Stephen Powers is an escape artist. In “A Love Letter for You,” the New York-based artist and Philadelphia native hasn’t simply created a collection of strikingly beautiful murals to enliven West Philly’s Market Street, but a soulful series of affirmations, commiserations and confessions whose intended purpose is to help you escape from a low place — to help put meaning to those times when meaning seems elusive. “Forever begins when you say yes,” reads one. “I’ll shape up,” promises another.
“I’ve always had a real fascination with cities, and with the way creative people interact with those spaces,” says the 42-year-old artist. “From the time I was 16, I was interested in being outside and painting in those environments. Graffiti became a way of actively making love to a city, and expressing that love in a way that you can’t do otherwise.”
Before you became a gallery artist, you were a street artist. Did you ever imagine city planners would come to see your work as beneficial?
Yes. Even at 16, 17 years old I thought what I was doing was essentially positive. I thought I was losing my mind, thinking that it would be possible to create work that would ultimately be accepted at the highest levels of at least city government.
Thankfully, it was. What inspired Philadelphia’s “A Love Letter for You?”
The fact that I love Philly. I have very complicated feelings about growing up there, leaving there and eventually coming back. Philadelphia is family to me. And when I say that word, family, I mean to imply all the closeness and distance that family can bring. So, I had the basic components of “Love Letter” in my DNA, and then it was just a matter of connecting with the Mural Arts Program, with the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and then with the people of Philly to find the words. The people gave me the words, gave me the character. But the story arc was there.
The story arc?
I had a friend who’d fathered a baby. He was trying to maintain contact with the mother and with his child, and it wasn’t working out. As a friend, I thought I’d give him something he could work with, and to put something on the table for all these people who are in relationships where they just can’t find the words. I thought it would be an interesting public service project to make the words and put them in a place where people could find them and use them.
Your illustrative style evokes the advertisements and signage of the 1940s and 1950s – it’s really a jukebox of influences.
You’ve hit it on the head. That was the last era when every sign you saw was handmade. I didn’t mean to be cool and pick the coolest period of American visual noise; I was just picking up where we left off. I haven’t made much progress past that, but I’m starting to.
What’s the greatest compliment “Love Letter” has received?
People telling me that they love the neighborhood again. We’ve had people tell us that they’ve made babies to “Love Letter,” and some marriage proposals have happened because of it.
So, where do you go from an urban love letter? Would you prefer your work end up on a museum wall or a city wall?
They’re great either way. I’ll take the worst neighborhood ever, or I’ll take the best museum you’ve got. They’re about the same to me.