Philadelphia Artists Fill the Walls With Hope, and Public Safety Know-How

A new collaboration brings public safety messaging to vulnerable communities, through art.

Fill the Walls With Hope partnered with the Village of Art and Humanities in North Philadelphia to help make their free food distribution program as safe, empowering, and inspirational as possible. (Photo by Mark Strandquist)

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The Village of Arts & Humanities, an arts organization in North Philadelphia, has a mantra: “Surround our neighbors with trust, consistency, and boldness in both people and place.” It’s guided the organization’s response to serving residents already vulnerable before COVID-19, according to executive director Aviva Kapust.

At twice-weekly food distributions, she says, “this looks like designing accessible, hyper-local information to be paired with vibrant artworks … together these elements engage residents as they collaborate with us to ensure the safe distribution of more than 500 boxes of food per day.”

The artwork — huge banners, wheatpaste murals, yard signs and vinyl decals to mark where people can safely wait for food — was supplied by Fill the Walls With Hope, an initiative started by local artists in the wake of COVID-19. The initial idea was to enliven the pandemic-emptied streets of Philadelphia with public art. Now, they’re partnering with local organizations to integrate art with public safety messaging and outreach to vulnerable communities.

“We’re covering windows and boarded-up businesses; we’re putting up yard signs in public spaces across the city and have online tools for sharing this messaging,” says Mark Strandquist, the founder of Fill the Walls. “We’re really thinking of the art as a flexible object that can be transformed to reach many different audiences.”

Strandquist is no stranger to utilizing art in trying circumstances. He’s one of the founders of People’s Paper Co-op, an ongoing initiative by the Village of Arts and Humanities that connects formerly incarcerated individuals with artists at legal clinics to make paper with shredded copies of criminal records.

The inspiration behind Fill the Walls came as Strandquist walked through his neighborhood of southwest Philly past boarded-up businesses, empty schools and playgrounds — and thought of the emotional impact of that emptiness. He also envisioned a canvas “to share hope, resources, and visions for a more just, healthy, and creative future that hopefully is not far away,” he says. “Art is one of the rare spaces that can document, tell a history and talk about what’s happening, while it can also be a tool for us to individually and collectively imagine a better world.”

Since launching in mid-March, over 50 artists and poets have submitted work to the Fill the Walls’ website, where it can be downloaded, printed and then posted. A fundraiser has brought in over $2,600 to the all-volunteer project; 75 percent goes directly to participating artists and 25 percent covers print costs.

Artwork is divided into three thematic sections: public health and safety messaging, naming and thanking the frontline care workers, and “imaging the world we want to come out of this into,” says Strandquist. Messages — which are being printed in multiple languages — include “Housing = Healthcare; Rent Freeze Now!” and “Wash Your Hands/Safety Is An Act of Solidarity.” Over 1,000 posters have gone up in exhibitions around the city, some on local businesses and grocery stores.

The next step is to think deeply about how this artwork can intentionally spread public health messaging. Strandquist calls the first partnership with Village of Arts and Humanities an exercise in “how we can use the art to create a powerful backdrop that doesn’t only call attention to where the free food is being given, but makes it a human, empowering and inviting experience.”

By thinking of the site more as an “outdoor art gallery” than a social services location means it operates more like a community check-in. “Here people are asked, How are you doing? Are you ok? Can we help you carry your box somewhere?” Kapust explains. “And they know that we really want to hear their answers, and we will do the best we can to respond.”

There are more partnerships in the works. With Philabundance and Share Food Program, Fill the Walls With Hope will supply posters with art and public health messaging to be placed in free food boxes. Vinyl decals and yard signs will also be used to create socially distanced markers for people waiting in line at the organization’s food distribution sites.

Another partnership is with the nonprofit media company Resolve Philly, which was awarded a $1 million grant from the Independence Public Media Foundation to create a COVID-19 crisis response plan centering on journalism and information delivery. (Editor’s note: Next City is a member of the Resolve Philly collective.) The plan includes development of a multilingual, community-sourced question and answer tool alongside public health messaging created by local artists to circulate citywide.

Gallery: Fill the Walls with Hope artworks

The goal is to add QR codes to artwork supplied by Fill the Walls that leads to the question and answer tool, as well as an SMS line that people can text for COVID-19 information in Philadelphia. There will also be decals and yard signs with answers to COVID-19 questions that Resolve collects. “The idea is to bring people in with the art, then deliver easily accessible and digestible information about COVID,” says Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, co-executive director of Resolve Philly.

In Philly’s most marginalized neighborhoods, Friedman-Rudovsky says, there’s a degree of mistrust in the media and government — and she hopes artwork can help bridge the divide at a time up-to-date public health information is critical. “A strategy that meets all the information needs [of the city] can’t just rely on working with newsrooms, there has to be trusted gatekeepers, community partners and artists,” she says.

The Philabundance, Share and Resolve Philly partnerships will all roll out this month. “I’m really hopeful this work is a useful tool for organizations,” Strandquist says, “And interested in how in this disconnected moment, this creates a space of interconnectivity for artists to feel useful in this moment — because I think so many of us want to.”

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: philadelphiacovid-19for whom by whom

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