James "Big Man" Maxton
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James 'Big Man' Maxton, part of N. Phila. art project

James "Big Man" Maxton, 57, a former drug addict who discovered a talent for mosaic sculpture through his involvement with classic Chinese artist Lily Yeh and helped transform a miserable neighborhood at ground zero of blight into an oasis of joy, died of liver cancer Tuesday in his North Philadelphia home.

In 1986, when Yeh, a professor at the University of the Arts, was invited to create a garden in the 2500 block of Germantown Avenue by the Village of Arts and Humanities, she saw an opportunity to use art as ballast against urban blight.

Yeh began to build the garden in a trash heap on an abandoned lot. Mr. Maxton was heavily into dope at the time, and he watched her, bemused.

With a $2,500 grant from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts to do something artistic on trashed land, she hired Jojo Williams, another neighborhood druggie with hidden talent, to help her clear trash.

Local children got involved, and finally, in 1988, Mr. Maxton was drawn in.

Yeh communicated the possibility of form and meaning in life through art to a growing number of helpers. The park was her living example of how the neighbors could bring order from chaos.

She gave Mr. Maxton the chance to see life without drugs and to discover his artistic vision.

"I underwent a profound physical and spiritual change," Mr. Maxton told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1991. "This was like a safe haven for me. I guess, without my knowing it, I was granted a sanctuary of sorts. As I was moving toward this place, it was getting ready for me."

He began making "trees" that he decorated with broken glass and mirrors. He gave up drugs and became hooked on mosaics. Yeh painted huge Ethiopian angels on the wall of an alley between neighborhood gardens, and Mr. Maxton mosaicked them with extravagant colors that wildly reflected light.

Soon he was supervising construction crews and renovating rowhouses for classrooms, and the Village hired him as director of operations.

Mr. Maxton gave the neighborhood his heart and soul and much of its artistic face, including Angel Alley, Meditation Park, and the Tree Farm. It is a magical place stretching for blocks encompassing gardens, parks, sculpture, graphic arts, murals and crafts; rehabilitation and new construction of housing; a tree farm; and theater and video programs. Hundreds of area residents are involved in various Village projects. The heart of the Village sprawls from Cumberland to Huntingdon Streets and from Germantown Avenue to 11th Street.

One of eight children born in Thomasville, N.C., Mr. Maxton moved to North Philadelphia in 1965. He earned an associate degree in business in 1969 from Community College of Philadelphia.

An Eagles fan, Mr. Maxton was thrilled when the Eagles Youth Partnership Program, which included all the players, cheerleaders, staff and owner, went to the Village and built a playground in 2000. Each player left a footprint in concrete, which Mr. Maxton covered with mosaic.

On Sunday, the neighborhood is throwing a Super Bowl party at 5:30 p.m. at the Village headquarters to celebrate Mr. Maxton's life. There will be a wide-screen TV, food, fun, and a chance to say goodbye to a giant soul.

Mr. Maxton is survived by sisters Vivian, Nancy, Debra and Carlene.

Friends may visit at 9 a.m. Wednesday at Cookman Church, 12th Street and Lehigh Avenue. The funeral will follow at 11. Burial will be private.

Memorial donations may be sent to the Village of Arts and Humanities, 2544 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia 19133.
Published in Philadelphia Inquirer/Philadelphia Daily News on Feb. 4, 2005.
Memories & Condolences
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27 entries
December 11, 2012
I was deeply moved by the documentary i say featuring this amazing man, rest in peace. If anyone knows the mane of it , i would appericate it
Bintu Conteh
January 5, 2006
I am so late...this what i felt the day I met you. I am so very late. There isn't enough time, and yet...God gave me 5 years...and I am so incredibly grateful.

I will never forget.
Yetunde Pinckney
May 1, 2005
My dear BigMan,
Best friend, I love you so very
deeply and I miss you.
How to say goodbye to someone as sweet and kind as you is beyond Me.
I can hear your sweet voice in my
mind, I can hardly believe you're
not here anymore. All of My love always!
Loving You,
Barbara DeLaney
February 16, 2005
To Family and Friends,

My deepest sympathies. I have not had the pleasure to know Mr. Maxton, but I knew of him through my sister, Staci Robinson. She was so fond and moved by him as a man, a co-worker, and a VERY good friend.

May god bless and keep you healthy!

Monica Payne
Monica Payne
February 11, 2005
Big, words can not express the emptiness I feel since you are not at the village anymore. I know that NOW you are FREE to walk, run, jump and skip all around the throne of glory. So I say walk my brother, run my friend, until we meet again. Much Luv Peace
Felicia Williams
February 10, 2005
Uncle Big,
There are no words to explain how I'm feeling right now. I just want the family to know that I love yall and I'm here for yall in this grieving time.
Uncle Big you was the light that shined on me and you will never be forgottened and always in my heart.
Love always
mamma Clara & the kids
Clara Phillips
February 10, 2005
Dear one,

You, who was so taken with the Philadelphia Eagles, was yourself a bird...a phoenix reborn from the ashes of your past, channeling the fire to create. You transformed yourself as you teamed with Lily and so many others to transform your neighborhood. Big Man, your vision and heart spread the art of possibility and connection through the Village and beyond. Thank you for the beauty that you brought to the neighborhood and to me. May the angels and guardians you placed throughout the Village continue to watch over those who follow in your footsteps. With love, Sarah
Sarah Martinez-Helfman
February 9, 2005
My deepest sympathy to the family.
Rebecca Harley (NAB)
February 9, 2005
Dear Deborah and family,
This is not as personnal as I would like but comes with God's love and warm thoughts and heart felt grief for both you and your family. Remember that God is closs to the broken hearted. Psalm 34:18 May He stay close to you all.

It's in the name of Jesus that I wish this for your family.

