Every Little Bit Helps

Truman College’s mosaic project falls into place.

By Ben Joravsky

Nearly 25 years ago a fight erupted in Uptown over the construction of Truman College. Residents saw the college as the enemy, an agent of development that would cause hundreds of low-income apartments to be demolished, clearing the way for gentrification. Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. As a new public-art project shows, Truman has become an accepted and integral part of the community–an anchor institution for residents of all incomes and ethnic backgrounds.

Come fall the community is expected to unveil a mosaic pathway made by 11 local teenagers on a pedestrian mall near the college.

“I’m old enough to remember the fight over Truman College,” says Pat Murphy, director of the Beacon Street Gallery, which helped supervise the project. “At the time I was against Truman. I didn’t think they should displace all those people. But most of that’s forgotten. In retrospect it’s clear we needed a center for the community.”

The art project, financed with federal job-training funds, was intended to keep about a dozen local kids busy during the summer while enabling them to make money and learn marketable skills. Many of the teenage artists were recommended by the local alderman, Helen Shiller; others were selected by Murphy. “My family is from this area, I grew up here–my father designed the mosaics in the Uptown Theater–so I think I understand it,” says Murphy. “Some of the kids have been in [Beacon’s art-education] program for years; we introduce them to art and help them develop their talents. What’s important with public art is that they see their work on display. We want to get people interested in art, even though they might never go to a museum. That’s why outdoor public art is important.”

The mall, between Magnolia and Beacon on Sunnyside Street, was chosen as the location for the mosaic because it was near the site of the low-income apartments that were torn down when Truman was built. It was originally intended to beautify the neighborhood by cutting back on traffic congestion. But city officials allowed the mall to deteriorate; they never landscaped it and did a poor job keeping it clean.

Some residents complain that it attracts hoodlums, but others insist it’s one of the few open places for the community to peacefully congregate.

“This place is a great place to hang out,” says Sonia Cosby, a 19-year-old Uptown resident who’s working on the project. “We bring radios out on nice days and listen to the music. You’ll hear it all: James Brown, Puerto Rican music, Mexican. We’re like family. All the kids went to school together. We call it the Uptown shuffle: from Stockton elementary, to Arai [middle school], and then Senn High School.”

At the first few planning meetings, held last winter, there were conflicting ideas about how the mosaic should be designed and whether it should even be built. “There were very different views of how people perceive the mall,” says Ginny Sykes, who’s supervising the project. “There were people who had a more gentrified view; they were worried about the images that looked like graffiti. They were also worried that the money for this project not come out of other local projects, like lighting or police.”

Residents like Cosby wanted to represent the different backgrounds of the residents. “I wanted to convey unity,” she says. “I wanted to show people being happy together. My mother told me stories about all the struggles in the past–how there were all these fires, arson, that displaced people, how the college displaced people. I wanted a mosaic that had symbols of the people who are here.”

Th artists settled on a design that emphasized images of nature. A mosaic pathway, starting near Magnolia Street leading to Beacon, will end at an area with three colorfully decorated columns of different heights. “There will be different symbols for the artists’ signatures, like a foot, a flower, or the sun,” says Sykes.

For $4.25 an hour, the artists worked three days a week from 9 to 4:30 in a large, bright, airy studio at Truman. They listened to an oldies station, about the only music teachers and students could agree on. “I was playing a tape of natural sounds, and the kids pleaded with me: ‘Anything but more waterfalls,'” says Murphy.

The artists traced their designs on paper and then cut the mosaic pieces from long sheets of tile. “This is my chance to say, ‘I did that–that’s my work,'” says Teman Coger, a 16-year-old junior at Amundsen High School.

Most of the students met other kids who have lived near them for years. “We talk for hours, and the time just flies by,” says Francine Valentino. “We become friends. I like meeting new people. I’m Native American, but there’re all kinds of kids: Asian, white, black, Hispanic.”

The mosaics are complete but will not be installed until the city repaves and landscapes the mall. “We did our part,” says Sykes. “We’ll be ready when the city’s done.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Ginny Sykes, by Jon Randolph.