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The Tiberino Mural: Philly's 'First Family of Art' Comes to City Hall

The Tiberino Mural

Gabe Tiberino

Gabe and Ellen Tiberino

Joe Tiberino

It’s a sweltering day on the Tiberino compound situated between Hamilton and Spring Garden Streets in West Philadelphia.  Mosaic tiles and sculptures punctuate a mural landscape. Two sheets of parachute cloth hang across from the Ellen Powell Tiberino Museum entrance at 3819 Hamilton. Before them sits arts patriarch Joe Tiberino on a stool, deep in conversation with Derrick Woodyard, a rising Philadelphia filmmaker who is collaborating with Joe to create a documentary tracing a 45-year period of “Tiberino.” The two are waiting for Joe’s youngest son Gabe, a celebrated Philadelphia muralist and 2005 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts alum.  

As if cued in a montage, Gabe rides in, the metal basket on his bicycle reflects a panorama of the palate colors and creates a light effect on the pavement.  He parks next to the museum in the courtyard which connects a series of encircling houses, many of which house family members and artist studios, a greater community which has contributed to the artscape of the grounds of the museum which houses the collection of Joe’s late wife, historic Philadelphia artist Ellen Powell Tiberino.  The walls are storied in the lore of family histories, Afro-Caribbean folklore, European and American studies, and the faces of Hamilton Street side by side with mythos and celebrity.

These Tiberino stories will soon decorate the walls of the Municipal Services Building, located at 53 N. 15th Street across from City Hall, as part a partnership with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts, a temporal gallery of five painted panels, prominently placing the Tiberino family’s legacy as Philadelphia’s “first family of art,” painted at the hand of both father and son together.
Joe pulls out a diagram of the Municipal Services building and shows that the panels will be installed on the exterior wall facing City Hall.  This was not his original choice for a location as reviewed by the Department of Public Property, “Initially me and Gabe came up with the concept that we wanted to paint as you go into City Hall across from the old Wannamaker’s Entrance. We did a whole presentation showing how in Italy and Mexico City, they use old buildings and put murals inside. We explained that we wouldn’t hurt the walls. We would put up panels against the walls so we wouldn’t hurt the sacred walls. The end result, they said they didn’t want to do it in City Hall because the walls were too sacred, but they gave us that spot instead.”
Gabe and Joe are painting on the same parachute cloth canvases affixed to the courtyard walls, surrounded by reference sketches of weddings and miniature studies from which they replicate the exact details.  “He doesn’t mind if I paint over his, and I don’t mind if he paints over mine.”  Joe and Gabe both joke.  “Nobody does stuff like it.  It’s real art.”  Joe says in a gentle voice, “He’s very competent.”
Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden describes the history of the material in Philadelphia, “If you look at the mural of Dr. J. painted in 1989, you can learn about parachute cloth.  Artists started experimenting with it in the 80s.  It was helpful for them because they were not to be deterred by weather or blinding light coming in over buildings.”
The first visible panel depicts “black migration of the city”, black history with characters ranging from contemporary figures such as President Obama, Mayor Nutter, and Spike Lee to Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  as well as the jazz musician, Tiberino family members, and allegorical portraits.   A second panel depicts “European migration” to America symbolized in new births and the Bald Eagle at the piece’s height.  A third panel shows the Mummers and is set in South Philadelphia.  The other two developing panels will feature North Philadelphia and the Art Museum, pending final approvals.
Golden describes the process for the installation: “We apply parachute cloth to alumalite board, a strong aluminum panel.  We use it because it’s durable.  The core is really strong.  It won’t swell, corrode, or deteriorate, and will survive the elements for a long time.  We employ three coasts of acrylic gel.  We put up the board and put the parachute cloth on top.  Since we will not apply it directly to the wall, we will be able to return it to the artists.   After a year of installation, we’ll return the panels to the Tiberinos.  We hope to install in late September and it will hang for a year to a year and half.  October is Mural Arts month so we would like to celebrate this project as part of that.”
“We have worked with Gabe for years.  He is a really wonderful artist.  We have respected the family.   Gabe and his dad had this idea that they wanted to do some murals in City Hall. City Hall being historic would not give permission so we worked with Councilperson Jannie Blackwell and Gary Steuer, Chief Cultural Officer, and the Department of Art, Culture, and the Creative Economy to make the lower part of the municipal services building able to be used for public art. This was really good to start this with them because they had the idea to do something major with art at City Hall.” 

BONNIE MACALLISTER is a multi-media artist, grant writer and journalist residing in West Philly. Her work has appeared in Tom Tom Magazine, Toronto Quarterly, Nth Position (U.K.) and Grasp (Czech Republic). Send feedback here.

All photographs by BAILEY ELIZABETH
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