Painting the Promise of Biotech

CSL Behring helps continue the tradition of large-scale murals in Philadelphia.

Water Gives Life © 2018 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Eurhi Jones & David McShane, 13th and Arch Streets. Photo by Steve Weinik.
Water Gives Life © 2018 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Eurhi Jones & David McShane, 13th and Arch Streets. Photo by Steve Weinik.

They turn up unexpectedly in Philadelphia – bold and statement-making.

You round a corner and encounter jazz musician John Coltrane. Turn into a parking lot at 13th and Market and find the Tree of Knowledge, its branches covering a building side. Walk down Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia and a towering figure reaches out from a vast underwater scene with the message “We matter.” The iconic murals of Philadelphia today number in the thousands and represent 35 years of creating public art.\

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The Mural Capital of the World will add one more to the catalog later this summer with the addition of a new work sponsored by the world’s fifth largest biotechnology company CSL Behring, with global operational headquarters in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The mural will explore the promise of life sciences in Philadelphia, a city that boasts world-leading universities, research hospitals and private industry – all aiming to extend and improve the lives of those with serious illnesses. It will be installed at 11th Street and Sansom Street, a short walk from the Philadelphia Convention Center where the BIO International Convention will be held in early June.

“The BIO International Convention attracts more than 16,000 biotechnology and pharmaceutical leaders from 70 countries, including industry, academia and government, who come together for one week to help shape the future of this critically important field,” said Dennis Jackman, Senior Vice President of Global Healthcare Policy and External Affairs for CSL Behring. “What better way to demonstrate to the world the promise of biotechnology and the rich history of life sciences in Philadelphia than by partnering with Mural Arts Philadelphia to develop a mural in CSL Behring’s ‘backyard’ that also aims to inspire the community and students in the local school system. CSL Behring wants to help foster the next generation of science leaders.”

This center city wall at 11th Street and Sansom will soon be the home of a mural focused on the promise of biotechnology.
This center city wall at 11th Street and Sansom will soon be the home of a mural focused on the promise of biotechnology. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Leading the project is artist Eric Okdeh, whose resume includes 150 public art commissions in the United States, Spain, Norway and Jordan.

“There’s much to do before the unveiling just ahead of BIO 2019,” said Okdeh, who’s been gathering information and working on the design since December.

But he hasn’t been brainstorming alone. This project is part of a three-year initiative from Mural Arts Philadelphia to tap into the power of adding art to STEM education (STEAM) in Philadelphia's schools. The initiative creates collaborative public art inspired by science and math, engages students in project-based learning, and helps them envision a future for themselves in biotechnology and other scientific fields. Each year, Mural Arts serves over 2,000 city students in its art education programs to help fulfill its broader mission to “create art with others to transform places, individuals, communities and institutions.”

Okdeh has held several sessions with students at three Philadelphia schools, asking them about science and its potential to transform the future. The students provided helpful ideas for illustrating bacteria, viruses and antibodies, he said.

"We are thrilled to be able to create a mural that opens up new worlds for our students and that lifts up the rich biotech and life sciences community that exists in our city and region,” said Jane Golden, Executive Director, Mural Arts Philadelphia. “Our young people are our next generation of thought leaders and innovators. Projects like this open invaluable doors." 

Planning the biotech mural presents a challenge for Okdeh because the space measures a massive 133 feet by 60 feet. The mural must tell a story, he said. That story must be both “readable from the street” and rich enough to deliver something new even after the viewer has seen it multiple times, he said.

Once the design is final, the process advances to fabrication and ultimately installation, which means putting together a puzzle of 5-by-5 foot panels. That’s when the community gets involved again, Okdeh said. Paint days will welcome volunteers to “paint by number” on the 5X5 panels. You don’t have to be artistic to participate.

“We work with kids as young as 5. Everyone can paint,” Okdeh said. “You won’t mess it up.”

Muralist Eric Okdeh discusses his concepts with CSL Behring’s Senior Vice President of Global Healthcare Policy and External Affairs, Dennis Jackman and Mike Tortorici, Senior Director, Clinical Pharmacology & Early Development, Clinical Research & Development

Muralist Eric Okdeh discusses his concepts with CSL Behring’s Senior Vice President of Global Healthcare Policy and External Affairs,
Dennis Jackman and Mike Tortorici,
Senior Director, Clinical Pharmacology & Early Development, Clinical Research & Development

As part of its promise to the Philadelphia region and the life sciences, CSL Behring has also teamed up with the University City Science Center to catalyze academic research in the area. This partnership will focus on research and academic institutions that participate in the Science Center’s QED program, a program that provides funding, mentoring and business support to entrepreneurs.