Growing peace

What was once an uninspiring vacant lot in Grays Ferry is becoming a cheery urban oasis, thanks to the efforts of a few youths who care about sprucing up their community — and who have an artistic touch.

A summer’s worth of work is almost complete on the "art garden" at Peace Plaza, 29th and Wharton streets.

More than a dozen neighboring youths ages 10-16 have worked five days a week for up to four hours a session to create the garden, according to Wade Williams, one of the art instructors assisting the students. Many of the young participants enrolled through a citywide afterschool workshop called the Big Picture Program at Vare Recreation Center, 26th and Morris streets.

The initiative, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Philadelphia Green Program and the Department of Recreation’s Mural Arts Program, is one of several art gardens being created throughout the city this summer in an effort to combat urban blight.

Through the workshop, which many other recreation centers throughout the city also host, children learn the history and techniques of mural painting, as well as job-skills training and community activism, among other vital concepts. As a bonus, they also get paid for their work on the art garden this summer.

"We get paid and we stay out of trouble," said Nathan Garrett, 16, a 10th-grader at Audenried High School.

For 11-year-old Halimah Gerald, a sixth-grader at Alcorn Elementary, it’s about using her time creatively. "You learn about art, and you get to do more stuff than you could do at any other place," she said.

Garrett has been involved with Mural Arts Program initiatives for five years; Gerald for two. Both are considering futures in art. Nathaniel Williams, 12, an eighth-grader at Alcorn, has been with the program for two years as well, and favors the experience of having painted an anti-drug and violence mural on 27th Street.

For the art garden, the youths crafted nine stepping stones featuring mosaic patterns that will be prominently displayed on the pathways. Each stone features a symbol or symbols associated with peace: a peace sign, an olive branch, a tree, a spiral, a yin/yang symbol, flowers, the unity symbol, a trifecta and celestial bodies (the sun, moon and stars).

The stepping stones will be surrounded on the pathways by "quarry fines," said Susanne Fell Adams, the artist for the project. Adams describes quarry fines as "silt-like dust after picking up a pile of rocks."

The largest mosaic pattern will depict a dove and serve as the centerpiece intersecting the three pathways.

The remaining areas surrounding the pathways will consist of grass, Adams described. In addition, several heritage birch trees already have been planted and can reach heights of up to 40 feet when fully developed.

The Peace Wall, a mural designed by artists Jane Golden and Peter Pagast in 1998, serves as the backdrop for the art garden. The purpose of the mural, which features an array of multicultural hands, was to promote racial harmony in a neighborhood that had seen tension and conflict in recent years following a series of racially motivated crimes.

Sarah Endriss, a landscape architect for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, recently added to the peaceful plot by planting several ornamental perennial grasses, such as Russian sage and nepeta, directly in front of the wall.

Since Golden founded the organization in 1984, the Mural Arts Program has adorned more than 2,000 walls throughout the city. Originally designed as a program for former graffiti artists to use their creative work for good, the organization has expanded in recent years to allow school-age children to participate in year-round workshops such as the Big Picture Program.

Much of the actual work and planning for the art garden took place directly across the street from the Peace Plaza at Donald Finnegan Playground, 40th and Oakford, and also in a fenced-in area on Myrtlewood Street near Wharton.

Wade Williams said the program organizers always seek volunteers for future events.

"They’ll have to be committed," he said. "Sometimes we’ll have them sign a contract that they’re going to stay with the program and do this and that."

Interested youths can stop by or contact Vare Recreation Center (215-685-1876). "We would give them an application, then they would have to take it to their parents, bring it back, and then we’ll start putting them to work," said Williams.

Everyone involved in the art garden agrees that the project, once it’s completed, will be pleasing.

"It’s going to be a beautiful thing," said Jim Hellman, community contact for the project. Added 12-year-old Nathaniel Williams, "It’s going to look good once we get done."