Painting the Town: Children learn about art and beautify their Little Havana neighborhood

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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

July 15, 2001

By Jason T. Smith

With wood pastels and markers, Julia Villamizar hopes to bring more color to her East Little Havana neighborhood.

Villamizar, 14, and more than 30 other children are spending their summer at the Miami Art Museum planning, drawing and conceptualizing artwork that will become a 125-foot-long, 8-foot-high mural in East Little Havana.

The mural is the product of an eight-week program called MAM in the Neighborhood, designed to reach out to underserved youth in East Little Havana and introduce them to the world of art.

It is the first formal summer program at the Miami Art Museum, museum officials said, and has brought out more than 30 students daily to participate in workshops on the forms of visual arts and art appreciation.

The students, who range from 8 to 15 years old, take regular field trips to Vizcaya, the Sanford L. Ziff Jewish Museum in Miami Beach and the Bake House Art Complex in Miami. On Friday, the students attended a “power lunch” with artists on careers in the arts.

The program was made possible by a $32,000 grant from the Miami-Dade Empowerment Zone and was suggested by the East Little Havana Assembly of the Miami-Dade Empowerment Zone Trust, museum officials said. The Empowerment Zone provides tax incentives and grants for programs that will create jobs and business opportunities in the most economically distressed areas of the inner city.

Three museum officials and two professional artists staff the program, which is free for children.

Officials hope to empower the students as well as beautify the area of 555 NW South River Drive, where the mural will be placed in August, said Paul Perry, the museum’s assistant curator of education.

“The children learn teamwork skills by working together in an artistic process,” Perry said. “We also want to instill in them a sense of civic pride.”

At the beginning and close of each day, the students pledge to “do good in school and go to college,” said Xavier Cortada, the program’s artistic director.

“This is artwork that has a message, and art I think is going to free these kids to tap into their minds,” Cortada said. “There is really some power when you are an 8-year-old in the city’s premier art museum creating a piece of art that will be placed in your community.”

Villamizar says the program also gives her a chance to share her message to live a drug-free lifestyle with the community. One of her additions to the mural is a drawing of a baby in a baby bottle smoking drugs. Depictions of a diploma, “Say No to Drugs” signs and young children holding hands also fill the mural. “Respect each other,” proclaims one character on the mural.

“It’s how we feel about what’s happening. It’s about spreading the message, even if it’s just to the little kids,” she said.

The children are working on a model of the mural, using masking tape to adhere their contributions to two panels of canvas.

Astrid Ortega, 9, hopes her drawings of trees, animals and people will help put a new face on her neighborhood.

“This program is the best, and this mural is going to help people,” she said.