Sunday, April 21, 2002

Making 'Peace,' piece by piece

Hundreds get involved in Over-the-Rhine park bench art project

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mosaic artist Suzanne Fisher isn't kidding when she calls it a community art project:

        "We've had about 400 people work on this thing so far. Kids 3 or 4 years old up to the elderly. We've had men, women, white, black, Asian, all nationalities, women from the Drop-In Center, clients of Tender Mercies, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, neighbors who just wander by and come in.”

        This thing she's talking about is "I Have a Dream of Peace: The People's Mosaic Project,” a public artwork taking shape at Buddy's Place, 13th and Vine in Over-the-Rhine. Taking shape, Ms. Fisher adds, peacefully. And artfully.

        A joint project of Peaslee Neighborhood Center and the Art Academy of Cincinnati, "Dream” is in the early stages, but when finished will be a 4-foot high, 8-foot long serpentine park bench installed in OTR's Washington Park. Every inch — front, back, sides, seat, apron — will be a mosaic, all built on a theme of peace. It will be installed sometime in August.

        It's a project that suits this 44-year-old Clifton artist. "I have a husband, two cats, no children and a lot of tiles,” she says.

        Armed with fine arts degrees from Miami University and the University of Cincinnati, she's a full-time mosaic artist, working almost exclusively on commissions from all over the country.

        "I do mostly public art. I work with a company that does donor walls — you know, art with names interspersed — but also corporations, schools, anyone who wants to commission a mosaic.”

People stop to gawk

        But the "Dream” project isn't just another job for her. It's a passion because there's a whole lot more than art going on, and it's something Ms. Fisher thinks is plenty important: "We're living the theme of peace, actually bringing people together, and doing it through art.

        "Some days, we only have one person here working. Some days, we have 25. Some days,” she says, pointing to the floor-to-ceiling windows fronting both 13th and Vine Streets, "people stop, gawk, then come in to find out what's going on. Sometimes they stay and work with us.”

        Right now, her glittery tiled passion is, well, a bit of a shambles: chunks of tile here; shards of broken glass there; jugs full of marbles standing in wait; wads of soon-to-be-fired dull gray clay piled on tables; miles of mesh waiting for tiles and glue; and sections of the finished product lying around in various stages of completion.

        "This is what I love about mosaics,” she says, aiming a hammer at a 12- by 12-inch chunk of ceramic tile. "You get to take all these broken things and put them together to make art. They're nothing on their own, but together, they're something beautiful.”

        As is the overall concept. With Ms. Fisher's gentle guidance, members of the community began by designing the bench themselves.

        That was stage one. Budding artists submitted ideas for images to go into the mosaic. Ms. Fisher helped refine them, then transferred them from tracings onto a stiff mesh or netting, dabbing on the color scheme along the way.

        "I give them a lot of leeway here,” she says, "because I don't want to stifle their creativity. Especially the kids. They come up with these incredibly free and creative ideas. It's what we as adult artists are always trying to get back to.”

        Once the images are transferred onto the mesh, artists move on to the phase Ms. Fisher calls "turning angst into art.” Chunks of commercial tile are whacked with a hammer until a 12- by 12-inch hunk is 50 or so chunks. Then the nippers come out — horrendously sharp little snippers used to trim and nip tile chunks into just the right shape. Fingers, too: "I keep a lot of Band-Aids around,” Ms. Fisher says.

        "It's a lot like a jigsaw puzzle at this stage, where you make color decisions and start putting it all together.”

        Other media are added to set off the tiles: Chunks of a smashed mirror form a sunburst sort of circle. Scraps of smalti (heavily pigmented glass) add sparkle. Bright blue marbles draw attention to a smallish design off in the corner. Even hunks of broken flower pots, glazed and painted, have their place among the tiles.

Input from children

        "For the overall design, I worked with images that the kids and adults came up with. When you say peace to kids, you get rainbows and flowers, balloons, a lot of bright colors and people holding hands.”

        That's why the back of the bench (not the part you lean on, but the other side), has a row of people — old, fat, skinny, white, black — holding hands and smiling.

        "The kids made those. They did tracings, then transferred them onto clay. We fire them at 1,400 degrees, then the kids paint them and we glaze them, making them graffiti-proof because everything will just wipe off. They'll go in a row right here.

        "When you say peace to adults, you get a more surreal approach.”

        That's why the other side of the back rest (the part you do lean on) are images taken from photos of OTR life that adults submitted. There's a steel band drummer, a haggard face, sunflowers, explosions of color, more people holding hands, a curving line that reads, "I have a dream” in a rainbow of colors.

        "The longer you look at this, the more you're going to see. And when it's finished, and the mesh is attached to the actual bench, it's going to glisten and shine all the time, reflecting sunlight all day, street lights and headlights all night.

        "How could you not love something like that?”

        Ms. Fisher and fellow artists welcome newcomers. They're working at Buddy's Place 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays.


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