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Above & Beyond  (Social Worker Mural)

Above and Beyond is my latest mural project which promotes and celebrates the tireless and important work done by our city’s social workers with a concentration on child welfare. The project was funded by Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services and proposed by DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose as a way to promote understanding and address the preconceived notions of what social work entails in Philadelphia’s diverse communities.

I began my work at the end of 2012 by conducting group interviews with social workers, youths, and foster parents from several organizations including Delta Family Services, Wordsworth Academy, DHS, and Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Philadelphia. In addition to these sessions I reached out through email blasts and social media to interview additional social workers in varying fields of practice. These sessions provided some important overarching themes and ideas for me to focus on as my design work began. Additionally, I paid close attention to direct quotes from the participants, knowing that they would feature prominently in the design in different ways. Three recurring words spoken throughout the sessions take place prominently in the design: advocacy, empathy, and resilience.

My design depicts the work done within communities, emphasizing the intimidating and often times unwelcoming atmospheres in which social workers can find themselves as they are trying to assess a family’s needs. The elements within the circular layout of the design show the systems in place around each child that one must learn to work within and address. They feature vignettes illustrating: advocacy in the courts, the pressures of time while trying to make great strides with each case, outreach, immense amounts of paperwork and time spent at the desk, as well as the feeling of having to become everything for everybody. The design depicts a breakthrough in the relationship between the Social Worker and youth. Rays issue forth from the circles which carry the images of both Foster and Biological families and key community organizations which also play an important role in each child’s continued well-being. The mural ends on a note that is hopeful, however I am careful to show that Social Work involves a large amount of heartbreak alongside the hope and victories.

The mural features prominent portraits of many celebrated social workers and the families they serve. Many portraits were painstakingly fabricated in Stained glass and colored mirror. They remain highly representational and truly mark a personal high point for myself in the medium. These glass portraits fall within 3 3’x20′ “windows” set inside of faux stonework taken from the architecture of the historic 100+ year old fire house the mural is attached to. The rightmost window features a portrait of “Julian” a young man who was a success story in the foster care system. He trained and became a professional boxer as an adult, a serendipitous coincidence as the mural faces the site of Joe Frazier’s famous gym.
The credits section of the mural includes 10 scannable QR codes, which can be read using a QR scanner app on any smartphone. The QR codes lead to audio files of Social Workers sharing their experiences.
Over 200 volunteers helped paint the mural over the course of two months. Paint days were held in Mural Arts’ tour office, DHS’ office at 1515 Arch St, on the mural site and at a local rec center. Olivia Nutter, the Mayor’s daughter, kicked off the painting by blocking in the very first panel of the mural. A portion of the project was painted by my mural class in Graterford Prison.
The mural’s installation took place over the course of the month of July, with the addition of small changes to the design at the request of the community and the firehouse.

Click to View Photo Gallery of the progress in studio, details of the glasswork, and installation.

“…a mural about (Social) work”

From Above and Beyond, posted by Eric Okdeh on 5/15/2013 (68 items)

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Maui Mural Residency 2012 “Na Wai ‘Eha”

As an outsider, I was fortunate enough to have phone conversations with a wide cross section of the Maui Community leading into this project. These discussions lent insight into the island’s recent history, the struggles to preserve cultural practices, family, and the environment on an ever developing island mostly seen as a major tourist destination. The process brought about a profound shift in my thinking having once visited as a tourist. My overall design at this moment in time focused mainly on this dichotomy of viewpoints.

Once the project found a home in Wailuku, and upon my arrival, the design and the story evolved. I continued the conversations in person with local residents, and began my own personal exploration. The design as a result reflected more about Wailuku, the history of the town, and the importance of water, taro and the Na Wai ‘eha in the West Maui Mountains. The mural is an anachronism, featuring a pre contact Iao Valley and its surroundings with a mixture of figures from the past and modern day. One figure sits in field of Taro plants which exist in the place of Maui’s sugar plantation, next to the restored flowing river. I was introduced to a Kumu Hula, and in the spirit of true community art and collaboration, she helped direct the poses of the figures, infusing her own personal meaning through the figures’ gesture, actions and placement in the design. For me these figures highlight the importance preserving of Hawaiian Cultural practices and the restoration of the water to the land, free of ownership, and for the benefit of future generations.

