The Artists Within

Community-based project helps Detroit students learn about literacy while creating art for public library.


Photographs by E.E. Berger

When you look at the Under the Sea glass mosaic created by the fourth- through sixth-grade classes at the James and Grace Lee Boggs School on the east side of Detroit, several colorful images catch your eye: a red crab, an orange octopus, a pirate flag in a clam. But perhaps most attention grabbing is a giant multi-colored fish.

It almost wasn’t finished.

The creator of the fish, Judah Shelton, was a little timid about his skills before the project. Before putting together the piece, students were asked to create drawings to inspire the work. “ ‘I’m not that good of an artist,’ ” Boggs school programming director Marisol Teachworth recalls the fifth-grader saying. 

As part of the students’ prework for the project, Judah drew a fish, one image that made it onto the collective work. During the production of the piece, he stopped while working on it, says his art teacher Sylvie Malo. He left and while he was gone it was completed by his fellow classmates who took turns putting together the 3-foot-by-7-foot mosaic.

“He came back and I said, ‘Judah, check it out,’ ” Malo says. “He looks at the board and he recognizes his fish. ‘My fish!’ It was a magical moment for him.

“I think a project like that kind of validates the kids’ creativity. It gives them an opportunity to feel a sense of accomplishment.”

Through the Lighting Up Literacy and Learning Project, Judah, along with students at three other Detroit schools (Bagley, University Prep, and Burton), worked with artists Gail Kaplan and Dani Katsir to create glass mosaics that will brighten up the space at the Children’s Library Room at the Detroit Public Library while teaching the kids about literacy. An unveiling public ceremony is planned for April. So far, five mosaics have been created and Kaplan says funding is needed to complete five more for a total of 10. Funding for the project has come from the Detroit Public Library’s Friends Foundation, David E. Costa (Windsor Industrial Services and Van Buren Steel), Beatrice and Reymont Paul Foundation, and an anonymous donor. 

The work is a collaboration between Kaplan and Katsir, who do similar art projects with other schools and organizations — including the 18-panel glass mosaic installation at the new Children’s Hospital in Troy — and the Detroit students. Each school had a theme, such as sports, music, and water. Teachers then provided books, pictures, videos, poetry, or articles on the theme to spur creativity for the kids to make their own drawings to create the design.

After Kaplan received the drawings from the schools, she took the designs and transposed them on to a large piece of paper to create the board that would serve as the foundation for the mosaic. She and Katsir then brought the board, along with the glass and tools, to the school for the students to bring their visions to life. They cut and placed the glass. Kaplan and Katsir put the finishing touches on the pieces at her Farmington Hills studio before  sending them to their permanent home above the Children’s Library Room’s various book stacks, which were essentially blank canvases.

The project came about as a tribute to Patrice Merritt, who retired as executive director of the Detroit Public Library Friends Foundation in 2014. A mosaic titled Read was commissioned by the Friends Foundation and installed at the library. 

When it comes to having to deal with school budget shortfalls, art is often a casualty. For example, Lansing cut all of its elementary art and music teachers in 2013. Community artists such as Kaplan and Katsir help fill in the gap, as well as organizations such as Art Road, which says more than 10,000 students in Detroit alone lack art.

“Arts is always the first to go,” Teachworth says. “I think it’s so vital and so important to bring arts enrichment to kids who would’ve never had opportunity to work on a mural or mosaic or that term might not have even come up in their vocabulary until college or later in life.” 

At Boggs, Teachworth says the school tries to find as many as in and out of school art activities such as field trips to the opera and DIA “so that they can tap into a passion they didn’t know they had, so they can discover a talent. 

“If it wasn’t for cutting glass maybe a student would’ve never had the opportunity,” she says. It’s also a good way to keep young artists in the city. 

“Often the narrative is that in order to be successful in Detroit you get out and that’s how you know how you’ve made it,” Teachworth says. “So our mission here is to nurture creative critical thinkers who contribute to the well-being of their community.”

It’s helped students like Judah, whose face breaks into a huge grin when asked about his finished fish. After the project, he felt like his “creativity was up,” so much that when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said “artiste.

“I guess I am now.” 

The dedication ceremony for the Lighting Up Literacy and Learning mosaics is set for 10:30 a.m. April 15 at the Detroit Public Library (main branch) in the Children’s Library Room, 5201 Woodward Ave., Detroit.

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