First public art portraying an individual African-American girl unveiled at Smith Playground

The bronze statue comprises the massive multi-year renovations at the West Passyunk Park.

Unveiled to the public last Wednesday at Smith Park, a new bronze sculpture serves as Philadelphia’s very first free-standing piece of public art portraying an individual African American girl. Commissioned over the last year through the city’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy’s Percent for Art Program, MVP, is the vision of artist Brian McCutcheon. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

In the heart of the recently renovated Smith Playground, 2100 S. 24th St., a lifesize statue depicting an adolescent African-American girl grips a basketball as she contemplates her next move in the game. 

Unveiled to the public last Wednesday, the new bronze sculpture, titled MVP, serves as Philadelphia’s first freestanding piece of public art portraying an individual African-American girl.

Commissioned over the last year through the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy’s Percent for Art Program, MVP, is the vision of Indianapolis-​based and nationally renowned multi-medium con­cep­tual artist Brian McCutcheon, who once called South Philadelphia home. 

The historic work was revealed in conjunction with the city’s official kickoff to celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Percent for Art,  a program “requiring developers to commission art as part of the development process” through a movement to transform Philadelphia into an outdoor museum. MVP is encompassed in the “Percent for Art 60, a selection of 60 public artworks commissioned through the organization in honor of its 2019 milestone.

“As an African-American female, I am so proud of MVP, as it depicts a young person of color female figure,” said Kelly Lee, the city’s Chief Cultural Officer and the head of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. “These are characteristics not traditionally reflected in sculptures and statues around Philadelphia. We are so proud that when children and teens come to this playground every day, they will see and be inspired by this powerful sculpture that looks like someone in their community.”

Selected through a 2017 call-to-artists submission, McCutcheon, who founded Ignition Arts, LLC, which specializes in large-scale public art commissions, was unanimously voted by the program’s jury among more than 50 other artists for his proposal of the lifesize bronze statue.

For McCutcheon, a graduate of Col­orado State Uni­ver­sity and Cran­brook Acad­emy of Art, after spending nearly a decade living in South Philadelphia, including taking his son to local public parks, he thought the most pertinent and authentic approach to public art at Smith was emulated through an adolescent African-American female. 

“This work is looking at those as references and playing with the notion and changing the perspective of that sort of heroic monument on a smaller scale and honoring or giving a visual reference for the neighborhood kids,” McCutcheon told the Review earlier this year. “…I hope the neighborhood kids can kind of see themselves in this figure.”

Heavily influenced by the statues depicting idolized athletes like Mike Schmidt and Joe Frazier at the South Philadelphia Sports Complex, McCutcheon envisioned translating that notion to the Smith Playground community.

Concurrently, MVP was inspired by Philadelphia athlete Ora Washington, who was an African-American athlete from Germtantown who nationally excelled as both a tennis and basketball player from the 1920s through the 1940s.

Washington was elected into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, located in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2009, which was followed by her recent induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of  Fame last year. Every year from 1925 to 1937, Washington was named the American Tennis Association’s National Women’s Tennis Champion.

“My takeaway on that was – since it’s a small South Philadelphia park, we should be honoring the athletes who perform here,” McCutcheon said at last week’s unveiling.

The statue was installed on the heels of the West Passyunk playground’s mammoth multi-year, multi-million-dollar renovation. 

Kicking off 2015, the Make The World Better foundation, a nonprofit founded by former Eagles player Connor Barwin, raised more than $3 million for the playground, including resources from the city and state, as well as funding from local organizations, businesses, foundations and private donations, and institutions such as the National Football League and ESPN.

The first phase, which ended in spring 2016, focused on improvements to the recreation building, such as the installation of a kitchenette and the first WHYY and Keyspot Media Lab. The second phase, which concluded in spring 2018, featured playground upgrades, renovated basketball courts, new turf sports field, outdoor fitness area, a walking trail and Green Stormwater Infrastructure operated by the Philadelphia Water Department.

While MTWB’s work revamped almost every inch of the eight-acre playground, a vacant plot remained adjacent to the recreation center. The space, which serves as a natural meeting point in the park, is now graced with MVP. 

“It really is a testament to this community and this playground and is hopefully an inspiration to all of the young people who are here every single day,” said Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. “…I think that, maybe, this is the beginning of having a sculpture of a young woman or specifically a young woman of color in every park and public space in our city.”

McCutcheon notes that both the age and positioning of the lifesize statue were conscious decisions as he crafted the piece. 

As a young female gradually transitioning from childhood to adulthood, McCutcheon felt it was necessary to capture the 5-foot, 4-inches tall athlete amidst a crucial phase in her emotional, mental and physical development. 

With a basketball tucked under her arms, she gazes out into the distance, seeming to ponder her following move both on the court – and in life. 

“This unveiling isn’t just a special moment for Smith Playground but it’s important to Philadelphia as a whole,” said Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director.  “Art is a reflection of who we are at a specific point in time. And MVP is a monumental celebration of Philadelphia’s youth, and as we look at this time, celebrating our youth, encapsulating our optimism and our steadfast resilience despite a host of obstacles that we face – is something that we deserve to reflect upon.” 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano