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The Stapleton Universal Temple of the Arts Mural (2006)

by Robert Sievert

Click on image to see larger view

The scene on the street, with the Author (digital photograph)

UTA Mural -- detail (digital photograph)

UTA Mural -- detail (digital photograph)


  • Universal Temple of the Arts/Maurice Phillips/Founding Artist
  • Mural Sponsors: Universal Temple of the Arts/Where to Turn/COAHSI
  • This mural celebrates the forty-year history of the Universal Temple of the Arts and its founders who have worked in the Staten Island community bringing workshops in art, music and dance to Staten Island youth as well as producing venues for Jazz and Dance in the annual Staten Island Jazz Festival.

    Universal Temple of the Arts was formed in 1967 by Maurice Phillips, an artist, philosopher and teacher and a group of young artists, who incorporated their talents for the purpose quickening the creative spirit in the individual and fostering brotherly love through artistic, educational, cultural and civic activities.

    The mural honors Maurice's vision of the arts and contains images of people involved in performing and creating art. It also honors Maurice himself and places him in historical context as a Staten Island African American artist who has had lasting and profound influence on the Staten Island art scene.

    Interest in this project began as a discussion between Temple director Saadja Musawwir Ladner and myself, Robert Sievert, a board member of the Temple for over 20 years. At first we thought simply of a mural describing the activities of UTA, but on further thought honoring Maurice and the founding members gave the project a compelling depth.

    In May I was notified by WHERE TO TURN TO that we were chosen to participate in the mural project. It was with both pleasure and dread that I greeted this news. I was pleased to have been chosen for the project but at the same time I understood that I was about to undertake a project that was acutely under-funded and I would be working for next to nothing.

    Saajda Musawwir Ladner called a meeting and a group of artists associated with the Temple met. From this group we formed a working crew. Shaye Broadnax, Lorenzo Hail, and Edward Ladner joined with me in forming a work crew. We were given a location at the intersection of Beach and Van Duzer and waited for Where to Turn To to prepare the wall on which we were to paint.

    The wall itself was deeply textured with a stucco like finish we blocked in the basic drawing and work began in earnest June 14, 2006. It took us about a week to complete the drawing. I gave Shaye the job of the full size ballerina and Lorenzo was put to work laying in some of Maurice's drawings given to me by Andrea Phillips, Maurice's widow.

    Having Maurice's drawings in the basic design furthered the feeling of authenticity for me. Andrea also gave me a series of photos of Maurice. There was a profile shot of Maurice looking from behind a tangled vine. I used this image at both ends of the mural; they became pillars supporting the theme.

    At this time we were approached by Gano Grills, a graffiti artist and actor who said he was interested in working with us. He said he was great at lettering. However he wanted to use spray-paint and I was against anything but brushwork. After much back and forth I agreed to let him spray in the letters. He wanted to freestyle, which meant no preliminary sketching. His first attempt to do this was not right. The letters sprawled all over the place and we had to paint them out. I insisted that the next attempt had to be blocked in first. I ended up doing this chore and his next attempt to paint hit the mark: The letters were a crucial point as they were done in a font originally designed by Maurice himself. Sajda had preserved his original designs and rightly wanted them to be used in the mural.

    It took us about four weeks to complete the painting. Our schedule was made difficult by the intermittent heat wave. We worked Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. We could never start before noon because the sun hit directly on the wall until noon when it passed over the building and glare was gone.

    We finished the project on July 22. This meant there was six weeks of work put in on the wall. An additional two to three weeks was spent on preparation and documentation.


Text copyright © 2007 Robert Sievert
Images copyright © 2007 Robert Sievert




March 17, 2007