Last year, Meghan Walsh spent her Saturdays at the neighborhood gym. She wore running shoes and worked up a sweat, but she didn't use free weights or the treadmill. Her workout was with sheets of cardboard and spray-paint cans. During all-day sessions, Walsh helped a group of teens who produced "Woven Identities," a mural that now hangs in the nearby new Columbia Heights Metro station. The artwork resembles a series of enlarged digital images painted in camouflage colors and illuminated by neon lights.
A few years ago, Walsh was a volunteer teaching English at Casa del Pueblo, a community center, when she started thinking about a project more attuned to her art and architecture background. Under the auspices of Casa del Pueblo, the 28-year-old architect applied for a $10,000 grant from the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, which supports projects that integrate youth from different ethnic communities. She received that grant (and later, another one for $16,800 from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities), and the program got started in Casa del Pueblo's gym. Her core group of 14 included Latin, African, African American, white and Southeast Asian teenagers. Anybody was welcome as long as the participant didn't miss more than two Saturdays.
Walsh's project began in January 1998. It combined art classes with exercises in working together. Videotape of an early session shows Walsh pairing up the teens and asking them to sketch scenes together. But as the pairs worked on their individual scenes, they had to fit them in with the scenes that were materializing on either side. In another exercise, the group evaluated cardboard cutouts that resembled building models. Each person incorporated a piece of discarded cardboard from another person's model into his or her own creation.
The project's lure, says Wheaton resident Nicholas Posada, was the paint. At first he was leery of Walsh. "It seemed like she wanted to bring all these people together but I just wanted to spray-paint," he says. Some sessions the kids played games. In one, they tossed a ball around and whoever caught it had to reveal something about himself, Posada recalled. It may have seemed a little silly to Posada, but he stuck it out, spending his Saturdays at Casa del Pueblo working on the mural when he could have been working or just relaxing. "I like what came out," Posada says. "It grabs you."
Ana Paz, a recent graduate of Bell Multicultural High School, signed up for Walsh's project to fulfill her school's community service requirement. Paz's name appears on the Metro station's plaque but her little sister Silvia's portrait materializes in the actual mural, where faces are stitched into the abstract design. Silvia, an angelic-looking child, accompanied Ana to the gym each Saturday, so it seemed natural that her picture appear in the finished product. In the center of the mural stares a more well-known countenance, that of Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan human rights activist who won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. Other faces are more random, taken from photos the group shot in the neighborhood.
Although Walsh conceived of and directed the creation of "Woven Identities," the teens controlled the substance of the work. Many of them were graffiti artists, and they persuaded Walsh to let the mural have a graffiti component. After one field trip to the National Gallery of Art, some of the boys invited Walsh to check out some graffiti in a nearby tunnel. She was impressed, both by the artwork and the teens' admiration of it.
The next week Walsh brought in cans of spray paint (plus one can of furniture polish by mistake) and everyone went to work. While the mural doesn't look like traditional graffiti with its colorful lettering of names, graffiti techniques such as shading and outlining colors are incorporated in "Woven Identities."
Even after a year of busy Saturdays and working full time at McIntuff Architects, Walsh sees more projects like this in her future. And she has stayed in touch with many of the mural participants, even a couple who have moved across town. "I was really happy everyone could take pride in this project," she says.
The Columbia Heights Metro station is located at 14th and Irving streets NW.
Czech graphic designer Ales Najbrt is in town next Tuesday to introduce the latest issue of his oversize art magazine, Raut (the name comes from an old-fashioned Czech word for "party"). Najbrt will appear at 7 p.m. at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. An exhibit of Najbrt's latest works will also be on display through Oct. 30 at the Czech Embassy, 3900 Spring of Freedom St. NW. For information call 202-274-9100 . . . This Saturday, five large floats designed by regional artists will parade up and down the Potomac. The event, "The Mysteriously Curious Guerrilla Flotilla," is sponsored by the Arlington County Cultural Affairs Division's Innovators Series. The floats will be launched at noon at Gravelly Point on the George Washington Parkway and travel upriver to Key Bridge. There will be a public viewing of the artworks while they are moored at Theodore Roosevelt Island from 1 to 5 p.m. The floats will set sail again at 5 p.m., crossing toward the District at Key Bridge and traveling down the shoreline. For information call 703-228-6960.
CAPTION: "Woven Identities," a mural in the new Columbia Heights Metro station, combines elements of graffiti and fine art.