Community Harmony Through Song & Play: Three Mosaics for Manly Career Academy High School

Community Harmony Through Song & Play: Three Mosaics for Manly Career Academy High School

The Mosaics: Music | History | Peace in the Park

Contents: Credits | The Design Process | Creating the mosaics | The Youth Artists


Lead Artist: John Unger
Assistant Artist: Caswell James
Mentor: Nina Smoot-Cain

With Youth Artists: Sheena Barlow, DeJuan Birge, Katheris Ellis, Ashley Harvey, Kenyetta Howard, Ernest Johnson, Deanna McElroy, Tiana Solid, Andrew Section

Artist John Unger, assisted by Caswell James and mentored by Nina Smoot-Cain, worked with a team of nine community youths to design and produce three mosaic panels totaling 66 square feet. The mosaics, installed on three walls of the cafeteria at Manly Career Academy High School, brighten what had previously been a sterile, institutional space and create an air of festivity and cultural celebration.

The project was sponsored by Chicago Public Art Group with support from Gallery 37 and the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development.

The Design Process

The design of the panels was the result of several weeks of intense collaboration between Unger, James and the youths. Because North Lawndale is a predominantly African-American neighborhood, the school administration had requested that we focus on African and African-American culture and experience.

We began the design process with an overview of what mosaics are and how they are made. We showed slides of public art mosaic and mural projects from the CPAG archives, discussing both subject matter and technique. In the first week, the youths completed a small practice mosaic to demonstrate the process and introduce them to the skills they would need. We talked about and demonstrated both the potentials of mosaic and it’s limitations.

At the same time, we began a broad investigation of African and diaspora art forms, including folk and outsider art, Haitian art, and the Harlem Renaissance. A special focus was put on collaborations that involved multiple art forms and crossed cultural boundaries—a perfect example of this is found in a photograph by Robert Mappelthorpe of Grace Jones wearing a costume designed and painted by Keith Haring for a dance choreographed by Bill T. Jones. This particular image allowed us to discuss quite a few different elements of working in the arts: collaboration, where artists get their sources, how artists combine the cultural or historical with personal style and vision, and authenticity of cultural representation.

We screened the movie Basquiat, and discussed his art and the youths’ feelings about his life and environment. We examined the infatuation with graffiti in the 1980’s art world which propelled Basquiat, Haring and others to the status of art stars. Although this was a risky topic in a city which has banned the sale of spray paint within city limits, it provided us with ways to really connect the process of making art to daily life and the culture at hand. We asked questions such as “what is the difference between tagging and murals?” and examined ways in which non-permission art can affect a community in either positive or negative ways. This provided an excellent way to frame the concept of creating a permanent message which might influence the community for decades or even centuries…the goal was to inspire the youths to really dig deeply into themselves and discover the messages they felt were most important to communicate to future residents of their neighborhood.

Another artist we focused on strongly was Jacob Lawrence. The simplicity of his forms and lines made him an excellent example of how to convey complex ideas using simple design elements. Aaron Douglas also provided an example of imagery that was incredibly powerful and meaningful while simple in form and palette. The youths were particularly drawn to the linocuts of John Muafangejo, a South African artist whose narrative imagery we used to explain how to tell a story with pictures. The youths were encouraged to think about sequence, pattern and repetition as elements of narrative, and we illustrated these ideas with the work of Muafangejo, Lawrence and narrative conventions used in comic books. Another great resource for design was the children’s book section of the library which provided us with many stories based on African folk tales and examples of clear, powerful images communicating through bold and immediate imagery.

Throughout the second, third and fourth week, we approached the project design from many angles. The youths drew pictures, wrote narratives, discussed ideas, made collage images using construction paper, traced images that appealed to them from books and completed a second practice mosaic. For many of the drawings and collages, we left the subject matter open to see what would arise from the youths spontaneously. They were encouraged to experiment, sketch, and improvise without worrying about whether a particular drawing would find its way into the final design. The youths were also given subject assignments, including images of the community, masks, instruments and musicians, dancers, patterns, and symbols. Probably the most successful imagery was generated in the cut paper collages. This was a process Nina Smoot-Cain suggested. It works well because it bypasses the fear of drawing which can often paralyze students with worry over whether they will be able to express themselves or “do it good enough.” The collage process also seems to generate very fresh, spontaneous imagery through simple lines and bright colors.

