How a visual arts program for Philly students helps them understand their world — and themselves

A high school senior with long dark braids and wearing a while t-shirt stands next to a piece of art while posing for a photograph.
Dobbins High School senior Shamaya McTillman poses with a mural sculpture she helped create at the annual showcase of student work through Mural Arts Philadelphia. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

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Art is a way for Shamaya McTillman to deal with her emotions.

“This is something I knew I wanted to do,” said Shamaya, who will graduate next month from Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School, explaining why she made sure to stay every day after school to work on a project with Mural Arts Philadelphia. It was a way, she said, “to escape problems in school and out of school, to ease stress.”

Mural Arts, founded in 1984, works with students between the ages of 10 and 18 in 17 Philadelphia schools and recreation centers. Each site has a collaborating visual artist, and once a year it sponsors a showcase of students’ work. Mural Arts’ mission is to “empower youth to be leaders through artmaking,” according to its mission statement.

A close up of a panel of colorful art.
Shamaya McTillman chose “Alice in Wonderland” as the inspiration for her art. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

“Every young person in the city of Philadelphia should have access to art,” Mural Arts founder Jane Golden told the gathering of teachers, parents and students at this year’s showcase on May 13 at the Icebox Project Space, an art gallery on North American Street in the Fishtown neighborhood.

Some of the students’ work will in fact be made into murals on their school’s buildings, including a whimsical design featuring dragons and unicorns by students at Edmonds Elementary School.

The theme this year was “fairy tales and folklore.” So with the help of teaching artist Jamee Grigsby, Shamaya and five of her classmates came up with a mural sculpture — nine smaller pictures, each in a box, that together make a mural — to reflect that theme.

Shamaya chose “Alice in Wonderland” as the inspiration for her segment of the project, and her panel in the sculpture shows ice cream, mushrooms, flowers and other items that evoke a “wonderland.” But in the center is a vortex, symbolizing escape, indicating that just because it’s pretty, “it may not be what you want,” she said.

“I went through so much during my years in high school, this helped me to escape things that were pushing me down,” she said. “I didn’t want to be just another person in the streets, but somebody who knows how to pick herself up.”

Next year, she will attend Full Sail University in Florida that specializes in preparing its students for careers in graphic design and other artistic pursuits.

A group of people stand in front of a wall of art.
Jane Golden, left, founder of Mural Arts, speaks to teachers, parents, students, and others at the annual showcase in Philadelphia. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

Grigsby, a muralist and graphic designer, said in a note accompanying the piece Shamaya worked on that through making art, students are learning about their cultural traditions, “researching stories that have shaped our generations.”

Ultimately, she said, “they focused on using different mediums to visualize a way to tell their own stories and … express their insights with imagination and flair.”

Chidiebere Ogbenna, whose family came to Philadelphia from Nigeria, wants to make a career in animation, so having access to arts programming is important to her. Now a sophomore, she chose Dobbins because it offers a program in graphic design and animation.

She remembers that growing up, her parents told stories in which “I was the sun and my sister the moon.” So for her mural, she drew two scenes with the same tree, one in sunlight and the other in moonlight.

The opportunity to participate in the Mural Arts program is important to her future plans, she said. She has ambitions after graduation to attend Gobelins Paris or Sheridan College in Canada, which are known around the world for their animation programs.

Colorful art hangs on a white wall.
Students at Tilden Middle School designed this mural for their school that's displayed at the Mural Arts Philadelphia annual showcase. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

Shamaya is part of a huge family in North Philadelphia, with seven sisters and two brothers. Through art, she said, she learned to “love yourself now in order to love who you will become in the future.” When she was feeling particularly down, she said, Mural Arts “helped me learn and grow.”

Expressing herself through art “is a lot about understanding what you want to do not just after graduation, but where you want to be in 15 years,” she said. In college, she looks forward to meeting new people, learning about their creative process, entering into collaborations, “and just having fun.”

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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