Art along railroad overpass allows students to share in urban rebirth

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

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Photo courtesy of Ryan Shuler
Building on a transportation theme connecting Silver Spring’s locomotive past to its commuter and freight-line present, this mural, created by 24 students with help from renowned Washington, D.C., muralist G. Byron Peck and arts educator Carien Quiroga in the Arts on the Block program, was installed recently on the underpass between Blair Mill Road and Sligo Avenue on Georgia Avenue.

Next time you’re cruising up or down Georgia Avenue between Blair Mill Road and Sligo Avenue, take a gander at the trains.

No, not the multi-ton commuter and freight trains thundering above you on the overpass, but the multicolored mosaic and paint masterpieces affixed to the walls of the underpass.

Created by 24 Montgomery County students, a renowned Washington, D.C.,-area muralist and a dedicated arts educator, the Arts on the Block public art project, titled the ‘‘Silver Pass” and unveiled June 9, incorporates elements of abstract art and art deco motifs with transportation imagery.

And while the mural, which runs the length of the underpass on both the northbound and southbound sides of Georgia Avenue, offers motorists and pedestrians an attractive alternative to the graffiti and grime they used to see on the walls, it is more than just a public art project, said Jan Goldstein, director of Arts on the Block. It gave high school-age youths an opportunity to gain artistic skills, learn the demands of a deadline-intensive job and add their creative signatures to the ever-evolving landscape of downtown Silver Spring.

‘‘To me, one of the most magical things [about the project] is the legacy,” Goldstein said during a recent interview in the unfinished studio space on the 14th floor of the Social & Scientific Systems building on Georgia Avenue where the students from Montgomery Blair, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Springbrook, Wheaton and John F. Kennedy high schools worked. ‘‘These teens who worked on this can go back years from now and show their kids” that they were involved in something that became part of the community. ‘‘Once they realized that [this project would endure], they became very invested, very excited and proud.”

The idea for the project was hatched a few years ago during a coffee break conversation between Goldstein and Theresa Cameron, executive director of the Montgomery County Arts and Humanities Council.

‘‘She said, ‘What part of Silver Spring do you think is the neediest for public art?’ And I said, ‘That ghastly overpass,’” Goldstein recalled. ‘‘It could really use something, but it’s a really big project.”

It would be an $85,000 project, in fact. Goldstein applied for and received some grants, and private donors kicked in the rest of the money.

With funding in place, Goldstein put out a call for artists last year asking for a muralist familiar with mosaic or tile projects. The materials used also had to be graffiti-resistant. About a dozen artists applied and three were interviewed.

Eventually, renowned muralist G. Byron Peck, whose Duke Ellington Mural at 13th and U streets in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and the Frederick Douglass Mural on Massachusetts Avenue in the District, among others, have become city icons, was chosen for the project.

Peck’s organization, City Arts, uses art and large-scale murals to beautify inner-city neighborhoods while involving at-risk youths in those neighborhoods in constructive, creative projects that foster a sense of community and personal pride.

Arts on the Block, a partner with Montgomery Youth Works, gives youths a chance to learn about and connect through the arts in an on-the-job training experience that uses the arts as a vehicle to teach young people about the world of work.

Peck and the Arts on the Block program proved to be a perfect marriage, Goldstein said. Add artist Carien Quiroga and the students had an experience that gave them an idea of what it takes to work with others in a large-scale project.

‘‘We’re really a job-training program. We’re not just putting tiles in their hands and saying, ‘Go do this,’” Goldstein said. Art, in this case, is used as a vehicle to learn critical career lessons. Over the course of the program, Goldstein, Quiroga and Peck offered arts training in color theory and design, and showed the students, many of whom had never worked in mosaics, how to cut and arrange the pieces to work in a larger design. They visited sites such as the Silver Theatre to learn about Silver Spring’s art deco past and, in a visit by Silver Spring historian Jerry McCoy, learned about the area’s connection to the railways.

But students also learned time management, the importance of showing up to work on time, focused on a task and committed to complete it. They learned how to work as a team, how to craft a resume and perform in a job interview.

And the stakes were high: Each student received a stipend. If they were late, didn’t behave properly or didn’t carry out their responsibilities, their pay could be docked.

‘‘The main thing is this is a real-life experience,” said Quiroga, a sculptor and lead artist for Arts on the Block. ‘‘They take care and pride in what they’re doing. I think they did pretty good.”

Twelve students began working with the artists in January and another 12 joined in March. Each student worked between 140 and 180 hours on the mosaic and paint panels, which were later hung on the walls of the underpass and unveiled June 9.

‘‘This was the best group of kids I’ve ever worked with,” Peck said.

Silver Spring resident Dianna Flores, who will be a junior at Montgomery Blair High School in the fall, said her sister had been in the program the year before ‘‘so I heard a lot about it from her.” While she has an interest in nursing, she may continue to pursue art on the side, she said. Nonetheless, the program gave her valuable insights to the demands of a career and training on a project that involved many peers and moving parts.

‘‘I learned never to be late and that it’s very important ... to work together as a team to make something very successful,” she said. I was very amazed it turned out the way it did. ... It’s very nice to see our efforts, our work ... all come together.”

Silver Spring resident Keith Hill, 16, a student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, enjoyed meeting new people and gaining skills that could be helpful in architecture, the career he plans to pursue. Most of all, it was the sense of pride he felt in setting goals with others and accomplishing them for the greater good of the community.

‘‘I felt I made an impact on the community by making art and making [the community] look better and making people happy,” he said. ‘‘People can make a difference. I’m really proud of it. It looks even better than I thought it would.”

Recent Blair graduate Natalie Ramirez, 17, of Takoma Park, plans to take art classes at Montgomery College in the fall and said the training and mentoring she received gave her an idea of what it would be like to be a working, professional artist.

‘‘It was great. I got to work with a great group of people,” she said.

Like Flores, Ramirez said knowing that the mural will hang on the walls of the underpass for years to come as south Silver Spring evolves makes the project even more special.

‘‘I think it’s fabulous,” she said. ‘‘We knew as we were making it that it would be up there for a long time and that we were part of it.”