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Melrose mosaic

While Melrose Elementary was being renovated, students painted hundreds of tiles. Now they cover a wall.

By DONNA WINCHESTER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001


Emily Dang searched the gleaming tile mosaic outside the administration building at her school for several minutes before she found what she was looking for: a picture of a little girl with long dark hair and big brown eyes.

The 7-year-old smiled when she spotted her self-portrait amid hundreds of shiny squares painted in brilliant blues, reds and greens. Her art teacher had told her that her tile was going to be part of something big, but she hadn't expected anything this big.

Emily's handiwork is one of more than 500 4-inch tiles in an 8- by 8-foot mural recently installed at Melrose Elementary School, 1752 13th Ave. S. Students and staff members painted the tiles in May while the school was temporarily housed in a portable village behind Maximo Elementary. The $4.5-million yearlong renovation project and the installation of the mural at the school's entrance were completed in time for the students' return from summer vacation three weeks ago.

"I've never seen anything like it," principal Sue Graham said, adding that she heard similar comments about the mural from students when they saw it for the first time.

"They were stunned," she said. "They couldn't believe that they had created that wall."

The mural includes hundreds of self-portraits signed by the artists. The youngest children traced their hands or painted splashy yellow and hot pink peace signs. Older students depicted various communications methods from smoke signals and Morse code to cell phones and electronic mail. Flags from 51 foreign countries and dozens of tiles emblazoned with "peace" in foreign languages have earned the mural a nickname: the peace wall.

The mural was a labor of love that unfolded over several years, according to Jean Smith, former project manager for the Magnet Schools Assistance Program. Its origins date to 1997, when the school district asked Melrose whether it would consider becoming a magnet school to attract more white students to meet court-ordered desegregation goals.

After the school became the county's center for communications and mass media studies, its administrators began looking for the best way to "scream the theme" of its focus, Smith said.

"(Magnet) schools create something visual on their campus to let people know as soon as they arrive what the school is all about," she said. "We wanted to come up with something that would show that Melrose was a magnet for communication."

The idea for the tile wall came after months of brainstorming sessions with faculty and student advisory committee members as well as trips to other magnet schools, Mrs. Graham said.

"We wanted to incorporate our four strands of global studies, technology, Spanish and literary arts," she said, adding that the tile wall, which was a schoolwide effort, naturally lent itself to a multilayered project.

Foreign language curriculum coordinator John Meros became project liaison. Part of his job was to work with Sue Shapiro, a St. Petersburg clay artist who was hired using funds from the federal magnet grant. Shapiro, a member of the Pinellas County Arts Council, planned a grid for the mural and spent three weeks in May at the school working one on one with the children. She took the painted tiles back to her studio and fired them over the summer, then installed the mural in August.

Shapiro, working with art teacher Wendy Gill, gave each child a bisque tile and encouraged him or her to experiment with underglaze. One of the most fascinating aspects of the project, she said, involved the students' color choices for their self-portraits.

"We would put (the colors) in the middle of the table. We wouldn't say "this is your color'; we would let them choose," she said. "Some wanted to have purple faces or green faces. Some African-American kids wanted to have really pale color, and some white kids wanted to have dark skin."

A few children, Shapiro said, became discouraged because the underglaze was a new medium for them.

"They would put one mark on their tile and say, "I messed up' and be ready to give up," she said. "But just a little bit of encouragement would get them going again. By the end of the class, they had created great pieces."

They also learned a lot. Mrs. Gill used the opportunity to teach them about murals, logos, self-portraits and symbols.

Daniel Spray, 10, did Internet research before painting the flag of the Dominican Republic. His church sponsors an orphanage there, and Daniel writes to several of its residents. He plans to visit the country next summer and said he was glad he had the chance to learn more about it.

School secretary Shelma Lee, who painted her self-portrait, suspects the staff members enjoyed the experience as much as the children.

"Every time I pass by (the mural), I say, "I did that,' " she said.

The feeling of ownership has been passed on to the students, Shapiro said. After they painted their tiles, some of the younger children wanted to know why they couldn't take them home.

"I explained to them that they were going to be a part of their new school," she said. "I told them their tiles are going to be up there as long as their school is there."

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