City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program/Ashley Kolodner

Anthony Martinez

In a coffee shop in the Gayborhood, a self-identified queer boy pulls up a chair after ordering a mocha Frappuccino with extra whip. Next to him sits an older gentleman, in his 70s or so, drinking his small coffee. No cream. No sugar.

Both of them sleep with men, but there is much more than just that one identifier. The boy takes a selfie with his coffee. Visibility has become his norm. The older man looks on. He struggled for representation, acceptance and legitimacy all his life. At times, the gap between these two generations can seem like a daunting canyon to bridge.

The Mural Arts Program accepted that challenge with its educational program and project, “Showing Face.” The week of June 15, in the middle of PRIDE month, the project will be introduced in Philadelphia with 30 billboards that will go up in 15 locations for a month.

Jameson Paige, who works as a project manager in the art education department at Mural Arts, had an idea. His department runs programming for middle school and high school students citywide, and is involved with Attic Youth Center, Philly’s only independent LGBTQ youth center.

He said they learned that the John C. Ander­son Apartments, the senior-housing center project built by and for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, was looking for a mural. So Mural Arts approached the Attic Center and said this would be “a really good opportunity to connect two really disconnected populations in the LGBTQ community — seniors and youth.

“Their experiences are drastically different. At least on paper,” he told me over a cup of coffee at Square One, the café in the apartment complex located at 251 S. 13th St.

“I think a lot of the seniors that live in the Anderson building have seen Stonewall [the milestone gay riots in New York]. They have grown up during the AIDS crisis. They have experienced trauma in a lot of ways that I don’t think the students we have been working with can wrap their heads around. At least, when the project started.

“I also think that the youth, primarily being youth of color from an urban area that has a really high poverty rate, also have a completely different experience [from] the seniors. The project is complicated in that way of trying to bring these two populations together. But, something Mural Arts has honed and done really well is using art-making and public-art projects as a way to tackle really complicated issues. So, it seemed like it would be a good fit.”

The billboards will feature work by Brook­lyn-based artist Ashley Kolodner, who led a series of workshops with youths at the Attic, on ways to visualize identity. Kol­odner photographed the residents from Anderson, letting each senior choose a backdrop. Each person’s photo session resulted in two portraits: one with eyes closed to show their vulnerability and a second with eyes open to show their strength and individuality. The two images are displayed side by side to show this juxtaposition. The billboards will also be displayed in pairs, featuring one with a youth’s images next to another with a senior’s.

One of those youths is Anthony Martinez. When asked what he has learned about the elderly in the LGBTQ community, he quickly corrects. “I learned that they don’t like to be called elderly. They like to be called seasoned. I got to hear some of their stories. They opened up more doors for us, and it is so different for us than what they had growing up. They fought for the LGBTQ community. If it weren’t for their hard work, it would be different for us as LGBTQ people today.”

Michael Palumbaro, 71, a retired nurse, participated in the program as well. “Sometimes, older folks get shunned by young people. But our interactions were really nice. There were a lot of friendly exchanges.” Before moving into the apartments, Palumbaro lived alone in a not-so-gay-friendly neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia.

Originally, the project was going to be a mural in the courtyard at the Anderson building, a beautiful space the residents cherish. “They are so proud of that building. I love it. It is a good thing to be proud of,” Paige said. But that soon changed.

“Part of the reason we aren’t doing a mural there was this project seemed that it should be something everyone should see, and would function really well as a campaign,” Paige continued. “The courtyard is private. It would do the opposite of that. It would hide it and put it away. After working through designs and meeting with the residents, it didn’t seem like that was something that would showcase the work we were doing.”

Then the project developed into subway panels and bus shelters. But Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program, had even bigger ideas. “I have always been drawn to murals,” she said. “The fact that they are in the public domain is part of their power. It’s their size, their scale and their content. So when we do projects that are about critical issues, about representation, about respect, about shining a light on important things that our society grapples with, my tendency is to want to go big. I don’t want to go small. I don’t want people or an issue to be marginalized. I don’t want to replicate what society has already been doing. Instead, I want to crack the code. Shift the paradigm. And say no. This is an important issue and people deserve to have respect in their life. They deserve to be heard.”

Originally, Golden got a call from Clear Channel billboards about a different project, but Golden mentioned “Showing Face” on the phone. “This is a quintessential Mural Arts story. We are an opportunistic program. But we are opportunistic on the behalf of good. We want to mine every moment,” she said.
Through that partnership with Clear Channel, the series will be displayed on billboards throughout the Greater Philadelphia region and on citywide bus shelters. A book is also in the works.

When Martinez was asked where his pride comes from, he responded, “My pride comes from who I am. I will always love to be me. That is why I am so motivated. I now love who I am, and I want to be myself. I feel that pride as well for others who can’t speak up for themselves. I want to be there for them as well.”

Asked the same question, Paige of Mural Arts, wrote in an email: “My pride comes from being a part of a community that reflects my beliefs, not only in terms of LGBTQ issues, but more broadly as well. I am so grateful to have a queer family that fully embraces me and my political, spiritual, and creative resolve. I think community really is the key to living fully and is one of most important things to fight for and be proud of.”

*For more information, visit muralarts.org.*