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In the Making: Beautifying and Evolving a Neighborhood Through Art

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"It's Only Up From Here" Mural in Schuylkill Yards

In the Making: Beautifying and Evolving a Neighborhood Through Art

Q+A with Artist Serena Saunders
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June 22, 2023

Q+A with Artist Serena Saunders

Our Schuylkill Yards neighborhood is coming to life in West Philadelphia and our first ground-up development within the master plan, 3025 JFK Blvd, is nearing completion. To beautify the streetscape and elevate the pedestrian experience as our neighborhood evolves, we engaged celebrated artist and West Philadelphia native, Serena Saunders of PassionArt Designs, to create a dynamic mural installation along JFK Boulevard. As you may have noticed, Saunders' piece, "It's Only Up From Here," has created a colorful addition at 30th Street & JFK Blvd. Read on to learn about the vision, and artist, behind this 3D mural in our Q+A with Saunders below.

You talk about creating “walkable moments” throughout this nearly 200-foot-long mural. How do you consider the pedestrian experience when developing a large-scale mural like this one?

The community experience is the foundation of public art-making. Before the color palette, content, or composition is considered, the first thing on the drawing board is to ask, “Where is this Mural going to live, and who and what lives there already?” A few of my personal goals when designing a mural are to celebrate the space it is being welcomed into, to add joy and inspiration to that community, and to speak to its present and its future. While that may sound like a tall task, it has never proven to be so. Each community is overflowing with goodness if we take the time to learn and experience it. This interaction for me needs to be reflective and immersive. I strive to create compositions with flows that lend to the movement of how this space is traveled and to incorporate enough story for travelers who are able to slow down for just a moment, as well as those passing through, to be enlightened or simply lightened. 


What is your hope that people take away from this piece when they encounter it?

My hope is that people seeing this mural take away joy, inclusion (by way of connectedness), and upward movement. Art, specifically color and the pure amount of it, undoubtedly speaks to our energy. Here, we curated moments around ideas of such things as collaboration, innovation, and discovery. It was then the task of the mural to not become simply a textbook diagram of these ideals in practice but to invoke the spirit of them somewhere inside of us. As an independent piece of art, the design has stretches of walkable moments that are doing exactly that--collaborating in space and guiding the viewer to discover new shapes and moments as they encounter it.  

"It's Only Up From Here" Mural in Schuylkill Yards

What is your biggest inspiration for this piece and how is that expressed? Are there common threads between this mural and your work at the Bulletin Building across the street?

A leading inspiration for this piece is to embody the massive positive energy that I have personally experienced from the community of Schuylkill Yards since being welcomed as an artist a few years ago. I also grew up in West Philadelphia, and am mother to a son who graduated not long ago from Drexel University with a Degree in Engineering. To produce this 3D Mural Project, encompassing a space he and I have both experienced in our individual artistic disciplines is undeniably a unique offering. 

For this mural-making opportunity, the materials seem to have chosen me, not the other way around. I have been dreaming up ways to build upon a love for making my own framework for paintings; it has long been my goal to have those structures live off the wall and in spaces where people interact and occupy. However, it is not every day that a need arises to which a 3D wood and plant-based mural is the easy answer, yet here we are innovating, collaborating, and discovering new uses for materials and community and corporate engagement.  

The camo design throughout "It's Only Up From Here" has long been a signature in my wheelhouse of visual language. Initially intended to represent the idea of “breakthrough” it has matured over the past decade to embody much more. Camo as a term and design inspiration did come from the traditional definition of camouflaging with one’s environment as a survival mechanism. I would then have portraits breakthrough the camo to live at the surface. Here we have evolved to the community breaking through and navigating concrete jungles and blooming upwards and inward.


Your work will bridge old and new, guiding visitors from the iconic 90-year-old 30th Street Station toward new additions along JFK Boulevard. How do you see your art as part of the evolution of this neighborhood?

Seriously, somebody …. anybody - pinch me! Or don’t pinch me. It's a meaningful moment for me, having my work displayed in this vicinity, directly across from the train station that I've marveled at as a kid and still to this day. A place where I feel transported each and every time I walk through its grand doors and quickly get lost in its world of mystery stairs and flower stands and the smell of coffee and newspapers. I still pause for a few seconds when a new email appears, and I wonder if it’s real before the work reminds me that indeed it is. This makes my answer quite simple - it is an honor and privilege as a native West Philadelphian to literally add to the landscape of my city. I hope that it continues to pave the way for artists, and those of color to collaborate with powerhouses such as Brandywine Realty and Spark Therapeutics, and so on. Having the context of these relationships and their sincere interest and investment in community arts has been empowering. 

Visit "It's Only Up From Here," located west of 30th Street alongside JFK Boulevard in University City, and take in the beauty and evolution of Schuylkill Yards.

Post a photo of the mural on social media? Use hashtag #SYUpFromHere and tag us!

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