Professor Brings Research on Murals

Community Art Presented as Vehicle for Social Change


Published: April 3, 2008

On March 5, Maureen O’Connell, assistant professor of theology at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), brought her research on intercity murals to the Fordham community. O’Connell spoke to a group of nearly 50 students and professors in McMahon Room 109 on her research of community murals in Philadelphia. Entitled “Riveting Hope: Community Murals—Social Change,” the presentation brought awareness to how communities in Philadelphia are being unified by these murals, and how O’Connell believes that there is a direct relationship between these murals and a positive change in society.

She explained her reasons for bringing her research to Fordham. “Fordham is a thriving arts community. I want to bring awareness to the way art, beauty and justice intersect.” Furthermore, O’Connell stated that she wants to “get students involved” in how art can “raise questions about social justice.”

O’Connell began her presentation by citing the Mural Arts Program, based in Philadelphia, as the spark behind the mural movement. A non-profit organization, the Mural Arts Program was originally designed to prevent graffiti and has grown since the 1980s to be responsible for over 2,700 murals, designating Philadelphia as “the mural capital of the world.”

O’Connell pointed out the major topics of discussion that drive her research. The murals, she said, are essentially “theological texts.”

“The murals invite interpretation, raise awareness of hidden realities and spark conversion experiences,” O’Connell said, which are all typical of traditional theological texts. Citing their location within some of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, O’Connell stated that the murals give people a “strong sense of community” and are symbols for “people who have a resilient hope.”

Other objectives of the murals include “a new paradigm for the relationship between people and art,” “creating a visible religion” and possibly most important, “a focus to restore communities.”

“The murals… are never defaced,” O’Connell said, reacting to a question of how these murals are received by the communities. “[The murals] get people involved and outside…and work by community agreement… If art can create relationships, they hold an important place.”

“The ability for the murals to bring a community together, if even in a small way, shows hope for a more collaborative society in the future,” said Claire Colmar, FCLC ’11, who was present at the lecture.

Also in attendance was Karina Martin Hogan, associate chair for undergraduate studies in theology at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC). “I thought it was a great lecture, because it showed how religion intersects with so many areas of life, in this case art, politics, ethics and urban renewal,” Hogan said.

O’Connell grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, which added to her interest in the murals. “I was always aware [of the murals]… but I never realized the religious significance and the faith content.”

Bringing awareness to art as justice is exactly what she is doing. On April 11, Students for Solidarity will hold an event entitled “Arts for Awareness.” The club hopes to get Fordham faculty and students to use their art for social change. “[Our] mission is to create an outstanding network of faculty, students and outside organizations who are all committed to the objective of achieving social justice, not only in our surrounding community but also on a global scale,” stated Keely Browder, FCLC ’11, an organizer of Arts for Awareness. “Professor O’Connell’s presentation on her work with the Philadelphia murals further inspired me in my mission, and she will be speaking at the event.”

O’Connell stated that she has just received a $40,000 grant from the Louisville Institute to continue her research of social change through mural paintings. She will spend next year on sabbatical while performing her research.