Ben Volta’s mural–Home That Was

How many times have I passed by a demolished row house in Philadelphia, and stared at the wallpaper exposed to the elements on the neighboring brick wall. The weathered map of the rooms and stairs outlined on the standing house’s side tells a story of loss and memory and survival.

Ben Volta et al., Home That Was, on Vine Street in Philadelphia. Pictures courtesy Ben Volta.

Artist Ben Volta and an 11-artist transgenerational team from the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program were inspired for their mural Home That Was by these traces of domesticity left on the side wall of a condemned rowhouse at 1011 Vine Street. Drawing on household imagery like chairs, tv’s and sofas for a living room, toys for a child’s room, the young and old artists created motifs for faux wallpapers. The new patterns were painted in place of the real faded papers that sometimes cling to the old, thin plaster rectangles that mark the walls. The patterns reward close-up examination with their content as well as their design and coloration (you can see more close-ups on the project’s blog).

Door wallpaper pattern created for Home That Was

Volta, who is an art teacher as well as an artist, has been making a career of making art with a team, usually a team of students, a la Tim Rollins and his Kids of Survival. In each of Volta’s projects he has been able to lift what might be just another earnest group art project into something that’s wonderful to look at and think about.

Dining room pattern created for Home That Was mural

In this project, he is not working with just school children. The group was assembled by MAP. And unlike so many MAP murals of Photoshopped people delivering social propaganda, Volta and his team have taken a more poetic approach, suggesting the spirits and lives of real people who used to live in the missing house. By the simplest of means–12 wallpaper patterns–this mural explores ideas like consumption, waste, memory, loss, time, and even the meaning of life.

Ben Volta, et al., Home That Was, as seen from my car

I think it’s time to step away from generic condemnation of Philadelphia’s murals! After all, some of them are great.
I also think it’s time to step away from generic embrace of Philadelphia’s murals! After all, some of them are awful.
I recently added this particular new one–it went up in October–to my list of murals that tickle me every time I pass.

Here’s who worked on this project with Volta:
Taylor Accooe
Rodney Blackshear
Danielle Brown
Clydie Jones
Demetrius Mcallister
Damara McDowell
Jassaan Nichols
Ashaun Hicks
Jordan Papadopoulos
Adrian Ray
Atticus Tsai-McCarthy