CONSHOHOCKEN — Members of Americans for the Arts believe public art “humanizes the built environment, provides an intersection between past, present and future, and can help communities thrive.” Of course, that art – like the artists who create it – varies: From monumental, centuries-old statuary to the edgy social images by Banksy and colossal installations of Christo, who passed away in May at the age of 84.

Local artists like Lily Gravagno, Brian Coll and Kim Robbins don’t aspire to such prominence. But each of the three has found a way to turn the murkiness of the COVID-19 pandemic into unique bursts of public color in the Conshohocken-Whitemarsh area.

Conshohocken Free Library is getting a mini-facelift, thanks to Gravagno. As innkeeper at the borough’s George Washington Wood Bed and Breakfast, her time is usually spent hosting travelers. But these days, Gravagno is using her creative talents to brighten CFL’s exterior. Library regulars are already familiar with a mural the longtime Conshohocken resident painted inside. Now, the affable Gravagno is brushing graphics related to popular books like “Harry Potter,” “Peter Pan” and “The Great Gatsby” – with special shout-outs to CFL’s volunteer Friends group – on its side steps.

Gravagno isn’t formally trained, but she’s been “doing art since I was a kid.” In addition to a handful of private commissions, she has also painted murals at Conshohocken’s St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and the former SS. Cosmas and Damian Education Center.

CFL has been an iconic presence on the borough’s main street since it moved into the Victorian Gothic Revival structure in 1909. The two-and-a-half story building was originally the home of prominent businessman Lewis Lukens who served as president of Alan Wood Steel Company, and one of Gravagno’s visuals will commemorate “My Life,” Lukens’ autobiography.

“This is such a wonderful, supportive community, and I love art so much…I’m happy to do anything I can to add to that,” she says.

Which is music to the ears of CLF Board of Directors President Brian Coll…

Coll, a professional photographer, has been keen on public art for some time. He and wife Anna Gibbard, a scientist at EISAI in Exton, recently painted a vivid oversized butterfly on the wall at Scoop’s Ice Cream on Fayette Street, and the couple has partnered on a number of other open-air mosaics in town, including one behind the family’s Fayette Street frame shop-gallery and another on an exterior wall at 11th Avenue and Maple Street. Coll just completed a third at a new smoothy stand on Forrest Street near Fourth Avenue.

Their interest in mosaics took off after they took lessons on the medium at Isaiah Zagar’s fantastical Magic Gardens on South Street in Philadelphia. Coll also crafts one-of-a-kind live edge tables.

Robbins’ venture into public art began when Plymouth Whitemarsh High School’s spring athletic season came to an unexpected halt.

“When the pandemic struck, so much changed, and fear and anxiety were on the rise,” she says. “As a track coach at PW, our season abruptly ended. As an artist, my work was now sitting in closed shops and galleries. The future felt heavy and bleak.”

Until the veteran art teacher noticed an uptick in the amount of bike-riding in her Plymouth Meeting neighborhood and experienced an aha moment…

“When I started doing sidewalk chalk designs in front of my house, the kids began stopping by to see what was next, and, eventually, it became a ‘thing,’” she explains. “Now, we all have wonderful conversations, and their anticipation and joy have lifted me more than they will ever know. With so much extra time, I’ve been creating many paintings in my home studio. But when I see the kids circling out front, I often take a break, grab the sidewalk chalk and head out to join them.”

Bad weather inspired an outside mural that became doubly timely.

“Several times, some of the parents and kids mentioned that they were always sad when it rained and washed away the artwork,” Robbins. “At one point, my husband, Daryl, and I were talking about how our old garage door really needed to be replaced. Then, we both smiled, and I knew I had to paint on it. Of course, the neighborhood kids were super excited, and I had frequent visitors while I worked on it.

“I wanted the design to be something that unified all of us and would serve as a reminder that we are in this fight together…two separate hands coming together to make the heart shape around our planet. The message is simple: ‘We Got This.’ With the recent unrest in our country, that message feels even stronger now.”

Thanks to Robbins’ street-side painting skills, an insouciant polar bear lounging on a pool float has joined the Plymouth Meeting landscape, and a neighbor has asked her to paint a mural on her nearby driveway. A new collaboration with Coll might also be in the works. The two met when Robbins, a professional artist (, donated a painting of a koala bear to a 2019 fundraiser hosted by West Conshohocken’s Gypsy Saloon restaurant for victims of Australia’s devastating wildfires. Coll had offered to frame any art contributed to the benefit free of charge, and the Plymouth Meeting woman was the first of a dozen-plus artists to do so.

Robbins was “honored” to be part of that effort and looks forward to doing what she can to support any effort designed to alleviate today’s free-floating stressors.

“As an artist with obviously too much time on my hands, I will continue to do what I can to, hopefully, bring some joy to others during these challenging and uncertain times,” she says.

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