Monica Yant Kinney: 'How Philly Moves' mural - a 50,000-square-foot gateway to the city

Karmen Fails exclaimed in excitement when she saw her image (right) in the mural for the first time. She posed for the mural while she was attending the University of the Arts.
Karmen Fails exclaimed in excitement when she saw her image (right) in the mural for the first time. She posed for the mural while she was attending the University of the Arts. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 27, 2011

More than a squeal, but just shy of a gasp, the urgent noise emanating from the passenger seat practically demands that the driver stop and take notice. If only I wasn't doing 60 m.p.h. on I-95 approaching Philadelphia International Airport.

Thirty seconds earlier, my rider, Karmen Fails, was chatting casually about her dancing days at the University of the Arts. Now, she's shaking, having just seen a 40-foot version of herself in the distance on an airport parking garage wall.

"Omigosh, it's me. It's me!" the 29-year-old apartment manager exclaims about the How Philly Moves mural.

"I can't believe I wore mascara today," wails Fails, of Wynnefield Heights. "I'm not going to cry. I am not going to cry."

In more than a decade of writing about the city's famed mural program, this is a first for me: watching a mural subject discover herself supersized on the horizon, captured in a moment of repose, frozen in time on a concrete canvas.

After those first few outbursts, Fails suddenly falls silent.

"It's - crazy."

A proper introduction

How Philly Moves owes its existence to a roving PennDot crew that kept Deputy Mayor for Transportation Rina Cutler stuck in traffic near the airport.

The delay got Cutler thinking about the lousy job Philly does at announcing itself. Soon, she was conspiring with mural maven Jane Golden about an epic "gateway project" giving visitors and locals a proper introduction.

Mural designer Jacques-Jean "JJ" Tiziou took 18,000 photos of 174 dancers - pros and amateurs, preschoolers and grandmoms. A team of muralists then spent months bringing the figures to life on thousands of sheets of parachute cloth in a studio on the third floor of the Gallery.

The outdoor installation began this month, with seven of 26 figures already livening up an otherwise dreary drive for the 100,000 people who endure I-95 each day.

Elisheva "Eli" Apple, 21, of Merion, danced in her wheelchair with an instructor from the HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy. Apple possesses the widest smile on the mural, which stretches for a half-mile, so I ask how she felt during her tryout at the Painted Bride.

"Relaxed and excited," she replies, tapping a communication device in her lap. Then the young performer throws her head back, waves her arms, and grins again, recreating her winning pose.

Improv, immortalized

Before Mayor Nutter arrives at the installation celebration on this Tuesday morning, Karmen Fails spies Cristin Van Horn, a Bensalem native she knows from the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

Van Horn points to an image of a lithe woman whose face is turned and mostly obscured.

"You can tell it's me," she says gleefully, "from the red hair."

Van Horn, 26, tells me she spent a year after college as a 76ers dancer - "it wasn't dance-as-expression, but it was fun" - and has just wrapped an "old-timey showgirls" gig at the Atlantic City Hilton.

She recalls almost everything about her tryout for How Philly Moves, right down to improvising modern moves to a Joanna Newsom folk song while wearing a borrowed green-and-yellow sundress.

"It became so much about the moment, I forgot about this," Van Horn says, gesturing upward toward the wondrous wall. "Never did I think I'd be a part of making history. I'm honored. I'm humbled."

Once complete, the 50,000-square-foot project will be the grandest of all 3,500 murals in Philadelphia and one of the largest in the nation. The ambitious ode to joy cost $460,000 - paid by the airport, the Parking Authority, Bank of America, PTS Foundation, and USAirways.

"My grandmother used to tell me I had champagne tastes but beer money," Nutter says, comparing himself to the cash-strapped city he leads.

"We never stopped thinking big. We just don't have big money," he explains. "We will always figure out a way to do the important things, the things that matter."


Reach me at myant@phillynews.com or 215-854-4670. Read me at philly.com/blinq. Connect on Facebook and Twitter at philly.com/kinney.

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