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.

Sanders and Buddenhagen received the grant of $5,000, double the usual amount, but then had to raise an additional $15,000 in a month. "We learned fundraising on our feet," says Sanders.

A donation from Mallinckrodt proved to be a catalyst for others. "After that, it was magic," says Buddenhagen.

The representative of the ward, Ald. Freeman Bosley Sr., used his clout to find them a place to work, a shelter in the middle of the park, which served the ideal purpose of "a public space that is available to everybody," says Sanders.

In a society that has grown increasingly obsessed by organizational structures, one of the appealing qualities of the Magic Carpet Mosaic project is the lack of structure. Anyone could come in and participate in whatever way he or she could. "The 4-year-olds were the first to come," Sanders remembers. Early participants were children from the poorest families in the neighborhood, those who roamed the park from the time school was out until the sun went down.

At first, people in the community were uncertain about who these women were and what they were doing. "Where's the boss?" was a common question, says Sanders. "It was hard for people to think we were artists, running our own job, and that we were getting paid for it. The best we could come up with, which people understood, was that we were teachers." Children, who came and worked on the mosaic of their own volition, would ask the artists for permission to leave.

Mosaic is a slow process, one that by its nature is communal and encourages interaction. "We've heard so many stories," says Buddenhagen. "When you put down mosaics, people talk and tell stories. We've been acquainted with the community in a real intimate way."

"The piece has been a challenge for people," Sanders adds. "A picture on the ground was a new idea. The business of mosaic is challenging as well. It teaches you a lot about color just looking at it. It's a thing that's unexpected in its form. It's something that draws people's attention."

"Even now," says Buddenhagen, "people drive by and stop and ask, "You made that with separate pieces?'"

"Because it's such a physical process," says Sanders, "you work first on a level of touch. It slows you down. All the kids slowed down when they worked.

"Even though there's this nice sense of independence, none of this has been solitary in any way. We couldn't have done this without local people who gave us continual support. This piece took its shape because of all the people who contributed to it."

The next day, under stormy afternoon skies, some 100 people who make up that community are huddled beneath a tent in the park for the mosaic's official dedication and unveiling. The television media is in attendance, too, and people are shaking their heads at the artists' ability to garner such attention to an area that usually only receives it when tragedy strikes.

Sanders and Buddenhagen are passing out golden apples affixed to black cords for participants in the project to wear about their necks, a memento of the 200 pounds of apples a local orchard donated for sustenance during the eight-week project.

"How did we do this, Saaba?" Sanders cries with exasperation and wonder.

At a podium under the tent, many, many people receive thanks from the artists. Young Chris Venuto gives a testimonial: "I was there from the first day to the last. I first saw it just as a project. I looked at it as a feeling of sadness and happiness, a feeling most people don't really get."

Ralph Bradshaw, a community resident, speaks of how "a lot of people believed it wouldn't work.... This community is not dead. It is not just fires and killing. We made something positive through this group."

The mosaic is unveiled, two figures caught in half-turn, departing while at the same time turning back. Buddenhagen explains the design concept: "We know one of the problems of St. Louis is people leaving the city, and in the poor parts of the city, when people succeed and leave, they never come back." So the figures serve as a gesture of unity, separate yet bound.

For a long time, people stand around silently, just looking.

"We're committed to Hyde Park," says Sanders. "You can't really abandon kids who let their guard down. They were there every day. If you just disappear for a couple of weeks, they feel it.

"As they saw the project was going to finish, they started expressing anxiety. Everybody from 50-year-olds to children don't want us to leave."

Sanders says she can't yet talk about future plans for the next project, but they'll be working on it in Hyde Park sometime soon.

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