On a humid afternoon in Philly’s Market East neighborhood, Mural Arts dedicated a vibrant mural painted by award-winning artist Amy Sherald. Singer-songwriter Solange’s song “Cranes In The Sky” played loudly before the day’s proceedings, and there was nothing that could block the stunning 2,400 square foot mural outside of Target on 1108 Sansom Street.
Sherald attracted national attention in February 2018 when her portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama appeared in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., making her the first Black artist to ever paint a first lady for the prestigious collection.
Jane Golden enthusiastically told a captive audience that 4,000 murals make Philadelphia a walkable outdoor museum and how much Mural Arts prioritizes art education. “We provide extraordinary art education art opportunities to over 2,000 young people because every young person the city of Philadelphia deserves access to art education. That should be non-negotiable and we should just do it. A high percentage of our teaching artists started as kids in our program, so there are pathways for young people.”
Golden credits Mural Arts program manager Phil Asbury for reaching out to Sherald. “He wisely reached out to Amy Sherald to see if she would like to create a mural with us and we are so glad that she said yes,” Golden said. “Hundreds of young people in the city studied her work. Her exploration of identity is the perfect match for us at Mural Arts because our work is a rich visual testament to Philadelphia and its people. We see a hunger for beauty and art, and a deep resilience and grit that has come to define the city.”
Councilman Mark Squilla is an ardent supporter of Mural Arts and took pleasure in extolling its values. “One thing we have in Philadelphia is [seeing] how much art ignites change. Art is transcendent of languages, race and color. Because of this, artisans make Philadelphia home because [institutions like] Mural Arts gives them resources to make a living. Murals like this show how art can actually speak to people.”
Najee Spencer-Young is the young lady whose profile is featured against the mural’s light blue backdrop, one of Sherald’s signature motifs. “When I first saw this mural I started crying,” Spencer-Young said. “I ran to Miss Amy, hugged her and knew it was really me. I know I look beautiful. It’s really amazing. I want to thank my mom for raising me to be a good person. About four months ago I went to a Mural Arts class to see Miss Amy’s studio. I met her for the first time, got to learn about her art and know her as a person. I learned about determination and working hard to follow our dreams, even though other people don’t always support us. Life can be crazy and you have to find someway to keep a positive vibe. One way to do it is art. You can do anything; you just have to put your mind to it.”
As the woman of the hour, Sherald was humble in sharing her love for Philly and wanted her mural to remind Black girls and other people to be themselves. “I’m honored and excited to have had the opportunity to become a part of the history of this city in this way,” Sherald said. “One of my most memorable moments, was coming to Philadelphia for the first time and seeing the Dr. J mural. I was enthralled and inspired, and from that moment I wanted to do a mural in Philadelphia.”
Sherald is a native of Columbus, Georgia and her memories navigating race as a Black woman growing in the American South shaped her perspective as a person and artist.
“Because of Philadelphia’s cultural landscape, I think it’s important to have that diversity represented within its visual history. I hope this mural inspires girls like Najee and everyone who don’t get to see themselves represented in this way: Beautiful, empowered and to realize that the most powerful thing she be in herself,” Thomas said. “Being seen accurately is imperative because we see the world and each other in pictures and they become a part of our mind and memory and affect how we perceive each other.”
Whether you are the former first lady of the United States of America or a young woman growing up in a busy city like Philadelphia, Sherald’s message is clear: Being yourself is the most important thing you can do.