Feb 1, 2024

Mural Arts Announces NEA “Our Town” Creative Placemaking Grant Award for $125,000

by: Jenny Donnelly Johnson

Grant to Support “CAICU,” a two-year socially engaged public art series in Philadelphia’s Norris Square neighborhood.

Mural Arts Philadelphia, in collaboration with Norris Square Neighborhood Project, is pleased to announce they have been approved for a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” creative placemaking grant to restore and enhance the public art in the Norris Square neighborhood.

This grant for $125,000 will support CAICU, a socially engaged public art series weaving together six culturally and historically significant Puerto Rican-themed gardens in Philadelphia’s Norris Square neighborhood created by community organizers in the 1980s.  Led by Philadelphia-based curator Marángeli Mejía-Rabell and Puerto Rico-based muralist Celso Gonzalez, the project will strengthen community and public awareness of the neighborhood’s history and identity through public art and foster cultural exchange with Loíza, Puerto Rico.

The project, which will launch in spring 2024 and run through spring 2026 will engage residents through public art and foster a dynamic cultural exchange between people in Philadelphia and Puerto Rico who share familial and ancestral roots.  This will enrich dialogue about concepts of home, identity, self-actualization, and transformation, which will influence the creation of public artwork by artist Celso Gonzalez.

As part of the cultural exchange, Gonzalez will collaborate with Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, co-founder of Loíza’s Corredor Afro, to engage Puerto Rican residents in the opportunity. He will also build a team of assistants composed of emerging artists from Loíza and Philadelphia. They will work closely with Norris Square residents to understand their neighborhood, aspirations, and visions for the gardens. Celso will produce a cohesive design spanning the sites, potentially integrating muralism, mosaic, sculpture, and landscape design.

As an artist, representation is very important, to be able to see ourselves in a victorious new light gives us strength and inspiration to conquer our dreams. Through this collaboration we build on the possibilities of a more equal future.

- Lead Artist Celso Gonzalez

Caicu is the Taino word for a little island land bridge. Tainos were the natives of Puerto Rico. Marángeli creates space for others, bridging the divide between Puerto Rico and Philadelphia, Latinx and Latin America, and so on. “That’s where I live, in that land bridge between two spaces,” she says.

“The NEA is delighted to announce this grant to Mural Arts Philadelphia and Norris Square Neighborhood Project, which is helping contribute to the strength and well-being of the arts sector and local community,” said National Endowment for the Arts Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, Ph.D. “We are pleased to be able to support this community and help create an environment where all people have the opportunity to live artful lives.”

CAICU honors the space where history, legacy and ancestral practices serve as the meeting point with emerging voices and grounding for community building and co-creation with a focus on collective impact,” says curator Marángeli Mejía-Rabell. “This project builds on this curatorial perspective and strategic framework built over years of collaboration with folks I admire and respect. Truly honored to have this opportunity.”

This dynamic project will engage the community through various methods, including teach-ins, historical research, oral history and storytelling, virtual sessions bridging Philadelphia and Loíza, and community meals and gatherings. Through thoughtful design and facilitation, these engagements will generate themes, images, memories, and narratives that will influence Celso’s approach to the project design – both how it will function and what it will communicate. Collaborators will include Termite TV Collective, Philadelphia Latino Arts & Film Festival, and AFROTAINO.

“Norris Square Neighborhood Project (NSNP) congratulates Mural Arts Philadelphia on receiving the NEA Our Town grant.  Embedded within NSNP’s pillars of community land stewardship, youth leadership, and cultural preservation, we amplify and celebrate the significance of Loíza as an essential part of Puerto Rican culture.” says Teresa Elliott, Executive Director of Norris Square Neighborhood Project. “We envision strengthening the connections across Puerto Rico and Philadelphia and look forward to exploring ways to celebrate the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican heritage.”

“We are honored to receive this important NEA Grant. CAICU signifies Mural Arts’ ongoing commitment to the Norris Square community,  transforming the neighborhood into a living canvas,” said Jane Golden, Executive Director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. “Through Celso’s inspiring work and our collaborative community efforts, we’re not just making art – we’re growing a garden of hope and unity. This project is a powerful testament to the transformative role of art in community building.”

Previous Mural Arts Projects in Norris Square 

  • Cruzando El Charco / Crossing the Puddle © 2007 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Betsy Casañas, 2332 & 2333 N 5th Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Un Mundo de Inspiraction © 2010 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Charles Barbin, Norris Square Park. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Ritmo Urbano mural dedication, September 4, 2019. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • La Borinqueña © 2022 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Edguardo Miranda Rodriguez, 148 West Norris Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Semilla De Patria © 2021 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Betsy Z. Casañas, 2115 North Howard Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Salsa Shines Through © 2021 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Andres Giraldo & Nathaniel Lee, 1409 North Howard Street. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Climate Justice Initiative Solstice event at Iglesias Garden, July 25, 2022. Photo by Josh Gonzalez for Immortal Vision Studio.


Celso Gonzalez Bio

Born in Puerto Rico, Celso is a pioneering contemporary artist working in various disciplines such as painting, sculpture, murals, mosaics, architecture, and film. He started painting at the age of eight under the guidance of Antonio Cortez and at age 13, he enrolled in the School of Plastic Arts at the Cultural  Institute of Puerto Rico where he formally began his art studies.  He studied at the New School of Architecture in San Diego, where he developed his skills working with renowned architects Rob Quigley and Teddy Cruz, among others. Later, he transferred to SciArc in Los Angeles, California, where he won the Lyceum Fellowship Competition, becoming the first Latino to win this award and with which he visited all of Latin America, changing his perspective forever. Celso’s work has been presented in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Italy, France,  Taiwan, the United States, Mexico, and, of course, Puerto Rico, among others.  He has participated in multiple biennials, art fairs, museums, and  galleries.

Marángeli Mejía-Rabell Bio

Marángeli Mejía Rabell is a Puerto Rico-born, Philadelphia-based connector, cultural organizer and producer, arts and culture curator and programmer whose work is centered on co-creation, capacity building, leadership development, cross sector collaborations, and honoring our roots as a tool for social change and community self actualization.

Her work focuses on community media practices, cultural organizing, intersectionality, accessibility and diversity. As Director of the Philadelphia Latino Arts & Film Festival (PHLAFF) and Co Founder/Partner of AFROTAINO and GUSTO she co-curates culture programming, collaborations and multidisciplinary projects. She has served as the PHLAFF’s Festival Director for nine years supporting the groundbreaking work of Latinx filmmakers.

Marángeli’s career has centered Latinx creators, stories and culture to bring about positive change and representation. She also serves as a Leadership Coach with the National Arts Strategies Coaching Collective. She is a member of the Painted Bride’s Programming Committee, University of Puerto Rico Cumbre Afro’s Cine Foro Curator, Curator & Project Manager for Mural Arts Philadelphia and as Anchor Partner/Producer of Kinfolk Philly as part of the Kinfolk Foundation’s National Tour.

Last updated: Feb 5, 2024

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