New murals by neighborhood kids adorn the Charles Santore Branch Library in Bella Vista. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

For decades, the paneled exterior of the Charles Santore Library in South Philly looked like an artist’s blank canvas, just waiting to be filled in with color.

That glow-up happened this fall, when Mural Arts Philadelphia filled the white walls with a set of vibrant murals designed by neighborhood middle schoolers. The four-panel art piece, titled “A Tale of Two Sisters,” illustrates a narrative written by the students in teaching artist Rebecca Miller’s afterschool and summer classes.

“A lot of the students … did some great work with the art materials,” Miller said. “I think it really meant so much for the students to then see their work on a physical building.”

Formally dedicated in early November, the work is part of Mural Arts’ “We Will Write the World” program and the product of a collaboration between the arts nonprofit, Read By Fourth, South Philly Reading Captains, and the Free Library. 

The program, which looks to increase childhood literacy by “encouraging playful learning through public art,” entails getting neighborhood kids to come up with stories and artwork. Those are then adapted into “storybook murals” to spark “dialogue and interactions between grown-ups and children” in four neighborhoods: South Philly, Fairhill, Logan, and Germantown.

The South Philly mural at the Santore branch includes depictions of children playing on playground equipment, cherry blossoms, a school of fish in a lake, and a girl rising from the lake atop a fish.

It’s based on an original story about two close sisters who live and play in a faraway, mountainous land. When one of them falls in a lake, the other cries out for help, and a big fish hears the call and comes to rescue her.

The mural organization started without a specific location in mind, according to Miller, other than wanting somewhere in South Philadelphia. A few neighborhood businesses were interested, but they didn’t own their buildings. Around fall of last year, project leaders ended up partnering with the white-walled Charles Santore Library.

The Charles Santore Branch Library in Bella Vista. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Originally called Southwark Library, the 7th and Carpenter branch where the mural is located opened in 1963 and underwent renovation in 1998, according to the Free Library’s website. 

It now shares a name with a famous and recently deceased Philly illustrator, known for illustrating TV Guide covers and children’s books like Beatrix Potter’s “Peter Rabbit & Other Cherished Stories.” 

But that Charles Santore wasn’t the actual namesake — the library had its name changed in 2004 to honor Santore’s dad, who was a prominent Republican political leader and union founder in Philly who died in 2002.

How the mural and its story came together

A group of fifth through seventh graders at Southwark School — located a little less than a mile from the library — started by picking from prompts about what their neighborhood might look like in the future, things they remembered happening in their neighborhood, or things they could imagine taking place there, according to Miller.

Left: Student sketch by Brenda and Rosario (Courtesy Mural Arts); Right: The final mural panel on the Charles Santore Library (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

The children then walked around the area to take photos that they later used to make collages. Some common threads in the student designs, Miller said, were interactions between siblings (there were several pairs of siblings in the class), sky colors, nature scenes, and mountains. Cherry blossoms were popular, too.

“That was something they really liked about the neighborhood,” Miller said. “When we were working on the project, the cherry blossoms were blooming everywhere, and they’re really beautiful.”

The student-made collages became the basis of their story, which was then translated into the murals.

One storyline that stood out was written by a student named Carnila, who described a pair of sisters with an “inseparable bond between them,” Miller said. It was based on a collage that another student, Johana, had made that abstractly depicted two sisters playing on the Southwark playground.

Left: Student sketch by by Axel, Randy, and Noah (Courtesy Mural Arts); Right: The final mural panel on the Charles Santore Library (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

The two sisters playing became the foundation for the mural design, which was initially supposed to be just one panel. But the project space was expanded, so Miller ended up bringing some of the commonalities from the Southwark after-school class’s collages to her summer class at the Bok Building. The students there wrote little books with their own versions of the story, and Miller adapted everything into a one-page collaborative story and mural design.

The final text Miller pieced together was largely based on the stories Carnila and another student, Tiara, had written.

We Will Write the World student story for Santore Library

Once upon a time, in faraway mountains, there was a lake with a beach. Near this place, two sisters lived, and they were inseparable. At the end of the day their relationship was always stronger than before.

The world was growing tense around them.

One day, they felt they wanted to find a moment to themselves, without other people or problems, and so to freedom and tranquility they went. This had always meant the lake, however, on this day, walking the familiar way to the beach from school, Grace and Sui began to have a rare argument.

Their feelings grew to a boil, as the path wound around the high banks of the lake.  Sui, in distraction, missed her step, and slipped instantly into the water. Shock was the only thing she felt.

Panicking, Grace called “HELP!” for her sister.

Then, Sui felt herself rise up from the water, and realized something had saved her from the lake. It was a fish! A silvery fish lifted her up to the shore, where Grace waited. 

She could breathe!  They could both breathe.  

Grace pulled her from the water, and comforted her sister.  Though Sui had been caught by the fish, it was her sister’s bond that had called forth the help they needed.

The relieved sisters trusted each other more than they had ever before, and ever after they would look out for the silver of a particularly large fish, when they walked the path to the lake.

Miller incorporated that and the student collages into the final mural, which she painted with help from Carolina Gomez, Donna Grace Kroh, and Rachael Brinker. The fish on the fourth panel of the mural were painted by students at Southwark and Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philly, Miller said.

It took about a year and a half to bring the whole process to fruition, from early summer 2022, when Miller started brainstorming with her class at Southwark, to this fall, when the mural was installed on the library’s 7th Street facade.

New murals by neighborhood kids adorn the Charles Santore Branch Library in Bella Vista. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

The original idea had been to install an 8-foot by 10-foot mural, and then later the intention shifted to installing two 8-by-10 pieces. The amount of wall space available at the library ultimately allowed the opportunity to actually produce something even more expansive and detailed. 

The final design stretches across all four of the building’s front panels, filling the formerly blank slates with vibrant color.

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...