The dynamics of a band of musicians playing jazz depend heavily on communication, both verbal and nonverbal. All players involved need to listen to and respond in the moment, hanging onto the musical structures of rhythm and melody to bring a group of sounds into a cohesive whole.
The Dutch art duo Haas and Hahn, comprised of Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, have embarked on a mural project that is strikingly similar to the high wire act of jazz improvisation.
The artists were commissioned by the City of Philadelphia and its Mural Arts Program to paint a section of Germantown Avenue as part of an ongoing revitalization effort targeted at stagnant commercial corridors. Located in the central part of North Philadelphia a few blocks east of Broad Street, the neighborhood is better known for its abandoned houses than its arts scene. The pair began the project a year ago, moving into a tiny white house directly behind the Village of Arts & Humanities.
Urhahn credits El Sawyer at the Village of Arts & Humanities, a community-based nonprofit organization dedicated to neighborhood revitalization through the arts, with orchestrating the duo's introduction to the neighborhood. “We didn’t just show up and start painting. We showed up and started making friends, talked to people, tried to get to know the neighborhood," says Urhahn. "Basically the first half-year we talked to everybody form the police officers to the guys on the corner and everyone in between. Especially the store owners."
Starting a dialog with the store owners was an integral part of the process, says Urhahn. Participating owners so far have not only given permission to paint their storefronts, but also collaborated on the design process. The owners have had final say on what colors and design schemes are implemented on their façades.
Some store owners have refused to participate in the project, only to change their minds after the storefronts around them are painted.
The entire project is based on the likelihood of such occurrences. "The whole concept of the design is built around the idea that change can happen," says Jeroen. "Maybe you plan on painting something and then you’re not able to paint it, or the other way around… because of that it's growing and becoming different."
The project also employs local residents, as contractors certified to operate lifts, to do the actual painting. Demand for the work has been so high that flyers had to be posted saying that Haas and Hahn were no longer hiring in order to not be interrupted while painting.
"The point is not to change the neighborhood," Urhahn says. "We don’t bring answers, we have to define questions and to start the conversation."
All photos by K. Scott Kreider