Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – On a sweltering afternoon in North Philadelphia, Cesar Viveros showed off plans for the 4,239-foot mural he is creating to commemorate Pope Francis’s upcoming visit this September to attend the World Meeting of Families.
Amid life-size sugar skulls the artist was preparing for the Day of the Dead, stray art supplies and a pet dog people say looks like Groucho Marx, hung sheets of paper which are guiding the more than 1,400 volunteers who have already helped to produce the work of art.
“Before, the public was just a spectator,” Viveros told Fox News Latino, “but through this program and mural, it has been transformed into a catalyst of the people’s energy.”
The mural, called, “The Sacred Now: Faith and Family in the 21st Century,” will be spread out across three large walls of the St. Malachy School in the Poplar neighborhood of the city.
It will consist of three walls measuring 40 feet wide by 35 feet high and covered by 150 iridescent stained-cloth and mosaic panels. There will be 12 different figures, representing different kinds of families – from an African-American single father to a young couple with a baby to an abuelita hugging her grandson.
“There’s a central theme of family. There are many in the mural, and in between these families is the pope. He represents an old wise man, or sage. And he stands with a child, who is six or seven – that child represents the theme of innocence,” Viveros explained.
There is a baptismal font in the center of the mural – which for the artist, signifies new life. He sees the new Pope as a charismatic figure who could bring back the Catholic Church from years of scandal and declining attendance.
“I wanted to say, ‘The Church is outside, and the family is the nucleus of it all,’” he said.
The side walls of the mural will be completed before the pope's arrival, while the central wall will be finished by enlisting the help of visitors during the visit.
Viveros’s design was selected by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia over those of two other artists.
“I’m very happy,” the artist said, “because as a Latino I can say we come here and do many things. Yes, we work hard in restaurants, in the fields, but we also come here to do journalism, art and many things.”
Viveros immigrated from Veracruz, Mexico, in the early 2000s with very little formal arts training. He started painting when he worked as an industrial diver – plunging into water to fix and retrieve machinery – and he would paint on the walls at work during down times.
His coworkers noticed he had a talent for it, and started commissioning him to paint portraits from a daughter’s graduation to a prized horse.
Once in Philadelphia, he volunteered for the city’s Mural Arts Program. Much admired and copied in municipalities here and abroad, the program offers individuals without an art background and at-risk youth the opportunity to participate in large art projects.
He won scholarships to train in Italy where he learned mural techniques like gluing painted cloth panels to walls – a process that results in longer-lasting murals. And he got to supervise the painting of the largest mural paid for by public funding, Meg Saligman’s “Once in a Millenium Moon,” in Shreveport, Louisiana.
“That was my big test,” Viveros said, one that established his credibility and positioned him well for future projects.
Since then, Viveros has left his mark in and around Philadelphia by creating more than 30 murals.
His mural will cover an outside wall of an abandoned building that is set to reopen as an independently-managed Catholic school. Most of it will be painted by volunteers using a paint-by-numbers system.
Viveros and his assistants have taken small panels to different churches and schools throughout the summer. They bring a paper guide with numbers and a set of paints. Participants follow the numbers on the guide to color in Viveros’s design.
Already, more than 1,400 volunteers have helped in its creation.
The St. Malachy mural is hardly the only large-scale tribute to Francis’ first trip to the United States. In Midtown Manhattan, a hand-painted 225-foot billboard sponsored by the DeSales Media Group (the communications arm of the Diocese of Brooklyn) could well be the largest depiction of the pope in the world.
"This is our way to say 'welcome' and evangelize in the heart of this culturally-diverse city," Msgr. Kieran Harrington, chairman of DeSales Media Group, told the Catholic News Service.
Unlike the NYC billboard, Viveros’ work won’t be finalized until October or November, when he and a small team of helpers will install the panels at the mural site.
During the pope’s visit, people who come to the Philadelphia Convention Center will be able to work on one the mural while videos detailing the process will be projected unto large screens.
“It’s going to be just a ton of people,” Viveros said, growing a little nervous in advance.
But, for him, the huge scale of the project is also part of its beauty.
“It’s one way for everyone to be part of something,” he said. “Together they will have made this monument to family.”
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