Fine art was never the right fit for David McShane (MFA ’95).
“I was the son of a plumber; my parents were hard working-class Catholics. My twin brother and I were the youngest of 8 kids, so it wasn’t like I was raised in a place where there were a lot of resources,” he said. “We didn’t go to museums much, I certainly didn’t know what art galleries were about or had been to one. I mean maybe on a school trip we went to a museum but it wasn’t something regular.”
He liked working with his hands and was entranced by the human figure but McShane spent his undergraduate years studying anatomy for medical, not for art purposes.
“I was to LaSalle University as a pre-med major, was a bio major/pre-med and I was working in Germantown hospital as a lab technician and phlebotomist, a person who takes the blood,” he said. “I could have done it, become a doctor, but I realized there was something missing. I loved studying anatomy but more from the perspective that these muscles help this motion happen.”
After working on his portfolio, McShane enrolled in PAFA’s Certificate program and then the MFA program. He studied fine art technique and worked on figure drawing and painting but was being pulled towards large-scale murals.
“In the Master's program, my work started to get much bigger and had a lot of social commentary,” he said. “All of my critics were coming in and saying you should be a muralist.”
Crossing paths with Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, in a PAFA Continuing Education class led McShane to feature his artwork around the city.
His first few Mural Arts projects included a mural in Old City for World AIDS Days, a project commemorating a group of women in Norris Square, and then his first big break was a mural to honor Jackie Robinson.
The mural of the baseball great at Broad and Somerset streets was a dream for a lifelong baseball fan like McShane. As a fan of all the Philadelphia sports teams, McShane had spent several years incorporating athletics into his artwork.
“In my studio I had been doing a whole series making these paintings, mostly related to baseball of batters in motion and pitchers in the motion of throwing the ball,” he said. “There is almost sort of a ballet to it.”
The Jackie Robinson mural, completed in 1997, exposed more people to McShane’s work. Instead of a gallery show with a select group of people seeing his art, McShane’s murals were seen by a city full of people.
“Suddenly there was this avenue where my work was accessible to homeless guys, people walking down the street trying to catch the bus, working-class people, regular people and people driving by in Rolls-Royces. Anybody could see it,” he said. “So I started owning the fact that my roots are working class. The people I want to speak to our working class and this is a great way to do it.”
Through Mural Arts, McShane is not only able to share his art with the city but help people leave their own mark on Philadelphia. With the Eagles Playground Build, Mural Arts beautifies city school buildings and playgrounds with the support of the Philadelphia Eagles.
The latest Eagles Playground Build helped the Hackett Elementary School community in Kensington. A new playground was installed and McShane worked with Hackett students on a mural stretching across the school’s exterior.
“We’re able to come in and do murals and we’re able to work with kids over a 6 month period. I can incorporate their drawings into the mural, and I can do drawing workshops with the kids,” he said. “We have this great paint day where every kid gets to paint and the Philadelphia Eagles come and they paint, too. Every kid literally leaves a mark behind by helping paint the mural and some of them leave their artwork behind by having their drawing included.”
The Hackett Elementary mural features an Eagles kicker but it’s not McShane’s only brush with the football team.
The sports lover previously completed the Philadelphia Phillies 2008 World Series mural and a City of Champions mural celebrating sports wins in the city, but it was missing the ever-elusive Lombardi trophy.
“I had painted every championship trophy except for the Lombardi trophy,” he said. “Then when the Eagles won the Super Bowl it was like, ‘Okay, we gotta start the other side.’ That’s kind of exciting to be able to do those things.”
A piece of art commemorating a team that called themselves underdogs was a perfect fit for McShane and the Mural Arts program
“All of these people in this blue-collar city really connected with them and I feel like a lot what that celebration was the triumph of the working class,” he said. “Sometimes you work hard and you do succeed, so that was kind of what I was thinking about when I was making that mural.”
It’s surreal to McShane that his career has taken him this way.
“When I was making those early paintings around sports and baseball at the academy when I was still in the Master's program, I was thinking that I’d like to be a muralist. And wouldn’t it be cool to paint murals about the sports teams I love and just sports in general and then years later actually getting to do this.”