God bless you all.

Sheila Greer (NAB)
Sheila Greer
February 8, 2005
To: James 'Big Man' also known as 'Sammy' Maxton

Brother-in-law, Uncle and Great Uncle. Gone but not forgotten. You will always be in our memories and in our hearts. We know that you are painting on that big easel in the sky.

"Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the Lord." Psalm 31:24

Shirley Maxton
Micah, Fatima, Mia and Daniel Gaddy
Fatima Maxton Gaddy
February 8, 2005
Dear James "Big Man" Maxton,
I did not know you but reading about you wish I had met such a great Man. God Bless you with a gift that I wish a lot of Brothers would express. Wish I had the opportunity to have met you. I know you will be miss.
Normajean Cole
February 8, 2005
I knew "Big Man" through my sister and it has been a pleasure to see a man take something negative from the neighborhood and turn it into something positive. "Big Man" you will be surely missed, but you will always have special place an many hearts, God Bless
Tamika Griffith
February 8, 2005
Big was a very close and dear friend of mine. We go back way back if you know what I mean...WAY BACk. He gave his heart and soul to me and the people in this community. He was a scholar and had a vision but all at end he was my friend.

Always loving,
Skeeter Brown
Skeeter Brown
February 8, 2005
"BIG MAN" it was truly a pleasure to be acquainted with you, such a kind and caring man.

Connie Pointer
Connie Pointer
February 7, 2005
Thanks always, Big Man, for choosing to pursue Joy wholeheartedly. From the first time I met you at the Village in 1994, your warm spirit and exuberant mosaics radiated an invitation to fullness of Life. You carried that message to State College in 2002 when you and Kelly spoke at Penn State (and again when Penn Staters visited the Village). The seeds of hope that you planted have helped inspire Penn Staters to work with Harrisburg community members on festivals, murals, and green spaces. I and others will continue to draw from the well of your spirit, story, and legacy of restoring and celebrating life through art.

Forever grateful for these gifts,
Ermyn King
February 7, 2005
I, along with so many other people was blessed to have known such a man as "Big Man". I was fortunate enough to know him in Thomasville, N.C., where he starred as a football player for Church Street School. When I moved to Philadelphia, his family became my family. As a teenager, I always considered him to be my friend and protector. He will be missed but always remembered.

God's Blessings and my love,
Patricia Davis
February 6, 2005
Dear Big Man,
I plan to come to the Village and view your art. When I close my eyes I can see it undulating, sparkling, and feel its life. Your light and life will live on forever in the Village.
How lucky the people of Philadelphia are that you left your mark in this ground zero of blight.
The lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people will be enriched by your struggle from the hell of drugs to the heaven of light.
We love you, Big Man.
Lee Koening
February 5, 2005
Dear Uncle Big,
I‘ll miss you; your words of wisdom and encouragement. Even though I may have thought that I knew everything you show me there so much more to learn. I wish to become at least half the man that you were. You show me and others that anything possible through faith and perseverance. I guess your sister Nancy (My mother) saw greatness in you, that it why she Named me James after her big brother, I just hope to live up to it. (Your Nephew James)
James Maxton
February 4, 2005
Dear Big Man,
The inspiration you brought to North Philadelphia will be alive forever.
I am so sorry you missed the Eagles' Super Bowl party which is now in your honor.
Lee Yung
February 4, 2005
A big light went out at the Village when we lost our beloved Big Man. He was a giant bundle of strength and delight. We cried over his shoulder when things got rough. He took everyone into his heart in a most caring and nonjudgmental way. He was everyone's very special friend; he listened and understood. I was heart broken and looked for him the morning he passed away. Then I found him beckoning to me everywhere in the gardens and parks at the Village through his wondrous sculptures and mosaic art. Big Man has endured untold sufferings. Yet what he expressed through his art and his being was jubilance and joy. He taught me the essence of human dignity and love. I carry him in my heart.
Lily Yeh
February 4, 2005
I'll always love you "BIG" I'll never forget you
Love always BUBBA
Andre' Ware
February 4, 2005
god loved him and saw his greatness through his art and bring happiness to areas that needed it.
February 4, 2005
I was so inspired by the amazing life of Mr. James Maxton, I wanted to put my thoughts into words to honor him in some small way. I offer this token of art, to a great artist, Mr. James Maxton.


For Mr. James Maxton
N. Phila.

“Big Man”
I never knew you, but
I wish I did.

Pulling at your sleeve.
When you saw Yeh,
You had your doubts.
Art in the Combat Zone?

Hypnotic Swirl of
Hue and color
Drew you in.
Like a little boy with
Dormant ball and
Hat in hand,
You, wanted to play.

Intoxicating drugs
Supplanted by intoxicating
Grease of Dirty Pigment
Smooth-sharp Glass
Crunching at your feet.
Sun reflecting
In your
Soft Brown Eyes,
Did the glare make
You Cry?
Crafted chains of
Mosaic Ethiopian Angels.
2500 Block, Germantown Avenue
Art in the Combat Zone.

“Big Man,”
I want to know.
Do your heavenly angels
Dance and shimmer
With intoxicating swirls of color?
Are you there with hat in hand
Waiting to jump in?
Michelle Miller
February 4, 2005
Big Man, I wish I had known you. The world is a better place because of you.
Bonnie Smith
February 4, 2005
I didn't know him well, but well enough to know him as a sweet man.
Rob Tannen
February 4, 2005
Just came upon this loss in the Phila paper. What a transformation in his life. God works in interesting ways. This is a story for "Guidepost."
I just wanted to offer my sincere sympathy to the family and the people of N. Phila.
Go Eagles.
February 4, 2005
"Big Man" led a big life, touching the souls and minds of everyone who knew him and learned from him. We will miss him forever.
Bob Grossmann
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