Learning the miracle of the mural

At last, Mona Lisa speaks.

No, not the one in Paris.

We’re talking the one on Broad Street, at the corner of Spring Garden, where for 18 years a towering mural – one of the very best in a city that is known internationally as the center for urban murals – has been gracing the streetscape with images of about 20 high schoolers. It’s called “Common Threads.”

I wrote about it in early May because it is a fascinating piece of work, but despite pulling out every people-finding device I knew how, I couldn’t reach the star of that show, Tameka Jones, whose image dominates the mural. Her image occupies three stories atop the five-story painting.

She’s Mona Lisa-like in that painting, enigmatic, you can’t tell what she might be thinking, whether she’s happy, or sad, introspective or maybe just thinking about something else.

So now, Tameka has emerged, at first via an email to me, and then in a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn.

One of the first questions was this: what were you thinking on that day back when you were a sophomore at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing arts and you posed for the photo that became the highlight of the mural?

Jones, now 34, tends to laugh a bit to punctuate her feelings, and the first time she tried to come up with an answer she said, “I have no idea.”

Later, asked the same question, this: “I probably was happy to get out of class.”

Friends have told her that the expression on her face is rather common for her, and so is fiddling with her braids.

Eventually, the impact of that 1997 mural, and her big role in it, began to occur to her.

Her first reaction, the first time she saw the mural was, “I was kind of horrified.”

She was at the height of an awkward phase, she reckons now.

“I think looking at my image, you know, initially, I’m like ‘I should have worn earrings or I should have put more makeup on,’” she said.

“Then it became amazing,” she said, “I generally kind of grew into my, like, bigness,” she said of the giant image.

Now, she knows how pivotal the mural was for the one-time Southwest Philly girl.

Her friends think the mural is amazing, and she sometimes drives by the painting when she visits Philadelphia from Brooklyn, where she lives with her 9-year-old son.

The mural, said the graduate of prestigious New York University, turned out to be an awakening for her.

It taught her, she said, that she could be as great or as big as she wants to be.

“It’s like if that miracle can happen, then anything can happen,” she said.

These days she runs a life coaching business for other moms, and is working on a book to be called Happy and Healed, which deals with healing from divorce.

She’s all that in Brooklyn.

In Philly, Tameka Jones will always be the girl with the enigmatic look on her face, the Mona Lisa of Broad Street.