I have been designing and working for the past year and half, on a project in Grays Ferry, South Philadelphia. The concept of the project was about reclaiming a space, in this case it was two corners on Marston and Etting Streets that intersect with Dickinson.

The project took a while to get off of the ground, it was difficult at first to get any community interest, our meetings were poorly attended. For the better part of 6 months we were spinning our wheels, and trying to make inroads. Enter Homer Jackson, a PEW fellow, multimedia community artist, activist, fellow Tyler Alumni, and Philadelphia resident, who introduced the concept of a bottle tree mural.

Photo by Michael Reali

A bottle tree according to Wikipedia:
is an artificial tree made of glass bottles, usually of colored glass. Associated with Hoodoo and primarily found in the Southern United States. Bottle trees have been featured as accessories in most of the prestigious flower show garden displays all over the world.

The bottles were placed on tree branches and were used to “capture evil spirits”. Our concept incorporated this idea, but we filled those bottles with writing from local students (from St Gabriel’s School), kids in placement (St Gabriel’s Hall), the Men in Graterford Prison, and people from the neighborhood.
The writing came about through workshops facilitated by Homer and Joseph P. Blake a former Inquirer Editor and freelance writer. The topics ranged from the good and bad events that make up day to day life in the area, to the concept of community.

I took these messages and hid select phrases and sentences throughout the mural design, so they become a discoverable interactive element. I also cut leaves out of cement board and embedded actual glass bottles in them to contain the messages. There are over 30 cement leaves scattered throughout the wall with these messages.

The design depicts kids in the act of stuffing the bottles with their messages and getting them tangled in the tree branches. Between the leaves are hidden images which represent some of the writing. An image of the Schuylkill River from the South St bridge recalls a time in the neighborhoods history when the writer had to swim in the River, as opposed to a local pool due to the color of his skin.

The tree itself is 700sq ft of stained glass and mirror; around 900lbs! My friends and fellow muralists Mike Reali and Delia King, and assistants Kyle Thorpe, and Charlie Patterson spent a whopping 4 months cutting and arranging the glass into leaf shapes and tree bark, in a very cold studio over the winter. We’ve taken some time lapse footage of our worktable throughout the 4 months but that is for another post.

We were able to recruit everyone who participated in the writing to paint many of the murals figures. The Students of Sr. Deborah’s art class came through in a big big way contributing two painted figures. We even held special days during the installation for kids on the block to come around and paint right on the wall.

In the end, we managed to collaborate with close to 150 residents and students who volunteered their time contributing to this work.

Final Mural Shots
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Pictures of the dedication
All photos by Michael Reali
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