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.