Beyond the landscape lies a collage of images inspired by my earlier conversations, which work their way through the sky, intermingled with rays representing the Na Wai ‘eha and the sunlight. This imagery depicts a range of topics, from the burning of the sugarcane crops, the bombing of Kaho’olawe Island, introduction of invasive and endangered species, on island development and heavy industries threatening the ecology. Among this collage of imagery are appropriated photos taken from the Hui No’eau’s #mauieveryday Instagram campaign. For the Hui’s Campaign, residents posted photos in response to daily questions concerning on island life. This campaign was a way to utilize the immediacy of technology to crowdsource and breathe new life into the community art process.

I primarily create murals linked by a common theme of restorative justice. I was very interested in the Hawaiian practice of ho’oponopono and the commonalities it shares with restorative justice. I feel ho’oponopono’s theme of restoring balance, and making right, was the very basis of this residency from the start. To inform this design I spoke with people responsible for protecting the environment, protecting the water, land conservation, teaching cultural practices, supporting foster families, exposing injustices; people who work every day to restore the balance. It’s through their input and expertise that this mural exists.

Click the Thumbnails to View the Residency Gallery

From Maui Mural Residency, posted by Eric Okdeh on 10/14/2012 (62 items)

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How We Finished!!!

Finished! We wrapped up installation inside one months time. We finished in October

Click Thumbnails to view Gallery of Images throughout project

“…a mural about work and workforce development. Designed with Ennis Carter of Social Impact Studios”

From How We Fish Progress, posted by Eric Okdeh on 8/12/2012 (76 items)

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“How We Fish” Progress

Come out to our Labor Day mural painting event on the mural’s wall! Be a part of the painting, and kick off the installation of the mural!

Believe it or not, we are almost finished the mural in the studio, The glass work has come a long way, and many people have volunteered their time and talents to help make this thing possible. Work has begun on the wall as of yesterday at 8th and Cherry Sts.

Click images to view our progress

Family Interrupted Exhibit at the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent

Family Interrupted is coming to the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent! The Family Interrupted/Community Connected Exhibition will be held in the Community Voices Gallery in the Museum, which is located at 15 South 7th Street. The exhibit will run from July 11, 2012 – December 31, 2012.

The exhibit features a massive 14′ wide print on the finished mural; a print so large, you can scan the mural’s many QR codes using a smartphone. You can hear audio and interact with the project’s website on the SPOT! Those without a smartphone can still get involved by leaving a message in two of our featured mailboxes, which will get posted to the site. Visit the museum to see these and other artifacts from the year and a half long initiative.

This exhibit is also features a video showing the history of the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia, and its Restorative Justice Program, of which Family Interrupted is its newest project.

Come out for the opening reception August 9th 5:30pm

Photo by Michael Reali

Studio Move to Mural Arts @ the Gallery Market East!

This summer I packed up the studio and moved my whole mural production for the “How We Fish” project to Mural Arts’ tour office/studio Gallery @ Market East.

We quickly set up shop to produce the stained glass pieces for How We Fish which I designed with Social Impact Studios. To learn more about the project and the design, click Here. or view the Project Site.

The space sees many random visitors as well as groups gathering for tours daily. People can wander into our studio and watch the mural being fabricated. Conveniently, the project’s wall is just 2 blocks from the Gallery Space, we are planning a fall installation.

Stop by anytime on Monday, Wednesday or Friday from 10-4pm to see the project getting made! We are located by the 9th and Market St Entrance, just follow the signs.

Click images to view our progress

How We Fish Design Revealed

Since last October, I have been collaborating with Ennis, Alex, and James of Social Impact Studios on “How We Fish”. Located on the Archworks Building at 125 North 8th Street, “How We Fish” focuses on a timely subject of significant national relevance: the value and meaning of work for individuals and communities. Social Impact developed and maintain a project site which documents the citywide workshops, discussions, and events that were held over the past 8 months. The site also hosts our Living Creative Brief, a document that has transformed over time lending insight into our thought process with each workshop, and how the design evolved.

The Final Design

The Final Design on the Archworks Building

The following is reposted from

Our artist team for “How We Fish” spends time updating the cornerstone Living Creative Brief to capture the ideas and spirit of community meetings and forums across the city. The brief helps keep the story flowing from neighborhood to neighborhood and connects to the visual ideas that have been in development for the last few months. It also helps explain the visual symbols that are being used to tie the whole story together.

