At more than four stories high and a bit longer than a blue whale, it’s easy to focus on the sheer size of Water Gives Life, a new mural by artists and partners Euhri Jones and David McShane.

But to do so would be missing out on the backstory and many small details that make this a special piece for Jones, McShane, and the city.

Jones and McShane are pictured standing smiling in paint-splattered t-shirts in front of their newly completed mural, full of boldly colored flora and fauna on a backdrop of waterways, pipes, and abstract water-themed motifs.

Jones and McShane make finishing touches on the Water Gives Life mural ahead of the Oct. 23 dedication. Photo Credit: PWD

The mural was officially welcomed into Philadelphia’s legendary public art collection at an October 23 dedication ceremony, one of many events taking place during Mural Arts Month.

Located at 13th and Arch Streets (though you might also spot it on one of the mural-wrapped Lyft cars driving around the city), Water Gives Life offers passersby a burst of vibrant colors that McShane says are intended to leave you feeling like you’re in the presence of a verdant garden.

That was the idea when McShane first painted the wall two decades ago, and it holds true for this latest work, what the artists consider a reimagining of the original.

‘Envision Something New’

One of his first big pieces after graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, McShane said the 1998 mural was commissioned by Mural Arts Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to inject a sense of nature into the area. He was selected to do the work after winning a competition for the best proposal.

“There wasn’t a whole lot to look at around here at that time, and since there wasn’t any real room for actual green space, the idea was to paint a garden into existence right on the wall,” said McShane.

He and Jones, also a PAFA grad, had recently started dating. She gave him some suggestions on making flowers featured within the work look more life-like and helped with some painting.

Dozens and dozens of Philly murals, a few kids, and 20 years later, and the couple have just completed what they consider to be their very first full collaboration, resulting in the stunning Water Gives Life.

“The original mural was portraits of flowers and vegetables to highlight the kind of programs that the Horticultural Society does. And 20 years later, it was in need of some restoration and some freshening-up,” McShane said. “Rather than put the resources into painting exactly what was there and refreshing it, we thought it would be a great opportunity for us to do something new and envision something new.”

New Partner, New Theme

Also different this time around: the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) joined PHS in sponsoring the work, a pairing born out of a close relationship developed through the Rain Check program. Launched in 2012, Rain Check is funded by the PWD and managed by PHS and the Sustainable Business Network.

The not-for-profit organization hosts workshops throughout the year that provide Philadephia residents free rain barrels and subsidies for larger green stormwater projects, like rain gardens and rain-absorbing pavement.

While McShane has worked on past projects with PHS, Jones has done several projects with PWD, including a mural in West Philadelphia overlooking a vacant lot-turned rain garden.

McShane has done well over 100 murals in the area, many of them wrap-around works at local schools. (Fun fact: McShane’s twin brother, Frank, works as a graphic artist with the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary and designed the old “Yo! Fish” markers that urged residents not to dump trash in PWD storm drains.)

Where’s Water?

Rain Check shows up in the mural via a rain barrel, just one of the many water references. The Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, the source of Philadelphia’s drinking water, feature prominently in a backdrop that also includes the city’s downtown street grid.

Snaking throughout that scene are water mains and sewers, drawing attention to the 6,800-plus miles of infrastructure maintained by PWD. A flowing tap spills clean drinking water into a glass, and a garden hose and watering can spray life-sustaining H2O onto a bright spread of vegetables, flowers, mushrooms, and more.

Other water references are more subtle: curvey threads of blue ribbons cascade down the wall, imagery Jones says were inspired by the raindrop-like sculptures of Japanese-American artist Ruth Asawa.

Personal + Philly Touches

While the pipes, drinking water tap and flowers all support the mural’s theme, Jones and McShane said many elements have personal ties too.

“With the flowers, many of them have an association with the names of our kids and family,” said Jones. Viewers will find violets and pearl bush flowers – a nod to their daughters, who also helped with painting – and roses, a bloom that honors Jones’ mother.

“My father was a plumber for over 40 years, and in a way, these pipes are also sort of reference to that and a homage to him,” said McShane. “We had to get him in there.”

'Water Gives Life' Mural Dedication

While the family references are hidden secrets peppered into the mural, people from all over the city and country can look at Water Gives Life and recognize their own handy work. McShane estimates about 80 percent of the 25-square-foot panels that cover the wall were painted at community events over the summer.

Those events include community paint days at the Farm for the City urban farm popup that PHS hosted across from City Hall and a public paint session at Coast Day, where PWD Commissioner Debra McCarty helped brush in part of the water barrel. At another event, a group from Salt Lake City helped fill in panels.

Speaking at the Oct. 23 dedication ceremony, Commissioner McCarty praised those who made the new mural a reality.

“Whether it is in the rivers that provide our drinking water or in the pipes that connect every home and business to our treatment plants, water is extremely important to our city, and Eurhi and Dave have truly helped us get that message out to our customers by using the powerful tool of art to communicate in a beautiful way,” McCarty said. “We’re excited about this mural’s focus on water and we hope it will  foster conversations about the importance of infrastructure and protecting our rivers for years to come.”

You can hear more remarks from the event in this video: