Philadelphia's community muralism movement is transforming the City of Brotherly Love into the Mural Capital of the World. This remarkable groundswell of public art includes some 3,500 wall-sized canvases?on warehouses and on schools, on mosques and in jails, in courthouses and along overpasses.
In If These Walls Could Talk, Maureen O'Connell explores the theological and social significance of the movement. She calls attention to some of the most startling and powerful works it has produced and describes the narratives behind them. In doing so, O'Connell illustrates the ways that the arts can help us think about and work through the seemingly inescapable problems of urban poverty and arrive at responses that are both creative and effective.
This is a book on American religion. It incorporates ethnography to explore faith communities that have used larger-than-life religious imagery to proclaim in unprecedented public ways their self-understandings, memories of the past, and visions of the future. It also examines the way this art functions in larger public discourse about problems facing every city in America.
But If These Walls Could Talk is also theological text. It considers the theological implications of this most democratic expression of public art, mindful of the three components of every mural: the pieces themselves, those who create them, and those who interpret them. It illuminates a kind of beauty that seeks after social change or, in other words, the largely unexplored relationship between theological aesthetics and ethics.
This is a deeply moving and thought-provoking exploration of the transformative role of art in public life. It is also a plea to take the aesthetic seriously in the search for justice. O'Connell shows that theological and ethical reflection takes place not just in books and classrooms but also on the walls and streets of our cities, revealing how beauty and justice are living realities. What an eye-opening work from this gifted scholar!
Susan A. Ross, PhD
Professor of Theology and Faculty Scholar
Chair, Department of Theology
Loyola University Chicago
A beautiful and brilliant book about the ways that art making can build and sustain communities while promoting justice, and restoring pride. O'Connell vividly delineates the intersections of truth-telling and trust-building in the process of making and viewing public artworks.
Robin Jensen, Luce Chancellor's Professor of the History of Christian Art and Worship, Vanderbilt University
An absolutely stunning story, and a stunningly beautiful one, beautifully told by a terrific writer, gifted thinker, and accomplished theologian. Maureen O'Connell's new book tells the tale of how Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program successfully brought together artists, community activists, inner-city neighborhood residents, churchgoers, scholars, pastors, and simple lovers of art to spread a message of social justice, tolerance, and, in the end, love. Far beyond a simple neighborhood `beautification' program, O'Connell shows how art advanced an idea of justice and peace, deepened a people's appreciation for their own dignity, and invited `outsiders' into the vibrant life of the inner city. How can art transform a culture? How can a mural help someone understand God? How can paint lead to fellowship? Read this superb book and discover how.
James Martin, SJ, Author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything
O'Connell has produced a masterpiece in aesthetics, spirituality, and political theology. Reading this book will make you want to spend a week in Philadelphia with a camera in one hand and a journal in the other. It will help you to see beauty and dignity in unexpected ways. If you take O'Connell seriously, she will also help you look in a new way at your own city and your own neighborhood. If you are committed to 'finding God in all things,' this book is a must-read.
Stephen J. Pope, Boston College
This book is a celebration of the power of murals and the passion of those who create them. It is a carefully researched look at the Philadelphia murals seen through a theological lens. The author brings an enthusiasm and knowledge to her unique perspective that invites readers and viewers to see and understand these collaborative, community-centered murals as models for an art that has the potential to create social transformation.
Janet Braun-Reinitz, Co-author of On The Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City
Maureen H. O'Connell gives us a deeply inspiring and invaluable theological and sociological investigation and analysis of community muralism in Philadelphia, a city known for its more than 3,500 public murals. . . . These are contemporary icons meant to be read, interpreted, and engaged. They speak in silence of a community's soulful dignity; that is, they speak of a struggling community determined to survive in spite of the heavy yoke of decades upon decades of racism, marginalization, and poverty, here with a northern twist. . . . I highly recommend O'Connell's book, especially for those interested in the connections between aesthetics and ethics, contemporary culture and theology/spirituality, poverty, race, restorative justice, symbols and meaning making, and constructive theology. This book could be used for both undergraduate and graduate course work.
Mary-Paula Cancienne, RSM, Georgian Court University, Horizons: The Journal of the College Theology Society