Jan 30, 2012

Celebrating Henry Ossawa Tanner

by: Mary Kate O’Keefe

“Henry Ossawa Tanner is the Jackie Robinson of the art world, the Barack Obama of painting,” artist Keir Johnston said at the dedication of his latest mural, Henry Ossawa Tanner: Letters of Influence. Johnston was first exposed to the painter’s talent as a child, when his father pointed out a Tanner print hanging on the wall of their Germantown home. Since then, Johnston has come to learn more about the struggle the famed African American painter endured in order to have his work recognized by established art institutions. Inspired by how “Tanner didn’t…get the respect he deserved,” in his own hometown, Johnston approached Mural Arts Philadelphia about transforming a Philadelphia wall in Tanner’s honor. Before a diverse audience at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), the muralist said he was “humbled to be able to represent Tanner” and share him with the city of Philadelphia.

Located at 2019 College Avenue, the completed mural contains text gathered from letters written by Johnston’s contemporaries as well as students from Saint Gabriel’s Hall—a residential treatment center for adjudicated male youth—about what Tanner’s life and work means to them. John Mulroney, principal of St. Gabriel’s, spoke of the impact working on this project had on his high school students. “Our guys need art as a shot in the arm of creativity, creativity that has been washed away into the streets by a culture of violence. Art is their outlet,” he said. Mulroney went on to discuss the strong partnership that Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice program has with his facility and how projects like Henry Ossawa Tanner: Letters of Influence prepares some of the students to continue work in public art-making after graduation. Johnston added that, “art should be in students’ lives. As an instructor, you can truly see the effect it has when students can create their own realities. It’s like shining a light that had previously been extinguished.”

Alongside the mural project, PAFA is currently exhibiting an expertly curated, broad range of Tanner’s work in their Fisher Brooks Gallery. On Sunday, attendees participated in a family painting activity and experienced the exhibition, which will travel to Ohio and Texas after April 15. After the exhibition has moved on to other locations, Johnston hopes that his mural on College Avenue will continue to remind Philadelphians of Henry Tanner’s important place in the city’s history of art.

Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden summed up the project, partnership with St. Gabriel’s, and exhibition perfectly when she said, “there lies talent and creativity that has gone unrecognized.”

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit Exhibition: January 28–April 15, 2012
Fisher Brooks Gallery, Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Mural funded by the City of Philadelphia Department of Human Services and the US Department of Justice.

Last updated: Jul 5, 2018

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