For the second practice mosaic we assigned the topic of masks, which we hoped to incorporate in the final design. As the design process moved forward, it became obvious that the masks would not be incorporated into any of the three panels, yet they were so good that James and Unger talked with the youths about the possibility of installing them in the community as a non-permission mural. One reason we considered this was because it would allow the youths to participate in the installation process which was the only aspect of the project with which they would not get hands-on experience.

Far more importantly, the process of deliberating a non-permission piece openly and putting it to a vote was the moment when the students became most involved with the project, taking on a deep sense of personal responsibility and examining their feelings, motives and ideas about the message and function of art. Rather than telling them what art is, or why we were doing a mural in the first place, we were able to put them in control of the project at this point and give them a sense of ownership. As expected, the students chose not to install the work as a non-permission mural. The process of fully examining the possible risks and benefits marked a turning point after which they seemed to participate much more seriously and thoughtfully in the assigned project.

Of course, it should be noted quite strenuously that CPAG would not have endorsed a non-permission piece, the idea and responsibility for such an action would have rested solely with Unger and James. If the youths had voted to install the piece, would we have done it? Absolutely. Ideally we would have worked with the Alderman to select a location and get permission first, though. What was important was getting the youths to understand the real issues of community and public art by making them examine the question from all angles, even, or especially, those which are grey areas.

We talked a great deal about what kind of message we wanted to give to the community and what we would want to say in a piece that would speak for many years to come. The overwhelming messages were about building community and ending violence. As we worked with these themes it became clear that many of the images created to express an end of violence had a great deal of ambiguity which was rather unsettling— the youths drew many pictures of crowds standing next to a pile of guns, meant to suggest laying weapons aside. But when asked how we knew whether the picture was one of disarmament or a picture of revolutionaries gearing up for battle it became clear that the pictures could easily represent either case. This provided a great deal of discussion about how to clearly communicate an idea, as well as a lot of examination of our feelings about violence. Eventually it was decided to communicate ideas of nonviolence and community-building through positive examples rather than prohibitive or proscriptive imagery. We chose to show members of the community playing together and playing music together as signs of positive values and peaceful behavior.

The final designs were produced digitally. A large number of the 1000’s of drawings, tracings and collages produced were scanned, converted to line art and then combined and manipulated to achieve a whole. Although we did not use drawings from every single youth in the project, we stressed to them that their ideas had all contributed to the overall design and that the actual creation of the mosaic would be done by everyone.

Creating the mosaics

The mosaics were laid out during the fifth and sixth week of the project. The images were printed out to scale and projected onto a roll of paper, then sketched out by hand. These drawings were then taped down on plywood sheets with metal frames created by taping down metal drywall corners. The tiles were broken or cut and laid out on the plywood over the drawings. Because the designs were quite intricate in places, the directions and grout lines of the pieces were very important. As the work progressed and the youths became more skilled in placing the tile, they also became more skilled in seeing the tile, and became more critical of their own work. At first, it was necessary to redo much of the work, but as we progressed, they really came together as a group to insure that the work looked professional. As sections were completed, they were taped down with contact paper to minimize the risk of accidents. The tesserae in more detailed areas are almost all hand cut, worked in small squares like smalti, while the backgrounds and larger areas of color are mostly done in cracked tile.

After the mosaics were finished and the project ended, it was decided to replace the background colors on two of the three panels in order to provide better contrast. This was done by Unger at his studio with help from James and Elke Claus. The installation was done by Unger, with help from Chris Silva in constructing the frames and help from James with grouting. Julio Berlin assisted with transportation of the panels and installation at the site.

The Youth Artists

All the youths on the project worked very diligently to create a great piece. Although only two of the youths attended Manly, all of them were from the neighborhood and felt a great deal of pride in creating a work that would stand out in the community for years to come. In general, there was a high degree of camaraderie. The youths were extremely trustworthy and were self-motivated as long as they had a direction or goal. The only difficulties we experienced was overcoming a reticence to draw in some youths. The youths remained focused and patient through the entire project and created truly superior work.