North Philadelphia: Arts Collective Celebrates Community With Public Art

The Amber Art and Design collective brings joyful projects out into the community, all while making sure that making art can be a sustainable business.

Based in North Philadelphia, Amber Art and Design is a nonprofit company run by a collective of five public artists from all over the region. Many of the Amber artists have a history of bringing community members into various design and art projects, whether that means redesigning a condemned house, creating free coloring books about redlining, or designing murals of people like Malcolm X or John Coltrane. 

“Most of our crew are people of color, or people that have an affinity to neighborhoods of color,” Keir Johnston, a muralist and founding member of Amber Art and Design, said. “Knowing that we come from those same neighborhoods, [we seek to create work] that is not gonna seem alien when installed.”

For over a decade now, the team at Amber have used their work to make art accessible within communities often isolated from creative outlets. Behind every project by the team at Amber remains an underlying motive to uplift marginalized communities. 

Authenticity and cultural recognition remains one of the most pivotal factors when it comes to how the team at Amber approach the communities they work in. 

“Doing art for the public is doing art outside the confines of an institution,” Johnston said. 

Understanding the history of a neighborhood the neighborhoods they work in allow the artists at Amber to develop work that residents can relate to and enjoy. At the same time, they have had to be realistic about what it takes to keep a collective venture sustainable.

“Amber in part is a business, and that took us onto the trajectory that we are on now,” said Ernel Martinez, a public artist who has taught at Moore College and the University of Pennsylvania, and is a founding member of Amber Art and Design.  

The professional and personal dynamic among Amber artists is one which has been cultivated on communication, trust, and a shared passion to create.

“It’s the idea of a non-hierarchical system, where we all just see ourselves as lead artists” Linda Fernandez, an artist and founding member of Amber, said. “We have a motto that says, ‘get in where you fit in.’ So everybody has a different set of skills and abilities.” 

The group takes on projects individually and asks other members to contribute where they can. For instance, Martinez is currently working on a John Coltrane mural in North Philadelphia, while Fernandez and Johnston are working on a mural in Rhode Island. Earlier this year, Amber artists hosted virtual public meetings around a mural focused on food justice sponsored by Giant Supermarkets and MuralArts.  

Despite the personal relationships that ties Amber together, they are still a business that depends on professionalism and communication, members said. To sustain the collective, each artist has had to dedicate a certain degree of time, effort, and compromise, all focused on bringing in projects that pay, but also let the group place social justice front and center in their work. 

“It started out as a necessity,” Johnston said. “Then it later turned into practicality.”

Amber Art and Design artists painted the “Legendary: The Roots” Mural at 512 S. Broad St. (Eve Campbell/PN)

In 2011, Johnston, Martinez, and fellow founders Charles Barbin and Willis “Nomo” Humphries found themselves in Philadelphia, all looking for a studio space at the same time. 

“We all sort of knew each other through friendships or working together through Mural Arts,” Martinez said. “And it was like, hey why don’t we just share a studio space? We were all pretty broke at the time, it seemed to make sense.”

The four of them sought out a warehouse in Port Richmond. Shortly thereafter, Fernandez joined. Together, these five artists not only began sharing space, but resources as well. As a collective, they decided to start calling themselves by the name of their street: Amber. 

“Through necessity, we shared the space, and became closer friends,” Martinez said. “And we decided to become colleagues and business partners, in terms of being collaborators artistically. But also becoming small business owners at the same time” he added. 

It was evident that the group dynamic was economically advantageous. Costs were more stable, and opportunities more abundant. Everyone was an experienced public artist with a deep network, and now the collective could help each other deliver on larger projects that they couldn’t finish on their own. 

In both the figurative and literal sense, there were simply more hands to help out in almost all facets: financially, physically, and intellectually.

In 2013, the group received their official LLC and has since pursued dozens of projects across the city and region. Though there have been various changes in Amber over the years, including the addition of the artists Martha O’Connell and Sidd Joag, their passion for art and commitment to BIPOC communities remains an important part of the group’s identity. 

“Like lots of young artists, particularly artists of color or artists who aren’t, don’t have access to studios, or museums, or galleries and so forth … the first art that I saw was graffiti and murals in Los Angeles as [a] young kid,” Martinez said. 

He was inspired by the work he saw around the city, even in passing. 

“I [would] see graffiti on the side of the highway and that kind of [stuff] inspired me to do art,” he said, “That was my initial introduction to what art can be, was always in the public realm, be it legal or illegal.” 

Drawing attention to the power of public art, especially art that otherwise might not be celebrated, continues to be foundational to the kinds of projects Amber artists take on. 

“An institution, even a gallery — four white walls — is usually set up for a White community,” Johnston said. “It’s an elitist environment. Most neighborhoods of color do not feel invited into cultural institutional settings. It’s never been set up for them. Historically it’s never been inviting for them.”

For members of the Amber collective, an innate desire to create artwork that connects with communities while pushing against the limits of confining structures is what makes public art significant and exciting. It also drives each member of the collective to think about who their art is ultimately for.  

“How can I create a picture that tells a story that can communicate a message to the public?” Fernandez said. “To anybody?” 

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