New Oxford Circle mural incites liberty, unity

“Light of the Northeast,” a mural at 6826 Bustleton Ave. 10 months in the making, is meant to celebrate inner and outer liberty and the unity of the diverse neighborhood.

“Light of the Northeast” at 6826 Bustleton Ave. Image submitted by Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Walking along Bustleton Avenue in Oxford Circle, pedestrians will notice a colorful new mural along the side of a building at the intersection with Glenview Street. The art, the latest project completed by Mural Arts Philadelphia, is meant to inspire feelings of unity and freedom in Northeast Philadelphia.

“Light of the Northeast” at 6826 Bustleton Ave. was designed by Paul Santoleri and Abdul Karim Awad, and was completed with the help of dozens of community members. The project was based out of the Northeast Passage storefront, where Mural Arts’ Porch Light Department collaborates with Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association to offer free art and wellness programming.

Santoleri’s background in public art and muralism was matched by Awad’s expertise in calligraphy. The design combines the Statue of Liberty with the Freedom Monument in Baghdad, one of the most well-known monuments in Iraq, where Awad is from. The artists found that both monuments represented freedom and possibility.

“We thought it would be cool to combine these ideas, his idea of internal liberation and the idea of the Statue of Liberty as giving liberation and freedom to people,” Santoleri said.

Image via Paul Santoleri

The Statue of Liberty’s torch decorates a tower that rises above the building, which used to display menu items for an old restaurant. The word “love” is written in many different languages throughout the work.

Creating the mural wasn’t just a two-person job. Community workshops were held to brainstorm ideas for the work, and community members were able to help prepare the wall and fill in some of the lettering. More than 50 students from Gilbert Spruance Elementary School picked up a brush to help fill in the project.

Highlighting the diversity of the community was also important to the mural. One in four Oxford Circle neighbors is a first-generation resident, and up to 43 percent don’t speak English, Mural Arts wrote on its website.

“The mural is emblematic of the many different cultures in Northeast Philadelphia and pays tribute to the ideals around liberty, honoring where we come from and where we are now,” said Jane Golden, director of Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Mural Arts has more than 4,000 works of art across the city, Golden said. The program typically completes 100 projects in a given year, though was able to complete only about 60 in 2020 due to the pandemic.

During the shutdown, the waiting list for people to participate in public art has increased higher than it was before, Golden said.

“People want to be involved in beauty and art,” she said.

Image via Paul Santoleri

Santoleri has traveled to numerous countries across the world like Nigeria, Nicaragua, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Cuba to create public art such as murals. Including the community in the project transcends it above just an image on a surface.

“We want the art to live well wherever it lives and exist through a collective consciousness, if you will,” he said.

The project was completed with the help of Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association, the city Department of Health, the Samuel S. Fels Foundation and Rep. Jared Solomon’s office.

Mural Arts runs programs at Northeast Passage, a community hub space located at The Exchange at 6434 Oxford Ave. Programs include life skills, health systems navigation and creative programming.

For more information, visit MuralArts.org. ••