Germantown ArtHaus’ creative collaboration illuminates the community, leaving a lasting mark on youth empowerment, literacy, and expression.

Thomas Walsh, Roger Walsh, Andre Chaney assisting with final touchups. (Germantown ArtHaus | Keisha Whatley)

Right after acquiring and repurposing the historic Swain Building as the Germantown ArtHaus, Keisha “I Make Everything Beautiful” Whatley initiated the Philly Youth Selfie Project. After two years, the ArtHaus will reveal a mural featuring self-portraits created by young people and a few adults, paying homage to youth empowerment, community development, and literacy.

The Philly Youth Selfie Project was designed as an extension of the ArtHaus’ mission around youth empowerment, Whatley explains. “We started discussing what if we created a mural because we knew the whole building was going to be covered in murals. [What] if we create this mural that is youth-focused and, empowering and fun? So, we came up with the Youth Selfie Project so that young people could paint themselves, but then those paintings be installed on the building,” Whatley says.

ArtHaus intends this mural to be here for years. “So the thing that we’re most excited about is these young people riding the bus or going by the building 10-20 years from now and seeing their painting on the wall,” says Whatley.

Whatley and the ArtHaus hosted seventeen workshops where local artists guided youth through a lesson plan with their respective spins to help young people paint self-interpretations. “These young people had a mirror there,” Whatley says, describing the process. “So they weren’t just doing it from memory. They were really looking at themselves.” But the young minds weren’t limited to having to put a face to their self-interpretation.

Some of the paintings feature protective masks people use to avoid getting COVID-19. “I think it was the first workshop; one of the young people did a painting of themselves with a mask on. And we’re like, ‘Oh, why are you doing that?’ And he was like, ‘Well, I want to remember what was going on.’” Whatley says it was also a reminder that many people were wearing hypothetical masks. Some young people also created trees, leaves, and birds instead of self-portraits.

The workshops had two primary rules, or actually three, though Whatley humorously admits she couldn’t recall the third. The first rule was to rinse brushes not in use but still coated with paint in water as a cleaning practice. The second rule was to keep criticisms to oneself but to be vocal about all forms of praise.

“It became kind of like an inside joke,” recalls Whatley with a smile, explaining the rationale behind the second rule. “We had to remind some of the parents of that over time. [We wanted] it to be a safe space for kids to create. That’s really the purpose of the project – to really give kids a space to express themselves because we see kids a lot, [and] we don’t want to hear from them. So my goal is always give them a place where they can be heard.” 

Collaboration, extending beyond the creative process, was pivotal in the project’s evolution. Early support from local organizations like Jumpstart Philadelphia and the Germantown United CDC helped to launch the workshops and keep them going. 

The most recent collaboration with Mural Arts Philadelphia, known for its impact art projects, came when it needed a home for its We Will Write The World literacy-based mural. Whatley has partnered with Mutal Arts on billboards and other projects, so she was confident about meeting their respective needs. She also says that ArtHaus’ mission to educate blends easily with the We Will Write The World mission to encourage dialogue and interactions between grown-ups and children through large-scale public art pieces.

“I said let’s take a look at your designs because it might be a match-up with the Selfie Project,” says Whatley, detailing the exchange. “I met with the artist and began working with Khalid Dennis to essentially mash up his mural design with the Selfie Project.”

She emphasizes that much of the collaborative effort revolved around “coming up with ways to keep the integrity of [Dennis’] original mural design and keeping the integrity of the selfies so that those two ideas could come together in a way that makes sense.”

She says the collaboration was smooth. The only detail that needed exploring was fitting all the selfies in the mural, even though they needed a half or quarter of a selfie in some spots. “To keep the integrity of all of our original selfies that were produced by other people, we created some dummy selfies, and we cut them up. So it’s really important that people understand that we did not cut anybody’s self-portrait up.”

Continuing their dedication to literacy and youth empowerment, Whatley says, “We’re going to have two of those newspaper boxes that are now like lending libraries. We’re going to have one that’s for books and one that’s for art supplies.” This commitment to providing resources and fostering creativity is a testament to the Germantown ArHaus’ overarching vision.

Collective ownership and community support were paramount for the success of this project. Whatley expressed her gratitude, saying, “Every single person, whether they gave one dollar, two dollars, or one hundred dollars.” To Whatley, fiscal support not only meant involvement but was a testament to the impact this project has had on the community.

She continues: “I knew trying to do something way larger than myself, more than I could do by myself. I know every step of this project was going to require that the community take ownership of it because this project is for the community. So when the community says, on, this is really for me, and then they take that on, it’s more than validation. It’s just amazing to witness because I know there are a lot of people struggling right now.”

Whatley suggests the mural has transformed the neighborhood. “Everything in this area is gray, tan, black, or dark. There’s very little color. So when we painted that background color, which we named ‘Storybook Blue,’ it was as if people were stopping in their tracks, asking, ‘What is this?’ The vibrant colors of the project have truly illuminated the neighborhood.”

ArtHaus team member Thomas Walsh echoes Whatley’s sentiments. “It’s very approachable. When I get off the bus and I walk up from Chelten, it’s like the house on the top of the hill. It draws you in, and you realize that it has to do with youth and expression,” he says.

All these details and processes will culminate at the mural’s dedication event in a few weeks. Whatley anticipates that attendees can enjoy music, face painting, giveaways, refreshments, a lively atmosphere, and an opportunity to engage with the mural’s contents.

“One of our goals at the dedication is to potentially have a station where kids can draw or write their own story being inspired by the mural,” says Whatley. “There’s a book on the mural that Khalid did with a father and son reading together on one side, and it says Once Upon a Time in Germantown. And on the other side, it has prompts about if you were going to make your own story about your selfie.”

The Philly Youth Selfie Project, integrated with the We Will Write The World mural, will come to life on Saturday, October 28, at the Germantown ArtHaus at 6228 Germantown Avenue. The dedication event will run from 4-6 p.m. To learn more and register for the event, check out their Eventbrite page.