New Philly mural 'finds light' to prevent suicide

Philadelphia's newest mural, dedicated to suicide prevention, "is almost a form of advocacy itself because . . . the issue of suicide can also become a topic of discussion," Mural Arts director Jane Golden says. Artist James Burns, 37, created the work. Story, B2.
Philadelphia's newest mural, dedicated to suicide prevention, "is almost a form of advocacy itself because . . . the issue of suicide can also become a topic of discussion," Mural Arts director Jane Golden says. Artist James Burns, 37, created the work. Story, B2. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 16, 2012

For local artist James Burns, creating a mural depicting the emotions surrounding suicide hits close to home.

"Suicide is not just about ending one person's suffering," Burns said. "What people don't realize is that it starts a whole chain reaction of sorrow for those who are left behind."

Burns, 37, is head artist on the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program's latest project, "Finding the Light Within," at 119 S. 31st St.

The painter was denied the opportunity to know his grandfather because of his untimely death, and while working on the two-year project, he lost friends from graduate school and high school months apart.

The new mural will be dedicated Saturday to the memory of those who have cut short their own lives and the pain of those who loved them.

The mural was the result of a partnership involving the Mural Arts Program, the city Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Painted on the side of the Horizon House building, it stands six stories tall and spans 250 feet wide. The mural was painted by more than 1,000 volunteers, many of whom were family members of suicide victims, as well as some who had attempted suicide.

The building houses programs including some for suicide prevention.

"A lot of people at the paint days just really wanted to be around those who have gone through similar circumstances," Burns said. "Our work was a communal effort."

Jane Golden, executive director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, which has about 3,500 murals throughout the city, said: "With this project we built bridges from people who were once feeling isolated to an extensive community of support.

"The mural is almost a form of advocacy itself because people are not just able to feel better through their experience with the art, but the issue of suicide can also become a topic of discussion in the broader community of Philadelphia."

One of the volunteers, Cathy Siciliano, chair of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's board of directors, lost her son, Anthony, to suicide in November 2008. To help her own healing, she painted her son's panel on the mural, a move that would be replicated by dozens of families.

"When the mural first came about, I thought that this could be like our permanent billboard," Siciliano said. "As I became more involved, it was apparent to me very quickly that this was so much more.

"When the paint day was finished, I just stood there in absolute awe of our artwork. It was like you could see that this mural was building a community, a community of healing for each other."

The mural's message to those contemplating suicide is that many can help, and there is always a reason to live, even in times of doubt.

This message is represented in a scene with a lone man at sea being tossed a life ring by a man on shore waiting to pull him back to safety.

"One thing I want my audience to take away from the mural is that crisis is always temporary," Burns said. "Although you might not feel it presently, there will be a time where you will eventually walk through the window and come out all right on the other side."


Contact Joe Trinacria at jtrinacria@philly.com or 215-854-2771.

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