate to the site, its scale, how the sun hits it, all the things that define what a place might be.” Arcadia’s October 2016 exhibit, “David Guinn: Before the Wall, Mural Sketches and Designs,” explored the painter’s process and approach to producing murals.

Good murals also involve creating a product that means something to residents who must live with the work day in and day out, Torchia adds. “Often what we get instead,” he notes, “are painfully literal illustrations of local history.”

The lecture series “Exploring Public Art: Legacy, Community & Innovation” was launched to inform the public in such intricacies and boost interest. (Elizabeth Ferrell, assistant professor of Art History at Arcadia, helped develop the program with Torchia and Arcadia’s Exhibition Coordinator Matthew Borgen.)

Nato Thompson, artistic director of the New York-based arts organization Creative Time, challenged the audience to think creatively about public art’s function in a community. Earlier, a panel of muralists considered the question: “What Makes a Successful Mural?”

One highlight was at the September kick-off, when Penny Balkin Bach, executive director and chief curator of the Association for Public Art, recounted the city’s long love affair with public art—and the role of Arcadia’s own Benton Spruance. The long-time chairman of Beaver College’s Art Department was an innovative and well-known printmaker who deserves plenty of credit for the city’s public art scene.

With his appointment in 1953 to the Philadelphia Art Commission, Spruance was instrumental—along with the likes of architect Louis Khan, lawyer Raymond Speiser, and Councilman Harry Sawyer—in gaining City Council approval for an ordinance that required one percent of city-funded construction costs be set aside for public works of art. Philadelphia became the first municipality in the United States to adopt such a law.

“The fact that Arcadia/Beaver College, through Benton Spruance, has this legacy, this connection to the Percent for Art Program in Philadelphia, which became a model for cities throughout the country, is huge,” Torchia says. “When I started to talk about Spruance, everyone saw the appropriateness of Arcadia being involved in shaping this mural.”

Adds Baldwin: “This is the legacy of Arcadia.”

Shomo’s study in gray is nearly complete.

“I feel like a lot of times, people just make art for art’s sake,” says the 19-year-old from Laguna Beach, Calif. 

“I feel art should be something bigger than yourself. Art doesn’t just have to be on the wall of a gallery.”

Sometimes, art can be on a 1928 station underpass for all to behold.

“This,” Shomo says, as she paints, “takes the elitism out of fine arts and makes it more accessible. It doesn’t exclude anyone. It’s art for the people.”

At Elcy’s Café, located on the platform, owner Amy Chapman sits at an outdoor table not far from the latticework represented in the mural. “You have to look for it,” she says, happily. “It’s not overt.”

Chapman has taken to the project, opening her doors, like other businesses, to the students with offers of water, bathrooms, and even a couple of ladders.

The mural, she says, “shows that Glenside is Arcadia, and Arcadia is Glenside.”

Perhaps the biggest revelation for the apprentices was the number of moving parts.

“I kind of thought we were going to draw a picture,” Welch says, “and paint it on the wall.”

In fact, the depth of this project, unlike most mural efforts, won Guinn’s affections. “Working with Arcadia students is the best part about it,” he says, earnestly. “As a class, we’ve had a whole semester together, learning to work as a group and utilize everyone’s individual strengths.”

Students spent the beginning of the semester on community research, which entailed interviewing residents, hosting community forums, and creating an online survey to gauge what locals loved about Glenside (its older homes and history, the Keswick Theatre) and wanted to see depicted (color, Glenside pride, its nature, and landmarks).

“They didn’t just come up with a concept behind walls of the University,” Cheltenham Township Commissioner Drew Sharkey says. “They met with our historical society to understand the emotional attachment people have to Glenside.”

He has high hopes for the newest addition to Glenside’s muralscape: “It puts a positive spotlight on the Arcadia/Glenside community and brings added notoriety, and frankly, will attract more businesses that are arts oriented.”

That’s no figment.

“Cities all over the world, of all sizes, are requesting information and advice from us,” says Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. “They are using murals, street art, and public art to help propel their cities to the next level—to build connections, to deal with complex social problems, to brand their cities, to draw tourists, and to change and impact environments.”

Consider one hoped-for aspect of the Glenside piece: LED lights. The plan is to outline parts of the design—a practical way to improve lighting at night. But it also would add a funky vibe à la Guinn’s popular The Electric Street in South Philadelphia that was created with lighting artist Drew Billiau. (He also wants to work on the Glenside project.)

One mural by day, another by night. That is, if $7,000 can be raised for the LED lights.

Students have drummed up donations from local businesses. Sharkey vows the lights will come on. “We’ll get the money,” he says.

A mural, it appears, can create that kind of community energy and commitment.

“For me, mural painting has a purpose in the world,” Guinn says. “It could be just beautification. But all the people who come together to make it happen create a network of bonds that hopefully continue after the project’s over. It helps create an identity for the place that it is in.”

Frequent contributor Lini S. Kadaba is a freelance journalist and former Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer based in Newtown Square, Pa.