© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 2002
ST. PETERSBURG -- When Valerie Scott Knaust, an art instructor at St. Petersburg's Arts Center, went to work on Sept. 12, 2001, she wasn't sure what she would say to her young students about the terrorist attacks on the previous day.
"It was a very tough day to stand up and face 13 children in a classroom," Scott Knaust said.
On that day, Scott Knaust turned to what she knew best. She asked her students, whose ages ranged from 4 to 16, to set their feelings about the attacks in clay.
Some of the children splashed their tiles with red, white, and blue stars and stripes or images of New York's famous skyline. Many also bore simple messages of grief and healing. One tile showed a full portrait of a girl crying. Another depicted a woman kneeling in prayer beneath a starry sky.
The result of their day's work is now part of a colorful exhibit of handcrafted clay tiles that the city's Office of Cultural Affairs plans to display on a tour of police and fire stations in St. Petersburg for the next several weeks.
Scott Knaust said she was overwhelmed by the positive reactions her one-day project elicited from parents and students. The strong response led center staffers to open their ceramics studio to the public a little more than two weeks after the attacks. Staffers invited students in the center's crafts classes and family day visitors to make their own commemorative tiles.
Arts Center staffers and city officials hope the exhibit will have a healing affect. In the end, more than 275 people participated in the project and made more than 300 tiles, according to Evelyn Craft, the Arts Center's executive director.
St. Petersburg residents Don and Dianne Shea were some of the first people to take advantage of the center's invitation. They stumbled on the project after going on the center's monthly art walk in October 2001.
"For me, it got me more in touch with what I was feeling," Don Shea said. "Everyone was shocked and horrified, but the idea that you could express yourself about it was pretty unique."
Mayor Rick Baker and City Council Chairwoman Renee Flowers were on hand when the tiles, displayed on five waist-high pedestals, were unveiled at City Hall on Tuesday morning. Flowers said she was impressed by the wide array of emotions demonstrated by the children's work.
"I think these tiles are an example of how they felt hurt and wounded, but also about how they felt safe," she said.
The mayor praised Scott Knaust and the center's staff for acting to give children and families a chance to process their feelings about the attacks.
"A year ago our nation was viciously attacked, and we found ourselves in a different kind of war," Baker said. "What happened at the art center was a spontaneous activity where people, without planning, began to express their feelings with these tiles."
Craft said staffers and volunteers will help permanently install the tiles on one of the Arts Center's walls once the project's tour of the city is complete.