Carving mural brings kids, artist together

The Miami Herald

December 19, 1999

By Tanya Wragg

A countywide program that promotes art as a means for keeping children away from drug use paired 30 youngsters from the Liberty Square housing project with a Miami artist for eight weeks with one goal: to create a woodcut mural.

Tuesday afternoon Liberty City Square: People, Places & Things, their 15-by-6-foot handiwork, was unveiled at the Liberty City Square Community Center, 6304 NW 14th Ave.

“It was a really great experience for my first time doing woodcutting with a creative artist,” said Toccara Keels, 18, a photography student at Miami Northwestern Senior High. “It gave me a better knowledge of arts.”

The mural is the fifth created through Public Art Transforming Housing — or PATH — which seeks to eliminate drug abuse in public housing through a public art program in partnership with the Miami-Dade Housing Agency’s Resident and Economic Development unit, Miami-Dade County Police Department’s Public Housing Police Section and Regis House Inc.

“Bringing the community together through the most universal language, art, is really the essence of PATH,” said the group’s artistic director, Xavier Cortada. “It helps to create something exceptionally meaningful to the community.”

For the Liberty Square project, PATH picked Tom Virgin, art teacher at Miami Beach Senior High, to work with the youths, guiding their efforts while teaching them about the importance of art and maintaining a drug-free experience.

The project began at the end of October. The children first separated into groups, supervised by Virgin, Cortada or Miami-Dade Art in Public Places spokesperson Lea Nickless, and took pictures of people, places and things most important to them.

When they reunited, it was to sort through 700 pictures of community leader Barbara Robinson (one of Liberty City’s biggest personalities), family members, churches, a police car, elementary schools, basketball and houses. They had to pick 30 pictures that they thought best represented their community. Then, they made a collage of them.

“It was like a treasure hunt,” Virgin said. “We asked them to take pictures of those things that keep them safe and that keep them away from trouble and doing things constructive.”

At the next meeting, the children drew the images onto wood and later cut and shaped them into the wood.

Every child had his or her favorite part of the project, whether it was the “therapeutic” and “Zen-like” woodcutting, as artist Virgin put it, or taking pictures. “I loved taking pictures,” said Latesha Thomas, 17, a photography student at Miami Northwestern Senior High who helped create the mural. “I love the way you look at the image through the eye piece and then the way it comes out on paper.”

At the unveiling ceremony, Virgin expressed appreciation for the youths’ efforts.

“I want to thank all of you guys for allowing me to share the things that you care about, the many things that are important to you,” he told them. “The purpose behind this project is to let you see that you must work hard to create beautiful things.”

Virgin recalled the first time he heard about the PATH project.

“I saw an ad that said, `Do you like to paint on other people’s walls and hanging out with kids?’ I said, `Hey, that’s me!’ I’ve been doing it with my high school students for years,” he said.

Then the youngsters lined up to receive certificates and grabbed hold of the paper covering the mural. When the last child got a grip on a side, Virgin and his 30 new-found friends ripped off the paper to unveil their masterpiece.

Community members, families and friends gave them a standing ovation.

“Bonds are created in public housing,” said Cortada. “Through the painting, residents are actually taking back ownership of their house. It’s more profound. Art with a message. It gives life to the community.”

“The contrast between the black and white in the piece is a metaphor for the negative and the positive things in the lives of these kids,” he said about the woodcut. “It’s amazing how such opposites create something so beautiful.”

PATH started this summer when Cortada and Miami-Dade Housing Agency joined forces and installed a mural in Naranja. Since then, Cortada has brought PATH to other housing projects and plans to do more. Since the project is funded by a federal drug elimination grant, the money is limited. Cortada said if further funding is available, the work will go on.

Artist Shadow Arquette attended the ceremony Tuesday to catch a glimpse of the future that may await her. She has applied to be one of the artists.

Being selected is not easy, though, Cortada said. PATH interviews every applicant in a long process that includes a complete analysis of the artist’s works by a professional advisory board.

Whether or not she wins a commission, Arquette is satisfied that the work is useful.

“Through PATH, kids are able to participate in something in which they get to see not only the major process that they must go through, but the finished product, as well,” she said. “They will never forget this experience because in art you learn skills that will help you in whatever it is you dream to do, whether it be in business, school or work.

“It reflects the community and the people in it. All these kids are going to bring their friends here and tell them, `I did this.’ This is definitely going to be a hard act to follow.”