Art history on foot: A class tour of public works of art

Taking to the streets of Philadelphia, a summer history of art class strives to understand murals, sculptures, and other public works on display.

Six people standing in a parking lot looking at a colorful mural on the wall of a building.
A summer course in history of art took Penn students to the streets of Philadelphia to view and discuss public artworks, including murals, like “How to Turn Something into Anything Else” on Broad Street. The course was taught by visiting instructor Emily Warner (left), who earned her Ph.D. at Penn. 

Standing in a Center City parking lot radiating heat from the midsummer sun, a group of Penn students focused on the riot of color that makes up the whimsical mural “How to Turn Something Into Anything Else.” 

“What do you think of the composition?” asked Emily Warner, speaking over the grinding gears, revving engines, and high-pitched sirens of Broad Street’s afternoon traffic. “There are what seem like an infinite number of details.”

And the students saw the details, approaching the expansive wall to see up close, writing thoughts and making sketches in hand-held notebooks. They discussed the collaborative nature of this particular piece, relating the work to other murals they have seen and studied in the course led by Warner, Topics in American Art: Philadelphia’s Public Images.

Five people, four with notebooks and one speaking, standing in front of a storefront window reflecting a mural across the street.
While viewing the Mural Arts Philadelphia works, Warner (center) spoke to the students about the artists, history, and context, and led a short discussion among the students. 

The students have walked the streets of Philadelphia as they learned about the origin, history, and meaning surrounding public art from the 19th century to today. On that hot Monday in July, they traversed more than a dozen blocks surrounding City Hall to study three building-sized murals, and briefly stop by three more. 

Throughout the summer-session course the class ventured out to see public artwork in several Philadelphia locations: Murals in the Mantua and University City neighborhoods; sculptures in the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial at Fairmount Park; the Spirit of Transportation, a marble relief at 30th Street Station. They also looked in their own backyard touring Penn’s campus to study four sculptures, including Jerusalem Stabile by Alexander Calder, Split Button by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Love by Robert Indiana. 

“Not only do I get to see parts of Philadelphia, but interacting with these public works of art with the information that the class gives us is something I find really valuable,” says Faith Taliaferro, a senior mechanical engineer major in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “I’m not only learning about the environment that I’m in, but I’m adding to my metaphorical toolbox that I use to learn about world around me.”

Five people walking on a sidewalk next to a parking lot looking up at a colorful mural on the wall of the adjacent building.
Warner and the students walked dozens of blocks in Center City to study four murals, including “Philadelphia Muses” at 13th and Locust streets, and stop to look at several others. 

The other five students in the class are pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts, who are already working in related careers. 

Sarah Spencer, assistant to the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is in her second year of the MLA program. “I think it is so special to have the opportunity to leave the traditional classroom setting, to see the art and consider the landscape around it and how it impacts its community, whether for better or worse,” Spencer says. 

“We are a small group, but the discussions that we have are meaningful,” she continues. “I feel as though coming to class is an opportunity to share with each other our view of Philadelphia's landscape because we are all impacted by it, just in different ways.”

A group of people standing in front of parked cars, one speaking while the others listen and look at the mural on a building wall.
Most of the students in the course are pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts degree, including Sarah Spencer, center, who works at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. 

Warner taught a version of this course to undergraduates while earning her Ph.D. in the history of art from Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, from 2009 to 2017. She was inspired by two courses on art and architecture that used field trips and site visits while taking observational notes and sketches of the artworks and their locations along the way. 

Combining that model with her own research on abstract mural painters and their work with architects, this graduate-level course is designed “to put the contemporary public art scene in conversation with the longer history of public art in the United States and Mexico.”  

Warner returned to Penn to teach the summer course before heading to University College London on a research fellowship to transform her dissertation, “Abstraction Unframed: Abstract Murals at Midcentury,” into a book. 

The course draws links from different time periods, different styles, different materials, based in different movements. “One thing public art tries to do make a statement about what a nation is, or a community is, and we are tracing the narrative through these different sites we go to,” Warner says. 

One student standing in front of large mural depicting a hand with a ribbon of color that reads where I feel family.
Students approached the murals, including “Finding Home” at 13th and Ludlow streets, taking field notes to record their thoughts. 

Readings and slides during classroom discussions tie the artworks together with political and social forces that have evolved. For example, one lecture traced the history of the mural arts movement from the early 1960s to today, including the Mural Arts program in Philadelphia, founded by Jane Golden in 1984, which has resulted in more than 4,000 public murals in the city. 

The celebrated “Untitled” of a striking young black woman by artist Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait as first lady, was a class favorite, the last one they viewed on the Center City field trip. 

“We discussed the visibility of black women in public spaces, the portrait of someone as famous as Michelle Obama versus a Philadelphia student,” Warner says about the mural at 11th and Sansom streets, just unveiled in June. “It’s interesting to consider as the general political and social discourse changes.”

Spencer’s final project will focus on “Untitled,” how the artist “uses the scale of the mural to make sociopolitical commentary about black bodies in public space,” she says. “Sherald’s work with identity is particularly striking, in addition to the dignity and positive representation that she provides black figures.” 

A mural featuring a young woman can be seen beyond brick buildings and a traffic light and signs including 11th street and one way.
The mural “Untitled” by Amy Sherald, unveiled in June, was a favorite of the students in the course. 

Faith Taliaferro, from Los Angeles, says her final project will focus on two murals by street artist Shepard Fairey about incarceration and prison reform. She says she had not studied art before taking this class, but wanted to do so before graduating in December. 

“It helps me to think more critically, as well as be more worldly and informed about the spaces we inhabit and travel through; that is the true treat of the class,” she says. “I think this class cultivates the more humane part of myself that interacts with art.”

It is just that different sense of interpreting the world around them that Warner was trying to impart, she says. “I’m hoping they have a new way of thinking about the environment they move about in every day,” she says. “And I hope they have a better, and critical, sense of the history of public art and mural making.”