Feb 10, 2016

Meet the Mural Arts Staff: Ellissa Collier

by: Meg Wolensky

At Mural Arts, we believe it’s important to take a moment to get to know your team and to highlight their strengths. This week I had the pleasure of chatting with Ellissa Collier, our Youth Restorative Justice Program Manager in the Art Education Department, about the power of art, mentorship, and yoga.

Meg: So let’s start with the basics. Where are you from, what do you do, and what brought you to the city of brotherly love?

Ellissa: I come from a military family, so really where aren’t I from? I made Philadelphia my permanent home about ten years ago after spending time in Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Alaska, and Pittsburgh, just to name a few. I fell in love with Philadelphia while I was working on my MFA in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Meg: I know you studied visual art, but what initially drew you to Restorative Justice at Mural Arts?

Ellissa: I was exploring the intersection of access, opportunity, and value in gallery and museum spaces while I was earning my MFA. I started thinking about the city itself as a more democratic space for art, and realizing more fully that everybody has creative potential. I like the idea of community members discovering the artist in themselves and being active in the making process. I knew I wanted to work with advocacy and the arts, so when I found out about Mural Arts Philadelphia it seemed like a really great fit. Our mission statement, “art ignites change,” is a powerful draw because it’s not just lip service. Art is a transformative catalyst that changes lives and we put those words into practice.

Meg: How do you think restorative justice fits into the history of Mural Arts’ impact in Philadelphia?

Ellissa: I think that from its inception, restorative justice has been part of Mural Arts’ scope. Jane Golden was working with kids who were in trouble when Mural Arts originated as the Anti Graffiti Network. Today, we have a specific focus on youth in our Restorative Justice program, which is a component of our Arts Education department. What we’re able to do with art is offer a sense of hope, connect to people on a personal level, and help kids build relationships with trusted mentors. Our teachers aren’t just artists, they’re part of a support system in our student’s lives. I work with people, particularly children, who are in crisis. My department uses art as a catalyst for helping people unpack and understand some of the hardships they have experienced. We use art as an alternative solution – it’s not therapy and we’re not social services, but we’re like an expressive force for someone to work things out. I really think of it as relief work.

The narrative looming over someone labeled as an offender often goes something like: “I’m a failure, I’m bad, I can’t do anything right, I don’t have a future.” They’re told by their school, the court, and their family that once you go down a path of crime there’s no hope for recovery. We try to teach people to be open to new ideas and to change internalized personal narratives so that people can see themselves as accomplished. When they witness the lasting positive impact that making a mural can have on a community, they’re so proud of themselves. That’s huge.

Meg: Thank you so much for shedding light on the way that restorative justice works at Mural Arts. Now for a fun question, what is your life like outside of work? Are you an artist or do you participate in the local arts scene?

Ellissa: Yes, I’m an artist. I come from a painting and printmaking background and I often participate in classes at Fleisher. I also love volunteering and I’m a member of the Mariposa food co-op in West Philly. I think about food in the same way that I think about art in terms of access and equity. Plus, I feel really good about bringing healthy alternatives to my community. Finally, Yoga is really important to me for self care. I practice what I preach: “if you don’t take care of yourself, you have nothing to give to others.”


Mural Arts will be doing a multi-part interview series with our staff, so check back every month to learn more about the Mural Arts family!

Last updated: Apr 21, 2016

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