Even though Betsy Casanas, 37, had the opportunity to leave North Philadelphia, she stayed and is attempting to better the community where she was born and raised through her art.
Casanas started Semilla Arts Initiative in 2007 with two other artists but is now running it by herself.
“Semilla Arts Initiative is a grassroots initiative that uses art as a catalyst for social change,” Casanas said.
Casanas said Semilla is about teaching people how to mobilize and how to change social circumstances by actively participating in the transformation of the community.
Casanas used to be a full-time art teacher. She retired from her teaching job to focus on Semilla and her own art. She also started her own gallery, Seed on Diamond, on the first floor of her house.
The gallery, located at 124 Diamond St., shows the work of different artists in the community and visiting artists from around the country.
“It’s about exposing the community to a wide range of artists and artists of different cultural backgrounds,” Casanas said.
Not only does Casanas showcase other artists’ talents, but she also shares her own talents with communities through murals.
“I just got back from Dubai,” Casanas said. “I was in Dubai in January and again in March because I painted a mural with the Universal American School there.”
This mural is just one that she has painted during her time as a mural artist.
Right now, she is working with the Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Yale University as they conduct a study about the effects of art during therapy and recovery. She is in charge of one of three sites being studied in this Porchlight Initiative Project, which spans three years.
Casanas said, “In the main mural, there’s a huge mandala that is supposed to represent [the Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha’s] connection to the community.”
Carmen Febo, the executive director at Taller Puertorriqueno, a local arts venue, said, “She’s done a number of murals that beautify the community.”
Casanas said simple changes to improve the community at any age, something that she tried to instill in her students when she was a teacher.
“It’s really about teaching and working with the community in order to transform or change,” Casanas said. “Really it’s just having that other way of expressing.”
Casanas’ need for expression sparked her interest in art. When Casanas was 14 years old, she was no longer allowed to go outside due to the dangerous conditions in her family’s neighborhood. She enrolled in a painting class at Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls and has been painting ever since.
“The area in the early ’90s became really infested with drugs and alcohol and just violence,” Casanas said about her neighborhood at Fourth and Cambria streets. “Around that time, my freedom was taken away.”
Five years after she started painting, she started working at Taller Puertorriqueno. She said the organization has seen her grow up and has connected her to other artists. She also attended Moore College of Art and Design, which provided her with inspirational educators.
Casanas said: “I started everything at the exact same time. I became pregnant when I was 19. I started teaching when I was 19 and I became a public artist when I was 19.”
Because everything began at the same time, Casanas said it is all intertwined and there is little separation. Her children have been involved in her art projects and are supportive of her career choices.
“We do multiple things to make it work,” Casanas said. “Financially, I’m an artist so I’m struggling obviously. Who’s not? But we’re making it work.”
Casanas, a single mother, said she had to teach her two children to provide for themselves while she was working. Because she homeschools her children, sometimes they come with her to work on projects but other times they stay at home. She said her large, extended family has been very supportive.
“It’s not fair for our children to not have a safe place to play,” Casanas said. “The fact that my children have never been able to go outside and play because of these conditions is a problem.”
Febo said she doesn’t know of any artists trying to duplicate the work that Casanas is doing to improve the community.
Febo said, “She is a very strong model to young women artists because of the kind of work she does in the community that she lives and participates in.”
Though Casanas said she feels the neighborhood isn’t safe enough, she has given her children the opportunity to be involved in transformative projects, showing them the importance of her work.
“I think the biggest challenge for me as a mother was the decision to stay,” Casanas said. “As an artist, as a community leader, as an activist, if I leave, who is going to speak?”