Cooperative Painting Through the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership and the Mural Arts Program

Cooperative Painting—Mixing Street Smarts and Fine Art


A Philadelphia artist is inspired to foster community, creativity and more, by inviting the subjects of his portraits to paint alongside him. Read his story from the January/February 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine here.

By Jonathan Laidacker and Andra Maniu


“If you could tell the world one thing about yourself, what would it be?”

I posed this question to amateur artists, several men and women whose lives so far have been very different from mine. I’m 28, grew up in rural Pennsylvania and create art; they are ages 18 through 25, live in the bustling city of Philadelphia and are considered at risk of getting involved in a life of crime. We met in October 2009 through the City of Philadelphia Youth Violence Reduction Partnership (YVRP) and the Mural Arts Program (MAP) for a 10-week workshop with biweekly classes at the Thomas Eakins House (Mural Arts Program’s headquarters).

Markus Works on a Sketch for the Mural Arts Program | Thomas Eakins House

Markus sketches in his background painting around the pencil sketch of his portrait that Laidacker laid in the night before.

I asked each of the amateur artists to answer my question visually and create with me a final piece of art. Each work was intended to exhibit the raw emotion and talent of the young artist, enveloping and giving context to the realistic portraits that I would paint on the same panel.

The completed pieces were 4×4-foot paintings in acrylic on Econolite panels. The process of creating the work involved several steps. First, I listened to each participant’s story and helped him or her translate that story into images. As each person fleshed out ideas on paper during our initial workshop meetings, I encouraged the group to also think about how they wanted to be portrayed in the context of their visual narrative. In groups of two or three, we went for walks around the Thomas Eakins House neighborhood in North Philadelphia to pose for reference photos that I then used to paint their portraits.

A Completed Painting by Markus and Jon Laidacker for the Mural Arts Program | Youth Violence Reduction Partnership

“Markus” (acrylic on Econolite, 48×48), a joint work by Jon Laidacker and one of his young students for the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership and the Mural Arts Program

On our walks the workshop students talked about their experiences on the street, about violence and their beliefs. The discussions led to unexpected outbursts of creativity: my camera clicked away as each person assumed various poses and decided on the image that best represented him or her. Many of these young people had already lived full lives, and our meetings weren’t structured so much as classes, but more as therapeutic workshops. Specific painting questions organically led to impromptu lessons on scale, proportion and color, as well as discussions on life.

In our studio at the Thomas Eakins House, the young artists drafted initial drawings, continued to develop the concepts behind each individual painting and began to add color to their compositions. At that point I took each panel to my studio and blocked in the portraits without going into much detail. I was interested in having each individual visualize the portrait and draw inspiration for choices of colors and tones for his or her portion of the painting.

Anthony, Markus and Kenneth Paint Together for the Mural Arts Program | Thomas Eakins House

Anthony, Markus and Kenneth paint in peace; prior to this experience, they’d never held a paintbrush. “I’m really proud of these guys,” says Laidacker. “By our third class, I didn’t even have to get them going anymore. Without saying anything they would grab their paintings, put them up on the wall, distribute their own paints and start working.”

By the end of the ten weeks, nine of ten workshop participants had completed their portion of their works. I took the panels to my studio and completed the portraits of each amateur artist.

In February 2010 three completed paintings from our workshop were included in a larger Mural Arts Program Restorative Justice Program Exhibition at the Thomas Eakins House. Eight Youth Violence Reduction Partnership paintings, from the first group of students, were also on exhibit at Philadelphia’s City Hall between August and November 2010. Along with these eight were six more by Mural Arts Program’s second group of Youth Violence Reduction Partnership participants, who began their workshops in March of 2010. The pieces will be for sale in the future, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the young artists. My hope is that the works and the workshop experience will bridge the gap between the raw sensibilities of the participants’ untrained hands and the fine art world, not only for the amateur artists but also for the larger artistic community.

Tyreece at a Public Showing of the Mural Arts Program's Paintings | Youth Violence Reduction Partnership

“I’ll admit I had a difficult time convincing the class that their paintings would be of interest to people after they were complete,” says Laidacker. “At this first public showing, they started to believe me. All night long people were talking with the three students—including Tyreece, seen here— whose finished pieces were being exhibited.”


Jonathan Laidacker graduated with an MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and now works as an artist in Philadelphia. He can be contacted at Andra Maniu is a Philadelphia attorney and freelance writer with special interests in public policy and art.


This inspirational story about Jon Laidacker and his students from the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership and the Mural Arts Program appeared as part of “The Artist’s Life” column in the January/February 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Read more inspiring stories in each issue’s “Artist’s Life” column.


Read more about the Mural Arts Program on this blog post about “How Philly Moves”, one of Philadelphia’s largest community mural paintings. Or check out other murals by artists in Hawaii that paint graffiti murals in low-income areas.




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