Keir Johnston was raised in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and Springfield, MA. and attended college in Los Angeles where he was introduced to murals. Keir worked on his first mural in ’98 and has worked on over 25 murals since. Five years ago he moved back to Philly and began working on pieces that have focused on community heroes/leaders, youth violence, youth advocacy, neighborhood culture, disabilities and the North Philly Horsemen. He has taught adjudicated youth, middle and high school students, the elderly, incarcerated youth, life termed cell members, G.E.D. students and a host of workshops with participants from all walks of life. Keir was recently an Abbey Mural Foundation Fellow at the National Academy of Art and Museum in New York and a guest lecturer and visiting artist at both the California State University at Northridge and the Maryland Institute College of Art.
How did you get into painting murals?
While a sophomore in college the leader of a local non-profit was putting together an ambitious project that was going to decorate a kilometer of temporary wall that was surrounding a construction site. He asked around the school for artists that people knew and I was one of three names that always got mentioned. This led to our introduction and eventually my participation and leadership on this project which involved over 50 local artist of differing ages, education and styles. I fell in love with community involvement in the artistic process, the instant social interaction that results in the viewer being a part of the creative process and the communal aspects of public art that one does not achieve with the intimacy of studio practices.
Public art is about art for the people, not for the elite or prestigious institutional facilities. In the same day a crack head, millionaire, politician and a child can pass a mural and see it for free, experience it, possibly think the same thing and move on to the rest of their day. Everyone gets influenced by this form of local culture and I began to realize that it is extremely important that art be a part of peoples daily life. Murals seemed like the best way to facilitate this.
More after the jump!
As a painter working for the Mural Arts Program you are able to use your skills to build community and affect real change. Can you speak to this?
The only constant in life is change and no truer thing can be said about murals, for not only do they start to deteriorate/change the second you put them up, but the same action occurs to the environment around them. The Mural Arts Program (MAP) has a great philosophy: a mural, more than anything else, is a gift to a neighborhood, as they are the ones who have to live with the piece of art once it is completed. Every mural that I have been a part of, no matter the size or location, has affected positive change. Especially here in Philly, where you are not only taking a dank, depressing, vacant wall and making a complete aesthetic enhancement with art, but usually there is a lot conservation and clean up that accompanies the process. There may be the creation of a garden or landscape enhancement and it really becomes a point of reference, a local icon and a source of inspiration. Not to mention, in a city where the majority of public schools have eliminated art, music and after school programming, MAP facilitates after school programming for over 3,000 adolescents in varying degrees and often through participation on professional mural projects.
Have you seen Philly’s claim as “Mural Capital of the World” bring us increased attention as of late? Has it helped your career as a muralist?
People from all over the world come to Philly just to look at murals. We truly have become the “Mural Capital of the World” and will soon number over 3000 murals within the City. When the Prince of England made a personal visit during his trip this spring to observe our work it only confirmed our international standing.
Although I was doing murals for years in L.A., I would say it didn’t really become a career for me until I came back to Philadelphia. MAP is recognized internationally as a renowned organization, so everywhere I go there is a good chance that they have heard of us and if not, I am always quick to share. But just being part of MAP and the epic scale of their projects that one is able to participate on gives me instant credit when I travel to other institutions.
What was your favorite community project and why?
Each project offers a different joy! it’s really too hard to say which one was the best. I can say that one of the best parts of working on different projects is that I am constantly going to different parts of the City, getting to know the intricacies and beauties of differing neighborhoods. I’m constantly meeting the members and representatives of these local societies and interacting with them during the time I’m working on a mural.
Keir’s Myspace page
Video of Keir sharing the love and sharing the knowledge in Baltimore