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Without the military, we wouldn’t have our rights: How artist John Zerbe is paying tribute to veterans

Kensington artist John Zerbe paints a panel for a new mural at one of Impact Services’ veterans’ housing facility. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

On Jan. 22, John Zerbe, an artist who lives in Kensington, talked to Kensington Voice’s Zari Tarazona about the mural he’s producing with artist Kien Nguyen at Impact Services’ 124 veterans housing facility.

The Kensington Veterans Project, a 2-year-long initiative funded by Dave and Jane Hummel, is a collaboration between Mural Art’s Porch Light program and Impact.  The Porch Light program is also a collaboration between Mural Arts and the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.

As part of the project, Zerbe, who served in the United States Army from 1994 to 1997, runs an art workshop for veterans at 124. Several of those veterans are helping Zerbe with the mural and have been hired as assistant artists. 

The goal of the initiative is to provide veterans with opportunities to make art and receive workforce development, said Porch Light Program’s Project Manager Jessica Lewis-Turner. 

The mural will be featured inside Impact’s upcoming community space, which was previously used as a gym. It will be positioned so people walking by the building can see it through the windows.

Kensington artist John Zerbe paints a panel for a new mural at one of Impact Services’ veterans’ housing facility. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

What is the purpose of the mural in Impact’s building?

John: The mural is a tribute to the community and also veterans and what they do for us. The concept was servicing the community, so we had to find a way to tie that in with veterans without being overly patriotic, and also make it fun for kids. That’s why there’s an abstract, street art feel to it. Street art and graphics are the languages of the upcoming generation and even our generation because it’s so programmed in us, like logos.

Zari: Yeah, the mural looks beautiful. I did think it would look more patriotic. 

John: Well, that was the real trick. To give tribute to veterans and their service, but also make it community-inspired.

How did you get into making murals?

John: Well, I actually never really had professional training on how to paint. I did some college, but my background is graphic design and animation. I didn’t necessarily like the commercial aspect of both of those fields. I kinda was just born with the gift of art. I got into mural-making through an opportunity to do Lucky Strike Philadelphia’s mural in Center City. Once I did something large-scale, I liked the movement and the activity involved in the painting. That led me to reach out to Mural Arts. I applied for their mural training class and volunteered for a while. Eventually, I was lucky enough to work under [Mural Arts staff artist] Dave McShane. He mentored me. He was also the person who does the mural training class. 

Since you collaborated with Nguyen for this mural, how did you come up with your part of the design?

John: Jasmin Velez works with Impact. Before I started doing my workshops with the vets, she was doing a community art workshop. They were cutting and painting pieces of paper and then putting them together in the form of the flag. It reminded me of how a mosaic mural would be done. I thought it’d be cool. I started out with that blue and the stars for the flag. I thought it’d be cool to make it a little funky — like that street art style. Also, if you notice the design, the flag is actually backward. I did that to symbolize the first responders in the neighborhood — a lot of times the flags on their sleeves are backward. 

Zari: Are there any other references to veterans?

John: The wing. I was looking at badges and trying to figure out how to symbolize the military. What gave me the idea was the jump wings. When you go through airborne school, you get jump wings.

What kind of workshops do you do with veterans at Impact?

John: We started off with just drawing and painting classes. It kind of started off slow until people got into it. 

Zari: How did you get involved? 

John: I met Jasmin at some community meetings at the Kensington Storefront. She was telling me about her workshop for veterans at Impact. I was like, that sounds cool. I’ll come over and volunteer and then they decided to do this project. Lewis-Turner also asked me to do these workshops from our work relationship at the Storefront and other Porch Light projects.

Zari: When did you start the workshops?

John: This past summer.

How did the mural, which was originally meant to focus on the community, also become a tribute to veterans?

John: For me, it didn’t feel like it would be right without creating some reference to the veterans. Without them, I probably wouldn’t have even been involved. Being a veteran myself, I think a lot of people don’t realize what veterans do. Without the military, we wouldn’t have our rights. A lot of times, I think people kind of just live their life and don’t respect that, when a lot of the freedoms we have are specifically because of veterans.

Would you like to add anything else?

John: A shout out to Mural Arts and Jane Golden for giving me this opportunity, and also McShane, who’s been my mentor and teacher. I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for him doing what he does. Nguyen, for collaborating and helping with the mural. All the veterans for their service and participation. The people I work with in Kensington like the Storefront crew — Roz Pichardo, Emily Crane, Lisa Kelley, Kathryn Pannepacker, Thomas Franks, Ashley Flynn, Michael Worthy, Jackie Blue, Ursula Rucker, and Anthony Molden — and Britt Carpenter. Impact’s Zoë Van Orsdol, Blair Tiger and Velez for their guidance and help introducing me to the veterans. Art ignites change.

Editor: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Diana Cristancho