The figures sauntered. They lounged in languid groups of twos and threes. They tangoed wildly. They flitted about absent-mindedly, stood like quiet sentinels and paced pensively to and fro.
To imbue 73 pieces of foamcore with enough personality to represent living, breathing teenagers was a daunting challenge for artist Kevin Reese. But as he surveyed the mobile in the lobby of St. Columba's Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington, he said he was proud of what he and the youths of the St. Columba's-Truesdell Education Partnership had accomplished.
Reese, 47, is an actor and St. Columba's parishioner who is passionate about mobiles. He runs mobile-building workshops and performs his Alexander Calder-inspired one-man show, "The Perfect Balance," at schools, museums and festivals nationwide. Using student ideas, Reese tries to "use the tools Calder gave us to build something new and different," he said in an interview.
The mobile project is just one small piece of STEP, which is designed to increase opportunities for the 73 members of Truesdell Elementary School's kindergarten Class of 1994.
Eleven years ago, Bill Tully, rector at the time, challenged parishioners to make an effort to "bridge the gaping divide" between the church's wealthy neighborhood west of Rock Creek Park and disadvantaged Northwest neighborhoods east of the park, said parishioner Jennifer Turner, who has been involved in STEP from the beginning and is on its board.
Parishioners built a partnership with the Truesdell kindergartners, offering them tutoring, field trips, music lessons, sports, community service opportunities and other academic and recreational activities throughout the school year and summer. STEP joined the "I Have a Dream" Foundation several years later.
Of the 73 kindergartners in the Class of 1994 and three others who joined, the program is still in contact with all but four. And more than 65 percent of those who started are still active.
Now the youths who remain in STEP will be sophomores and juniors at nearly 30 high schools. Funded by parishioners, grants and private donations, they are guaranteed money for their college tuitions and are offered free SAT preparation courses and advice on the application process.
Without STEP, "I wouldn't have the support I have now. I'd be lost in the world," said Diana Diaz, 16, a student at Cesar Chavez Public Policy Charter High School in Northwest Washington. Diaz, whom Reese calls "an extraordinary artist," was one of at least 20 STEP students who worked on the 18-foot-wide mobile.
They started simply, brainstorming in November, and have built a model, cut and sanded the pieces, bent the wires and painted and assembled the final work. They have made another mobile based on the same design for the building that houses STEP. Photographs of the process are striking. Nobody is looking at the camera; they are all too busy working.
The mobile "was an opportunity for them to experience something they've never done before, and that's one of our primary goals," said Chip Jardeleza, 38, one of two full-time coordinators of the program.
Called "73 Rising," the mobile at St. Columba's reflects what STEP means to the youths involved, Reese said. The arched backbone of the mobile represents "a swooping road, rising up," he said, adding that the idea of rising up also has spiritual connotations. The form of the mobile itself relies on different levels or steps, connoting the process of climbing toward a goal.
"It has so many pieces and aspects and so many people involved, but it's so balanced," Jardeleza said.
A 73-piece mobile is an ambitious project, Reese said. "I had never tried to complete something as complicated as that," he said, and he didn't think his inspiration -- Calder -- had either. Reese reworked the model again and again before he came up with the final piece.
The mobile's complexity and the goals of the program that the mobile represents are more ambitious still. "I probably wouldn't be in school" if it were not for STEP, said Edwin Mata, 16, also a student at Cesar Chavez who helped build the mobile. Now he is planning on college and -- possibly -- a career in medicine.