PEACE WORK

A Hyde Park community-art project and the people who brought it to fruition

The afternoon before the unveiling of the Magic Carpet Mosaic in front of the firehouse at the corner of Salisbury and Blair in the neighborhood known as Hyde Park -- which is also known as one of the most dangerous in the city -- Janet Sanders and Saaba Buddenhagen are dressed in sweatshirts, jeans and kneepads, working on their hands and knees on the sidewalk where the bus-stop mosaic has been installed. They're digging into the seams of the concrete, removing dirt and old sealant. Andy Weber, a fresh-faced young fireman, arrives to show them how to replace the old caulking with new. When Sanders describes him as the "patron saint" of the project (he's the one who took a jackhammer to the old sidewalk), he blushes and tries to deflect any argument for beatification.

Bob Gist from Mallinckrodt Inc. arrives with a camera to document this penultimate stage of the mosaic. The chemical company resides adjacent to the Hyde Park neighborhood and gives financial support to various community activities such as this one. Then comes Larry Clark, president of the North St. Louis Arts Council, who squats down close to the mosaic with everyone else to talk and take a gander at the progress. Clark's innovative Twelve Project imagiNeighborhood program, which teaches the art of photography to urban youth, has documented much of the eight-week project. The Magic Carpet Mosaic and imagiNeighborhood have combined in a unique partnership as both seek to find and document value in the lives of people on the North Side, an area that is otherwise invisible to the rest of the city.

John Johnson wanders over in his sweatpants, slippers and blue winter coat. Closing in on his 80th birthday, Johnson is a lifelong Hyde Park resident who often visited Sanders and Buddenhagen during the construction of the piece in their open-door studio in the center of the park that gives the area its name. Sanders says it was Johnson who told them a lot of the history of the place: the tornado that ripped through earlier in this century, the hardships of the Depression, the community that existed before the highway came through and separated people from the river.

Arts-in-Transit was principal funder for the Magic Carpet Mosaic, and its director, Sara Smith, has observed that in contemporary approaches to public art, the work matters less than what the work catalyzes in the community. Bob Hansman, whose CityFaces is recognized as one of the most successful city-youth art programs in the country, has said, "The art is in their lives and not on paper."

Evidence of this theory is seen in the way the locals amble over and take a look at the mosaic of blues and browns and gold on the gray sidewalk, reading the names of the participants at its borders (for the most part, their neighbors or even themselves). Sanders calls, "Come this Saturday at 2 o'clock," to kids gawking from a school bus stopped at the corner. Suddenly a rush of children just out of school surrounds Sanders and Buddenhagen, and the artists realize no more work is going to get done today.

Sanders and Buddenhagen -- a painter and a sculptor, respectively -- first came to Hyde Park to work with students at the Clay School, a dingy old brick building overlooking one of the most frenetic vistas in the city: Interstate 70, the McKinley Bridge, the railroad, the industrial clamor of Mallinckrodt.

Clay School is one of the most innovative and open community schools in the city. The staff at Clay School gave Sanders and Buddenhagen free rein, support and advice -- the three ingredients artists most need going into an unfamiliar classroom setting. The two artists worked with 15 students in a program designed to introduce adolescents to professional skills. The 15 teens were given assignments to do research into the local community, to photograph, to interview, to read -- and, from this information, to produce proposals for imagery that would become decorative elements for the school. Students presented proposals and received approval from school staff, teachers and area parents. Three mosaics now hang over the doorways to the school building.

Sanders and Buddenhagen then involved fifth- and sixth-graders in a video project, producing internal broadcasts that focused on the local community, with the students developing scripts, choosing topics and broadcasting weekly. One installment focused on the local Mini-Mart, acknowledging its role as a community meeting place. "It's pretty powerful for kids to see their peers on television, and not in a diminished role," says Buddenhagen.

During this time at Clay School, Sanders and Buddenhagen found within themselves a growing commitment to the residents of Hyde Park, a place that, says Buddenhagen, surprised them with its "ingenuity and pride and sense of community." The two artists applied for a Bi-State Arts-in-Transit grant to design the corner bus stop, to create, says Buddenhagen, "a dignified place for people to wait for the bus," as well as to serve as a memorial for six children (Darrell Howell Jr., Forice Nowden, Amber Polk, Bryana Sandford, Danielle Williams and Jason Wordlaw) who died in a fire in a building on that same corner in March this year. Sanders and Buddenhagen had already witnessed a spontaneous memorial to the children -- drawings, paintings, photographs, teddy bears, flowers, jewelry. These were left along the side of the burned-out building by Hyde Park residents. On one rainy day, children from Clay School brought the teddy bears inside, then returned them to their place when the rain had passed.

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