Muralist's muse

Mexican artist moved to Philly to create 'art on the wall'

Posted: April 25, 2007

INSPIRATION COMES in many forms, and for painter Cesar Viveros-Herrera, inspiration struck when he saw an eight-story mural the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program was creating at Broad and Spring Garden streets.

"I saw the art on the wall, and I walked straight up to the mural," the 38-year-old Veracruz, Mexico, native recalled of that moment 11 years ago. "When the artist [Meg Saligman] was coming down, I asked her if she needed help. She told me she didn't have the budget to hire anyone."

Viveros-Herrera said he climbed up the scaffold to chat with Saligman and had decided to become a muralist full time by the time he climbed back down.

"Just before we hit the street, I said to my friend, 'I don't want to let this chance go away,' " Viveros-Herrera recalled. "So I climbed back up, went straight to [Saligman] and told her I have been painting murals in Mexico, but nothing to this scale, and the portraits you do, I haven't seen this anywhere else in the world. You have the style of the masters, but no one is working on this scale."

Viveros-Herrera volunteered to help Saligman and, after that mural was completed, he returned to Mexico, where he'd been working as a commercial diver in the Gulf of Mexico oil industry. But the desire to become a muralist had captured his heart, and he moved here later that year.

There is a tradition of mural painting in Mexico that began in the 1920s after the Mexican Revolution, when the government sponsored murals by such artists as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros "as a way of communication on another level with people," Viveros-Herrera said.

Here in Philadelphia, Viveros-Herrera is helping to create a new mural arts tradition.

"I didn't really work with the community" before becoming involved in the MAP, Viveros-Herrera said, noting that community interaction is part of what drives public-works murals. "It's about sharing something that you've learned with people, and how painting brings people together."

Viveros-Herrera, a self-taught artist, designed and painted the three-paneled mural, "The Breeze," for the outside of the 17th Police District at 20th and Federal streets in South Philly.

The panels, which took him six weeks to paint, have been going up since last week, a process that will continue for about three more weeks.

"The Breeze" includes a tribute to a late police officer, Paris Williams, and a group portrait of some Point Breeze residents.

Explaining some other details in the design, Viveros-Herrera said, "I wanted candles next to the lantern, as a reminder of the people who already fell. The big candle was my offering - a reminder to the city, the officers, that we all have a job to do. And the handcuffs on top of flowers growing and the butterfly. It shows that there's hope there."

"The Breeze" is the first of two mural creations in "Cops & Kids: Turning The Corner," a project involving the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the Adolescent Violence Reduction Program, police officers and members of the community that hopes to forge better relationships between youthful offenders and law enforcement.

"I like projects that engage people and are about social change," said Viveros-Herrera, a free-lance artist who works with organizations in and around Philadelphia. "It's not about what I feel like painting, but what the community wants."

For "The Breeze," Viveros-Herrera took ideas from neighbors during numerous community meetings in the precinct. His images captured the residents' vision.

"Ceser is a really gifted artist. He has spent day in and day out on this project, and he spends time with the cops and kids," said AVRP Program Director Anne Harrison, who noted that Viveros graciously accepted all the input of those involved with the project.

"He has a great ability to be a presence. His work is really dynamic and soft and compelling," Harrison said.

The second mural will go up on the walls of the Boys & Girls Club atop the 25th Police District at 31st Street and Whitaker Avenue.

For Viveros-Herrera, the creation of "The Breeze" goes well beyond contemplating mediums and mixing colors. The process sparks something intangible in the soul.

Viveros-Herrera hopes his artwork will project the ability to transcend fears and build a sense of hope between cops and kids and in the neighborhoods.

"Hope moves the world . . .

hope is the energy that will overcome crime, revolts, depression and fighting," Viveros-Herrera said, recounting the themes portrayed in "The Breeze." "Hope allows human beings to let go of their fear, and make things better." *

View a multimedia slide show by Daily News photographer Alejandro A. Alvarez on Cesar Viveros-Herrera and his work with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, at http://go.philly.com/muralist.

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