Street mural located on E 3rd St and Adams in South Bethlehem. The mural is part of the "Connected By Kindness" series sponsored by the Southside Arts District. (Yijie Zhang/ B&W Staff)

SouthSide Arts District murals imbue a sense of community

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This past summer, the SouthSide Arts District helped facilitate the creation of street murals around Lehigh University, covering areas from West Third Street to Taylor Street.

The SouthSide Arts District is an extension of the Bethlehem Economic Development Corporation, focused on creating a thriving South Side business district. 

Missy Hartney, downtown manager of the SouthSide Arts District, said the four-point approach is key to the district’s success. The four points include promotion, design, economic vitality and organization. 

Each point has a committee of volunteers from the community to design plans for future murals. Hartney said these elements are what artists use as a means of inspiration for their work.

Hartney said the murals around the South Side have become an important part of the artistic culture within Bethlehem. The SouthSide Arts district has created a community of artists whose work may be viewed throughout the town. 

 The SouthSide Mural Arts Project was a collaborative effort led by Lehigh University, ArtsQuest and the SouthSide Arts District. Hartney said the murals first gained attention in 2018. 

“The public outcry of admiration for these works led the SouthSide Arts District to apply for the Northampton County Community Investment Partnership Program to have these murals become a permanent part of the South Side streetscape,” Hartney said. “Their contribution made it possible for these works to be repaired and brightened.” 

As a result of this program, there are five murals that have been revamped around the South Side.

Each year, more murals are added to the South Side, including five murals in 2019 and a public piano in 2020. 

Hartney said the goals of this project are to calm traffic and build a sense of community, one of the main objectives of the SouthSide Arts District.

“We were fortunate to be awarded two grants—one from Northampton County and the other from Lehigh Valley Health Network—to create a street mural to help calm traffic at the intersection of Third and Adams streets,” Hartney said. “Public art has long been sought as a solution to busy trafficked intersections. Murals cause the driver to focus and navigate the crossing with caution.”

Many of the murals are also reflective of the Bethlehem culture and community. Artist Lauren Kuhn painted the mural outside of Tally Ho Tavern on West Fourth Street. The mural is based on the Steel Stacks.

Each mural takes a different amount of time to complete. Kuhn said hers took longer than expected because of the creative changes her project underwent. Her final piece is a colorful one in the style of stained glass. 

“I initially started with a different idea, which didn’t work out as planned, so I scrapped it, sanded it down, re-sealed the panel and started over again with a Bethlehem Steel design,” Kuhn said. “I painted it outside, propped up vertically against my house, occasionally climbing up a ladder to get the upper three foot section, as I’m only a little over five feet tall.” 

Artist Sarah Karess said there are many other forms of inspiration for the murals. 

Karess said for her project she completed one corner at a time, combining stencil work and free-hand art to produce a nature-inspired piece.

“Within any community, the cornerstone to wellness and quality of life is driven by kindness, and we all have a hand in helping each other grow,” Karess said. “Each unique corner of the mural features a colorful mosaic of floral patterns and diverse hands offering various flowers to passersby in cars and those on walks.”

Karess said she had to budget her time outside of her full-time job as a graphic designer to create her mural. She ended up taking two weekends and four week nights to complete the project. 

The murals are on public display around the South Side for students, faculty, tourists and the rest of the Bethlehem community to see.

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