May 25, 2022

Enter Stage Right: A Conversation with Serena Saunders

by: Ilse García Romero

Philadelphia native Serena Saunders has been selected to create a new art installation in an exciting partnership with Mural Arts Philadelphia and Kimmel Cultural Campus. The interior mural, entitled Enter Stage Right, will be installed at the Kimmel Center’s Tier 2 level on the North side of the building, located at 300 S. Broad Street. I spoke with Saunders to learn more about the project and the inspiration for her work.

“The Enter Stage Right project as a whole came about long before I knew of it,” explains Saunders. “Without my knowing, my work and name found their way under consideration for this project. Upon learning I was selected, my excitement and gratefulness grew so much more upon meeting the rest of the team behind the project.”

Enter Stage Right conceptually represents the team’s collective desire to contribute to events that land on the “right side” of history and seek to improve the state of the world. The design depicts an anatomically correct heart against a sky blue background made out of colorful ribbons which swirl from the musical notes emanating from it. On two of the larger ribbons are written the words “ENTER STAGE RIGHT” and “RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY” (hence the title), indicating that the project partners are trying to be on the right side of history by promoting diversity, equity, and inclusivity in their selections of artists, performance offerings, and educational components.

According to Saunders, the artwork was inspired by the mission statement of the Kimmel Cultural Campus. “It was inspired by the idea of play, community, and inclusion,” she says. “What my spirit added to the conversation was the idea of the heart being the instrument that we all share in common, the instrument from which all else flows connecting our sound, our love for the arts and one another.”

Butterfly Lakes © 2021 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Serena Saunders, FDR Park Welcome Center, 20th Street and Pattison Avenue. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Serena Saunders also spent last summer working with members of the Guild, a paid apprenticeship that gives justice-impacted young people the opportunity to develop marketable job skills and reconnect with their community, run by Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice program. Together, Saunders and the Guild participants painted and installed Butterfly Lakeslocated on the outer walls of FDR Park’s Community Clubhouse. The artwork was dedicated last October at the graduation of the Guild cohort that assisted Saunders.

With her uplifting work, Saunders hopes to inspire Philadelphia youth. “There are adults in this city very interested in curating spaces and opportunities for them to be their best selves,” says Saunders. “Art can be many things in this process, from a tool of self-expression and exploration to a full-time career. Wherever they may find themselves, we are here to help them to help themselves in growing these tools rather than its communication or creation. In short, they come first. As much as I love to create, the art is a wonderful by-product of the most rewarding component: working alongside them.”

Guild Graduation at the Butterfly Lakes mural dedication, October 25, 2021. Photo by Akeil Robertson.

Prevalent in Saunders’ work is a theme of undying hope in the face of adversity and injustice, and her work is heavily influenced by her compassion towards community, especially young people. These passions were developed during Saunders’ decade spent teaching art and poetry at more than a dozen schools and nonprofits in Philadelphia and neighboring states.

“My background in community arts has influenced how I see arts potential through its purpose,” says Saunders. “I am very interested in art as a tool of historical documentation. We can capture a present and speak to a future. In my community specifically, being a full-time practicing fine art painter was far from the norm or expected. Further from that was the expectation of seeing those who look like you and come from where you come, live on huge canvases, on huge walls, and in important buildings.”

A few years ago, Saunders began working with Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice department after taking a hiatus from working with youth programs to focus on her personal body of art.

“Those years of being embedded in the community under the guise of teaching art, but in reality trying to support the learning of life, was a position that didn’t end when you ‘clocked out,'” she muses. “Being a community artist/activist had morphed into more of a lifestyle than a job. It has been refreshing to reenter this work, with this program of older youth at this present time and have the privilege to support their futures.”

Butterfly Lakes, in-process October 8, 2021. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Experiencing our stories of beauty and struggle and grit and grace firsthand inspired me to try to capture these stories on canvas all the more.

- Serena Saunders

Saunders’ foremost lesson she has learned while creating art within a community is that it is always about the community first. This is what she enjoys most about working with community members to create work outside of her studio, where the work is the focus. For her, art becomes the tool to instill a growing relationship, whereas, in her studio practice, she is the tool creating the art. When collaborating with others, it is refreshing for her to see the artwork pour out of people and watch them transform.

Says Saunders: “It is projects like Enter Stage Right, for clients like the Kimmel Cultural Campus, that uses art to tap into the superpower it holds to beautifully tell a story, and then to pass artists such as myself the torch and stage to tell that story on that makes for a ‘pinch yourself moment. I am extremely grateful.”

Butterfly Lakes in-process at 915 Spring Garden Street, July 19, 2021. Photo by Akeil Robertson.

So much of what I've witnessed in the communities we live in and serve screams "see me, hear me, help me" — and I believe painting those I've come to know personally is such an awesome way of saying "I see you."

- Serena Saunders

Enter Stage Right will be dedicated at the Kimmel Center’s Merck Arts Education Center on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, from 3:30-4:30 pm.

Last updated: May 25, 2022

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