After many months of community conversation and late nights on the design on the “How We Fish” mural – we’ve completed the multi-level design review process and are happy to share the final design for this mural about work – what it means to individuals, neighborhoods and our city and region. Click the thumbnails throughout this post to see more!

You can read the last version of the creative brief to see where the design was in April. Additional review with a design panel, workforce development experts and local families (including kids!) added even more content and helped us move it to its final state.

Some additional highlights include:

This mural has always been called “How We Fish” as a reference to the proverb: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Thanks to the input of the mural sponsors Citizens Bank and the parents of kids at McCall Elementary and Childrens’ Village (the home building of the mural), we were encouraged to really make the most of that saying. It meant a lot to local residents of Chinatown who talked about the importance of helping our kids really learn to prepare for work and what it can do for their future. It’s said that the proverb was originally Chinese, but those same
parents encouraged us to put it in many locations in the mural. You can spot that proverb in several places throughout the mural – in Chinese on the “awning” represented in the “Merchant Economy” area of the mural; in English along a representation of our two rivers and in the visuals of those rivers, fish and nets.

There are a few places in the mural where we highlight quotes we heard from the community – in neighborhoods across the city! We had those from an early stage, including the voices of youth who attended sessions at South Philly High.

As we finalized the design, we realized we were missing the perspective of very young children. We decided to dedicate a small, short extra extension of the wall to the kids at Childrens’ Village – so they could adopt that area and be part of the making of the mural, but also to show their perspectives on work both visually and through quotes.

You can read all of the quotes from the toddlers through school-aged children on our previous blog entry “A Kid’s Perspective.”

Thanks to the input of workforce development experts in the city, we expanded the visual representation of work to include more people in the medical and service fields. The small extension wall now depicts not only the children, but also public service workers like the police who use the parking lot right below the wall where the mural will be installed! We also included images that symbolize not only young people and their education, but the increasing need to be collaborative and innovative when it comes to finding or creating viable work for the future.

Our overall message “Work Unites Us” continued to ring true as we finalized this design. While there is a central image of one “worker” highlighted on the mural, the images of work through different economies and as shared between the interconnected fabric of society shows how much we must rely on each other to be successful at work and in our lives. As an artist team, we were brought together to collaborate in ways we never dreamed possible at the beginning of this project. As a team of partners devoted to exploring the foundations and the future of work, we learned that we will have to teach and learn from each other to move to the future. And as a compilation of community conversations, we were united to discuss a topic that is so important for our times as well as our own individual lives.

Now, the next phase of WORK begins! Stay tuned for updates on community Paint Days throughout the summer to join us to paint the mural and get it ready to be installed on the wall!


We wrapped up installation on the 23rd of May. Just over a month and a half’s time. Its hard to believe its all over, but the project site lives on at There will be a couple major updates and additions to the site right off the bat, along with any major project news, and the announcement of the dedication set for early fall. We have a number of mailboxes still in place, and we are relying on the good graces of the host sites to keep them for as long as they are willing. The largest QR code on the mural leads you to the “Share your Story” part of the site. Im excited to see the contributions it yields.

A colossal amount of thanks to my assistants Briana Dawkins, Salaam Smith, Diana Gonzalez, Katie Lillard, Tjai, Abdullah, Koran Morris, Anthony Peel, Latasha Billington, and the men of my mural class at SCI Graterford. Additionally, a huge thank you to all of the volunteers, and families, that reached out, sharing their stories, pictures, writing, and time. Many people opened their homes to me, brought their children to our peer groups, and welcomed additional interviews and meetings. Im forever humbled by their strength and willingness to be heard.

Wall Credits

Click the Thumbs for a better view. All photos by Michael Reali

Glass Timelapse

Shot over 2 months, my assistants and I assemble the stained glass windows for my “Family Interrupted” project. For more info visit ,,

Family Interrupted Installation

Its been a busy spring. Ive been hard at work installing and finishing Family Interrupted, while working on a large private commission, and co-designing my summer project for Mural Arts titled “How We Fish” alongside Social Impact Studios . Its been difficult to keep up with my regular updates, so here is a slideshow of images ranging from the wrap-up in the studio, to the installation of the cloth panels.

click to enlarge

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