Months of Work and Thousands of Fingers Create Mosaic for Takoma Park Library

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 2009

For some in Takoma Park, all the pieces came together this spring along the east wall of the town library.

That's where the city's public art project debuted this month, a 50-foot mosaic created by about 300 neighborhood members, nursing home residents, school kids and participants in a program for at-risk Latino youths. In a community that defines itself as a haven of diversity, participants said the kaleidoscope character of the town was neatly captured by the months-long action of 3,000 fingers repurposing 10,000 shards of tile and glass into a harmonious new whole.

"Not one person could have taken on a project this big, but it brought a lot of people together and everybody took on a little piece," said Lois Wessel, who worked on the mosaic several times with her husband and two daughters. "Even if they only put on one or two tiles, people feel they are part of it."

The mosaic, which was dedicated at a ceremony June 5, depicts a rising sun glittering (literally, thanks to ample bits of broken mirror) over a swirling landscape of streams and forest. Fanciful azalea blooms dot the horizon, along with stars and butterflies and some improbable local fauna contributed by young tile makers (an elephant peers out of one clay tablet).

The scene was designed by Silver Spring artist Arturo Ho, who sifted through suggestions offered by residents in a series of community meetings.

"People wanted nature," said Ho, 41, standing in front of a former brick wall that seems to ripple in the shifting sunlight that falls at Maple and Philadelphia avenues. "I wanted passersby to feel a sense of motion from one side of the wall to the other."

The project was a co-production of the local government, nonprofit groups and several area home decor dealers who donated tile samples along with glass, brass and other useful bits: recycling on an aesthetic scale. The Takoma Foundation put up $20,000, which was matched with $20,000 from the city. Takoma Park-based Art for the People administered the funds and conducted training workshops over the winter with Girl Scout troops, senior centers and others willing to learn the mosaic arts of glass cutting and tile making.

"My goodness, we had more than 30 workshops in all," said Alice Sims, president of Art For the People. "We met with anybody who wanted to meet with us."

On the first Saturday in April, after Ho had prepared the wall and rendered the life-size drawings, along with designer Laurie Stepp, volunteer work began in earnest. Over the next nine weeks, participants described a kind of drive-by collaboration. Commuters interrupted their walk to the Metro station to lay a few tiles under lead artist Ho's guiding eye. Nannies detoured with their strollers. Whole families worked on the 560-square-foot image.

A Takoma Middle School student logged more than 50 hours of her community service requirement at the mosaic. And Ho remembers one older woman who perfected a Zen-like reverie as she did the fine work along the edge of a tile creek.

"One of our goals was to teach people these skills," Sims said. "And many people have gone on to do mosaic projects of their own, in their classrooms, in their homes."

It wasn't always easy or harmonious. Multiple artists, inevitably, had multiple opinions about design and technique. Wessel ended one session -- not her last -- with a trip to get stitches in her daughter Amanda's finger, which was cut courtesy of a balky glass tile.

But participants said the process overall produced far more healing than hurt. One of Ho's most frequent assistants was Lester Garcia, a young Guatemalan immigrant who lives in Rockville. Garcia, one of several participants referred to the mosaic project by the Latin American Youth Center in Langley Park, spent dozens of hours on the mosaic. Although he had long been a painter and drawer, he said the closest he had come to adorning a wall was the graffiti he sprayed as a teenager in Los Angeles.

"This was so different for me," said Garcia, speaking in Spanish. "Especially the people, all so nice. They all participated; they shared everything."

Ho, who has installed mosaics at several area schools, grew up in Mozambique as the son of Chinese immigrants and trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Philadelphia. He has two mosaic projects lined up this summer at youth centers in Maryland and the District, and said he plans to have Garcia at his side for both.

"I saw his development in the art form and his passion," Ho said. "I want to keep him involved."

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