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Willis “Nomo” Humphrey, a celebrated artist behind more than a dozen murals and public art landmarks across the city, died of a massive heart attack on Wednesday. He was 44.
Humphrey’s body of work — notable for its vibrant color palette, multi-layered imagery and depictions of African American life — can be found on the facades of buildings from Germantown to Kingsessing. He recently designed high-profile homages to North Philly funnyman Kevin Hart and civil rights leader Octavius Catto. Over the last decade, Humphrey’s brush also contributed to the famous Roots mural in Center City, a profile of Malcolm X in West Philly, and numerous community-centered artworks that addressed issues like gun violence.
Mural Arts Philadelphia is mourning the sudden passing of their colleague, who the organization described as a generous and collaborative artist.
“He has graced the city with so many works of art and he has been a mentor and a source of light to so many artists, residents and community members,” Mural Arts director Jane Golden told Billy Penn.
Humphrey became a full-time staff member of Mural Arts in 2016, Golden said, but he has been erecting public art in the city for over a decade. A Mississippi native, Humphrey grew up in a military family that moved every few years, taking him from Japan to Italy to Arkansas. He went on to earn a degree at the Art Institute of Atlanta and later settled down in Philadelphia.
In past interviews, Humphrey said he transitioned into the world of public art after a long stint in graphic design — mostly working on corporate projects where he lacked “a soulful connection with the artwork.” It was by taking the city’s Muralist Training Program in the late-2000s that he discovered his new vocation.
“This is where I can merge my art that I like to do, and get paid, and be a part of community engagement and have a voice with a broader range of people,” Humphrey said.
Beyond taking the lead on big commissions, Humphrey also worked with Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice Program, which employs formerly incarcerated artists to collaborate on award-winning murals across town. Golden said Humphrey had recently been tapped to lead a group on a mural of Philly heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.
“In all of his work, what comes across is Willis,” she added. “His heart and soul, it’s right there for viewers to see. It’s so clear that he engaged with the community and he created his work with input from the community.”
We rounded up seven of Nomo’s most notable pieces in Philly, presented here in chronological order.
This piece about Southwest Philly’s diverse black population (2008)
In his earliest known Mural Arts project, Humphrey created a unifying portrait of West African immigrants and African American communities in the Kingsessing area — depicting both their discord and their attempts to forge new bonds.
This welcome-home message to West Philly veterans (2012)
Collaborating with artist Phillip Adams, this is another one of Humphrey’s earlier commissions. The multi-layered artwork at 41st and Woodland Avenue seeks to “bring veterans, many of whom struggle in silence, into a conversation with fellow community members” after they’ve returned home, per Mural Arts.
“Legendary,” the Roots’ hometown mural (2013)
The Roots mural in Center City adorns the side of World Communications Charter School, a stone’s throw from CAPA where the trailblazing hip-hop troupe got their start. Humphrey worked on this electric composition with his artist collaborative Amber Art & Design.
This stairway dreamscape in North Philly (2014)
This work was commissioned to compliment an older mural nearby, which depicts Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, as they led the Selma voting rights march in March 1965.
This West Philly mural on the challenges facing boys and men of color (2015)
This ode to the legacy of Rev. Richard Allen (2016)
Per Golden, Humphrey was hand-picked to design this West Philly mural commemorating the 200th anniversary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Founded in Philadelphia in the early 19th century, the AME church was the fully independent black denomination in the country.
The famous Kevin Hart mural on the side of Max’s Cheesesteaks (2017)
A media frenzy when it was unveiled last year, the icon-like mural sits a block away from the celebrated comic’s childhood home in North Philly. Below his portrait are three words for Hart’s guiding philosophy: “Live, Laugh, Love.”
The widely celebrated Octavius Catto mural (2018)
Golden recalled that Humphrey was particularly attached to the Catto mural, which went up just months after the civil rights leader’s 12-foot monument at City Hall. “Octavius Catto was a leader,” Humprhey said at the unveiling. “We’re in short supply of leaders nowadays. I think people like to follow a lot, so this is a way to memorialize one of our great leaders in the city.”