From Seed to Fruition, a Mural Springs Up

Hilary Bentman, Associate Director of Communications
People gathered in front of Metro Hall for the ribbon cutting of a new mural on the building wall
A ribbon cutting on the new Chester Grows mural was held on April 5, 2023.

It began nearly three years ago – a seed of an idea that could help further bridge the Widener and greater Chester communities together through the medium of art.

Today, that seed has blossomed into the Community Mural Art Project’s “Chester Grows,” a 20-by-30-foot vibrantly colored mural that now adorns the Melrose Avenue side of Widener’s Metropolitan Hall.

Mural on the side of Metro Hall featuring a woman seated on a yellow couch in a room, with portraits behind her and flowers and produce around her.

The mural represents and honors Chester’s residents, history, industrial past, and distinct character. 

“This project is about seeing through to other communities. Widener and Chester are two communities living harmoniously. We’re in Chester. We are Chester,” said Ijjae Hill ’23 ’25.

Hill, a visual and performing arts major / physical therapy doctoral student, came up with the idea for a mural after attending a Bonner Scholar workshop on the power of art activism.

“I’ve seen all the beautiful aspects of Chester and I love serving in the community,” said Hill, who also serves as the university’s student trustee.

For Widener to be able to walk past it and educate themselves… I want others to understand the importance of engaging with the community.” — Ijjae Hill '23 '25

The design and creation of the mural is a true community effort.

Hill and fellow student Nyima Sagnia ’23 proposed the project to university administration. Hill and Joseph Matassino, Widener’s director of sponsored research and foundation relations, secured a $15,000 grant from TD Charitable Foundation, as well as funding from the College of Arts & Sciences.

Eight people involved in the creation of the mural pose in front of it
Mural organizers, the mural artist, and the residents who served as the inspiration for the design, were all on hand for the unveiling.

That funding helped cover the cost of materials, installation, and the muralist, Misty Sol, a former Chester resident who continues to work and engage with the community in the city.

Working with Sol and faculty partner Jayne Thompson, associate teaching professor of English, Hill conducted focus groups with students and residents to generate ideas for the mural’s design. They interviewed community elders, including two local women known affectionately in the area as “Aunt Chris” and “Ms. Debbie,” who spoke of the generations of Black families that have called Chester home.

Sol photographed Ms. Debbie in her aunt’s living room and that image served as the main inspiration for the design. The mural includes a woman sitting on a bright yellow sofa. On the wall behind her are photos of well-known and locally known Chester figures, as well as images associated with the city’s industrial roots. 

Flowers and fresh produce are strewn about, inspired by the city’s gardens and specifically the Ruth Bennett Community Farm. Part of the Chester Housing Authority, the farm provides fresh, affordable produce to the community, including to residents who live in public housing. 

“As a black woman and former resident, I know that Chester is a city with the heart of a small town,” said Sol in her artist’s statement. “I know that Chester grows generations of big beautiful black families: legacy, love, genius, and leadership. Chester grows greatness. This mural is a tribute to the rich soil of Chester's history and it is a love letter to the local farms, families, activists, and artists working to ensure that Chester grows a bright future."

Group of students paint a piece of the mural on the ground on campus
Several paint sessions were held on campus and in the community.

Once the mural design was set, paint sessions were held at Widener and around the city, including at neighboring Stetser Elementary School and at the Boys & Girls Club, so that the greater community had a role in creating the piece. 

“It’s not only a painting of individuals, but it’s painted by individuals. That’s what means the most to me,” said Hill. 

At the bottom of the mural is a short poem written by robotics engineering major Adonijah Allsup ’23: “Special voices. varied in pitch and cadence meant to influence the world. Their presence and influence will be felt from pole to pole and continent to continent.”

The mural was intentionally positioned on a public-facing side of a campus building so that the larger community could reflect on and enjoy it.

This is one more way we can join hands with the community, on a community-facing wall, not something we keep private. It’s a representation of our relationship.” — Jayne Thompson, associate teaching professor of English & the project's faculty partner 

Hill is particularly proud of the placement as it sits across the street from a community playground and the gateway to Widener’s athletics complex, and is near the Chester Community Clinic, a pro bono health clinic that the university operates for area residents, which, among other services, offers physical therapy.

“It shows that everybody’s part of the Pride,” said Hill.

The mural was unveiled during Widener’s Week of Belonging, which Hill called fitting as it speaks to a sense of belonging that she and others have worked hard to foster at Widener and beyond.

“This is one mural on the side of one building, but so many lives have been touched from end to end in creating it,” said Hill. “We can better the lives of others and there’s so many ways to do it.”

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