Health Services paints the town for mental healing | The Triangle

Health Services paints the town for mental healing

Drexel University’s 11th Street Family Health Services is uniting art and the community through the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program’s Porch Light Initiative in order to improve the health of communities both individually and as a whole.

The Porch Light Initiative is a three-year program funded largely by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and various other foundations, including Drexel’s Behavioral Health Counseling Department. Partnering with 11th Street in its third year, “we are trying to engage individuals and communities in dialogue and public art creation in an effort to empower individuals and ultimately increase their health,” Sara Ansell, the program director, said.

Patients of 11th Street receive services for a variety of behavioral health issues including trauma, substance use and mental health challenges. Anecdotal evidence suggests that participants in the program are provided with an inner peace that assists in the recovery process. Ansell explained that patients may come to their sessions more open and calm following a weekly workshop.


An anonymous participant said, “Mural arts opens the mind up to what staying clean is about; you know the beauty of life and how you can reach out to others.”

The name of the Porch Light Initiative was inspired by the safety associated with seeing a porch light and thinking of home.

“The concept is we are trying to create a safe space where we can collaborate and share art that will adorn the community for decades to come,” Ansell said.

Another participant said, “In mural arts we have everyone coming together to help each other and to send a message that we can get everything together and make this a better city.”

While this evidence is anecdotal, Yale’s School of Medicine is conducting a rigorous evaluation on the impact of mural arts therapy through an extremely scientific lens. “It is the true intersection of art and science,” Ansell said, explaining that art therapy has never been applied to public art before.

11th Street Family Health Services, along with Sobriety Through OutPatient and the Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha, will host weekly workshops where Porch Light participants will collaborate with devoted artists hired by the Mural Arts Program to plan and assemble murals from October to June. They will also offer monthly studio sessions, open paint days and health fairs.

Each artist follows the same timeline, budget and expectations set by the Mural Arts Program but channels creativity through participants differently. Some artists may be “production oriented,” mixing paints and drawing things during the first weekly session that may or may not be included in the final product. Other artists engage in conversation to inspire creative thought and values that will likely be portrayed in the mural. Others still combine production and conversational methods through making collages or other projects that reflect values that will be included in the final product.


Regardless of production method, all artists are held to the same standard during the review process. While conducting workshops and monthly studio sessions, the artists begin presentations in January to a panel of experts who are not associated with the Mural Arts Program. Once they’re approved, designs will be reviewed by stakeholder members of the community.

Participants will project and paint the murals in May, and certified mural installers will install them in June and July.

Ansell explained that it is important that the artists, who hope to improve the health of individuals and the community as a whole, are not therapists. They are devoted to creating something beautiful for the community in both the sense of interactions and art. The Porch Light Initiative is finding that the collaborative effort of designing murals and their resulting beauty makes the community secure, inviting and healthier overall.

Not only does the Porch Light Initiative seek to improve community health by empowering individuals that participate in the production of a mural, but it also seeks to erase the stigma associated with correctional health clinics and facilities. Vibrant murals decorating the facilities and surrounding neighborhoods transform the neighborhood and clinic into something more inviting and lively.

The 2013 production of the murals by the Porch Light Initiative will be the last of the program. The Mural Arts Program intends to maintain connections with 11th Street, STOP and ANP; however, funding sources will need to change.